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
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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.

This underlines just how accurate Charney’s earlier work had been. According to the IPCC, there is a less than 5% chance that a doubling of CO2 could lead to temperature rises below 2ºC. One of Charney’s PhD students was meteorologist, and long-time climate contrarian, Ray Bates.

Bates has just been appointed to the ‘Academic Advisory Council’ of the secretly funded London-based climate denial think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). This council is a who’s who of climate denial, from coalmine-owning Matt Ridley to Richard Lindzen, Ian Plimer and William Happer – all regular fixtures on the climate disinformation circuit for years.

The GWPF describes Bates, who retired 17 years ago, as “one of Europe’s most eminent climate scientists”. This description irked actual climatologist, Prof Peter Thorne of NUIM, who told DeSmog: “touting that appointment as being of a climate expert and resting that in part upon his having been a reviewer of IPCC reports is at very best misleading.”

Bates’ claim to have “served as an Expert Reviewer of the IPCC’s Fifth and Sixth Assessment Reports” cleverly ignores the fact that the IPCC allows almost anyone to self-declare as an “expert” and to submit comments to the IPCC reviewers.

The IPCC notes that since it is a self-declaration process, “having been a registered expert reviewer does not by itself serve as a qualification of the expert or support their credibility in a different context”. This claim to expertise and credibility by association with the IPCC is exactly what the GWPF press release announcing Bates’s appointment attempts to do.

Misrepresentation is central to Bates’s entire pitch. In late 2018, he published a risible document on behalf of the GWPF grandly titled ‘Deficiencies in the IPCC’s Report on 1.5 Degrees’. His error-strewn and deceptive ‘report’ was publicly shredded by senior climatologists, including Dr Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Space Institute (Prof Thorne described his report as “wilful misrepresentation”).

Schmidt summarised Bates’s opus as “basically a dialled-in work-for-hire. It’s incoherent, inconsistent, a little bit funny and adds nothing to our understanding of the science behind the SR15 report, or indeed any aspect of the attribution issue”

Through his enthusiastic lobbying work on behalf of emissions-intensive Irish livestock expansion in recent years, Bates has shown repeatedly that the arguments he makes, while cloaked in the language of science, are essentially political.

In 2017, a series of complaints taken by Bates against this reporter and Village magazine for identifying him as a “climate contrarian” were all rejected by the Press Ombudsman. On appeal, the Press Council upheld this decision in full.

Speculating on Bates’s possible motivation for producing this misleading material, Prof Andrew Dessler of the University of Texas noted online: “If you wonder why ‘gone emeritus’ scientists become sceptics … Ray Bates is a retired guy that the scientific community long ago moved past. But, as a sceptic, he’s suddenly the centre of the debate, taken seriously by people who want to undermine policy.”

By his own admission, Bates’s critique of the IPCC’s SR15 report was “rejected unilaterally” by peer-reviewed scientific journals, but the GWPF, whose agenda is of climate denial and obstructing climate action, published and promoted Bates’s piece, as it dove-tails with the organisation’s objectives.

Prof Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester, told DeSmog that by appointing Bates, “the GWPF slides further into scientific obscurity”. His appointment also poses awkward questions for the Royal Irish Academy, as Bates is a member of its Climate Change & Environmental Sciences Committee.

As if to underline that continuing slide into obscurity, Bates recently took part in a video interview for a fringe far-right Irish website, in which he rehashed his standard “the science is not settled” palaver to an audience eager to lap up misinformation.

While he retired in 2004, Bates is still described as an ‘Adjunct Professor of Meteorology’ at UCD, an association made increasingly problematic for UCD by his drift into outright climate denial.

Quite how the late Jule Charney might feel about the egregious attempts by his one-time student to misrepresent and downplay the very climate risks Charney so presciently described in 1979 is something we can never know.

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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 TheJournal.ie 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 TheJournal.ie 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 TheJournal.ie 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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Dangerous myth of infinite economic growth exposed

Regular ThinkOrSwim readers will know that your correspondent is not a noted fan of mainstream economics, or most of its practitioners, for that matter. They have, in my view, done untold damage in impeding societal and political understanding of and response to the unfolding ecological emergency. 

Nobody, in my book, has explained this more clearly than Australian economist and economics debunker, Steve Keen. His cracking paper, ‘The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change’ is required reading. 

What caught my eye in preparing the article below for the Business Post in June, was a research paper published by the European Environment Agency challenging the inevitability of, wait for it, economic growth.

ANYONE WHO believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world “is either a madman or an economist,” quipped US economist and author, Kenneth Boulding. Even the 19th century father of liberal economics, John Stuart Mill, wrote extensively of the desirability of a ‘stationary state’ as the ideal model for a stable, sustainable society, but his warnings went unheeded in the race for growth. Continue reading

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A mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam: our fragile world

Has there ever been a better science communicator that the late Carl Sagan? If you’ve watched the original version of the series ‘Cosmos’, you’ll have a good sense of his mastery of the medium. The BBC’s Brian Cox recalls watching, as a 13-year-old, the series, and deciding to dedicate his life to science and science communication.

His distinctive cadence can be heard and enjoyed here as he speaks of the pale blue dot back in 1994. The following year, his book ‘Demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark’ foretold with uncanny prescience a future America, its critical faculties in decline, ‘unable to distinguish between what feels good and what is true’, is sliding inexorably into a new Dark Ages, with its media engaged in ‘lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance’.

This flight from reality has brought humanity to the very edge of ruin. Whether we proceed, or somehow turn back in the nick of time, remains very much in the balance. Much will depend on how robust our planetary boundaries turn out to be. We may be lucky, or we may be very unlucky in that regard. The below piece ran in Village magazine in June. Continue reading

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Billionaires to the rescue? No thanks

With our billionaire overlords queueing up to be the first into space or to colonise some real estate on Mars, I thought it was an opportune moment to file a piece in the Business Post taking a cold look at the phenomenon that a diet of movies has prepared us all for: the benign hyper-rich swooping in to save the world. After all, what could possibly go wrong? If that sounds like the ultimate fiction, then grab your popcorn and read on…

HEROES WITH super powers have long been a staple of Hollywood movies. The actual super power some, such as Iron Man and Batman, possess is extreme wealth. These billionaire playboy vigilantes aim to save the world with ingenious, expensive gadgets.

Life now appears to be imitating art with the emergence of not one but three actual billionaire would-be superheroes, this time on the most exciting quest of all: to rescue Earth from the ravages of climate chaos. Continue reading

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