World awakens slowly to unfolding plastics catastrophe

Below, my article as published in the April 2018 edition of Village magazine. I’ve been writing for years about the pervasive and ever-expanding threats posed by plastic wastes, but have found few takers in the mainstream media; given the staggering numbers and absolutely undeniable havoc these persistent environmental toxins were causing, I always found the lack of interest on the part of many editors puzzling, to say the least. It seems the tipping point (if that’s a phrase you can actually use here) on plastics occurred with David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which brought the issue of the devastating impacts of marine plastic into the homes and onto the TV screens of millions of people. Suddenly, the wider media seemed to twig that this was a ‘real’ story, and since then, awareness of plastics as a truly massive problem has gone mainstream. Of course, as regular ThinkOrSwim readers will know, plastic pollution is but one of a phalanx of vast, seemingly intractable and interconnected crises gathering strength on our near horizon.

FOR YEARS, it was widely ignored, even as the evidence grew more and more overwhelming. Reports had been flooding in from some of the remotest places on Earth, from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the North Pole. Researchers found its impact was hammering every ecosystem, disrupting natural processes and spreading havoc across the living world.

Then, slowly at first, the message began to resonate well beyond the usual narrow circles of scientists and environmental NGOs. The public’s ears pricked up, the media began to look deeply into the story and politicians, ever eager to follow the crowd, jumped aboard and began to huff about taking action, stepping up to the plate, not standing idly by, etc.

And so, slowly, after scandalous decades of neglect and indifference, the wheels of change began their inexorable shift. The task ahead remained Herculean but at least many societies could be said to be engaged, and from there, anything is possible.

I would like at this point to claim the preceding paragraphs are a description of how humanity has finally – hopelessly late – begun to grapple with the existential ecological crunch of which emissions-fuelled climate change is the most obvious manifestation.

Sadly, this is not the case. The belated public response is instead to the plague of plastic pollution that has reached such an epidemic point that even the usual defenders of the free market haven’t bothered to construct a phony ‘alternative’ narrative to beguile the media and stymie political action.

The extent to which a carelessly used and discarded by-product of global industrialisation has come to present such a potent threat to the web of life on Earth has been known in scientific circles for many years. Marine biologists in particular have been trying with little success to draw attention to the rising tide of plastic pollution and its deeply insidious effects. Perhaps it was only when it became obvious that the human food chain is also compromised did the wider public really start to sit up and take note.

Plastic marine debris is now described as: “one of the most pervasive pollution problems facing the world’s oceans and waterways”, by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Around a million tons of plastics, comprising tens of billions of individual pieces, is now produced globally every week. Perhaps a tenth is ever recycled.

People come and people go, but plastics persist. Complex polymers, under the influence of UV radiation and sea water, break down into near-microscopic monomers that enter at the base of the food chain, being ingested in their trillions by the vast shoals of tiny organisms that support and underpin the entire marine web of life.

As these creatures are eaten, ever increasing amounts of toxic plastic pollutants are concentrated in the next level of the chain, and so on, until creatures at the apex, from sharks, dolphins whales and sea birds, are carrying catastrophic levels of toxins. Consider that every square mile of the surface of every sea and ocean on Earth contains around 50,000 pieces of plastic debris and you begin to get a grasp of the scale of the crisis.

And, with the equivalent of a full dump truck of new plastic waste entering the world’s waterways every minute, it is manifestly clear that nothing short of a radical, global response will suffice if we are to have any chance of stemming the toxic tide of plastic pollution before it is too late.

Ireland’s response has been mixed. Back in 2002, the then government introduced a modest tax on the purchase of single-use plastic bags handed out in their millions at supermarket checkouts and elsewhere. Industry critics said it was unfair, too expensive to administer, would never work etc. etc. They were all proved wrong when, within 12-18 months of its introduction, the quantity of single-use plastic bags fell by some 90%. Even more unexpectedly, the public actually supported the tax, and this support was maintained when it was increased to ensure compliance.

Ireland found itself, for a short time, in the unusual position of being a global leader on an environmental issue. Success would, however, be short-lived. In the intervening decade and more, ever more plastics have made their way into our lives. It’s not unusual to find apples being sold on a plastic mat, with cellophane wrapping and perhaps an outer layer of another plastic.

Milk went, in the space of just a few decades, from being sold in reusable glass bottles to recyclable paper tetra paks to now being largely sold in heavy plastic jugs. Meanwhile, tiny plastic yogurt pots are sold in more wrapping. The ubiquitous ‘take-away’ coffee cup is constructed with a plastic inner lining, making the entire cup (and its plastic lid) unrecoverable.

Ireland is in fact the EU’s number one per capita producer of plastic waste. Irish people account for 61kg annually – this is nearly 50% above the EU average. Repak, the industry-funded recycling group, boasts of our high levels of recycling relative to other countries, but this begs the question: what exactly happens to all this material? The short answer is that, in 2016, 95% of all Irish plastic waste was shipped to China for ‘recycling’. Conveniently for us, far lower environmental standards apply in much of China, so quite what happens to our so-called recycled waste remains unclear (China has since shut its doors to western wastes, which will now have to be dealt with much closer to home).

I was involved in a recent radio debate on the issue of plastics hosted by Newstalk. Repak CEO, Seamus Clancy explained in glowing terms some of the achievements of the industry. He instanced a decline of several grams in the average weight of a plastic drinks bottle as demonstrating the industry’s determination to reduce waste. What Clancy was less forthcoming was on the total number of plastic bottles in circulation.

The weight of an individual bottle is almost immaterial when overall volumes continue to increase rapidly. An effective antidote would be a consumer-side levy, similar to the minerals bottle refund common in the 1970s and 1980s. A 15 cent levy per plastic Coke bottle, redeemable by bringing the bottle back to a collection point, would be hugely effective.

Despite their professed interest in reducing the mountain of plastic waste, Repak is resolutely opposed to any attempts at placing levies on plastic bottles at the point of sale – the very tactic that was so successful for plastic bags. Clancy claims that the costs of recycling are borne by the manufacturers, and that, of course, any kind of return-and-refund scheme would be too expensive, unwieldy, inconvenient etc.

So, what are these costs that the industry, via Repak, is so keen to cover? For starters, it charges its members €80 per tonne of plastic. Let’s take Coca Cola: they can manufacture around 45-50,000 plastic bottles per tonne. For this, they pay Repak €80, or around €0.001 per bottle, according to analysis carried out by the NGO, VOICE Ireland.

Small wonder the packaging industry is so keen on its current ‘self-regulating’ system, one designed to give the impression of action while doing absolutely nothing to in any way stem the unnecessary use of plastics in Ireland, or to aid in their recovery. Compare the industry-side €80 per tonne levy with the cost borne by local authorities to maintain street bins and to hire litter collectors. Conservatively, this is around €500 per tonne, almost seven times higher than the cost being levied on the companies producing this tsunami of waste packaging in the first place.

Rwanda is not a country you would necessarily associate with environmental leadership, but back in 2008 it imposed a near-total ban on plastic bags and packaging, in response to the devastating impacts of plastic waste in its rivers, lakes and countryside. Customs officials at the airport in Kigali check all incoming visitors and their luggage for plastic, which is confiscated on the spot.

The nationwide ban is backed up by enforcement, including a potential four-year jail term. Viewed from Ireland, where light touch self-regulation is the norm, this might seem excessive, even draconian. In time, as the deadly global effects of plastic pollution become ever more pervasive, our approach, not theirs, may appear the more extreme.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

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Failing farmers, the environment & wider society

My article on our broken agricultural system, as it appeared in the Irish Times on April 7th last. Getting a decent splash on the main OpEd page in the Saturday edition (the IT’s most read day of the week by a distance) meant it garnered a good deal more attention than I’d normally expect.

It may be just an impression, but I’m beginning to sense that the IFA in particular are no longer winning the war for ‘hearts and minds’ with the general public, something they’ve been amazing effective at over several decades. Even the deferential armchair ride they’ve come to expect in the media is no longer assured as the hard questions about emissions and environmental impacts pile up and their answers so often seem threadbare and evasive.

IN OCTOBER 2013, just months after that year’s fodder crisis, a study by researcher Dr Stephen Flood warned of severe future impacts of climate change on Irish agriculture. Then agriculture minister Simon Coveney launched the report, and promised that climate projections would be incorporated into plans for the sector.

A starker appraisal of the scientific evidence was delivered by then IFA president John Bryan, who dismissed the report as being “based on unsubstantiated assumptions”. As far as he was concerned “what is real and deliverable are the growth plans for the sector”. And to hell with the science. The IFA, not Coveney’s, view prevailed.

So, as climate-fuelled extreme weather events – hurricanes to major flooding episodes and unseasonal cold snaps – batter Ireland with monotonous regularity, hitting the agriculture sector hardest, the de facto position of Ireland’s major farmer representative group appears one of outright denial of the dangerous reality of climate change.

This gross negligence is putting ordinary farmers and their families in jeopardy.

The 2012/13 fodder crisis was a warning shot that Ireland may not be able to produce enough fodder for its then almost seven million cattle.

Yet instead of looking long and hard at the sustainability of the beef and dairy sector, the industry doubled down by increasing the dairy herd by over 300,000 cows since milk quotas were lifted in 2015. This reckless gamble was celebrated as though it were a stroke of genius.

Emissions fines

Ireland’s EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan recently warned of “unsustainable increases” in milk production, adding that Irish agriculture was “sleepwalking” towards massive EU emissions fines. There was, he concluded, a “gulf between rhetoric and reality”.

He was only talking about economics. Hogan could have added that today’s 7.3 million beef and dairy cattle are placing almost intolerable strain on Ireland’s biodiversity, water safety and air quality, while contributing massively towards the very climate change that is now battering the sector.

The Environment Protection Agency’s 2016 report found that Ireland’s levels of ammonia and nitrogen-oxides were now, for the first time, in breach of EU emissions levels. Some 99 per cent of ammonia emissions arise from fertilisers and animal manures. The EPA added that this would “cause damage to air quality and health”.

