Things are Looking Up as climate crunch hits funny bone

It will come as no surprise to regular ToS readers to learn that the biggest ‘story’ of the 21st century, or perhaps 66 million years of Earth history, is the rapidly unfolding climate emergency and simultaneous global mass extinction event, only the sixth such episode in the last billion years or so.

Yet, of the tens of thousands of films made in the last two decades, probably only two could be said to have addressed global warming head-on. The first, The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster blockbuster, was released in 2004. Two years later, Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, became a surprise hit, though as a non-fiction piece, only reached a very limited audience. We’ve had to wait till the last month of 2021 for a smash hit film taking on our (non) response to the climate crisis via the metaphor of an incoming ‘planet killer’ meteor. ‘Don’t Look Up’ has already been viewed for over 250 million hours on Netflix, which translates to around 115 million households and likely around 250 million individual viewers. It’s still number one worldwide, so these numbers are likely to rise significantly.

As this Boston Globe article put it, “Global destruction isn’t funny, but when it comes to the climate crisis, it might have to be”. In the nearly 20 years since I first became aware of climate change as our existential crisis, I have remained incredulous at how little traction it has achieved, not just in media and political discourse, but also in popular culture. Name me a decent song about global warming? (OK, there is one, by Canadian science rapper, Baba Brinkman, but I’ll lay a bet it’s never once been played on Irish radio).

There are indications this cultural omertà may be finally lifting, though it would need to form part of the storyline on Coronation Street or Fair City before you could truly say it is part of the zeitgeist of our age. Mind you, when you see the attitudes of our so-called “voice of the common people”, RTÉ’s Joe Duffy (“I am sick of being marooned on an island of vegans and Greta Thunberg fanatics”) it is clear that pale-stale-and-male attitudes and deep anti-environmental prejudices are ingrained in our society and remain heavily over-represented in our newspapers and broadcast media. The (almost invariably conservative) voices of 50-70-somethings still dominate and those of the young are marginalised and excluded.

I’ve regularly felt like screaming at the sheer wilful lunacy involved in ignoring the ecological crisis that is about to overwhelm and potentially collapse our civilisation. Maybe that’s why Don’t Look Up is such a blast: after all, if you didn’t laugh about this stuff, you would almost certainly want to cry. Here’s a piece I filed for the Business Post in late December that teases this out in more detail.

HOW DO YOU stay focused on a story that is simultaneously terrifying and, frankly, boring? This dilemma has plagued and largely defeated scientists and science communicators trying to convey the gravity of the climate emergency.

Yes, over a number of years or maybe decades, truly catastrophic changes in the conditions for life on Earth will likely unfold, but they will do so fitfully and unevenly, with some areas devastated while others seem to suffer much less. That the consequences of global heating are both complex and unpredictable only serves to deepen the public disconnect.

What if our world is ending not with a dramatic bang but instead in a billion whimpers? This may go some way towards explaining why climate change has, despite its staggering implications, failed to grip the public imagination or play much of a role in popular culture. It may be the biggest unfolding disaster of the 21stcentury, yet climate rarely features in films, plays, songs or TV soaps.

This is all in stark contrast to widespread public terror in recent decades at the very real prospect of nuclear war; the ability to viscerally imagine this horrific event is one of the key reasons the world managed to avoid stumbling into a nuclear Armageddon.

It is 17 years since Hollywood’s last serious attempt to bring climate disaster to the big screen in the blockbuster, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. This film dramatised the rapid shutdown of the Gulf Stream triggering a series of super-storms that devastate the northern hemisphere.

Were this to occur, it would play out over years or decades. For dramatic effect, the filmmakers compressed this cataclysm as somehow unfolding in the space of just a few weeks.

If only the climate emergency could be encapsulated in a dramatic single event, then perhaps it would get the attention it has so far failed to garner. And no single event is more dramatic than a threatened ‘planet-killer’ meteor or comet strike.

This very scenario was explored in 2010 by media expert Eric Pooley of Harvard University, who wondered aloud “how would news organisations cover this story?”. At the time, the world was still in the throes of the economic crash. Despite this, he argued, the media would “throw teams of reporters at it” since the race to avert catastrophe “would be the story of the century”.

Pooley’s thought experiment was inspired by frustration that, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate impacts capable of bringing human civilisation to an equally abrupt halt, the story of the incoming man-made meteor that is climate change rarely makes the front pages or the evening news bulletins.

Much has changed in the decade since Pooley’s paper appeared. On the one hand, the climate emergency is now tangibly impacting the lives of tens of millions of people, as seen during the dangerously hot summer of 2021. On the other hand, we now inhabit a world of fake news, where disinformation and rage have been weaponised by social media leviathans for profit. For many people, objective reality simply no longer exists and self-deception is never more than a click away.

This begs another question: in this new era of bitterly contested reality, if a meteor was scientifically confirmed to be heading straight for Earth, would we now even believe it?

This intriguing idea forms the backdrop to the newly released film ‘Don’t Look Up’, a dark satire in the mould of the 1960s classic, ‘Dr Strangelove’. Director Adam McKay called his film “the most thinly disguised metaphor in the history of metaphors”. The comet, spoiler alert, is a cosmic proxy for climate change.

