Engineer Trump leads Human race to the bottom

Below, my article, as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine (ok, apart from adding in the referencing, there were a few other tweaks and alternate adjectives I had probably wished I’d completed with for one final round of amends before submitting the magazine version; guess the web means never having to say you’re sorry!).

No sooner had the reality of having the execrable Donald J Trump as US president begun to truly sink in than the rationalising began. All those awful things he said and did were all really just campaign rhetoric for his hard-core supporters. He’ll pivot to the centre. The system is bigger than one man. American institutions are strong. The Republican Party will rein him in. Besides, it can’t happen here.

Well, it did and it has. While Trump’s staggeringly clumsy overreach in trying to dismember Obamacare led to an embarrassing setback, this was a rare bump in the road to ruin that Trump’s new kleptocracy of billionaire bandits and ideologues have been busy mapping out.

This cesspit of partisanship stirred up by the Republican Party’s takeover by Tea Party extremists incubated the conditions that would lead to the Grand Old Party (GOP) falling for a bullying shyster and demagogue with a nasty authoritarian streak.

Just as fungus doesn’t grow and spread on a healthy tree, the rise of the Trump regime is a symptom of the diseased state of US politics, rotten across the both sides of the aisle from the poisonous spread of corporate cash into every nook and orifice of the system. This is evidenced when you consider that candidates running in the 2016 federal elections, including the presidential race, spent almost $7 billion buying their seats.

This contamination has also soured public trust in the whole political process. IN the lead-in to last November’s election, a solid majority of Americans had negative views of both presidential candidates. Only 31% thought the election process itself was satisfactory, or felt the orgy of spending was justified.

Anyone planning to run for the US Senate will need a war chest of no less than $10 million per campaign. This stupendous outlay ensures democracy is, once again, strictly the preserve of the gilded classes and their corporate paymasters.

While there are clear limits to what difference any one president can make, the system was simply never designed to deal with a truly rogue individual and the long-term harm they could, if so minded, inflict. It takes little imagination to figure out that Trump’s clumsy prodding of his stubby middle finger in the direction of the equally deranged leadership of the nuclear-armed North Korea could rapidly escalate into a thermonuclear conflagration.

However, either through blind luck or providence, this existential bullet may well be dodged, as it was back in the early 1960s, and again in the 1980s. In a sense, avoiding a nuclear apocalypse has always been a straightforward matter of not starting one in the first place. The one catastrophe that is no less fatal to human civilisation than all-out nuclear war is runaway climate change. The catch is that for climate change to obliterate most of life on Earth at some point this century, all we have to do is…nothing at all.

Under the weight of its own carbon-fuelled momentum, the Earth is already shifting from the long-term stability that has been the hallmark of the 11,000-year recent post-glacial period known as the Holocene, into a new, dramatically hotter phase. Scientists have in recent decades been frantically waving red flags to warn us that the fossil fuel-powered locomotive comprising all of human civilisation is careering towards a climate cliff and drastic action is needed to avert calamity.

Now, however, with Engineer Trump at the controls, it’s full steam ahead and let the devil take the hindmost. In March 2017 he took the political equivalent of a lump hammer to both the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and the country’s nascent role as an international leader on climate action.

Trump’s executive order involves rewriting rules to reduce CO2 emissions, while lifting a ban on coal leases on federal lands. He also scrapped the mandate that government officials consider climate impacts in decision-making. And, in a move that seemed mainly motivated by sheer spite, he scrapped an Obama era rule that blocked coal-mining operations from dumping waste into the very rivers and streams that many poor Trump voters get their drinking water from.

Trump also approved oil pipelines, removed a raft of restrictions on of fossil fuels and eliminated planned increases in federal royalties payable to energy companies.

The EPA was instructed to send out a press release applauding its own evisceration by Trump, but due to what was undoubtedly an unfortunate technical error, the press statement’s opening paragraph read as follows: “this Order calls into question America’s credibility and our commitment to tackling the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetime. With the world watching, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have chosen to shirk our responsibility, disregard clear science and undo the significant progress our country has made to ensure we leave a better, more sustainable planet for generations to come.” Oops.

Trump has also promised to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on curbing climate change. In a quite surreal twist, ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy firm and long-time funder of climate denial and disinformation, actually went public in urging Trump not to abandon the Paris accord, stating that it was an “effective framework for addressing the risks of climate change”.

Exxon’s outgoing CEO, Rex Tillerson also happens to have been appointed by Trump as his Secretary of State. Tillerson’s chief qualification for this job appeared to be his close personal ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In recent years, Putin has been a solid supporter of intergovernmental action on addressing climate change. After all, as recently as 2010, a climate-fuelled heatwave killed around 50,000 Russians.

However, he too has had a Pauline conversion on this crunch issue. Suddenly, Putin is peddling long-debunked denier talking points such as: “climate change may be related to some global cycles or some greater outer space cycles”. A mega-deal between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, a Russian state-owned company worth around half a trillion dollars was scrapped by the Obama government as part of its sanctions package against Russia. As relations between Washington and Moscow thaw even more quickly than the Arctic Circle, expect to see hydrocarbon realpolitiks rear its genocidal head once more.