The IFA successfully lobbied last year for a further derogation from the EU Nitrates Directive, a measure to protect water quality and public health. This derogation allows Irish farmers to carry higher stocking rates of animals than allowed elsewhere in Europe, and so has played no small part in exacerbating the current fodder crisis.

It was celebrated as a victory for Ireland by ministers Michael Creed and Eoghan Murphy. In contrast, the Dutch government ordered its farmers to reduce stock levels to comply with the directive.

Growth targets

The current industry-driven Food Harvest 2025 policy sets aggressive growth targets for the sector. Government funding for Bord Bia has shot up by 56 per cent in the last eight years, and it now has a hefty €70 million annual PR and promotional budget with which to promote misty-eyed spin like “Origin Green”.

In the same period funding for protection of Ireland’s actual natural heritage via the National Parks and Wildlife Service has been slashed. Nature has been reduced to a hollow marketing slogan.

Bord Bia boasts that tens of thousands of farmers are signed up to its National Food Sustainability Programme. When I asked how many applications had been refused, the figure given was 0.5 per cent. This paints the fantastical picture that 99.5 per cent of Ireland’s farmers are practising sustainable, ecologically-friendly agriculture.

When assessing how truly “green” a farming system is, the obvious place to start is to see how widespread is organic farming. Ireland has the least amount of farm land in the EU engaged in organic agriculture at just 1.6 per cent.

Ireland also has the second lowest area of land producing vegetables in the EU.

Depressingly, our much vaunted beef and dairy system was found in an EU Parliament study published last April to produce the most carbon emissions per euro of food output in the entire EU28. Further, UN data shows that Ireland is in fact a net importer of food calories, importing the calorie equivalent of food for 1.4 million people.

As the ships docked in Rosslare unloading imported fodder have shown once again, our current agricultural model is failing most farmers, the environment and wider society.

Beef levy

A little known interest on the part of the IFA is that between a third and a half of its income comes via the so-called beef levy, which is deducted by beef factories from farmers’ cheques and sent straight to the IFA.

The association would struggle without this income, yet the increasingly tenuous official line is that this huge cash cow doesn’t make it beholden to the beef barons or hog-tied to promoting outdated agricultural models to preserve its own income.

Maybe now is the time to divert the “beef levy” away from covering the huge salary bill at Farm Centre and into a special fund to help bail out farmers as future weather emergencies hammer the sector?

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

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Day of reckoning on global extinction crisis draws near

Below, my article as it was published in the Irish Times last month, with some referencing added back in. To borrow one of my own lines, “A solitary species has, in a heartbeat of geological time, overturned and routed half a billion years of evolutionary history”. That, rather than the extinction of yet another species of charismatic megafauna, is what this story is really about.

NATURE IS falling silent. From the once-common cry of the curlew to the roar of lions, buzzing of bees and the cacophonous chatter and chirping of countless billions of creatures and critters, now an ominous, ever-expanding wave of stillness is spreading across the natural world like a slow tsunami.

This week’s news of the death of the world’s last remaining northern white rhino in Kenya caused a mild ripple of interest in an ocean of public indifference and incomprehension. While everyone agrees it is sad that another iconic species has disappeared, media attention quickly shifted back to “the real world” of economics, politics and social media.

At the dawn of the agricultural era some 10,000 years ago, humans accounted for just 1 or 2 per cent of the mass of land mammals on Earth. Today, we and our livestock and pets comprise in excess of 97 per cent of the world’s mammals by weight. A solitary species has, in a heartbeat of geological time, overturned and routed half a billion years of evolutionary history.

This new era, known variously as the Anthropocene or the Sixth Extinction, has been gathering pace over the last century, but has exploded into its exponential phase since around 1970. In less than 50 years since then, vertebrate populations of wild animals have declined by nearly two-thirds, while in the same period, human numbers doubled and global GDP quadrupled. This vast increase in human prosperity was made possible by rapidly plundering the natural world for “resources” for our consumption, while using it a dump for our wastes.

Every year at least 10,000 species disappear forever, a rate some 1,000 times higher than the natural or “background” rate of expected extinctions. While the disappearance of a telegenic giant such as a rhino makes the news, most extinctions occur stealthily, their significance only grasped in hindsight.

Last October, a landmark study of flying insects in Germany revealed their numbers had plummeted by an astonishing 76 per cent in just the last 25 years. Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, a member of the research team for the study, noted: “Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth, but there has been some kind of horrific decline…we are on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects, then everything is going to collapse.”

Wipe out bugs, and bird populations are doomed. A study published in recent days on French farmland birds tracked catastrophic collapses in populations right across Europe. Agricultural practices, including the intensive use of herbicides and pesticides to support monocultural farming “is turning our farmland into a desert”, Dr Benoit Fontaine of France’s Museum of Natural History told the Guardian newspaper. “We are losing everything, and we need that nature, that biodiversity – agriculture needs pollinators and the soil [needs] fauna. Without that, ultimately, we will die.”

Despite its carefully cultivated “green” image, Ireland is well on the way to being another biodiversity wasteland. “Overall, I think the situation here is dire,” ecologist and author Pádraic Fogarty told me. “People think the extinction crisis is happening somewhere else, but it’s here as well.” Fogarty’s research has pinpointed some 115 species that have become extinct in Ireland since humans first arrived here.

Greed and unsustainable practices have destroyed much of our once-rich marine life, with the oxymoronic “sustainable intensification” of agriculture taking us down the same path, he reckons.

More than 90 per cent of Ireland’s supposedly “protected” habitats, which include native grasslands and peatlands, are in poor condition, according to the 2017 National Biodiversity Forum. It tracked major declines in already threatened bird species, while noting that one-third of Ireland’s wild bees face extinction.

The forces driving this collapse in biodiversity include intensive agriculture, commercial forestry, peat cutting, invasive species, water and air pollution as well as the ongoing disruption to natural systems caused by climate change.

From mountain tops to the ocean floor, every ecological niche on Earth is facing extinction crises. Some of the better-known critically-endangered species include orang-utans, mountain gorillas, Amur leopards, Sumatran elephants and tigers, vaquitas, turtles, bluefin tuna, penguins and many species of bats, frogs and butterflies. Most are in truth already functionally extinct, having lost so many numbers and so much habitat.

A paper in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences last year introduced the term “biological annihilation” to describe the rate and scale of global biodiversity loss. One of the study authors explained the choice of words: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language,” according to Prof Gerardo Ceballos. The study concluded: “Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”

To find any historical analogue for today’s epic global mass extinction event you have to go back 66 million years, to the moment a massive asteroid, 10-15km in diameter, slammed into the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, wiping out 80 per cent of all life on Earth. Buckle up: this time, we’re the asteroid.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Pinker serves up a Panglossian three-card trick

“Things can only get better”, went the lyrics to the hit by D:Ream which became the anthem of the incoming New Labour government in 1997, fronted by the relentlessly upbeat Tony Blair. Six years later, Blair joined the US in its illegal invasion of Iraq, a move that plunged the entire Middle East into a new era of violent instability and a refugee crisis that today, some 15 years later, shows little signs of abating.

Things, it turns out, can also get worse. Statistics can, however, be schooled into presenting a beguilingly different picture of the true state of the world, and the darling of global optimism, psychologist and author Steven Pinker is a skilful inquisitor of data. His scholarship seems to have caught the zeitgeist of latest wave of techno-optimism, and his data-fuelled Panglossian creed is being enthusiastically embraced by global influencers like billionaire Bill Gates.

So excited were the editors of TIME magazine that in January, for the first time in its more than 90-year history, it invited Gates to be guest editor of an edition, titled ‘The Optimists’. His editorial was essentially a re-heat of Pinker’s tome, ‘Enlightenment Now’, which, Gates gushed, was his “new favourite book of all time” and “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read”. High praise indeed.

Gates’ benediction no doubt helped Pinker’s tome to become a runaway bestseller. What got the Microsoft über-nerd so excited is that: “this is not some naively optimistic view; it’s backed by data”. And Pinker cites data by the chartload, much of it undoubtedly painting an accurate picture of one species doing remarkably well.

Life expectancy is a case in point. In just the last 28 years, the number of children dying before their fifth birthday has halved. Women’s and LGBT rights have made remarkable, if uneven, advances in recent decades. Fewer people are living in absolute poverty. Child labour, slavery and sexual abuse have not been eradicated globally but all indicators point towards major progress for millions of people.

Catastrophic famines are rarer now; more people now live in democracies (Trump’s populism notwithstanding) than in all of human history and, while there are hundreds of deadly local and regional conflicts around the world, there are, mercifully, no full-scale war between countries.

Were an 18th or 19th century European to survey the region today, they would be astonished to find that the perpetually warring great powers – France, Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain – have enjoyed more than 75 years of peace, cooperation and prosperity, with just occasional insults now being hurled at one another, where until quite recently, disputes were routinely settled with bloodbaths and pogroms.

So, all’s well with the world, it seems. Another contributor to the TIME special edition was the estimable investor and billionaire Warren Buffett. He waxed lyrical about the astonishing economic progress that swept across the US in the 20th century. No argument there. “The game of economic miracles is in its early innings. Americans will benefit from far more and better ‘stuff’ in the future”, he opined.

At this point, it’s time to take a deep breath and a sharp step backwards. How can such heavy-hitters as Pinker, Gates and Buffett have possibly discounted or ignored the ecological train-wreck hurtling ever closer towards humanity? Pinker’s book does indeed grapple – after a fashion – with environmental limits, but it’s hardly encouraging that someone who prides himself on offering numeracy as the cure for biases then launches – unprovoked – into a biased jeremiad against the “quasi-religious ideology” that is what he disparagingly terms “greenism”.

For someone regarded as among the world’s great thinkers, this is dull fare indeed. Undeterred, Pinker lashes out at this “apocalyptic creed” which he finds to be “laced with misanthropy”. Quite why it was necessary for Pinker to denigrate environmentalism becomes clear as the narrative unfolds. The vehemence of his anti-environmental rhetoric is in inverse ratio to his ability to address the profound critiques of his beloved ‘progress’ posed by the findings of climate and environmental sciences.