He spent years trying to think of a way to tell the story in a way that would ring the alarm bells on the climate crisis, but found it elusive. “How do you tell this story, the biggest story in 66 million years?”, McKay explained. “How can we be looking at the greatest story in human history”, he added, “but most nights I’m not hearing it talked about (on TV)”.

The film (now available on Netflix, click here to view trailer) imagines the discovery by US scientists of a planet-killing comet that is due to strike in just over six months. They immediately alert the White House, only to be fobbed off by a president and staff more interested in the mid-term elections. The head of Nasa, a political appointee with no scientific training, assures the president there is nothing to worry about.

The scientists then take the story to a major newspaper, but its front page article fails to gain online traction and is quickly forgotten. Their attempt to raise the alarm on TV ends in farce, with one of the presenters jokingly hoping the comet would destroy his ex-wife’s house.

Network television’s seeming inability to take anything seriously, with every issue reduced to soundbites by the perpetually upbeat presenters is amplified by social media. The imminent impact is almost immediately pushed out of the frantic news cycle by the latest update in the relationships status of a celebrity couple.

When the White House is finally impelled to act, its attempt to intercept the incoming meteor is scuppered by a billionaire megalomaniac (a fictionalised mash-up of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel) with a truly insane plan to turn a huge profit by harvesting the valuable metals and elements within the meteor.

In a case of life imitating art, within hours of my watching the film, news broke about the imminent collapse of an ice shelf in Antarctica that holds back the giant Thwaites glacier. “This is triggering the beginnings of a massive collapse”, according to glaciologist, Ted Scampos.

Astonishingly, the unfolding Thwaites disaster barely made a ripple in Ireland’s national newspapers. RTÉ’s news editors likewise may have found the story too terrifying-but-boring for any of its TV news bulletins.

While it is easy to laugh at the celebrity obsessed and click-chasing media, vacuous politicians and terminally distracted US public caricatured in ‘Don’t Look Up’, in the final analysis, are we really all that different?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator
Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Confronting consumerism for a safer future

Among the many challenges we face this decade is how to achieve radical decarbonisation in a way that does not entirely alienate the public. This is no mean challenge. After all, we are all bombarded with constant advertising and promotional messaging telling us “we’re worth it” and encouraging us to forge our self-identity, even our self-worth, via the things we buy and the things we consume.

As the retail economist, Victor Lebow famously wrote in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption”.

Now we see all too clearly that consumption is itself consuming the natural world, yet changing course means first of all, acknowledging and then confronting these forces profiting from nihilistic consumption that goes far beyond meeting our fundamental needs, and in so doing, threatens us all.  In a recent article in the Business Post, I teased this out in a little more detail.

A FAMOUS pair of photos were taken several years apart on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The first was shot in 1900, and shows a street scene crowded with horse-drawn vehicles. Pictured amongst the melee was a solitary automobile.

The second picture, taken from the same position in 1913 shows an equally busy streetscape. This time, however, there isn’t a single horse to be seen. In just over a decade, a radical transition was largely completed that would come to reshape the modern world.

Ironically, a major impetus to replace horse-drawn vehicles from urban areas was pollution. The 100,000 working horses in New York in 1900 were producing 1,200 tonnes of manure a day, which presented a public health hazard.

Having dominated human transport for centuries, the era of the horse ended in a matter of decades. No one then could possibly have foreseen just how profound the unintended consequences of that transition would turn out to be.

We now stand once more on the cusp of transformational change, potentially on a greater scale than anything undertaken since the foundation of the state. Ireland has committed in the decade ahead to radically transform almost every aspect of our society and economy in order to halve total national emissions by 2030.

Speaking at the Green Party’s recent annual convention, its leader and climate minister Eamon Ryan set out the challenge in stark terms. “It is a transition requiring such scale and speed that it needs every person and every place to be involved”.

Party colleague and minister with responsibility for media, culture and the arts, Catherine Martin concurred. “The old system is built for the old world. It cannot be business as usual”.

Fine words alone will not effect sweeping changes. As the recently published survey by consultancy firm Kantar has confirmed, few people in Ireland have any real conception that we are even in a climate emergency.

Two thirds of respondents felt they are already doing “all they can” to address climate change and that any further actions would be for “others” to take. This is despite the fact that we, as a country, have done virtually nothing to reduce emissions.

While a majority of the Irish public say they want to do more on climate change, most worry about the costs involved. Given the obsessive focus on costs rather than benefits of climate action among economists in particular, this is hardly surprising.

Astonishingly, only six per cent of people surveyed think the climate crisis is the biggest issue they face. It is hard to believe that only a month ago UN secretary general Antonio Gutteres told the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow that we are collectively “digging our own graves” by failing to confront the deadly threat of climate collapse. Nor was this a figure of speech. “Either we stop it, or it stops us”, Gutteres warned.

In May 2019, Ireland declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. Since then, we have been engaged in a sort of a Phoney War, one dominated by rhetoric rather than concrete action.

Some of the key building blocks, such as the Climate Act and the Climate Action Plan, have however now been put into place, but without strong public support based on a clear understanding of the dangers of doing nothing, there is little chance of any of our climate targets being met.