Incurable optimists are once again emerging to point out that, after all, Trump can’t really single-handedly derail the global climate. Twenty, maybe even 10 years ago, that argument might have had some currency. Now, however, time itself is the enemy. There is today precisely zero chance of keeping global temperature rise below the +1.5ºC danger mark.

The next major milestone on the road to climate hell is +2ºC. Being frank, even before Trump took power, the odds were stacked against a global decarbonisation effort of the magnitude and duration required to avert disaster. Ireland, for instance, was given relatively modest 2020 EU targets of a 20% emissions cut versus our 2005 levels. What we did instead was to allow both agricultural and transport emissions to continue to spiral, leading to a piddling total overall reduction of around 6-8% in a 15-year period, when in reality we need to be decarbonising at that rate every year until we are at zero net carbon.

It’s an enjoyable parlour game to blame Trump and his zealots for this unfolding tragedy, but in reality, Ireland has civil servants, economists, politicians and lobbyists, all decent, ethical people, no doubt, but all working tirelessly to burn down our shared future, in the name of squeezing the last few bob out of this broken economic and political system that has taken us to the very abyss.

We now live in a world in which a rogue administration in Washington is atavistically torching even the most uncontroversial efforts at decarbonising energy systems; this is a world plunging squarely to smash through the +2ºC tipping point by as early as the 2030s. Trump will hold power until early 2021, and will quite possibly be still on the throne until January 2025.

By either of those dates, our fate as a species will have been sealed; all that remains to be seen is just how quickly the bodies begin to pile up as a rapidly destabilising climate system destroys global food and industrial production, while dragging already highly stressed and degraded natural land and marine ecosystems into full-scale collapse, thus sealing off any possible escape route.

Trump and his acolytes may yet escape the judgement of history, if for no other reason than that human history will likely have run its brilliant, violent course within a generation or two.

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


Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Nature is the silent victim of Nimbyism

Last November Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 attracted 9.4 million viewers for one episode- two million more than watched the X-Factor that night. It was the most watched nature show in the UK for 15 years. No doubt, like myself, many thousands of viewers from Ireland also tuned in, transfixed by scenes of snakes chasing iguanas, rare footage of snow leopards mating in the wild and a face-off between Komodo Dragons.

That’s what makes it so hard to reconcile this interest in nature documentaries with our national ambivalence to our natural heritage here in Ireland. We love all that wildlife in Africa, Asia and the Americas – we’re just not that keen on the stuff back home. Nature, it seems, suffers from Nimbyism. Everyone seems in favour of it, but not just in their own garden, backyard, townland, parish or county.

This might sound like a harsh, sweeping statement damning all. But then again, we’re living in a country where the government tried to change the law to extend the hedge-cutting and permitted burning dates to the detriment of the wildlife habitats. Thanks to a hard-fought rearguard action by a handful of politicians and NGOs and a petition signed by 27,000 people, a watered-down version of the bill looks like to come into effect – a bill that will still allow hedgecutting on road sides to take place in the nesting season.

But where were all the other voices? Where were the huge demonstrations that we have witnessed for other causes? Why were there no monster marches on the streets? Because maybe the vast majority of people don’t just care enough.

Maybe there’s a collective shrug of the shoulders in the knowledge that changing the law won’t make much of a difference, that it’s just copper-fastening practices that have been ongoing and to which a blind eye has been turned for years. The multitude of fires that seem to have ‘accidently’ broken out in the countryside in recent days and weeks is evidence of this. Anyone highlighting these practices is often branded as an interfering busybody trying to prevent hard-pressed, salt of the earth landowners from making a living.

Given the size and cost of some of the machinery involved, it’s hard not to be cynical about the finances of the impoverished lawbreakers. That cynic can also see through the spurious, shameful and disingenuous claim that the change is necessary for road safety. Those making that claim know that the current law allows for hedgecutting for road safety reasons.

The slash-and-burn brigade are not the only ones taking a cavalier attitude to wildlife and habitats. They have fellow travellers in the turf-cutting lobby who shamelessly peddle the line that they are protecting a traditional way of life. Anyone today who still believes this is still some traditional pursuit featuring hardy men cutting turf with sleans is ignorant, naïve or worse. Most of this work is being carried out on an industrial scale with machinery on a par with the State-sponsored destruction being wrought by Bord na Móna.

Why is this wholesale destruction of our natural habitat happening without much opposition? Because we have lost our connection with nature and the natural world on our doorstep. But it goes beyond that. Nature, wildlife and habitats have been demonised. Does that sound extreme? Just read reports about snails holding up the construction of roads. Then there are the calls for the cull of Pine Martens after a woman in the Midlands was allegedly attacked by one.

Not to mention the perennial calls for the cull of badgers and deer because they’re regarded as a threat. Foxes have been labelled as dangerous vermin for years. Birds of prey have been poisoned because of reports of unproven attacks on lambs.