He points out – correctly – that as countries get richer, they usually clean up their own rivers and ease local pollution. The fact that rich countries simply outsource much of their dirty heavy industries and ship their wastes to the ‘developing’ world is glossed over.

Climate change of course does not respect national borders; faced with the quite overwhelming evidence from the physical sciences (and he frequently claims to be an advocate for science), Pinker baulks at what he dismissively calls the “tragic” view that humanity may well destroy both industrial civilisation and itself in the process.

Pinker concedes: “humanity has never faced a problem” like climate change. Rather than ponder this existential threat, he instead brandishes the magic wand of eco-modernism and waves away the gloomy ‘eco-pessimism’ he and his billionaire fan club find so objectionable.

He points out that global carbon intensity has been static or declining slightly in recent years (unhelpfully for Pinker, this appears to be no more than a temporary blip – global CO2 levels rose by a hefty 2% in 2017 after a three-year hiatus). The atmosphere is, however, indifferent to such subtle points. All that matters are the gross numbers, and these continue to climb inexorably. Science tells us we have a finite and rapidly reducing global ‘carbon budget’. The only way of avoiding irreversibly smashing through this budget in the next 10-20 years are drastic, compulsory, permanent and deeply unpleasant cuts in carbon, starting yesterday.

Per capita, the greatest carbon polluters on the planet are the global elite, billionaires like Gates and fellow Microsoft founder, Paul Allen. The latter maintains three very large ocean-going yachts at all times, so that one is always fully staffed and equipped close to wherever in the world he might happen to jet in to. That’s an awful lot of carbon to have to forego.

The eight richest billionaires control as much wealth as the world’s poorest 3.7 billion people. Imagine then how pleased Gates will have been to read Pinker’s pronouncement that staggering and increasing wealth inequality is really not that big a deal.

In common with Trump, Pinker also tries to blame the media for stoking “irrational pessimism” about the state of the world. I have long argued the opposite: the media has been optimistic – to the point of delusional – on its non-coverage of crunch environmental issues. He urges looking past the headlines towards “measures of human flourishing such as longevity, literacy, prosperity and peace”. This, he insists, isn’t just the start way to see the world, it’s “the morally enlightened one”.

It left me wondering how an 800-page book stuffed with charts, footnotes and graphics and claiming moral enlightenment could possibly have failed to notice the red flag indicators emanating almost daily from the disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. Where is the chart mapping the obliteration of natural habitats and the collapse in numbers of wild animals, which in the 50 years from 1970-2020 are on target to have declined by an eye-watering 67%?

Where is the chart tracking atmospheric CO2 levels over the last 800,000 years, showing them to be at their highest level ever? Pinker omitted to mention that the last time there was over 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, sea levels were 10-20 metres higher than today. Where for that matter is the graphic showing the rapid death of our marine systems from pollution and overfishing, not to mention the rate of ocean acidification due to carbon emissions being at its highest level in at least 300 million years?

Where, I wondered, is the pathway showing how we are somehow going to have to get from burning 36 billion tons of CO2 annually to zero – yes zero – tons, in the next 30 years if we are to have a better than evens chance of avoiding catastrophe? And where is the chart that explains how the world can feed an additional two billion people in the next two decades, especially with more meat and dairy in their diets, without tearing down the remaining rainforests and emptying what’s left in the plastic-choked oceans to feed 9-10 billion human mouths?

Pinker sneers at what he labels irrational pessimism, believing it to be “driven by a morbid interest in what can go wrong”. The Enlightenment of which Pinker is such an enthusiastic proponent was, oddly enough, propelled by people with a morbid interest in what could go wrong. These were the new breed of scientists, engineers and medics, who rejected learned wisdom and authority in favour of the unromantic rigours of the scientific method.

Engineers who design rockets or bridges are, I suspect, professional pessimists, always looking for flaws in their reasoning and weaknesses in their modelling and calculations. The same applies to climate scientists. After all, optimism gets people killed.

For a clearer picture of the economic miracles that Pinker et. al lionise, US environmentalist Paul Hawken summed it up succinctly: “we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP”.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and is online @think_or_swim.
    (This article was first published in the March 2018 edition of ‘Village’ magazine).
Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Psychology | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Tall tales trump Varadkar’s Washington debut

Below, my piece published on DeSmog.uk from March detailing our Taoiseach’s travails when attempting to cosy up to the US president during the traditional St. Patrick’s Day visit.

IRISH prime minister, Leo Varadkar dropped a major climate clanger in Washington this week, when boasting about intervening with Irish planning authorities on behalf of Donald Trump. The incident occurred in 2014, prior to Trump’s presidential run and when Varadkar was then Irish tourism minister.

Trump phoned him in a bid to thwart plans for a wind farm to be located near his newly purchased golf resort in Doonbeg, on Ireland’s western seaboard. Varadkar then phoned the local county council and “endeavoured to do what I could do about it”, he told a lunch event in Washington this week to mark St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s national holiday.

Permission for a nine turbine wind farm close to Doonbeg was subsequently refused. “I am very happy to take credit for it if the president is going to offer it to me”, Varadkar said this week.

Ireland’s Green Party condemned Varadkar’s intervention on behalf of Trump as having “privately interfered in the planning process”, a move it described as “a shocking error of judgement”. The Labour Party was equally scathing, describing Varadkar’s admission as “extraordinary”.

The incident is an embarrassment for the Irish government in what is usually a ‘good news’ trip to Washington for the annual Irish celebrations. Prior to his trip, Varadkar had spoken of the danger of the EU and US drifting apart on key issues, including Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change, and suggested Ireland could act as a bridge to encourage the US to stick to its international commitments.

In January, Varadkar told the European Parliament that Ireland was an international “laggard” on climate action, adding that he was “not proud of Ireland’s performance”. The 2018 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Ireland as the worst performing country in the EU.

Ireland is on track to miss its binding 2020 EU emissions targets by a wide margin, partly due to the influence of a powerful agricultural sector lobby.

The Fine Gael-led government headed by Varadkar, despite having a ‘climate action’ minister, has been notably unenthusiastic on climate. As a result, Ireland faces what Varadkar called “some pretty major fines for not meeting our (EU) obligations”.

This week’s Washington blooper is a public reminder that when it comes to environmental issues, powerful lobbyists – be they domestic or international – can expect a warm Irish welcome from its senior politicians.

Varadkar later clarified his comment, saying he in fact contacted Fáilte Ireland — Ireland’s Tourism Development Authority — after his conversation with Trump. The PM maintains that he was right to do so, as part of his role in the government at the time. He told reporters:

“I did what was entirely appropriate which was to pass on those concerns to the relevant statutory agency and I did so in writing. That is what any tourism minister should do.”

 

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

All talk, no action: agri sector’s spin over substance

My article, which ran in the Irish Examiner in early February, is below

IRISH agriculture faces enormous threats, both from direct climate change impacts and the urgent need to sharply reduce emissions, yet the sector has been remarkably slow to engage with climate reality. Unfortunately, the latest report, published by the dairy industry lobby group, ICOS is virtually silent on how to achieve significant cuts in total emissions from the sector.

The presence of the chairman of the government’s Climate Change Advisory Council, Prof John FitzGerald, at the launch of ‘Positive steps towards a low carbon future for the Irish dairy sector’ may have given the media the impression that it was an earnest, scientifically-led document. If so, they were misled.

The report was published as the industry’s response to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. It was developed by a 20-person working group, all from the dairy industry, with no apparent NGO or named academic input whatever, and zero dissenting voices. And it shows.

Further, five members of this working group represent companies (Carbery, Dairygold and Arrabawn) that the EPA named-and-shamed last September as being among Ireland’s worst offenders for serious environmental breaches. Incidentally, these same three dairies are also certified under Bord Bia’s ‘Origin Green’ scheme.

The gist of the ICOS report is that business-as-usual, in the form of the oxymoronic ‘sustainable intensification’ is absolutely fine. Yet just last week, EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan warned the sector that milk supplies have “unsustainably increased”, and that dairy farmers “have a responsibility to look at the market signals and heed them and to plan accordingly”.

Hogan, in other words, is warning of an imminent ‘milk bubble’, to which Ireland, whose milk production shot up by almost 10% in 2017 alone, is a major contributor. These warnings do not even factor in the multi-billion euro costs to the taxpayer of massive EU fines for Ireland failing to reduce its emissions. Does the dairy sector expect the ordinary Irish public to foot their carbon bill while they pocket the profits?

ICOS president Martin Keane claims that emissions from the agri sector are declining, measured against a 1990 baseline. However, agricultural emissions, having fallen in the early 2000s, increased by 10.2% between 2011 and 2016 and, thanks to an additional 300,000 dairy cows being added to the national herd, will continue to grow between now and 2020. At a time when Ireland is legally mandated to cut total emissions by 20%, this makes a mockery of our climate commitments.

Any slight improvements in carbon efficiency per litre of milk produced are irrelevant when the total number of cattle is spiralling. The ‘polluter pays’ principle was overwhelmingly endorsed by the recent Citizens’ Assembly recommendations on climate change, which included taxing high-carbon forms of agriculture and subsidising low-carbon alternatives.

This just, equitable approach agreed on by a randomly selected group of ordinary Irish citizens with no axe to grind was dismissed as “deeply flawed” by ICOS. It apparently prefers to present as facts self-interested views developed and uncritically endorsed by a group drawn exclusively from the dairy industry.

I attended the Citizens’ Assembly as a media observer, and was struck by their earnestness and search for real solutions to the thorniest challenge we as a society now face. Maybe if Mr Keane had also taken the time to see deliberative democracy in action first hand, he might be less dismissive.

Ireland’s agriculture sector produces some 19 million tonnes of emissions each year, around a third of our total national pollution, yet this sector, using its political clout, has written itself a ‘free pass’ from any responsibility whatever to do its fair share.