And, as recent efforts in the Seanad to resuscitate peat mining have shown, political cynicism and opportunism continue to undermine national resolve on climate and biodiversity protection.

Imagine for a moment that in March 2020, as the covid crisis unfolded, the government had simply not bothered rolling out an integrated media plan to forcefully communicate the nature of the threat and to win public consent for the painful actions needed to limit the pandemic. Our measures to contain the virus would almost certainly have failed and thousands of people alive today in Ireland would have died.

A senior government source accepts that a strong, all-of-government communications plan would be the difference between success or failure on our 2030 targets, adding that “resources and a (communications) plan for 2022 are now in place”.

They were unable to provide me with details on the exact budget, but it is expected to be initially moderate and to grow over time. Moves to bring climate literacy into the school curriculum are also being finalised.

Meanwhile, anachronisms abound in the system. State broadcaster, RTÉ, which comes under the remit of minister Martin, remains in business-as-usual mode, running fossil fuel and dairy industry sponsorship of its weather forecasts. Car and airline advertising and sponsorship is widespread in both state and commercial media outlets.

In the era of rapidly shrinking carbon budgets and with irreversible climate breakdown almost within touching distance, the public is bombarded online and in print and broadcast media with hundreds of messages every day encouraging ever more consumption. Small wonder most people still have absolutely no conception of how close we are now to the very catastrophe this relentless consumption is fuelling.

It is unlikely that this deluge of advertising is going to spontaneously stop, or be regulated out of existence. The state must therefore use these same media channels to pump out powerful, consistent messaging setting out the reality of what we face but also the clear opportunity to build a fairer, safer future for all.

In the 1920s, our forebears struggled to shape a new Ireland from the ashes of empire. The challenge for the 2020s is no less formidable. A low carbon revolution this decade is genuinely possible, but it requires steely political resolve and public and media buy-in to make it happen.

The story of who we are and what we value has for decades been commandeered by corporations and marketeers eager to define us as atomised consumers.

Now is the time to create a new narrative, one built around communities of citizens engaged with one another and reconnected to the natural world around us. Is a better, simpler future really so hard to contemplate?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator
Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Psychology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

No national security without food security

We often hear about Ireland’s supposed role in “feeding the world”. The reality is altogether different. Despite the hype, domestic food insecurity is a very real concern in the difficult decades ahead. I explored this issue in detail in a recent Business Post article.

AS THE government this week unveiled carbon budgets for the next decade, the sectoral group scramble for special treatment has gotten underway in earnest.

Livestock agriculture in particular is now coming under sustained scrutiny, given its emissions trajectory is in direct conflict with government policy.

Agriculture minister, Charlie McConalogue found himself in the uncomfortable position this week on RTÉ Prime Time of attempting to defend this situation and to pitch the implausible notion that “efficiencies” or new technologies were going to somehow reduce spiralling methane emissions from Ireland’s oversized livestock herd.

Presenter Sarah McInerney pressed the minister on what she called his “very controversial policy, against all the scientific advice” in refusing to accept the need to reduce herd numbers.

As the state’s Climate Change Advisory Council confirmed this week, only small emissions cuts can be achieved by technical mitigation; in other words, if you don’t cut herd numbers, you can’t cut total agri emissions.

In an effort to explain why the rules shouldn’t have to apply to the Irish livestock sector, McConalogue stated: “Ireland contributes significantly to feeding people around the world. Tonight, 700 million people will go to bed hungry”.

Some of those hungry people may well be west African pastoral farmers, who in recent years have seen their livelihoods threatened by a glut of cheap dairy produce from EU countries, including Ireland, being flooded onto their fragile domestic markets.

The president of Burkina Faso’s milk producers’ union, Adama Ibrahim Diallo told Politico that “people who live from milk are struggling”, leading to worsening security issues in the Sahel region. “The sons of pastoralists become jihadists — not out of conviction but because there are no jobs”.

According to Bord Bia, Irish dairy exports to Africa are booming, with over €660 million in sales in 2020. A 2017 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report found that locally produced milk in Senegal costs around $1 a litre, but imported milk products from the EU can be half the price, “thanks in large measure to agricultural subsidy policies”. The EU, in essence, is exporting food insecurity.

Millions of babies as far afield as China and Saudi Arabia are fed by powdered Irish milk, with a total annual export value approaching €1 billion, but given that this is to directly replace breast feeding, it is unlikely to be contributing to global food security.

Hunger is the spectre that has long stalked humanity, and it is deeply imprinted on the Irish psyche. The harnessing of fossil fuels and the development of chemical nitrogen and pesticides allowed the ‘Green Revolution’ since the 1960s to usher in a global era of plenty, but at a fearsome ecological price.

“The green revolution has won temporary success in man’s war against hunger”, famed agronomist Norman Bourlag stated in 1970. In the longer term, failure to live within planetary limits would, he warned, mean in the 21st century “we will experience sheer human misery on a scale that will exceed the worst that has ever come before.”

The climate risk assessment report from the UK-based Chatham House think tank published ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow gave some chilling insights into the scale and gravity of fast-approaching threats to food security.