Yes, a few lone voices in the wilderness decry this demonization and destruction, but the vast majority look the other way and move on. And while we marvel at a Sumatran tiger we see in a jungle in Indonesia on TV, a fox in woodland in Ireland is considered vermin to be wiped out. We don’t really want wild animals near us.

Everywhere, nature is under attack and this assault is not only tolerated but encouraged. In their everyday lives many people are willing participants – the replacing of traditional hedgerows with ranch fencing, laurel hedges, concrete walls and security gates, the unnecessary felling of trees when clearing sites for house building, the cutting back of wildflowers on roadsides under the name of weed control, ridding gardens of natural wildflowers because they don’t fit the look and feel of a modern garden, floodlighting McMansions in the countryside – it is an onslaught and it’s widespread.

It’s as if people have an abstract, idealised view of the countryside but don’t like the reality of the messy, wildness of nature. They want pristine, tree-less fields and hedges, perfect gardens, tarmacadam driveways. In short, they want an urbanised countryside.

The truth is, despite the popularity of nature programmes, not only are we in denial of the destruction of nature on our doorsteps, we are willing helpers in this destruction. We are not just helpless bystanders, we knowingly partake in, and condone, this relentless assault on our natural habitat – all in the name of progress. Nature is a wonderful thing, but not just here in my backyard, front yard or anywhere near me seems to be the prevailing view. Yet those nature documentaries make for great viewing in our living rooms.

If we cannot connect the dots between our behaviour and its impact on the natural habitat on our doorstep, there is little hope of tackling the larger, more complex environmental issues facing us on a global scale.

*Jeremy Hughes is a pseudonym.

Posted in Biodiversity, Habitat/Species, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Lights out for Earth Hour? Save your energy

Dreamed up as a PR stunt by an ad agency 10 years ago, Earth Hour has become surprisingly succesful. This is, I suspect, because it’s long on tokenism and photo opportunities and desperately short on actual resolve, sacrifice or meaningful political action. Anyhow, my lights stayed remained undimmed on Saturday night last. Below, the original version of my piece, as featured in Saturday’s Irish Times:

ANY PLANS for Earth Hour this evening? If so, you’re not alone. Tonight in Ireland and in some 7,000 cities and over 170 countries around the world, upwards of a billion people will turn off the lights to mark Earth Hour, an event the organisers, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), claim is the world’s largest voluntary action.

Now in its 10th year, the event has been warmly embraced in Ireland, with lights being dimmed in government buildings and major heritage sites. For instance, in 2014, then Environment Minister, Phil Hogan had this to say: “I am happy that Ireland is again joining this global effort to highlight environmental sustainability and I hope that Irish people will support this powerful symbolic initiative by turning out the lights”.

The extent to which the Earth Hour idea has spread, he added: “shows the degree of worldwide concern for our environment.” The key word in Hogan’s speech was ‘symbolic’. Symbolic actions on climate change are our politicians’ very favourite kind. These allow them to bathe in the bright green glow of feel-good environmentalism for an hour or two, without the awkwardness of having to commit to any tangible actions whatever, especially those that might discommode powerful vested interests.

Another likely reason politicians and corporations support Earth Hour is that it subtly shifts responsibility away from them and back onto the individual. Switch off the lights, don’t fly so often, eat less meat, use public transport more. Of themselves, these are all good ideas, but even in the unlikely event they could be scaled up massively, they ultimately deflect attention from the reality that the global climate and ecological crisis can only be addressed at an intergovernmental scale. This means binding treaties and strong regulations to massively decarbonise the global economy, rein in overconsumption, stabilise the biosphere and reduce pressure on biodiversity.

Besides, why should the average Irish person be expected to consider sacrificing aspects of their lifestyle for a cause that their government has, for the last six years, done precisely nothing to promote or explain? As for leadership, Ireland does at least now have its first ever minister for Climate Action. However, Denis Naughten’s recently published draft National Mitigation Plan was panned for its stunning lack of ambition or urgency. Meanwhile, Naughten himself in media interviews repeats, mantra-like, the odd promise ‘not to tell people what to do’.

This all might infer that Ireland is a mere disinterested bystander; in fact, in recent years we have punched well above our weight in back-pedalling and special pleading for sectional interests at EU level. Our government’s efforts, primarily on behalf of the agricultural lobby, have made a small but telling dent in the union’s resolve to act collectively while there is still time. As government buildings go dark this evening, it might be more apposite as a way of marking our shame at the betrayal of both the developing world and all future generations.

The Earth Hour symbolism of turning out the lights as an action against climate change is in itself curious. How much energy we use is important, but lighting is just a tiny fraction of overall energy usage, and this has actually declined sharply in the last decade, with the widespread adoption of low energy technologies.

What matters most is how the energy is produced. Ireland, for instance, is now increasing the amount of coal-fired energy on the grid via the ESB’s Moneypoint plant, thanks to the low price of coal on the world market. Cheap comes, however, at a fearsome price. While the ESB and Bord Na Móna pocket the profits, Ireland’s hospitals and GP surgeries bear the human cost of the air pollution the world’s fossil fuel-burning utilities continue to spew out. And that is before the climate damage is tallied.