The only viable future for our agriculture sector is to pursue a low-carbon transition pathway. Our twin national obsessions with beef and dairy have led to a situation where many Irish farmers only survive thanks to CAP payments. A EU Parliament study in 2017 found that Ireland produces the most emissions per euro of agricultural output in the EU. And, at 1%, the amount of Irish land growing vegetables is the lowest in the entire EU. As for our ‘green’ credentials, just 1.6% of our land is farmed organically – the second lowest in the EU28.

Holland, a country barely the size of Munster, produces over 80 times more vegetables than Ireland. Rather than being a ‘food island’ our intrinsically inefficient agricultural model means that, unlike Holland, Ireland imports far more total net food calories than we export, according to 2011 data from the UN’s FAO.

Ultimately, where’s the sustainability in an agriculture system that can’t even feed our own people?

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Sinking ever deeper into ecological debt and climate denial

Eschatology, or the study of the end of times, is at least as old as the written word. The concept spans many of the world’s major religions, usually referring to some future day of judgement or reckoning.

Beyond the realms of theology, eschatology as a concept is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, especially after the tempestuous and chaotic first 12 months of the Trump regime. In this time, almost everything we once took for granted about inherent stability, even inevitability, of western democracies and the robustness of our institutions has been shaken profoundly.

As if to add to the sense of impending calamity, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved their famous Doomsday Clock for 2018 forward in late January– to two minutes to midnight. This is the closest it has ever been to the witching hour.

The authors of the Bulletin excoriated the US government’s reckless nuclear brinksmanship, but poured special scorn on its efforts to derail international climate diplomacy. “Avowed climate denialists have been installed in top positions at the EPA and other agencies, and the administration has announced its plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In its rush to dismantle rational climate and energy policy, it has ignored scientific fact and well-founded economic analyses”.

The Bulletin was particularly scathing of the role played by climate deniers in stymieing action. “Despite the sophisticated disinformation campaign run by climate denialists, the unfolding consequences of an altered climate are a harrowing testament to an undeniable reality: The science linking 
climate change to human 
activity is sound. The
 world continues to warm 
as costly impacts mount,
 and there is evidence that 
overall rates of sea level 
rise are accelerating– regardless of protestations to the contrary”.

The toxic wave of US science denialism has swept right across the Atlantic. Last May saw the first meeting in Dublin of the self-styled Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) a denialist group with opaque membership and funding sources.

February sees it host its fifth meeting in just 10 months, with a fringe Italian academic with strong ties to US neoliberal think tanks the latest in a procession of climate contrarians to present his (thoroughly debunked) ‘findings’ to an eager audience of Irish contrarians and deniers.

Their agenda appears to be to hobble effective Irish government response to the existential threats posed by climate change. Their standard operating method is to cherry-pick data, float red herrings and exaggerate uncertainties in the scientific consensus as political cover on behalf of special interest groups for continued inaction. Above all, groups like the ICSF are engaging in ‘post-truth’ assaults on reason itself.

A recent edition of New Scientist magazine stated baldly: ‘There are disturbing hints that western civilization is starting to crumble’. The article quotes intriguing research from Yale University, which examined the two broad modes of human thought: fast, automatic and inflexible versus slower, more analytical and flexible thinking.

As flexible thinkers within society solve our various problems, from transport to energy, with complex technologies, this relieves the great bulk of the population from even being aware of these problems, and so inflexible, automatic thinking ensues as the population, in a sense, dumbs down, since technologies can create the beguiling illusion that life is magically simple.

One of the psychologists who developed this theory, Jonathan Cohen suggests this may help solve one of the great puzzles regarding societies heading for catastrophe: why do they persist with their self-destructive behaviour, in the face of overwhelming evidence of future harms? “The train had left the station”, according to Cohen, and the forward-thinking, analytical types were no longer at the controls.

Separately, computer modelling carried out at the University of Maryland in 2014 examining the mechanisms that can lead to local or even global system collapse identified two key elements. The first, unsurprisingly, is ecological strain.

The panoply of chronic environmental stressors, from resource depletion, widespread pollution, ocean acidification and rising sea levels are generally well understood, at least in expert circles. What was less widely known is the systemic risk posed by economic stratification or, in plain language, the rich getting richer at everyone else’s expense.

In the scenario modelled, “elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them yet support them with labour”, according to author Rachel Nuwer.

Eventually, she argues, “the working population crashes because the portion of wealth allocated to them is not enough, followed by collapse of the elites due to the absence of labour. The inequalities we see today both within and between countries already point to such disparities”.

She notes that the top 10% of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90% combined. Here, extreme inequality and ecological stresses converge to form a toxic cocktail capable of crashing our civilisation into the dust.

US academic Thomas Homer-Dixon published the influential book: ‘The Upside of Down’ in 2005. It presciently anticipated the global economic crash that occurred some three years later. The financial crisis was, he wrote, one of “five tectonic stresses which are accumulating deep beneath the surfaces of our societies”. Others include population, energy, pollution and resource exhaustion; and climate system stress.

The 2008 economic crisis, along with more recent shocks, such as Brexit and the Trump election in 2016 can, according to Homer-Dixon, be seen as a series of non-linearities, or sudden and unexpected jolts to the assumed world order. These may be viewed as a random pattern of tremors presaging a truly global catastrophe, a word that derives from the Greek, meaning ‘to overturn’.

To view catastrophe as imminent rather than already occurring requires a peculiarly anthropocentric perspective. The sequestration, plunder and simplification of the entire biosphere by a single species is without parallel in a billion years of Earth, let alone human, history. Irrespective of our own narrow fate, the human stain will be etched deep into the fossil record for millions of years to come.

In just the 50 years from 1970 to 2020, two thirds of the wildlife on Earth will have vanished, along with their habitats. Forever. If our fellow creatures had voices that we could understand, or if we cared to listen, what might they be saying right now?

That thought came to me time and again as I read Breandán Mac Suibhne’s ‘Disturbing Remains: A story of Black ‘47’. The year in question is 1847 and is based around the notes of 39-year old Skibbereen dispensary doctor, Daniel Donovan.

A woman called to his door on a cold January evening, clearly desperately ill, but he turned her away, fearing infection, and gave her a shilling instead. She used that money, not for food, but to buy a coffin for the putrefying remains of her seven-year-old son. Neither she nor her two other dying children “cared about the victuals now, as they forgot the taste of them”, Donovan wrote. Her fear was that her boy’s remains would be eaten by dogs or pigs if he wasn’t buried deep.

“The most singular effect produced by the horrors of the famine now raging”, Donovan wrote, “is the severance of the ties of consanguinity which it has caused”. He added: “I have seen mothers snatch food from the hands of their starving children; known a son to engage in a fatal struggle with a father for a potato; and have seen parents look on the putrid bones of their offspring without evincing a symptom of sorrow. Such is the inevitable consequence of starvation.”

Mac Suibhne’s account triggered two related emotions: first, a gnawing fear that the decades ahead could well play out as a ghoulish reprise of the Great Hunger. Second, a realisation that the hellscape that our ancestors suffered through less than two centuries ago is being replayed right now, all over the world, among the poorest and most desperate humans, yes, but also, right across the natural world.

Unknowably complex ecosystems, formed over millennia, are being carelessly destroyed, entire species bulldozed and harried into extinction, while billions of equally sentient farmed animals live short lives, mostly of unimaginable misery.

The late John Lennon may have been closest to the truth when he said in a TV interview: “I think our society is run by insane people for insane objectives…I think they’re all insane. But I am liable to be put away as insane for expressing that, you know. That’s what is insane about it”. We know the feeling.

This article was published in the February 2018 edition of Village magazine.

–      John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Sceptics, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

2017: yet another year of living dangerously

And so 2017 comes, at last, to a close. From a climate and wider environmental standpoint, it has been an unmitigated disaster. It hardly bears repeating that the installation of the Trump regime in Washington was the worst possible news, at the worst possible time, for those of us interested in handing on a habitable biosphere to the next generation by mid-century.

Of the 10 years I’ve been operating as a journalist and activist in this arena, 2017 stands out as the most depressing of all, especially coming hot on the heels of the Paris Accord of December 2015, which, for all its inadequacies and compromises, did at least hold out the vague prospect of providing a platform for ramping up far more radical action in the next decade or two. Well, that was then. Having appeared to plateau over the last two years, CO2 emissions took off again in 2017, when human actions added a whopping 3% to global CO2 levels.

The prospect of holding global temperature increases to below the deadly +2ºC threshold is now vanishingly remote. To put a number on that, researchers calculate we now have just a 5% chance of avoiding breaching the 2ºC ceiling this century. These are lousy odds, given that the world beyond +2ºC is broadly incompatible with this or any other version of organised human civilisation.

Domestically, the political and societal response to climate change in 2017, as documented here and elsewhere, while lacking the toxic ideological rhetoric of the US, has been every bit as ineffectual. The farming lobby finished off the year having pulled a nice stroke in getting the EU to enshrine its meaningless fudge on ‘flexibilities’ tied in with the vague term ‘land use’ to allow the agri-industrial lobby to get clean away with doing precisely nothing to rein in the sector’s massive emissions.

Yes, the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations on climate change were a rare bright spot on an otherwise grey landscape, but that was about it on the credit side of the ecological ledger. Personal high point were getting my first article published in the Guardian in July last, followed by a second in September and a third in November. An appearance last March as a panellist on the BBC TV show ‘The Big Questions’, live from Newcastle, was another memorable moment.

Domestic climate coverage, while still abysmal, has definitely improved in 2017, and I found doors in the Irish Times that had been closed for the last 2-3 years open once more to serious articles on this topic. Here’s to more, much more of this in 2018. Finally, below is the text of an article of mine that ran over two pages in the current issue of Village magazine.

If you find this blog useful or have suggestions for topics you’d like to see covered, do please post a comment. Feedback is always read, and (almost!) always appreciated. Happy new year.

===================

Fish don’t vote. When Ireland’s Marine Minister Michael Creed said: “I am satisfied that I have managed to turn an extremely worrying set of proposals from the Commission into a much-improved outcome for the Irish fishing industry”, there was little doubt as to whose interests the minister represented.