Unless drastic emissions cuts occur immediately, it projects that by 2040, around a third of the world’s farmlands will be subjected to severe drought conditions, leading to at least a 30 per cent drop in global food production by mid-century, with profound social and political consequences.

The real priority for Ireland in the years ahead must be to ensure we have achieved as high a degree as possible of domestic energy and food security, to buffer ourselves against global system shocks and supply chain disruption.

While good progress is being made on developing indigenous renewable energy, there is little evidence of any such strategic thinking when it comes to feeding ourselves if largely cut off from international markets.

According to CSO data, Ireland annually imports almost a quarter of a million tonnes of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce and apples – all foods for human consumption that are ideally suited to our climate.

Our current food production model is overwhelmingly export-oriented, with some 90 per cent of what we produce shipped overseas, while the vast bulk of what we actually eat is imported.

Our huge livestock herd can only be maintained via the annual application of over 350,000 tonnes of imported chemical nitrogen, as well as several million tonnes of imported feedstuffs plus pesticides and liquid fuels for machinery.

The system least dependent on imported inputs and so most resilient in a crisis is (nature-friendly) organic agriculture, yet Ireland languishes at the very bottom of the EU table, with only 2 per cent organic production. Similarly, horticulture boosts resilience as it produces the most food per hectare of any system, yet it accounts for barely one per cent of our land use.

On balance, is minister McConalogue correct in arguing that Ireland contributes to global food security? No, according to data from the UN FAO. Since 2000, Ireland has been a net importer of food energy. Ireland’s net food energy imports exceeded exports by the equivalent of the calorie intake of 2.5 million people.

The reason for this surprisingly poor performance is the intrinsic inefficiency and resource intensity of animal-based agriculture, which is by far the dominant system in Ireland. Globally, over 80 per cent of agricultural landis given over to livestock production, yet it produces just 18 per cent of the calories and 37 per cent of protein for human consumption.

Since 1980, Ireland’s tillage sector has shrunk by more than two fifths, with much of the land now being switched to dairying, which produces seven times more emissions per hectare, according to Prof Michael Wallace of UCD.

In previous times of crisis and shortage during the two world wars, Irish tillage production increased sharply, as the focus was on feeding our population, not livestock. Perhaps now is the time to plan in earnest for an agricultural renaissance to help us achieve food independence to face an increasingly uncertain future.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Global Warming | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The library of our living planet is burning down

Shortly before the COP26 climate conference began, another global conference, this one on biodiversity, known as COP15, took place in Kunming, China. My piece around the global biodiversity crunch ran in the Business Post in late October.

THE NATURAL WORLD is an unimaginably vast repository of more than a billion years of evolutionary history, a priceless record of life in all its startling complexity emerging against the odds and coming to vivify our once-sterile planet.

“Each higher organism is richer in information than a Caravaggio painting, a Bach fugue, or any other great work,” according to celebrated naturalist Prof EO Wilson.

This living library is, however, burning down, with volume after volume being destroyed, and the conflagration is gathering pace. As the world struggles to come to terms with the climate and covid emergencies, it seems hard to imagine there could be another crisis of equal magnitude and gravity now unfolding, but this is in fact the case.

Astonishingly, since 1970, global populations of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians have declined by around 70 per cent on average, according to the Living Planet Index.

The ‘red list’ drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicates that some one in four species is now facing near-term extinction. More has been lost in just the last half century than at any other single moment in Earth history for millions of years.

Despite its far-reaching consequences for all life on earth, the biodiversity crisis receives only a small fraction of the – already inadequate – media attention given to climate change. A 2018 research paper found that, even if biodiversity loss were to somehow stop almost immediately, it would take millions, perhaps tens of millions, of years for mammal populations and diversity on Earth to recover.

“If anything, our grim predictions of long recovery times are conservative”, the study authors warned. They added that if humans could momentarily pause mammal extinctions, “we would save as much evolutionary history in the next 100 years as our ancestors lost in the last 100,000”.

These stark estimates were borne out in 2019 when a study by the Intergovernmental policy group on biodiversity and ecosystems (IPBES) found that up to one million species face extinction in the coming decades as a direct result of human impacts on ecosystems around the world.

The IPBES report identified intensive agricultural and fishing activities as the key drivers of ecosystem destruction globally, adding that this wholescale evisceration of both species and habitats posed as much danger to all life on Earth as climate change.

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”, IPBES chair, Prof Robert Watson warned. Human activities have already radically changed the face of the Earth, with 75 per cent of land and 66 per cent of oceans “significantly altered” by humans, mostly related to food production.

It is not just the animal kingdom that is under siege. A 2020 report involving scientists from 42 countries concluded that some 40 per cent of the world’s plant species now face the risk of extinction arising from the wholescale destruction of the natural world. In many cases, species are being lost even before scientists are able to fully identify and classify them.

Last week, the Chinese city of Kunming hosted a virtual conference on biodiversity, known as COP15, a meeting regarded as the most important in a decade. The last major congress, in 2010 in Aichi, Japan, set a series of biodiversity goals for 2020. Not one has been met.