To add insult to illness, Irish electricity users massively subsidise three loss-making, ecologically devastating peat-burning plants as part of what is in essence a politically inspired job-creation scheme in the midlands.

In 2007, when Earth Hour was first unveiled by an Australian ad agency as a publicity stunt, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) had reached 385 parts per million, their highest level in around four million years. Since then, CO2 levels have broken through the symbolic 400ppm barrier and continue to rise sharply.

The impacts have been stark. Eight of the 10 hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since 2007, with 2016 smashing all previous records, pushing Earth systems into what the World Meteorological Organisation this week called “truly uncharted territory”.

“Earth is a planet in upheaval due to human-caused changes in the atmosphere”, according to US glaciologist Jeffrey Kargel. If homo sapiens really has the wit and ambition to survive this century, from here on every hour has to be Earth Hour.

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

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

Dublin airport censorship just doesn’t fly

There is a rich irony in the fact that an airline company sponsors the weather on RTÉ Radio One, with its ‘smart flies Aer Lingus’ tagline transmitted into a million homes, on the hour, every hour. After all, aviation is the world’s fastest growing source of climate-altering carbon emissions, so in a very real sense, Aer Lingus is changing the very weather whose forecasts it sponsors.

There are, as far as I’m aware, no grounds on which RTÉ, a state broadcaster could be compelled to stop accepting money from a company whose very business model is fuelling the dangerous destabilisation of the global atmosphere upon which we all depend.

After all, if the climate-destroying, biodiversity-thrashing Bord Na Mona can pass itself off as ‘Naturally Driven’, who could possibly object to Aer Lingus sponsoring the weather? And this of course assumes there exists even an iota of political will to be mustered in our collective defence (here’s a link to an Irish Times article on climate I wrote some years back; the stats may be a little out of date, but the gist is still correct).

So, if you can’t beat them, join ‘em? To test this idea, I developed a simple advert on behalf of An Taisce’s climate change committee, and submitted it to the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA), the semi-state that operates all commercial activities at the airport. The draft advert read: ‘Frequent Flyer? Is your flying costing the Earth?’ I explained the rationale for placing the advert (with an extremely modest spend) at the airport as follows:

As a charity, our budget is very limited, but we did feel the Airport would be an ideal location to address the issue of the impacts of flying (especially frequent flying) on climate change. Research has shown that the flying public greatly underestimates the impacts of aviation-based carbon emissions, so we are hoping to begin to bridge that gap with ads that encourage the public to think about their flying and to better understand its impacts.

Not, I hope you will agree, a very menacing or unreasonable explanation. It took over a week to coax a response from DAA’s commercial department, as follows:

“Dear John,

I am sorry but we are not in a position to accept your advertisement for display.   DAA has a statutory obligation to grow its business at Dublin Airport and as our customers are the airlines we are unable to accept advertisements which attack our customers.  I trust that you understand our position”.

I was at a bit of a loss to understanding where exactly we were involved in an ‘attack’ on DAA’s customers. Surely if RTÉ can accept sponsorship for its weather bulletins from a company that is involved in an actual attack on our climate, then DAA can tolerate one or two modest ads from a charity pointing out that aviation carries grave, measurable environmental impacts? Well, apparently not. Whatever happened to free speech?

Undeterred, I decided to give it another lash, and wrote once more to the DAA, offering them a homoeopathically watered-down version of our proposed ad wording, one that surely no one could reasonably refuse to publish?

The revised wording was as follows:

“Want The Facts About Climate Change & Flying? Visit

I accompanied this revised wording with the below email:

This line is, I’m sure you will agree, not attacking anyone, but simply offering links to factual information, based on peer-reviewed science.

We hope you will review the above advert and find it to be in no way offensive, misleading or inaccurate, and this being the case, there are no reasonable grounds, we believe, on which the DAA can refuse to allow us to advertise this message.

You mentioned the DAA having a ‘statutory obligation to grow its business’. You may be familiar with the provision in section 15 of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 for Public Bodies (including DAA) to have regard to:

“(c) the furtherance of the national transition objective, and
(d) the objective of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change in the State.”

Briefly, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 puts a legal onus on all Irish public bodies to promote mitigation of climate change. This too is a ‘statutory obligation’ and makes it clear that Public Bodies have obligations that cannot be waived by statements such as “growing our business”.

I thought it not unreasonable to point out that since DAA defended its refusal to run our ad by sheltering behind its ‘statutory obligations’, surely they should also have cognisance of other statutory requirements too?

It took another two weeks and a series of reminder emails to elicit a response to my revised proposal, and this was issued on February 15th, as follows:

“Dear Mr Gibbons,

Thank you for your recent email and please accept my apologies for the delay in replying.

In relation to your query regarding the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, 2015, DAA is fully aware of, and is committed to managing and reducing its carbon emissions in line with best practice.