While he added that he was “especially pleased that the quotas agreed respects the scientific advice ensuring that the fish stocks in our waters will be managed sustainably”, this may have been almost tongue in cheek.

In 2016, Ireland came out as number one in the league table of worst offenders for the promotion of overfishing in the North East Atlantic, according to a report published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) an independent think tank.

The report – ‘Landing the Blame‘ set out to name-and-shame the EU member states most responsible for setting fishing quotas above scientific advice – the very advice in fact that Creed said he “respected”.

At the time the NEF report was being compiled, Simon Coveney was then our minister with responsibility for marine affairs. Coveney negotiated the largest proportional increase in fishing quotas for Ireland above scientifically advised levels in December 2015, with Ireland’s quotas exceeding scientific advice by 25%. Fish, don’t lobby, so their interests, including the fundamental right to exist at all, were not considered.

According to the NEF there is a total lack of transparency around the fisheries negotiations, leading to wheeler dealing where Irish fishermen, politicians and processors “celebrate” beating the system and catching far more fish than the marine system can bear. What stands out about overfishing isn’t so much the destructive greed involved, it’s the sheer nihilistic stupidity.

Research published by NEF calculated that the EU could actually increase its fish catch by two million tonnes a year, raise an extra €1.6bn in income from the marine sector, and create and additional 20,000 jobs in the industry. How? Simply by sticking rigidly to the scientific advice, which means allowing fish stocks to recover, avoiding targeting of breeding grounds for juvenile fish and, critically, eliminating trawling.

By its very nature, much of what happens at sea is out of sight, and therefore largely out of mind. This is the only possible reason to explain how the industrial scale vandalism involved in trawling isn’t regarded as a criminal offense. If you saw a plane flying over a pristine forest and carpet-bombing it, you would be rightly outraged. Yet, this extreme level of wanton wreckage of the sensitive marine habitats on the sea floor is carried out daily by trawlers right around our coasts.

According the Irish Wildlife Trust: “trawling destroys seabed habitats and catches huge numbers of other marine organisms (known as bycatch) including juvenile cod, whiting etc. Successive cod management plans have failed and we believe the only solution is to prohibit trawling in large areas of the Irish Sea.”

A trawling ban within 12 miles of shore would, according to the IWT, “repair habitats, restore biodiversity, be a boon for coastal tourism (angling, diving) and ultimately provide more and bigger fish for fishermen.”

Much of the seas around Ireland are already critically overfished, and bottom-trawling in particular is uniquely destructive as well as extraordinarily wasteful. When weighted nets and trawl doors are dragged along the seafloor, everything in their path is disturbed or destroyed, including seagrasses, coral reefs or rock gardens where fish hide from predators. In one study, bottom trawling for prawns threw away nine times as much bycatch as more selective fishing gear. A 2007 study on shrimp trawlers in Belize found that in order to land less than 20 tons of shrimp involved destroying and discarding about 76 to 190 metric tons of other marine life.

Globally, marine systems are under greater stress than at any time for tens of millions of years. A lethal cocktail of pollution, overfishing, rising water temperatures and ocean acidification is pushing many systems into irreversible collapse. Any one of these threats in isolation would be serious; in combination, they risk tipping us into a world where the oceans are essentially dead, with little besides jellyfish capable of surviving and adapting to the unprecedented rate of change.

Other than the occasional dolphin or clown fish, we as humans have little personal empathy with most forms of marine life. We tend to view them as cold and slimy; hardly worth bothering about at all. David Attenborough’s latest marvel, Blue Planet II, has just finished broadcasting. Hitting weekly audiences of over 17 million, it was in fact the most watched TV programme of 2017.

Great storytelling, combined with breath-taking photography has brought the exotic and bizarre wonders of the seas to amazed audiences. Blue Planet II is expected to be sold to over 100 TV stations all over the world, showing this interest, even compassion, is not just a flash in the pan.

Viewers watching resolute puffins engaging in perilous and exhausting three-hour round trips to catch fish for their young, while being harried on the return journey by raiding skuas will have some better grasp of just how tough life is, and how survival itself is balanced on a daily knife-edge for most species.

Skellig Michael, off the coast of Kerry, is a rare sanctuary for puffins, among others, yet this delicate ecosystem is being constantly threatened by human intrusions, especially since the island first featured in the ‘Star Wars’ film franchise, with Heather Humphries, the unfortunately named then Heritage minister signing off on the film crew’s right to move 180 staff, plus heavy equipment, including lighting rigs, onto the island.

It doesn’t take a trained ecologist to work out the impacts of having helicopters and drones swirling around this tiny island. By the time ‘Star Wars’ has finished with it, it’s likely the already endangered sea birds will have long abandoned their ancient sanctuary. Still, puffins don’t vote, so who cares?

While Humphries has made a ministerial career out of selling out the natural environment to special interest groups, Blue Planet II lingered long on both the beauty and the extraordinary fragility of marine ecosystems. In one truly moving scene, the cameras followed a female pilot whale as she grieved for her dead calf, which she kept by her side for days.

“It’s very likely that the infant was poisoned by her mother’s own contaminated milk”, Attenborough confided. Staggering levels of pollution emanating from human activities are flooding into the world’s oceans and the damage is ripping through the very fabric of marine life. Some eight million tons of plastic waste make their way into the world’s oceans every year.

Plastic is essentially indestructible; as it weathers, it breaks down into ever small microplastic fragments. These are entering the very base of the food chain, as they are being eaten by plankton, which in turn are eaten by larger creatures, and so the contamination increases as you climb the food chain.

Autopsies of dead creatures, from whales to sea birds, find their stomachs choked with plastics. One albatross chick was found to have died when its stomach was punctured by a discarded plastic toothpick. It is, in Attenborough’s own words, heartbreaking.

I wrote a newspaper article almost a decade ago on the global overfishing crisis, which cautioned that there may be, in essence no wild fish in the oceans by 2048. It included the following quote: “The recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”, according to Achim Steiner, director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Steiner’s comments assumed of course that we stop what we’re doing right now, in order to give the marine ecosystems some chance of recovery and regeneration. Since 1970, the tonnage caught by the global fishing fleet has doubled. In 2005, for example, over 125 million tons of fish were landed.

Tons give a poor sense of the carnage. In terms of individual fish killed, that tonnage probably represents between 5-15 billion individual creatures. Oceanic fish are as much wild animals as lions or tigers, yet 99% of the world’s oceans are effectively killing zones, open to all comers to take as much as they want, and dump their wastes at will.

Life on Earth began in the oceans, and our ancient cousins eventually dragged themselves from the primordial seas to begin their conquest of the land. That is now complete. If we do succeed in killing the oceans this century, one thing is certain: they are taking us with them.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer & commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

 

Posted in Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Unmasking Ireland’s real ‘climate radicals’

Below, my article as it appeared earlier this month on the OpEd page of the Irish Times. I’ve been intrigued for many years at the way some people are automatically pigeon-holed as outliers and ‘radicals’ in certain debates. Nowhere is this more widely seen than when the media approaches climate and environmental coverage.

Leave aside for a moment the phoney ‘balance’ of allowing folks representing between 0–1% of mainstream scientific opinion equal air time. That’s bad enough, but the reality is in fact worse. The media, civil servants and state agencies defer (consciously or not) to what they perceive are the ‘voices of authority’. That, by itself is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if those voices are of bona fide experts giving independent advice on technical issues.

The real problems start when the ‘voices of authority’ are instead co-opted by most powerful vested interests, the organisations with big media and PR budgets, insider access to politicians and policymakers? Take the employers’ group, IBEC for instance. Last year its turnover was a whopping €21 million. The agri industry and farm lobby group, the IFA has a turnover of around €17 million, with offices in Brussels to ensure its lobbying reach goes well beyond our shores.

IBEC has worked hard for years to ensure the Irish state takes as little action as possible to deal with climate change. It’s my understanding that senior IBEC figures “scared up” the IFA top brass some years ago with horror stories of how ‘those greens’ were going to wipe out agriculture with their annoying demands that we “do something” about climate change.

These are just two of the well organised, well-financed and well-connected groups whose lobbying work has led to Ireland being, per capita, among the very worst performing in the EU, and in turn, has exposed us to billions of euros in EU fines in the near term. These and similar paragons of conservatism and respectability are, I would venture, the real ‘climate radicals’, whose pursuit of profit today puts countless lives and livelihoods in real jeopardy in the years ahead.

And what’s more, these are mostly clever, scientifically literate people who know well the cynical, dangerous game they are playing, but are too caught up in their own short-term pursuit of profit, prestige and power to give a damn about the smouldering wreck their own children will inherit. Radicals indeed.

=======================

WHAT DO you imagine an “environmental radical” might look like? Chances are that an image of a 20 or 30-something in faded jeans with bicycle clips, maybe sporting a scruffy combat jacket with a “No Nukes”’ button, might spring to mind.

The above caricature is, I would suggest, hopelessly outdated. Today’s new breed of eco-radicals are more likely to wear Louis Copeland suits, drive a seven-series BMW and be on first name terms with the Taoiseach and his Cabinet colleagues.

Leo Varadkar is, in fact, the honoured guest of a gathering of climate radicals in Croke Park on Monday, December 4th. Other activists attending the day-long conference include the heads of Ornua, Kerry Group, Kepak, the IFA and Bord Bia.

The fruits of their radical Food Wise 2025 agenda involving the oxymoronic concept of “sustainable intensification” are already plain to see, with greenhouse gas emissions from Ireland’s agriculture sector up by over half a million tons in 2016, according to data published this week by the Environmental Protection Agency. This is at a time when emissions are legally mandated to be declining sharply.

Globally biodiversity is in freefall thanks in part to the toxic rain of pesticides and herbicides that are secret ingredients behind intensive monoculture farming.

This has triggered what Prof Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex called “ecological Armageddon” as insect numbers plummet globally. “If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse,” he added.