The global situation has been mirrored in Ireland, where environmental protection has languished under Fine Gael-led governments since 2011. Ireland’s already meagre resources aimed at wildlife protection were gutted over the last decade, a period which coincided with rapid expansion of the dairy sector, with pollution and emissions rising sharply and biodiversity further declining in this period.

Last week, Heritage Minister, Malcolm Noonan signed off on a 2022 Budget allocation of €47 million to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), an effective full reversal of a decade of swingeing cuts and political neglect of Ireland’s natural heritage.

Despite leaning heavily on our supposed ‘green’ credentials to promote agricultural expansion, in reality this was always primarily about marketing, not conservation. Taxpayers’ money flooded into Bord Bia in recent years to promote its ‘Origin Green’ branding while the NWPS was simultaneously drained of resources to fund actual nature protection.

This point was driven home recently by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which stated bluntly that the ‘green’ reputation of Irish agriculture is “not supported by evidence”. As recently as the 1980s, over 500 Irish rivers were designated as “pristine”, compared with just 20 today.

The EPA reported last week that an action programme to limit agricultural nitrogen from polluting rivers in the south, south east and east of Ireland has failed, and this threatens both biodiversity and human health, while the run-off is also damaging marine environments.

A Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity was promised as part of the programme for government but no timetable has yet been set for this to happen. Noonan told the Dáil in July that Ireland’s next Biodiversity Action Plan is due for publication in 2022.

Recent investigative work by the ‘Noteworthy’ team found that only a small fraction of targets under Ireland’s current National Biodiversity Action Plan have been met. Meanwhile, the European Commission currently has 15 ongoing infringement cases against Ireland relating to environmental issues.

According to a 2019 report published by the NWPS, 54 of 59 habitats it assessed were ranked as under threat, with agriculture the main source of threat or pressure, while forestry, resource extraction, construction and alien species were also noted as significant threats.

Ireland is among more than 100 countries who have adopted the Kunming Declaration on biodiversity protection, a move welcomed by minister Noonan. Critically, the UN is calling for countries to set aside 30 per cent of their territory for nature protection by 2030.

Given the abysmal record of governments promising action on biodiversity loss then doing little to prevent it, there is understandable scepticism as to why this non-binding declaration would be any more successful than its predecessors.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”, the 19th century naturalist, John Muir wrote. Under sustained assault on multiple fronts, including land clearance, monoculture, pesticides, overfishing, invasive species, global warming, pollution and ocean acidification, nature’s rich tapestry into which the story of life itself has been weaved, is unravelling.

While much has already been lost, there is still so much left to save. Every day we delay, another 150 or so species vanish – forever.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
Posted in Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Irish Focus, Pollution, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No time to lose as climate clock approaches midnight

This article was published in the Irish Times in late October, just days before the start of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

AHEAD OF the upcoming UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, many countries are now revising their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) as originally agreed following the 2015 Paris climate conference.

At that time, the stated aim of international climate policy to keep global temperature increases to ‘well below’ 2 degrees and to ‘pursue efforts’ to keep it to no more than 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial.

Much has changed in the six years since Paris. Perhaps the most significant new factor was the landmark IPCC Special Report published in 2018 and known as SR15. This report made it clear for the first time that devastating and potentially irreversible climate breakdown could be locked in at the lower threshold of 1.5 degrees.

This means that the wiggle room on strong climate action that many governments thought they still enjoyed has all-but-disappeared. As if to drive home the point, scores of extreme weather events have racked the planet in the last three years, culminating in the ferocious summer of 2021 across the northern hemisphere.

In advance of COP26, a recently published climate risk assessment research paper from Chatham House, a UK-based think tank has investigated global efforts to rein in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, concluding that we are currently “dangerously off track”.

Overall, the report observed that climate risks “are compounding, and without immediate action the impacts will be devastating”. Tallying all the currently committed NDCs, it calculated that there is now less than a one per cent change of remaining at or below 1.5 degrees, and less than a five per cent chance of staying below 2 degrees. Given that global temperatures are already 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial, the remaining carbon budget is rapidly being exhausted.

“A massive step-change in ambition is needed if we are going to have a chance of keeping to the 1.5 target”, according to Prof Peter Thorne of NUI Maynooth and IPCC lead author. Crucially, he adds, “we need to close the gap between current policy and stated ambition, and that’s pretty much across the board globally”.

Ireland’s declared national ambition is for a 51 per cent emissions cut by 2030, which is broadly in line with our EU obligations. While there are already major question marks as to how and whether these can be achieved, Thorne believes that morally, there is a clear case for Ireland doing even more.

“Should Ireland, which has more historical responsibility, be pulling stronger? Is it sufficient for countries to say we’ll just start (emissions cuts) from where we are, which means we effectively grandfather everything we’ve done before and conveniently park it and forget about it. Is this ethically justifiable? That’s an open question”, according to Thorne.

Much of the focus of international climate diplomacy has been around the concept of ‘net zero’ by a given date, usually 2050. However, the Chatham House report warned that these pledges “lack policy detail and delivery mechanisms, and the gap between targets and the global carbon budget is widening every year”.