  • DAA manages and reduces its own direct emissions in line with our public sector agreement with SEAI for improved energy efficiency and actively participates in the voluntary Airport Carbon Accreditation Programme.  DAA has signed up to achieve 33% efficiency in its own energy use in buildings and vehicles by 2020. Dublin Airport is well on track to meet this target through a wide range of energy efficiency measures such as the installation of LED lighting, the purchase of electric vehicles and the upgrading of its buildings.
  • DAA continues to influence others to manage their emissions and supports, in line with the National Aviation Policy, the implementation of a global scheme for managing international carbon emissions.
  • In terms of aircraft-related emissions, we work with our stakeholders such as the Irish Aviation Authority and our airline customers to reduce delays on the ground and in the air. We also support the use of fixed electrical ground power on aircraft parking stands.
  • International aviation emissions fall outside the scope of the Climate Act and do not form part of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) targets under the Paris Agreement (COP21).  International aviation emissions are dealt with through the international aviation body ICAO. Agreement on a global scheme for aviation emissions was reached in ICAO on 6 October 2016. Ireland, as part of the 44 member European Civil Aviation Conference, has made a declaration to adhere to the international scheme from its first implementation phase.

While cognisant of all of the above, we do have a statutory obligation to grow our airport business for the good of the Irish economy and also to promote Dublin as a hub airport as outlined in the State’s National Aviation Policy.

We therefore cannot accept an advertisement that may have the effect of encouraging consumers not to use the services of our airline customers. “

Well, that was that. The only route of appeal to this DAA diktat lay in the court of public opinion, so I contacted the Sunday Times and provided them with the trail of correspondence, and the below piece, penned by reporter Valerie Flynn, appeared on its news pages at the weekend as follows:

Airport blocks green advert

The Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) has refused to sell advertising space to an environmental charity for a campaign highlighting the impact of air travel on climate change.

An Taisce wanted to take out an ad in Terminal 2 with the slogan: “Frequent flyer? Is your flying costing the earth?” DAA would not accept it. “As our customers are the airlines, we are unable to accept advertisements which attack our customers,” the authority said.

An Taisce proposed the more conciliatory wording: “Want the facts about climate change and flying? Visit” However DAA rejected this proposal too, saying: “We cannot accept an advertisement that may have the effect of encouraging customers not to use the services of our airline customers.”

It said it had a “statutory obligation” to expand the business “for the good of the Irish economy”.

Air travel accounts for about 2% of emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide. Emissions from EU aviation rose by 80% between 1990 and 2014 and are forecast to grow a further 45% between 2014 and 2035. Dublin was Europe’s fastest-growing airport last year with 28m passengers, up 11%.

John Gibbons of An Taisce’s climate-change committee said a return flight from Dublin to New York generated as much CO2 as a year of driving a diesel car. He called the advert “fairly innocuous”.

The DAA said it takes its “responsibilities to climate change seriously”.

Another member of An Taisce’s climate committee, half in jest, suggested that the final sentence might better be reworded as follows: “The DAA takes its responsibility to change the climate seriously”. Funny or otherwise, it’s a whole lot closer to the truth.

Meanwhile an Austrian court has just blocked a 3rd runway at Vienna airport, arguing the new runway will work counter to the country’s pledges made as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. This ruling comes at a very interesting time, considering preparatory work on runway 3 at Dublin airport has just commenced. Planning permission for this project was originally issued in 2007 (with DAA applying in 2008 for amendments to remove numerous restrictions on nighttime use of the airport placed on their permission) but the recession led to the whole project being put on ice for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, the Green Party’s David Healy, a member of Fingal County Council, put out a statement this week that this proposed expansion may well contravene our Climate Act.

Many people in Ireland are now looking askance at political developments in the US, as the Trump regime installs climate deniers, oil company hacks and assorted shills to shred the hard-won regulatory oversight that keeps water safe, air breathable and entertains at least the possibility of climate change being addressed.

It’s easy to point at such ghastly caricatures as Scott Pruitt and Myron Ebell and console ourselves that at least Ireland does not harbour such anti-science ideologues and zealots. Yet, when you look at our semi-states, from Bord Na Mona to DAA to Coillte to Bord Bia, each pushes a self-serving agenda fundamentally at odds with our national and international obligation to rapidly and permanently decarbonise all aspects of the Irish economy.

Each in turn can argue, as DAA has done in the small instance cited here, that they are acting rationally, citing their ‘statutory obligation’ to grow, grow, grow, and devil take the hindmost. But then, it might seem entirely unreasonable to expect semi-states to take the lead when their political masters are rooted to the spot.

To give one final glimpse into the madhouse that is Irish climate policy, look no further than the recently published ‘Briefing Document on Ireland’s First National Mitigation Plan’. Here, Denis Naughten’s document claims, in language approaching Trump-speak, that ‘flat-lining in (agricultural) emissions represents enormous ambition rather than complacency’.

Success is inevitable when you set the bar so ridiculously low as defining abject failure to reduce emissions in our single most polluting sector as showing ‘enormous ambition’.


Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Time to push fossil fuel sponsorship beyond the Pale

Below, my article, as it appeared in the Irish Times earlier this month. Having had family members as past winners of the Texaco Children’s Art Competition made me leery about taking on writing about this long-running sponsorship, but then I realised part of the formula for corporate sponsorship of events or competitions actually depends on producing feelings of guilt and/or gratitude among the part of us adults. So, with a slightly heavy heart, I put them on hold on this occasion.

THE GLOBAL movement to delegitimise fossil fuels received a boost in recent days with the passage through Dáil Eireann of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill. This historic bill, introduced by Thomas Pringle, TD directs Ireland’s €8 billion Strategic Investment Fund to avoid investments in oil, coal or gas. Ireland is the world’s first country to make such a bold move.

While this decision is by itself unlikely to make even a dent in the trillion dollar hydrocarbon energy business, its real significance is symbolic, sending out a political and economic signal that the fossil fuel industry is to be regarded as a necessary evil, to be tolerated only until viable, safe alternatives can be brought on stream.

While this might sound harsh for an industry that has fuelled the world for the last century and more, in reality, the sector has been the author of its own misfortune. Oil giant Exxon, for example, first became aware of the dangers posed by climate change four decades ago, when its own senior scientists warned the board in 1977 that continued burning of fossil fuels would in time dangerously destabilise the global climate.

Faced with clear evidence of catastrophic future harm from its business model, Exxon did not simply decide to hush up the scientific evidence and keep drilling. It instead teamed up with other industry players and invested millions of dollars in funding doubt and disinformation about climate science in the media, politics and among the general public.

It worked. Simply creating the impression of doubt and controversy was enough to muddy the waters. They followed a playbook pioneered in the 1960s by cigarette manufacturers to downplay the dangers of smoking.

That strategy was hugely successful, shielding vast corporate profits for decades while millions of smokers died of a habit they had been conned into believing was largely harmless. The US government eventually prosecuted the entire industry, culminating in fines totalling over $200 billion in 1998.

The appointment of former Exxon chief, Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state paradoxically underlines the weakness of the hydrocarbon industry and its desperate attempts to hijack the political process to prop up its precarious, reality-denying business model by enabling a reality-denying president.

Mainstream businesses, mindful of their reputations, are slowly backing away from the energy dinosaurs. Danish toymaker Lego at the end of 2014 cancelled an €80 million deal with Shell to distribute their toys at fuel stations. A year later, the UK Science Museum announced that it would not renew a bizarre sponsorship deal with Shell for its climate change exhibition.

Ireland’s longest running sponsorship programme is the Texaco Children’s Art competition, which has operated since 1955 and has undoubtedly done much to promote and encourage young artists over the decades. Entries for this year’s competition close on February 28th.

My then five-year-old daughter was a prizewinner back in 2008 and it was a proud day out for the family. At that time, Texaco was owned by Chevron. Its CEO this week praised the Trump regime’s plans to demolish life-saving environmental regulations.

Texaco Ireland’s new owners, Valero Energy, were rated by the US Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in a 2012 report as among the three most “obstructionist” energy corporations on climate change. The UCS found that Valero’s corporate PR was ‘pro-climate’ while its all-important ‘corporate actions’ were strongly anti-climate.

I realise now what I failed to notice in 2008: the real climate radicals are not the handful of eco activists battling impossible odds. The true radicals are in fact fossil fuel companies and their senior executives and shareholders whose science denial and cynical profiteering have taken us to the brink of an unfathomable global catastrophe.

Ignorance of the consequences of their actions is no longer tenable. The hydrocarbon industry has done this knowingly, and continues to collude with rogue politicians and corrupt regimes, from the Middle East to the Niger delta to Washington. Radicals indeed.

For all its history, ultimately the Texaco Children’s Art competition is a clever distraction from the true nature of its sponsors, and an industry’s reckless disregard for the future these same children must face. In hindsight, we as a family were wrong to participate.

Tobacco company PJ Carroll sponsored the GAA All Stars until 1978. Who today would find a tobacco firm sponsoring a sporting event or children’s competition acceptable? We as individuals may feel powerless, even complicit. After all, so many aspects of our lives, from home heating to transport, depend on these same fuels.

Yet, despite the industry’s tireless lobbying efforts, change is possible. Passive house technology for new homes is already here, while retrofitting would save billions in imported fuel costs. A national electric fleet is set to break our dependence on liquid fuels for public and private transport and lead to cleaner, safer air. The missing ingredient is political will.

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

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A wealthy, kick-ass climate NGO: what are the odds?

There is never a shortage of stupid things to do with money, especially if you suddenly find yourself with loads of it. US socialite Theresa Roemer, for instance has a three-storey, 3,000-square foot closet; that’s a space twice the size of the average Irish family home…to store her shoe collection.

Then there’s the €180 million Palazzo di Amore mansion in Beverly Hills — with 12 reception rooms, 22 bathrooms, a 50-seat cinema, swimming pools and a 12-acre vineyard. This property has been entirely vacant for the last eight years.

Oxfam recently published figures confirming that the world’s richest 62 people control as much wealth as the combined assets and incomes of the world’s poorest 3.7 billion people, and this trend is, if anything, accelerating.