It takes a true radical to shrug at such terrifying portents and focus instead on what a useful herbicide glyphosate really is, while it wipes out many insects’ food sources.

Biodiversity loss
Despite their complexity, the core findings of the science of climate change and biodiversity loss are painfully clear. The price of failure is ruin, on a scale beyond imagining. Some of those heading to the conference in Croke Park must have an unpleasant feeling deep down that they may be complicit in helping destroy their own children’s future.

Meanwhile, coal and peat-burning radicals in semi-State organisations like Bord na Móna and the ESB have overseen Ireland’s energy sector emissions rise by a massive 6.1 per cent in 2016, while emissions from our car-addicted transport sector also rose for the fourth successive year.

In an era of climate change it takes some truly radical thinking to spend over half a billion euro on a 57km motorway linking two towns in rural Galway, in full knowledge that the motorway is built across a flood plain.

The Collins Dictionary defines a radical as someone “favouring or tending to produce extreme or fundamental changes in political, economic, or social conditions”. This, I would contend, is an apt description of those who, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the calamitous harms that will arise from their actions, go ahead regardless.

Last month the Citizens’ Assembly issued 13 genuinely radical recommendations on climate action. These went light years beyond anything any of our major political parties have ever even countenanced.

Political silence
Yet on the RTÉ news bulletin on the evening they were issued, as much time was given to special interests rubbishing the recommendations as to actually discussing them.

And since then, a deafening media and political silence.

The assembly proved that, when exposed to expert scientific guidance, uncontaminated by lobbyists, Irish citizens have the stomach for far more radical climate action than is reflected in the tokenistic approach favoured by “climate action” Minister Denis Naughten, as seen in this week’s second annual Government statement on climate change.

So what exactly might radical decarbonisation sufficient to avert climate catastrophe look like in Ireland?

As in wartime, carbon would be strictly rationed. Flying would once again become a rarity. Public transport, cycling and electric car pooling, along with extensive home insulation retrofits, would largely eliminate fossil fuel usage.

A massive renewables programme would see Ireland approach energy independence, while bogs, native woodlands and sheep-wrecked uplands are restored and so biodiversity begins to recover.

Vegetarian diet
Organic, plant-based agriculture would replace much of our emissions-intensive national beef herd. A healthier, mostly vegetarian diet becomes the new norm, and offers a more secure income to farmers.

The spell of mindless consumerism is at last broken, and we citizens relearn the lessons of our grandparents in making do with less and wasting little.

There is an upsurge in local and rural employment in repairing, growing and reusing. Resilient, energy and food-independent local communities would be best placed to weather the ever-worsening climatic and economic conditions that lie ahead. Soon enough we may all be climate radicals, but in the true sense of the word.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Don’t give up on democracy just yet

Below, my article from the November edition of Village magazine, looking back on the historic proceedings of the Citizens’ Assembly:

It’s been a bad couple of years for democracy. The Brexit fiasco was the most humiliating British retreat from Europe since Dunkirk, but this time, entirely self-inflicted. Yet, rather than a wake-up call, Brexit instead turned out to be a blueprint for the bloodless US coup that followed, where right wing extremists, aided and abetted by assorted foreign powers, seized the world’s most powerful political office.

Some 95 million Americans didn’t vote in November 2016. “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”, is how Greek philosopher, Plato presciently put it.

And while not riven by such gaping wounds of xenophobia and extremism, Irish democracy is also profoundly dysfunctional, and nowhere is this clearer than in it record of abject failure on climate policy. A decade ago, it looked like Ireland was beginning to get its act together, yet by the time Enda Kenny led Fine Gael into power in 2011, the environmental agenda hadn’t so much been scrapped as bleached.

Fast forward to 2017. Ireland is now the third worst per capita greenhouse gas emitter in the EU and one of only four countries certain to miss its 2020 targets. Massive EU compliance fines are looming, and our only plan is to try to weasel out of paying, rather than tackling our underlying carbon pollution crisis.

It didn’t have to be like this. Prof Andy Keen of Edinburgh University told the Citizens’ Assembly earlier this month how Scotland, with cross-party political support, in 2009 set the highly ambitious target of cutting its national emissions by 42% by 2020. This is more than twice Ireland’s 20% target for the same period.

While we will struggle to achieve a maximum 4-5% cut, Scotland actually hit its 42% target in 2015, five years ahead of schedule. It is now pushing hard to achieve 100% renewable electrical production by 2025, and will likely succeed. Scotland has no natural advantages over Ireland. That’s the difference between politics that works and politics that is broken.

Any notion that Irish people are innately unconcerned and indifferent to climate change were well and truly scotched by the outcome of the Citizens Assembly, which sat over two weekends in October and November, under the gimlet legal eye of Justice Mary Laffoy.

Instead of the usual circus of lobbyists and their client politicians, the Assembly instead only heard from disinterested experts, and its round-table format allowed the 99 citizens to discuss what they had heard among themselves, and then ask searching questions of the experts.

I sat through almost eight hours of presentations and discussions on a Saturday in early November, and watched these volunteer citizens, young and old, urban and rural, drawn from all walks of life, as they engaged with the process for hour after hour. No fiddling with phones, dozing or absent-mindedly gazing into the distance. This is what direct democracy looks like up close. In a word: inspiring.

Even more impressive was that the citizens agreed and then voted in a secret ballot on 13 meaty recommendations and, incredibly, all were carried – in most cases, by thumping majorities.

Everyone knows Irish people won’t accept paying new carbon taxes. Wrong. This idea was carried by an 80% majority. Everyone knows that agri emissions are a special case. Wrong again. Some 89% of Assembly voted in favour of taxing carbon-intensive agriculture, and rewarding farming methods that cut carbon.

On industrial peat burning, a whopping 97% of citizens voted to end all State subsidies supporting this madness. And despite our supposedly unbreakable love affair with the private car, 92% of citizens voted for the State to favour developing public transport ahead of new road infrastructure at the rate of no less than 2:1. A recommendation allowing micro-producers of clean (solar) electricity to be allowed sell their surplus back to the grid was backed by 99% of citizens.

Meanwhile, ‘Climate Action’ minister Naughten, has once again excluded small-scale rooftop solar from even being considered in the national consultation on renewable energy.

The Citizens’ Assembly may have been set up by the government in the hope it would become another dull talking shop. If so, its radical recommendations, first on abortion rights and now on climate change, have shown that, given half a chance, we Irish are entirely capable of sober civic engagement with complex issues. Who would have guessed?

– John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and legend and tweets @think_or_swim

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Not waving, drowning: Ten years of ThinkOrSwim

This evening, exactly ten years ago, I tentatively pressed the ‘Publish’ button on my brand new blog, and released the first ThinkOrSwim posting into the wild. Titled ‘Wind of change finally reaches Ireland?’ it foolishly opined that the new government was at last getting real about climate action, “after 10 ten years of inaction and rising emissions”.

Then Environment minister, John Gormley had just earmarked €15 million for a public awareness campaign on climate change (remember those?), which was due to kick off in early 2008. “There is a mountain of disinformation and ignorance (both wilful and genuine) out there to be scaled before this issue can be tackled in earnest”, was how the younger, ahem, greener me summed it up on that November evening 10 years ago.

Those dagnabbit climate targets that the IFA and friends insist now have the country banjaxed were then but a twinkle in Gormley’s eye: “New EU targets to cut emissions to at least 20 per cent below 1990 levels are to be discussed at a global conference on climate change attended by Gormley in Indonesia. Considering that Ireland is currently running at least 25 per cent over our 1990 levels, the changes needed in this country are going to be quite dramatic.”

Ha, bloody ha, wrote the older, grayer, infinitely more cynical me, just moments ago. That’s what 350-plus blog posting running to somewhere north of half a million words will do to a soul. I could list off any one of a score of apocalyptic prognostications that have come ever more sharply into view in the intervening decade, but this one example, as reported on Climate Central yesterday, will suffice.

Headlined ‘Monster heat wave reaches Greenland, bringing rain and melting its ice sheet’, the article confirmed that temperatures across much of Greenland were 54ºF higher than normal in late November. Yes, 54ºF. Translated into centigrade, that’s around 30ºC above normal, which means large areas of Greenland, in the depths of winter, are now well above the point at which ice turns into water.

If I’d even suggested 10 years ago that such a scenario could come to pass in such a short time frame, I’d have been decried as alarmist (ok, that has in fact happened a few times along the way since then). Then again, when this blog kicked off, the truly awful George W. Bush was still in office. Who would ever have predicted that Bush would by now have so spectacularly relinquished his title of ‘worst US president in a century’.

My own kids have turned from tots to teenagers in the same short time frame. My hopes and fears – ok, mostly fears – for their future were close to the top of the list of reasons I finally got off the fence and into the fight back in late 2007. The last 10 years have given me some of the very best and worst moments of my professional life.

Then innocent as a lamb, I truly had no idea just what a filthy scrap lay ahead, or how many people and institutions I would come to radically reassess as my journey into environmental journalism, communications and, later, activism progressed.

On the plus side, I have soldiered alongside some truly inspirational people, folk driven on the whole by a profound concern for the future, care for the wider natural world and dismay at our seeming inability to respond to the overwhelming imperative to act, and act now, that the science sets out so clearly.

Making their acquaintance and learning so much from them has been perhaps the richest and most rewarding part of this ongoing journey. In November 2027, assuming the grid and internet are still up and running, will an even greyer, even crabbier version of me be back here berating: “yet another 10 ten years of inaction and rising emissions”?

Let’s see.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 10 Comments

Pushing back against the tide of junk science

I published two articles over the summer in Village magazine on the subject of the new Irish climate denier group, the self-styled Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF), founded by retired UCD meteorologist, Ray Bates. The first of these, in the June issue, focused on the junk science being peddled by septuagenarian US climate deniers, Richard Lindzen and William Happer, both of whom were flown in to Dublin as part of an apparent concerted effort by the ICSF to stymie an Irish response to the climate crisis by disguising political lobbying as scientific analysis.