It noted that unless NDCs are “dramatically increased”, with mechanisms put in place to ensure they are delivered, many of the most severe climate impacts “will be locked in by 2040, and (will) become so severe they go beyond the limits of what nations can adapt to”.

The report identified five key areas of concern. These are: extreme heat; food security; water security; flooding and finally, climate tipping points and associated cascading risks.

A recent study in the medical journal The Lancet found the number of deaths caused by high temperatures increased by 74 per cent globally between 1980 and 2016. Given that the five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015, this number will undoubtedly already be a significant underestimate.

Apart from mortality, extreme heat also imposes huge economic losses on societies, disrupting outdoor work such as agriculture and construction. The Chatham House report projects that unless drastic emissions cuts occur before 2030, some 3.9 billion people, or half the global population “are likely to experience major heatwaves each year” by the 2040s.

By the 2030s, over 400 million people globally face being exposed to temperatures beyond which outdoor work will be impossible, with some 10 million annual heat-related deaths predicted.

The outlook for future food security is alarming. The report notes that to meet mid-century demand, global agriculture will have to produce 50 per cent more food than today, yet yields are expected to decline by around 30 per cent in the same period.

The researchers project that during the 2040s, there is an evens chance of a synchronous global crop failure striking all the major breadbasket regions. This will have “devastating impacts on (food) availability and prices. Among the expected consequences are state failures, mass migration and conflict.

The global water crisis is also deepening and near-term projections are stark. By 2040, around 700 million people will likely be exposed to “prolonged severe droughts of at least six months’ duration”.

Cascading risks from severe water insecurity include economic collapse, breakdown of governance, widespread social disorder and armed conflict, possibly including nuclear weapons, according to the report.

In a climate-stressed world, the evil twin of drought is flooding. Last year there were 23 per cent more floods globally than in the period 2000-2019. Sea level rise is quickly ratcheting up the impacts of flooding events. By 2100, some 200 million people in coastal areas will be living below the 100-year flood level, putting them at significant risk, while river flooding will impact another 60 million people this century. Flooding risk has long been recognised as Ireland’s most acute climate vulnerability.

Longer term, even a 2 degree temperature rise, if sustained, locks in “committed sea level rises of around 12 metres”, though how long this would take to play out remains uncertain.

The report also argues that climate models may underrepresent the significance of climatic tipping points.

These include the disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, abrupt permafrost loss, breakdown of the AMOC or Gulf Stream, boreal forest die-back and the disappearance of the Amazon rainforest. The report looks at the complex interconnections between shifting weather patterns and the resultant changes to ecosystems, leading to increases in pest and diseases.

These combine with heatwaves and droughts to accelerate crop failure, food insecurity and forced migration. This in turn leads to a rise in infectious diseases among stressed populations, creating a negative feedback loop. Global supply chains, currently stressed by Covid 19, are also highly vulnerable to cascading impacts resulting from extreme weather events.

As the Chatham House report confirms, nothing short of radical action on emissions reduction, both nationally and globally will be sufficient if we are to have any realistic chance of avoiding near-term calamity.

Outside of wartime, change on the scale now being contemplated has probably never been undertaken. The first vital step, according to Thorne is: “we need to educate people about climate change, about what’s happening – and what’s going to happen”.

This he feels will require broadcasters to be on-board. “We need to be imaginative about how we’re reaching people, and communicate the urgency of the problem on a sustained basis”, he adds. “People need to understand there is no doubt about the science, and no doubt about the need for action”.

While there are significant costs involved in strong climate action, Thorne, who travels to Glasgow next month for the COP conference, points out that these are dwarfed by the costs of failing to act. “Let’s not forget there are also non-climate benefits to climate action – health, wellbeing and biodiversity benefits, to name but a few”.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
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Latest chapter in one man’s journey into climate obscurity

This piece ran in Village magazine in mid-October, tracking the latest moves by Ireland’s climate denier-in-chief in his continuing mission to spread doubt on the science of climate change and the help stymie effective climate action.

OVER FOUR decades ago, famed meteorologist, Jule Charney wrote a report for the US government which sought to answer the key questions of how sensitive the global atmosphere is to increased levels of the heat-trapping gas, CO2.

Charney’s 1979 estimate was that a doubling of global CO2 levels would lead to a temperature increase in the range of 2–4ºC. This summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest major report calculated that a doubling of CO2 would lead to temperature rises in the range of 2.6–4.1ºC. Continue reading

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The most dangerous man in the world?

It’s almost always a mistake to characterise any one person as ‘evil’. There’s good and bad in everyone, as the song says. Well, almost. You could make an exception for one noxious Antipodean nonagenarian who has, over the span of the last five decades or so, done more than perhaps any other one individual alive to make the world a nastier and ever more dangerous place. No cat-stroking Bond villain caricature has ever captured the true mendacity of this individual, as I explained in this piece for the Business Post in September.

MEDIA TYCOON Rupert Murdoch “isn’t just an Australian problem or even an Anglosphere one. He has become a planetary problem”. That is the scathing view of former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

While such acute criticism might usually be dismissed as politically motivated, in fact Rudd’s analysis is shared by another former PM from the opposite end of Australia’s political spectrum, Malcolm Turnbull. Continue reading

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We are Generation Incineration

This piece ran in the Business Post magazine in late August, as more and more media outlets rallied to engage with the climate emergency and its vast implications for all life on Earth, humans included.

AT EXACTLY 1.18am, on June 24th last, the pool deck at a beachfront condominium in Surfside, Florida, collapsed. Seven minutes later, the entire 12-story building crashed down, instantly killing around 100 residents.

Three years ago, a simple yet crucial design error was discovered in the 40-year-old building. This had led to rainwater pooling and gradually eroding the supporting concrete slabs.

The 2018 estimate for repairs was $9 million, but this rose to $12 million two years later. Owners faced bills of $100,000 per apartment to fund the repairs and many simply dismissed the findings of the engineering report. In April, just two months before the disaster the condominium president complained that discussions about the fixes had gone on for years, yet action still hadn’t been taken. Continue reading

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Which part of ‘Code Red’ don’t we understand?

The publication of the first working group report (physical sciences) of the IPCC’s keenly awaited AR6 report in mid-August came against the backdrop months of genuinely alarming extreme weather events across multiple continents, from killer floods in Europe and China to deadly heatwaves, droughts and wildfires from Siberia to Africa, the US and beyond. Below is an explainer piece I filed for the Business Post to mark its publication.

THE SCIENTIFIC community has long understood that heating up the global atmosphere with greenhouse gases would, in time, lead to potentially dangerous consequences for the Earth’s climate system. This is uncontroversial. The real enigma that science is ill-equipped to address is that most elusive of variables: how humanity chooses to respond.

In the 30 years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was first established to manage this emerging crisis, global greenhouse gas emissions have roughly doubled. We have created as much carbon pollution since 1990 than in all of human history up to then. Continue reading

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Climate emergency ‘widespread, rapid and intensifying’

I was asked by to write a reaction piece to mark the release of the first part of the IPCC’s new climate report in early August. I also recorded an Explainer Podcast with later in August.

JUST HOW MANY more ‘wake-up calls’ on the climate emergency are we likely to receive before the message finally gets through? That question hungover this week’s release by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the first section of its mammoth Sixth Assessment Report (AR6).

The report confirmed many of the worst fears of scientists and activists when it stated that the effects of climate disruption are now: “widespread, rapid and intensifying”, with the window to avoiding extremely dangerous and irreversible climate system breakdown rapidly closing. Continue reading

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Feeling the heat, then seeing the light

The story of RTÉ’s Damascene conversion on climate coverage has continued to gather pace. Below is a piece I wrote for the Business Post in early August explaining the background and context.

AS THE STATE broadcaster, RTÉ occupies a special niche in Irish life. It can also function as a sort of national Rorschach test, onto which people from all walks of life project their grievances, desires and demands.

RTÉ is routinely under fire from individuals and groups pushing agendas, from pro-lifers to anti-vaxxers and many more besides. By and large, this animus is unwarranted. By international standards, RTÉ is well regarded, employing some of our most talented journalists and creatives, and is widely, if often grudgingly, respected.

Senior RTÉ staff are used to scrolling wearily through thickets of social media posts excoriating the broadcaster for its perceived bias, prejudice or alleged corruption. Such scrutiny, fair or not, goes with the territory. Continue reading

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Winds of (climate) change finally blow through Montrose

I filed the article below for DeSmog, the international website specialising in climate denial and disinformation, in late July, in the wake of the sudden about-turn within RTÉ’s senior management over its climate coverage.

IRELAND’S NATIONAL broadcaster has publicly apologised for failing to link recent extreme weather events to climate change, pledging to set up a dedicated climate reporting unit in the run-up to COP26.

In an unusual move, RTÉ’s Managing Director of News and Current Affairs Jon Williams tweeted that the broadcaster had been wrong not to make the connection clear, calling it a “sin of omission” and insisting that the “lesson” had been “learned”. Continue reading

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Climate emergency still failing to capture sustained media focus

Here’s a piece I filed with the Business Post in July which took a look at how the alarming extreme weather events ramping up this summer are still failing to raise a red flag in the media, both here and internationally. Given the mountains of scientific data, backed up with the evidence on our TV screens, how can we be still sleepwalking towards disaster, with scant sign that we have even begun to fully grasp the extent of the crisis that threatens to engulf us.

ON APRIL 19th last, the World Meteorological Organisation’s flagship State of the Global Climate report was published. Launching it, United Nations secretary general, António Gutteres stated bluntly: “we are on the verge of the abyss”.

To some, that may have sounded somewhat melodramatic. Then June 2021 happened. Continue reading

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More power to our fledgling solar industry

The missing piece of the puzzle from Ireland’s transition to clean and renewable energy has long been solar power. While wind energy has grown in just a couple of decades from almost nothing to providing more than two fifths of total national electrical power (with much more in store once offshore wind kicks in), solar has been almost completely overlooked. This is now finally changing. I filed the report below for The Irish Times in early July, taking a closer look at this bright new sector:

SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1931, US electricity pioneer, Thomas Edison confided to his close friends: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that”.