With yet another EuroMillions winning ticket sold in Ireland recently (giving some indication as to how disproportionately much we are gambling per capita), our media went into overdrive with advice on how to spend the estimated €88 million fortune. The Sunday World’s staggeringly banal list of suggestions includes buying an island, or 17.4 million pints of beer, or 355 Audi R8 V10s. Continue reading

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Toothless watchdog lets its Standards slip


LOCATION: Bord Na Mona conference room*

DATE: Early 2016.

TOPIC: Ad planning meeting (*fictional)

BnaM Marketing Exec: ‘I’ll cut to the chase. Here’s the challenge: we’re a company that, pound for pound, is the biggest polluter in Ireland. We’ve wrecked nearly 80,000 hectares of boglands right across the country, increased flooding in the Shannon basin and polluted a lot of the waterways. Oh, and we get bunged well over a hundred million quid a year to keep three hopelessly inefficient peat-burning stations open; the dogs in the street know it’s the most expensive JobBridge scheme in the country. People are starting to wise up to climate change as well, and, to be honest, we’re a disaster area on that front too. Jesus, even some of the politicians have noticed. It turns out that simply draining bogs turns them from carbon sinks into carbon pumps. And as for the biodiversity, well, let’s just say, once our machines have ripped up a bog, it looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Total dead zone, nothing much bigger than an ant survives peat harvesting. Nada. Zip’.

Agency Suit: ‘Guys, guys, guys. Take it easy! For starters, how many people have ever been out on a Bord Na Mona bog – or a living bog, for that matter? Not many, right? So, they haven’t a clue what happens out here. How many know or care about carbon sinks and climate whatsit? Right again. Ladies and gents, welcome to 2016. The truth, or the post-truth, if you prefer, is precisely what we tell them. And as for the media, no problemo. We’ll organise to bus a few of them down from RTE, the Times, Indo etc. and give them the ‘conservation tour’, you know the one, where we do the touchy-feely talk about hares and sphagnum moss and restoration, the standard PR drill. We can bring in some friendly conservation types to give the gig a bit of cred, then just sit back and wait for the positive coverage. No problemo. Fish in a barrel’. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Irish Focus, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

Nine years later, and deeper in debt

It’s nine years to the week since my first posting on ThinkorSwim went live – on the last day of November 2007. It was, in many ways, a different world. The mood was radically different too. For starters, the Greens were in government, holding both the Environment and Energy & Communications portfolios. The needle was moving alright; you couldn’t quite see it but you could sense the palpable energy for change.

While not exactly mainstream, green was certainly in vogue. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report had been delivered earlier that year in a blaze of overwhelmingly positive publicity. The huge success of Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ a year earlier seemed to have struck a real chord with public and media alike. And the dismal failure of the Copenhagen Summit and the Climategate hoax were still two years in the future.

I kept a scrapbook that year of newspaper clippings, mostly from the Irish Times and Sunday Tribune, on climate-related coverage, and by late November, it was bulging. Expert contributors included the late great Dr Brendan McWilliams and of course the indefatigable Prof John Sweeney. The overall editorial tone was, viewed in hindsight, surprisingly serious and business-like. The contrarians and outright deniers were then rarely seen. They were, as it transpired, lying low as the prevailing tide swept a stream of positive coverage along. Continue reading

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A new age of endarkenment draws ever closer

Like millions of people all over the world, I’ve spent the last almost two weeks in a state of shock and disbelief. I had sat up with friends late on the evening of Tuesday November 8th into the early hours of the following morning. It started well enough. Preliminary polling numbers had Clinton ahead in both Ohio and Florida. Clinton winning either of these would seal off any possible path to victory for Trump, the TV pundits opined reassuringly.

As it transpired, and rather like the visit of Mr and Mrs Lincoln to the Ford’s Theatre in April 1865, this night too was not to end well. I crashed into an agitated, dreamless sleep sometime around 6.30am on Wednesday, and on waking some three hours later, for a few blessed moments my addled brain actually fooled me into thinking I had imagined the whole wretched event.

No such luck. As the Nightmare-Elect unveiled his chorus of bigots, crooks, crypto-fascists and religious zealots to stuff into the critical positions in his new administration, the feeling of dread was all-encompassing. I sat down more than once to write up a blog post on how I felt this would play out, but abandoned each effort. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology, Sceptics | 3 Comments

A crisis in media and climate communication

Overlaying the climate crunch, there is a parallel full-blown crisis, in Ireland and elsewhere in the Anglophone world in climate change communications. This will not be news to regular visitors to this blog, but happily, there is now a lot more solid evidence to back up this impression.

A valuable new addition to our national understanding of this crunch issue has just been published by the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Climate Science. Its paper, entitled ‘Climate Change Communication in Ireland’, was authored by Emmet Fox and Henrike Rau.