The ICSF is an opaque organisation. It refuses to disclose either its membership or funding, or what links it may have to other organisations, and it holds its ‘public’ meetings behind closed doors, barring the media and NGOs, apart from hand-picked media supporters. Other than Bates, who is a retired meteorologist rather than a climatologist, there are precisely zero climate scientists on board with the ICSF – assuming a couple of ‘independent scientists’ who publish a crackpot website –Global Warming Solved! – aren’t counted.

Yet its stated aim is to carry out: “neutral, independent analysis of the latest climate research with the purpose of better informing climate and energy policies in Ireland”, AKA, lobbying. I robustly challenged the BS being spread by Lindzen and Happer in particular at these two quasi-public meetings, and wondered aloud why Bates, a noted climate contrarian, would be involved in promoting such patent garbage as ‘The Earth is in the midst of a CO2 famine’ – which is how the Farmers Journal headlined Happer’s junk science presentation.

Bates didn’t much like the critique, and took his beef to the Press Ombudsman, specifically, three complaints against myself and Village magazine. In his complaints, Bates (falsely) claimed we had called him a ‘climate denier’. Bates also (falsely) complained we had alleged he was “not a bona-fide practising expert in climate science”. Bates also (falsely) claimed the articles I wrote included “malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations”. Finally, Bates (falsely) claimed the articles I wrote were ageist.

These are all extremely serious allegations to make. Bates supplied copious supporting documentation in support of his claims, which I and Village editor, Michael Smith worked together to unpick, one by one. On September 21st, the Press Ombudsman rejected all of Bates’s allegations. He lodged an appeal against the decision, which went back to the Press Council for adjudication. The Council issued its decision in early November. It upheld the Ombudsman’s decision to reject each and every one of Bates’s complaints.

The story was covered by the Sunday Times earlier this month, in a piece headlined ‘Retired UCD professor told to weather ‘climate contrarian’ jibe’. It also was picked up on Desmog.uk, with a piece headed: ‘Victory for Journalist as Accuracy Complaint by ‘Contrarian’ Climate Scientist Thrown Out’.

The whole process took an inordinate amount of time. One document along that I worked on over the summer ran to well over 7,000 words. Responding to his appeal was equally tedious, but necessary to rebut what we believed to be more inaccurate and misleading statements. I may at some future point return and tell the full story behind this whole process, including a critical assessment of the science supposedly supporting the ‘ultra low climate sensitivity’ thesis that Bates clings to in arguing we continue to give a free hand to polluters like Ireland’s beef and dairy sectors.

But that is, as they say, another story. In a year in which journalism and the science of climate change have both been under attack like never before, this was, in my view, a small but significant win. The full ruling is set out below, so you can judge for yourself:

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The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint by Professor Ray Bates that the Village magazine breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.

In June 2017, the Village published an article which reported on a new organisation, the Irish Climate Science Forum, that at its inaugural meeting included as speakers a number of climate change sceptics. One of the founders of the new organisation, the article stated, was Ray Bates, a retired Professor of Meteorology at University College Dublin.  The article described him as a “climate contrarian”.

In July 2017, the Village published a second article on climate change by the same author. This article was critical of the editorial stance of another publication which had included a number of articles on the causes of climate change, including one by Professor Bates.

Professor Bates complained to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that the June and July articles in the Village breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice. He stated that the June article claimed that he was a “climate change denier” and “not a bona-fide practising expert in climate science”. He stated that the July article referred to an article that he had written as “makey-uppy” and “blatant propaganda and fake news”. Professor Bates went on to outline his professional reputation and his involvement in peer-reviewed research publications.

The editor of the Village defended the publication of the two articles and said that the June edition had not described Professor Bates as a “climate-change denier”, rather as a “climate contrarian”. It was, he stated, other speakers at the meeting who were described as “climate deniers”. Regarding the July edition of the Village the editor stated that references to climate change “makey-uppy” referred to other articles and not to the one which Professor Bates had penned.  The editor stood over the claim that the Irish Climate Science Forum was a “climate-change denier group”. The editor vigorously defended the credentials of the author of the two articles in the Village. The editor stated that his magazine had a “stringent policy” on not publishing “scientifically or factually contrarian articles on important issues” and therefore would not offer a right of reply to Professor Bates as a means of “advancing (his) concerns”.

Professor Bates submitted a response to the editor’s defence of the two articles. He went on to say that his recent research on climate change had not been ignored by the scientific community as the editor of the Village had claimed, as he had received five invitations to give seminars as a result of his recently published research including invitations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin.

The editor of the Village responded to Professor Bates’ submission. He stated that comparing the stances on science taken by the author of the Village articles and that of Professor Bates “the overwhelming consensus of experts hold (the author of the article) to be being truthful and Mr Bates to be a systematic purveyor of what is not in reality the truth”. He reiterated his previously stated position that the article had not said that Professor Bates was a climate-change denier but that those behind the Irish Climate Science Forum were.

The Village denied there had been any breach of Principle 1 as there was nothing inaccurate in what was published.  They also denied any breach of Principle 4 as nothing had been published “based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations” and that the complainant had not “put in issue” the magazine’s fact-checking. The magazine also stated that there had been no breach of Principle 8. The editor claimed he was uncertain as to what Professor Bates was referring to in regard to Principle 8, but in any case, there was no attempt to “publish material intended to or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred” in the two articles. The editor stated the articles had been robust and “proportionate to the gravity of the issue, to the obscure contrarianism yet popular plausibility of (Professor Bates’) of his position and to the evasiveness of his tactics”.

Professor Bates made an additional submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman in which he disputed some of the claims made by Village in its latest submission. Specifically, he claimed that the magazine had made “false and very serious allegations” against him. He claimed that contrary to the editor’s assertion his most recent paper had received citations from international scientific colleagues.

As it was not possible to resolve the complaint by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

In making a decision about this complaint the Press Ombudsman is not required to take sides in the climate change argument involving Professor Bates and others. In the context of the generally robust arguments between professionally qualified participants in debates such as these, in which opposing opinions are strongly held, the Press Ombudsman is not required to decide which protagonist is correct, but only to decide if any of the Principles of the Code of Practice have been breached.

In this particular complaint it is necessary to weigh up on the one hand a magazine publishing  extremely robust and critical articles about a subject matter which has led to fundamental and profound disagreements that have spilled over from purely scientific research into the political and economic spheres of public discourse and on the other hand a complainant  who feels his reputation has been maligned by two articles which he claims misrepresents his views and identifies him with opinions and judgments which he says he does not hold. In most circumstances, a complaint such as this might be resolved by the complainant being offered a right of reply. But in this instance the editor is not prepared to offer the complainant a right of reply.

I have decided not to uphold the complaint and in doing so have taken into account the
Preamble to the Code of Practice which states that “The freedom to publish is vital to the right of the people to be informed. This freedom includes the right of the press to publish what it considers to be news, without fear or favour, and the right to comment upon it”. The right to express strongly held views is not, of course, unlimited.  Publications must not breach any Principles of the Code of Practice.

In regard to Principle 1 I cannot find any clear statement in the articles that Professor Bates is a climate change denier. Equally I cannot find it stated in the articles that Professor Bates is responsible for “makey-uppy” and “propaganda or fake news”. The articles associate him with climate change deniers but do not state that he is himself a denier.  The complainant and the editor hotly dispute the accuracy of some of the claims made in the article.  Some of these are to be found in inferences in the articles rather than actual statements. In determining if Principle 1 has been breached both statements and reasonable inferences need to be considered. Despite the strongly argued challenges of the complainant I cannot find specific examples in the articles where the requirement for truth and accuracy has been breached.

In the case of Principle 4 there is a requirement that journalists must “take reasonable care in checking facts before publication”. In this instance, some of the “facts” are hotly contested and there is no agreement between the complainant and the editor on what are agreed and verified facts. I am conscious that Professor Bates holds views which are at variance with the views of most of the scientific community.  This on its own does not necessarily mean that his views can be dismissed. But I can find no evidence that the magazine failed to take reasonable care in checking facts in its research for the articles. Some of the language found in the two articles may be intemperate, but this reflects the hotly disputed nature of some of the debates about the causes of climate change. Principle 4 requires the press to “not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations”. The complainant believes this requirement was breached in the two articles, but I cannot find evidence to uphold this part of the complaint.

Professor Bates also claimed that Principle 8 had been breached in the publication of the two articles. The only possible relevant grounds to consider the complaint under this Principle is age and there is no evidence that Professor Bates’ age was a factor in the magazine’s reporting of the issues.

21 September 2017

The complainant appealed against the Decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland. 

Below is the Decision of the Press Council of Ireland:

Decision of the Press Council

The complainant submitted an appeal on the grounds (i) that there has been an error I the Press Ombudsman’s application of the Principles of the Code of Practice, and (ii) that significant new information is available that could not or was not made available to the Press Ombudsman before he made his decision.

The Press Council at its meeting on 3 November considered the matter and decided there was insufficient evidence to support the appeal on either ground and that the decision of the Press Ombudsman therefore stands.

Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can direct democracy succeed where politics has failed?

Earlier this month, I was pleased to have my third article appear on Guardian Environment. The topic was one I have previously teased around the edges, here and elsewhere, on numerous occasions. In a nutshell: once we’ve figured out our elected representatives don’t represent us, once we’ve finally grasped that yes, the system is indeed crazy enough to literally burn the world down, destroying itself the rest of us in the process….what then?

Direct action, legal action, protest, civil disobedience; given what’s at stake, and given that everything is on the line, then surely absolutely every option has to be considered. It’s not like time is on our side. Twenty-five years ago, a stark ‘Warning To Humanity‘ was issued by 1,700 top scientists. We ignored it and carried on regardless. Now, it has been reissued, this time signed by tens of thousands of scientists.  Well, I’m with Don McLean on this one: ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will‘.

While the Guardian’s reach is global, I did manage to smuggle in some coverage of two important recent Irish initiatives; first, the highly successful deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly, and second, the FIE legal challenge lodged in the High Court to the government’s wholly inadequate response to the climate crisis. These are two flickering lights in an otherwise desolate landscape of denial, distraction and delay that typify our execrable national ‘response’ to date.