Today, some 90 years later, the pressing global crisis is that we are producing greenhouse gas emissions far more quickly than the biosphere can absorb them. The dramatic rise of renewables in response to this crux mean Edison’s bet on solar may at last be borne out, albeit not for the reasons he expected. Continue reading

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The heat is on: climate emergency deepens

After the savage heatwaves that swept the northern hemisphere in June and continuing into July, I was asked by to contribute a piece putting these ominous events into context. Here’s what I wrote:

“WORDS CANNOT DESCRIBE this historic event”. That’s how a statement from Canada’s official weather service began. It was referring to 28 June, a day in which 59 new daily record maximum temperatures were recorded across the province of British Columbia, as well as 43 all-time records.

From Canada to northern Siberia and across the Middle East, India, Pakistan and the entire western United States, June 2021 was a month of record-smashing extreme temperatures across vast swathes of the northern hemisphere.

Before last week, nowhere in Canada had ever recorded a temperature greater than 45C. That record was obliterated when the town of Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.6C in recent days. This is hotter than the highest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas, located in the Nevada desert, 1,600 kilometres further south.

Dozens of deaths have been reported across Canada, a country with little experience dealing with such extreme conditions, and where few homes have air conditioning. In Portland, Oregon, the streetcar service had to be suspended as the heat had melted cables, while citizens were advised to seek shelter in publicly run cooling centres.

Climate change is happening

“Without human-induced climate change, it would have been almost impossible to hit such record-breaking mean June temperatures in the Western United States, as the chances of natural occurrence is once every tens of thousands of years”, said Nikos Christidis, a climatologist with the UK Met Office. Human influence is estimated to have increased the likelihood of a new record several thousand times.

The remote village of Oymyakon in eastern Siberia is close to the Arctic Circle and is regarded as the coldest permanently inhabited location on Earth. On 29 June, Oymyakon recorded its hottest ever temperature, at 31.6C.

To put these and other extreme weather events so far in 2021 in context, NASA noted that last year was the hottest on the instrumental record, with the excess heating fuelling massive wildfires from Australia to Siberia and the western US.

Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the key heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, have risen by around 50% since the industrial revolution began, while levels of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, have more than doubled. Overall, the entire surface of the planet is now on average 1.1C warmer than a century ago, and this is rising quickly. Earth is running a dangerous fever.

Atmospheric CO2 levels today are higher than at any time in the last four million years, and human actions are dumping an additional 40 billion tons of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere every year. The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was during an era called the Pliocene, when sea levels were around 25 metres higher than today.

Unprecedented damage

We are the first humans in the history of our species to live through a period of such rapid heating. A leaked draft copy of a new 4,000-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that Earth was fast approaching a series of thresholds which, if crossed, will lead to irreversible climate breakdown.

“Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems – humans cannot”, the report stated bluntly. The IPCC report has identified around a dozen critical system tipping points, such as rapid polar ice melt or the sudden loss of the Amazon rainforest, as likely with even very modest additional warming.

“The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own”, the IPCC report added. The panel now accepts that it has been too cautious in the past in assessing just how much risk is posed by even limited global warming.

A decade ago, the international consensus was to keep temperature increases below 2C. Given the devastating present consequences of the 1.1C rise in global temperatures and the extreme danger of breaching a planetary tipping point, the latest scientific advice says we must aim to stay as close to +1.5C as possible.

However, if all the pledges made by every country on Earth, including Ireland, under the Paris Accord on climate change were honoured in full, we are still on track for a deadly 3C+ temperature shift.

While our climate is rapidly shifting into extremely dangerous territory, the political and media response to date has been, at best, muted. For instance, Senator Michael McDowell set out in his Irish Times column this week a litany of reasons in favour of inaction on climate, which he appears not realise is an emergency.

And the national broadcaster, RTÉ (which has no acting Environment Correspondent) continues to report on the extreme heat dome affecting the Pacific north-west purely as a weather event, with little attempt at explaining the role climate change plays in loading the dice for extreme weather events.

Who’s voice is being heard?

Both of Ireland’s main governing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have repeatedly fudged strong climate action, partly for fear of an electoral backlash, but also in a bid to mollify the powerful agri industry lobby, which routinely misrepresents climate action as somehow an attack on ‘rural Ireland’.

Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney broke ranks when tweeting this week: “This is remarkable! These are frightening temperatures in Canada – take note – increased ambition for climate action is not a policy debate, it’s survival!”

If this sounds like hyperbole, a major study published last year warned that due to the rapid spread of extreme heat, up to three billion people will be living in climatic conditions “deemed unsuitable for human life to flourish” by 2070.

The researchers warned that land surface temperatures are likely to shift more in the next 50 years than in the entire last 6,000 years, rendering up to one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface too hot to support humans or agriculture. This in turn risks triggering the greatest migration crisis in human history and is likely to lead to political instability, wars and socio-economic collapse on an epic scale.

Commenting on the Canadian heatwave, meteorologist Scott Duncan tweeted: “I didn’t think it was possible, not in my lifetime anyway. Not so, countered climatologist, Prof Robert Brulle, who wrote: “These (2021) records will fall as climate change accelerates! This is just a mild version of what we can expect in the future.”

John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism.

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