The paper sets out to review and assess existing research on climate change communication in Ireland, rather than engage in primary research in the field. It points to the “marginalization of climate change in the mainstream media, which is further amplified by its segregation from closely related topics of major public concern in Ireland such as extreme weather events, flooding, energy resources, or economic recovery”. Continue reading

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Cultivating hope, managing despair

There have been countless millions of words written and spoken in recent years on how humanity can and must begin at last to grapple in earnest with the existential challenges of climate change, resource depletion and the ongoing global biodiversity crash.screenshot-2016-10-30-21-38-48img_4683 img_4682

A lot less attention has been focused on how we, as aware individuals and our societies are coping to come to terms with the realities of what it means to be alive right in the middle of the Sixth Extinction.

This week, a workshop, held in Dublin’s Tailor’s Hall entitled ‘Cultivating Hope, Managing Despair’ took a tentative step down this road. It attempted to open a dialogue among a group of around 30 people in attendance, many of who might describe themselves as Early Accepters. The sub-title of the workshop catches the mood more concisely: ‘How to positively respond to the mess we are in without going insane’. Continue reading

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Raising the bar on climate change coverage in Ireland

I’ve often wondered aloud what it might be like to live in a place and in a time where climate change, the world’s biggest, baddest and most persistent crisis, was given media coverage something even vaguely approaching its actual significance.

As we’ve covered before in depth, Irish media performance on climate and environmental coverage in recent years would actually have to improve quite a bit before it could even be labelled abysmal. Notwithstanding the odd well-intentioned foray by its part-time environment correspondent George Lee, the national broadcaster has been truly awful (and none more so than the senior editorial crew of its flagship show, PrimeTime).

The rest of the broadcast media are little better, while climate coverage in the print media, what remains of it, best resembles scorched earth. The erstwhile Paper of Record, since the retirement of its environment corr, Frank McDonald in January 2015, has not so much dropped the ball as picked it up and gone home with it.

The best of the rest over the last year or so has tended to be the Irish Examiner, but even here, its recent coverage of Danny Healy-Rae’s flat capped flat earther insights have given aid and comfort to the lunatic fringe.

Continue reading

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Battling for Ireland’s battered biodiversity

My interview below, with Dr Liam Lysaght, Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, was published in the September edition of Village magazine:

IRELAND’S largely dysfunctional relationship with its natural environment was neatly summed up by former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, when he moaned that his ill-fated Celtic Tiger was being stymied “because of swans, snails and the occasional person hanging out of a tree”.

While the Ahern era was hardly a high watermark of environmental awareness and ecological literacy, one useful resource to emerge from this time was Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre, which was established by the Heritage Council in 2007 and is funded by the it and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The Centre was set up to collate, manage, analyse and distribute data on Ireland’s biodiversity. Headed by Dr. Liam Lysaght, the Centre is based in Waterford city. “We are trying to put in place systems to track changes in the countryside”, Lysaght told Village in a recent in-depth interview. “It’s about building the evidence base to support biodiversity policy”. Continue reading

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Welcome to the Climate Madhouse

Below my article, as published in the September edition of ‘Village’ magazine

IMAGINE for a moment the dilemma: you’re a celebrated climatologist whose work has helped shaped the modern science of climate change. In the course of your work, you have gradually come to the same basic conclusion as pretty much all of your professional colleagues: humanity and the industrial civilisation we have constructed is on a one-way collision course with physics.512JfC3iFlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Clearly, as a scientist, your job is to check and re-check the numbers, then, once the evidence is solid, alert the politicians and policy makers and provide them with the expert guidance so they can make the tough-but-necessary decisions to avert the worst of the projected negative impacts, while hunkering down for those which can’t be entirely avoided.

That, in a sane world, is how the system works. This is not, however, the world in which we live, and it certainly is not the planet that renowned paleoclimatologist, Prof Michael Mann inhabits. He sprung to fame in 1999 with the publication of a reconstruction of the global climate record stretching back some 1,000 years, which became known as the ‘Hockey Stick graph’ since, from past to present, it slopes gently downwards, before turning sharply upwards in recent decades, like the blade of an American ice hockey stick.

Continue reading

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Who’d choose to bring a child into a climate-changed world?

Below is my article, as published in yesterday’s Irish Times, under the headline (not my wording) ‘Is having children bad for the planet?’ I’ve added in some of the sources below that I used when researching this piece. The features editor suggested adding a picture of me with my two daughters, given that I had mentioned my own circumstances. I have tried as far as possible to keep my personal life out of my writing, but having penned a piece posing the question as to the wisdom or otherwise of bringing a child into a climate-changed world, I felt it only fair to put my cards on the table regarding my own situation and how it has informed some of the choices I have made.


ONE OF the biggest decisions any of us will ever face is whether or not to become a parent. While for women, bearing children was until recently almost a foregone conclusion, today in Ireland one in five women, either by choice or circumstance, will never become mothers.

The drive to reproduce is as ancient as it is powerful, but can become derailed, in humans as in other species, in situations of extreme stress. For instance, birth rates have plummeted in Greece since its economic crash. This also happened during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s.

More modest but marked declines in fertility rates have been measured since 2009 across most of Europe, the US and Australia as widespread anxiety about the future caused people to postpone or abandon plans to start families. Continue reading

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