This has been capped off by confirmation that we now rank as the worst country in all of Europe when it comes to climate action. Regular ThinkOrSwim readers will be none too surprised at this reality; the only wonder is how long it has taken for Ireland to attract the international opprobrium our cynicism and foot-dragging so richly deserve.

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IN THE medieval legend made famous by the brothers Grimm, the German town of Hamelin is besieged by a plague of rats, until the mysterious pied piper appears and agrees, for a fee, to rid them of the infestation. The mayor then reneges on payment and the piper exacts a savage revenge on the town’s ingrates by luring away their children, who are never seen again.

The tale could also be an allegory for today’s grim intergenerational smash-and-grab – the global economy. As environmentalist Paul Hawken put it: “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP.”

Like the hapless mayor of Hamelin, elected officials all over the world are today blindly pursuing growth-as-usual, while the gathering climate catastrophe rumbles ever closer. We adults may, if we’re lucky, get to die peacefully in our beds, but it’s our children who will be left to pay the ecological piper.

Despite determined efforts by lobbyists to quash the case, it is now set to be heard in February 2018. “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society” was the view of US district judge Ann Aiken, in denying motions filed by the Trump administration opposing the suit.

Last month NGO Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) filed a legal challenge against the Irish government over its failure to take steps to honour its climate commitments under the Paris agreement, and so endangering future generations. The FIE suit is modelled on a successful similar action taken in the Dutch courts by the Urgenda Foundation. They ruled in 2015 that the Dutch government had acted unlawfully in failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020. Similar cases are being brought in New Zealand, India, the Philippines and South Africa, among others.

Despite being on track for climate neutrality by 2030, the Norwegian government is being sued by citizen activists for issuing oil drilling licences in the Arctic Ocean, which make a mockery of its supposed domestic green credentials.

Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the global south, weighed in powerfully on the moral arguments against the havoc to the biosphere wrought by neoliberalism: “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market.”

Geophysicist Dr Brad Werner made waves five years ago with the publication of his paper titled: Is Earth F**ked? (the asterisks are his). When pressed for an answer to his own question, he ventured: “more or less”. In his analysis, the system itself is incapable of internally responding to the deepening ecological crises that encircle civilisation. The only possible hope, he suggested, lay in active resistance. He identified this as “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers and other activist groups”.

Those who resist face arrest, harassment, and worse. Almost four murders a week of environmental and land defenders were recorded in 2016.

With politicians failing to step up to the climate challenge, what are the alternatives? One intriguing experiment in direct democracy has just concluded in Ireland, where a government-appointed Citizens’ Assembly composed of a nationally representative group of people selected at random heard detailed expert testimony on climate change from a range of experts. No lobbyists or politicians were allowed in the room.

The result: 13 recommendations for sharply enhanced climate action were overwhelmingly endorsed early this month, including citizens being personally prepared to pay more tax on high-carbon activities. The recommendations will now be discussed in parliament. Democracy may be dysfunctional, but rumours of its death have, perhaps, been exaggerated.

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Citizens have spoken: no more excuses, climate action now

I spent all day Saturday November 5th in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, covering the penultimate session of the Citizens’ Assembly hearings on climate change. Having watched much of the previous weekend’s deliberations via live stream, I had the sense that something genuinely important, perhaps even historic, was unfolding. The eight hours or so I spent observing the process up close reaffirmed that impression.

If parliamentary democracy is terminally clogged up with fearful politicians and choked with special interest groups, then think of the direct democracy on show from the Citizens’ Assembly as a powerful enema to unblock the BS that has made even the most rudimentary progress on tackling climate change all-but-impossible. My impressions of the process were published on Desmog.uk the day after its Recommendations were issued. It was a privilege to be there to witness it. The full text is below:

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IRELAND’S political response to climate change has received a stinging rebuff from a group of citizens participating in an innovative new government-supported policy forum.

The parliament-appointed Citizens Assembly voted at the weekend in favour of 13 new recommendations to strengthen action on climate change.

The Assembly was established in 2016 and tasked with addressing hot-button topics, including abortion and climate change, and making recommendations to parliament. The Assembly comprises 99 ordinary Irish citizens, randomly selected to give a fair representation across society, under the chairmanship of senior judge, Mary Laffoy.

The Assembly sat for a total of four days to hear detailed expert testimonies and to engage in round-table discussions on ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’. No politicians or lobbyists were permitted to address the Assembly, which aimed to deliver a scientifically robust, balanced presentation on the issue.

National and international experts, including Denmark’s former climate minister, Connie Hedegaard, Dr Peter Stott of the UK Met Office and Prof Andy Kerr of Edinburgh University, addressed the Assembly.

Prof Kerr pointed out how Scotland, though similar in population and climate, has taken a radically different path on climate action. This is, Prof Kerr, explained, mainly as a result of clear political leadership across the party divide.

Scotland set ambitious targets of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent by 2020 versus 2009. It actually hit this target five years ahead of time, and is on target for 100 percent renewable electricity production by the early 2020s.

In stark contrast, Ireland has been sending politicians to Brussels throughout 2017 to demand that even its modest 2020 targets be renegotiated, as DeSmog UK previously reported. This is largely being done at the behest of the politically powerful farming and agribusiness lobby.

On Sunday, the citizens agreed the wording of a list of 13 recommendations, which were then voted on in a secret ballot. All 13 proposals were carried, many by an overwhelming majority. The results were a powerful endorsement of urgent action and a rebuff to the Irish government for its stance on this issue.

A constant theme to emerge from the discussions at the Citizens Assembly was the absence of clear political leadership on climate change. One member of the assembly asked if the Irish government had, for example, funded any public information campaigns on the issue (it hasn’t).

Assembly members voted by a huge margin (97 percent) in favour of either setting up a new or tasking an existing independent body, with resources and appropriate powers, to “urgently address climate change”. This is seen as a pointed rebuff to Ireland’s ‘Climate Action’ minister, Denis Naughten, who regularly publicly defends inaction by claiming it is “not his job to tell people what to do”.

There was unanimous citizen support for the Irish State taking a “leadership role in addressing climate change through mitigation measures, including retrofitting public buildings, low-carbon public vehicles, renewable generation on public buildings, as well as climate adaptation measures. There was also near-unanimity (96 percent) on the need for the Irish State to carry out a comprehensive audit of vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

Importantly, some 80 percent of citizen respondents stated they themselves would be ‘willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities’, showing the willingness of the Irish public to ‘take a hit’ financially if it means a safer future for all. The case for carbon taxes was put to the Assembly by Prof John FitzGerald, chair of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council.

An overwhelming 97 percent of citizens voted in favour of removing all subsidies for peat-burning, favouring these to be phased out over a five-year period. This could prove particularly problematic for Naughten, as one of Ireland’s three peat-burning plants is located within his Galway/Roscommon constituency.

Naughten issued a luke-warm response to the Assembly findings, pointedly not commenting on any of its contentious recommendations.

There was near-unanimous agreement (99 percent) among the Assembly’s participants that the State should legislate to enable the public to sell back micro-generated clean electricity to the grid at a fair price. The so-called ‘rooftop revolution’ of having thousands of farmers, schools and ordinary homes generating solar electric power is being stymied by lack of market access for small energy producers.

A strong majority (89 percent) of citizens favour taxing greenhouse gases from agriculture, on condition that there also be rewards for farmers involved in land practices that sequester carbon. The recommendation added that revenues from agricultural greenhouse gas taxes should be directed into supporting climate-friendly agriculture.

The argument in favour of climate taxes on agriculture was presented by Prof Alan Matthews of Trinity College, Dublin, who stated that minor tweaks in ‘efficiency’ in Irish agriculture were simply inadequate to meet the challenge for a sector that is on track to produce almost half of Ireland’s total emissions. He added that there was an inherent injustice in expecting ordinary Irish taxpayers to have to pay EU fines incurred as a result of agricultural policies.

Critically, Matthews pointed out that most Irish beef farmers actually lose money on their operations, and are only remaining solvent as a result of EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) transfers. With Brexit on the horizon, CAP farm payments are likely to come under increased pressure.

The Assembly’s proposal to tax agriculture emissions was rejected by the Irish Farmers Association, which is expected to use its formidable lobbying power to deter politicians from implementing this plan. Ireland’s emissions in both transport and agriculture are continuing to rise when they should be falling sharply.

An equally strong majority (92 percent) of the participants favoured prioritising all future infrastructure spending to be weighted by at least 2:1 in favour of supporting high quality public transport, especially in rural areas, while there was near-unanimity (96 percent) on the need for the government to support the rapid transition to electric vehicles.

Some 93 percent of participants voted to support a switch in transport priority towards bus and cycle lanes, and that these should be given priority over private car use. Support for organic farming (99 percent) was virtually unanimous, while there was strong support (93 percent) for specific measures to reduce food waste.

Total unanimity was achieved by citizens in favour of the State ensuring all future renewable energy projects have community participation, consultation and ownership built in from the outset.

The next step is for the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations to be debated by Ireland’s parliament, and this is where the pitched battle involving vested interests from the business, transport and agricultural sectors will likely take place.

Having been unable to directly influence the deliberations of ordinary Irish citizens, lobbyists will be betting that elected representatives prove altogether more pliable.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 2 Comments

Eating the future, one bite at a time

Futurology is a favourite journalistic parlour game, usually reserved for a slow news week or the lifestyle section. When I saw the following bold opening statement in a recent Irish Times magazine cover story, “Half of the babies born today in industrialised countries will live long enough to celebrate their 100th birthday”, it got me thinking about the chasm that separates ‘environmental journalism’ from that altogether rosier alternate world where the rest of the media seemingly reside.

The below was published last Friday on the Irish Times OpEd page, partly in response to the futurology piece the previous weekend. Kudos to the IT for being open-minded enough to print a critique of their own journalism; the mark, in my book, of a responsible, diverse media outlet. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments