We mourn for Cecil while ignoring destruction of natural world

Below, my article, as it appears in this weekend’s Irish Times.

WITH modern technology and firepower, it takes little courage and even less skill to kill wild animals. This week US dentist and recreational ‘big game hunter’ Walter James Palmer found himself squarely in the crosshairs as an international controversy exploded over his casual slaughter of an iconic Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil.

Palmer had paid $50,000 for the privilege of killing a lion for ‘sport’, an activity that is technically legal in Zimbabwe. Cecil was, however, based in the protected Hwange National Park, but was lured out using bait and inexpertly shot by Palmer with a crossbow.

The semi-tame lion, which had been fitted with a GPS tracking device as part of a long-term Oxford University study, fled, wounded, and survived for 40 agonising hours as the weekend warrior and his guides stalked it across the savannah.

Dr Palmer’s online profile boasts at least 43 other ‘kills’ of wild and endangered animals, from polar bears to leopards and buffalo. However you may feel about the Minnesota-based dentist’s idea of fun, what makes his case unusual is that, for once, the world actually took notice.

Cecil’s fate has been similar to that of countless billions of other living creatures in recent decades. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2014 ‘Living Planet Index’ confirmed the depth and severity of the global biodiversity crux: habitat loss and degradation, pollution and climate change have led to a precipitous decline of 52 per cent in the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Put another way, for every two wild creatures alive on Earth in 1970, today only one remains.

“This global trend suggests we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history”, according to the WWF. While species extinctions are difficult to quantify, scientists now estimate that some 50,000 species are disappearing every year – that’s around 135 species a day, every day. This is at least 1,000 times higher than the natural or ‘background’ extinction rate.

It is no coincidence that in just the last four decades, human numbers have doubled, to over seven billion, while the global economy has more than quadupled in precisely the same time frame that the natural world has undergone unprecedented decline.

The global economy is, in a very real sense, eating the foundations of life on Earth by consuming its natural capital at a rate far in excess of the planet’s ability to regenerate, and by accumulating the toxic by-products of global scale industrial and agricultural activity so rapidly it is overwhelming the capacity of the biosphere to absorb and render harmless.

In just the last 15 years, the global hunger for resources has seen the world’s rainforests being felled at the astonishing rate of the equivalent of 50 football pitches – every minute. On an annual basis, that’s an area of rich biodiversity twice the size of Ireland lost forever. Our own record isn’t much better. Ireland’s ecologically rich peatlands are being progressively destroyed by a combination of Bord na Mona and private contractors using heavy industrial equipment.

Given our careless collective evisceration of the natural world, why then have millions of people been so moved by the fate of a single lion?

Biodiversity specialist Dr Ernest Small has published research on why humans seem to favour some animals over others (the WWF, for example, has the cuddly Panda as its logo). Dr Small wrote that: “most humans are not just ignorant of but indifferent to almost all of the species on the planet… and are slightly to extremely negative towards the majority of species they encounter.”

The exception to this rule is our collective attitude towards what are known as charismatic megafauna – in other words, large, photogenic animals, notably elephants, giraffe, big cats and bears. “You can’t get much more charismatic than a lion. Here we are as humans getting very excited about charismatic animals. We never think about all the pain we cause to billions of sentient creatures”, Dr Small told ThinkProgress.org.

Apex predators such as big cats, wolves or sharks play pivotal roles within their ecosystems. The term ‘trophic cascade’ is used to describe the top-down regulation of ecosystems by predators, and is an essential element of an intact ecosystem. Targeting top predators has negative consequences far beyond just one species.

Fifty years ago, there were half a million lions in the wild in Africa. Today, that number is down by over 95 per cent to barely 20,000. There are more tigers kept as ‘pets’ in the US today than now remain in the wild worldwide. Meanwhile, in Africa this week, president Obama promised a crackdown on the ivory trade that is leading to the grisly slaughter of 25,000 elephants a year.

Barring a profound change of attitude, we are on track to be the last generation to share the Earth with these magnificent wild animals. Their destruction at our hands would be an indelible stain on our species – and a spectacular evolutionary own-goal for homo sapiens.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and tweets @think_or_swim

 

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Challenging Ireland’s climate contrarian-in-chief

Back in May 2014, UCD meteorologist, Prof Ray Bates penned a heartfelt plea for continued inaction on climate change, under the lurid headline: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’. It was a weak, poorly argued exercise in that most unscientific of pursuits, namely cherry-picking. The piece was duly taken apart on this blog and elsewhere.

The most comical aspect of Bates’ stirring call to climate inaction was that, as far as we could tell, the reason this scientist was demanding that we low-ball the real and rapidly accelerating risks from climate change was his passionate desire to ensure that the expansionist agenda of the Irish agricultural sector not be in any way constrained by such irksome burdens as our legally mandated requirements to cut GHG emissions in the near and medium term. What, you might ask, has exporting beef and milk powder got to do with climate science? Yes, precisely nothing.

As I wondered aloud at the time: “What I am curious to know is why Prof Bates – a meteorologist – spends so much time lobbying for agriculture, and much less time taking about the very real threats that climate change poses to us all – and that very much includes our agriculture sector”.

We are all still waiting for an answer. Undeterred, Bates at the start of this month winkled his way back onto the OpEd pages of the Irish Times to essentially re-hash his 2014 cri de coeur for his beloved beef and dairy industry. Sheltering behind his impressive scientific credentials, Bates this time went a good deal further.

He concluded his latest jeremiad with the stirring injunction that we should approach the Paris COP21 negotiations later this year: “based on scientific findings and on pragmatism, not ideology”. For Bates to conclude his ideologically charged and scientifically suspect article in this fashion was bordering on high farce.

Under his newly minted guise of “an Irish citizen”, Bates rolled off a sly misrepresentation of the (already highly conservative) IPCC findings. Barry McMullin of An Taisce offered a robust critique of this article via the Letters page, zeroing in on his “idiosyncratic downplaying of the stark warnings contained in recent reports from the highly respected UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

Next, Justin Kilcullen weighed in with a killer blow regarding Bates’ canard about food security: “Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Firstly, beef and dairy production have nothing to contribute to world food security. If anything they will achieve the opposite in the long term. The idea the people of Africa and Asia will be surviving on Irish beef and cheese in years to come is risible.”

While McMullin, Kilcullen and others made valid criticisms of Bates’ piece, what was missing from the ensuing correspondence in the Letters page was an expert response to the equally risible scientific claims set out by Bates under the cover of his CV as a once-decorated scientist.

What, you might ask, did Ireland’s pre-eminent climate scientist, Prof John Sweeney, make of this article? Surely, if it really was as bad as I’m suggesting, you’d expect Prof Sweeney to have had no choice but to set the record straight. Well, that’s exactly what he did…or tried to do. Sweeney wrote a careful, measured but quite devastating response, picking apart the deeply flawed science in Bates’ article (“complacent…contrarian…cherry-picked”) and submitted it to the Letters page within two or three days of publication of the offending article.

Incredibly, while the Irish Times was prepared to give prominent editorial space to a climate contrarian, it then denied the ‘right of reply’ of the 97% IPCC consensus of climate scientists to the numerous (and I use Sweeney’s own phrase here) “scientific inaccuracies which permeate the article”.

In the interests of a complete and accurate response to Bates’ article, I reproduce below in full the letter the Irish Times, in its wisdom, deigned not fit for publication (An Taisce have just issued a press statement on a modified version of this here):

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Sir,

I congratulate the Irish Times for its enlightened editorial of Friday 3rd July, particularly as it offered a rebuttal of some of the opinions expressed earlier in the week by Professor Ray Bates. Not for the first time, Professor Bates sought to espouse his contrarian views regarding the seriousness of climate change by a selective ‘cherry picking’ of the recent IPCC Assessment Report and a misinterpretation of current climate science.

There are many aspects of the various contentions made by Prof. Bates which lack robustness, too many to reply individually to. However what is most disappointing from an academic perspective is the selective quoting of only that part of a paragraph from the 5th Assessment Report which appears to suit his arguments. He states that recent warming has been confined to two periods (supposedly ending in 1998), and contends that the human contribution to this warming is comparable to the ‘natural’.

The sentence cherry picked from the IPCC was as follows: “It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”. Had he wished to accurately report the paragraph concerned he would have emphasised the immediately following sentence in the Report also. This clarifies that the “more than half” attribution is effectively a minimum; in fact the current best scientific estimate is that essentially all of the warming over the last 60 years is due to human activity (“The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period”).

There are a number of other scientific inaccuracies which permeate the article. The claimed increased uncertainty regarding causes of future sea level rise is just one. Far from increased uncertainty in attributing causes to sea-level rise, the recent IPCC Report provided a closed budget for the first time, the very opposite of increased uncertainty. Similarly, the preoccupation with the rate of warming since 1998 is also at variance with what has actually been observed. Warming has continued since 1998 and 2014 was the warmest year on record, with early indications that 2015 will exceed even this. While short term variations occur in where the heat of the planet is being stored, its continuing, rapid, and accelerating warming, due primarily to human activity, is not in any significant scientific doubt whatsoever.

Despite Professor Bates’ complacent contention to the contrary, it is absolutely valid to describe the problem of climate change as a ‘planetary emergency’. This weekend in southern Germany over 30 science Nobel Laureates gathered to make a declaration on climate change. They made a similar declaration nearly 60 years ago about nuclear arms. Their considered opinion is that “our world today faces another threat of comparable magnitude”.

Professor Bates cites an unidentified conference to substantiate his alternative arguments. Perhaps if he had attended the Climate Justice conference in Maynooth two weeks ago that he refers to, and listened to UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson, or heard the poignant case made by the Prime Minister of Tuvalu at the recent conference on the Papal Encyclical in Rome which I attended, he might reconsider his blind acceptance of the ‘national interest’ as the message Ireland wants to send the world on this issue.

Yours etc.

Emeritus Professor John Sweeney, Maynooth University

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Shortly before placing his article with the Irish Times, Bates had rehashed the same arguments for that most eager of audiences – the Irish Farmers Journal, mouthpiece of the IFA, an organisation that has shown great determination to not understand climate change (presumably because that might throw a sprong in the wheels of their agri-expansionist agenda).

In keeping with his curious habit of replying to private emails by cc’ing uninvolved parties, Bates responded to a (private) email I sent to him in early June wondering if he was aware that both NASA and the NOAA had now categorically refuted the ‘climate hiatus’ hypothesis by cc’in the Editor of the Farmers’ Journal, among others.

I pointed out that, according to NOAA, the peer-reviewed study found that: “the rate of global warming during the last 15 years has been as fast as or faster than that seen during the latter half of the 20th century. The study refutes the notion that there has been a slowdown or “hiatus” in the rate of global warming in recent years”. Well, that’s pretty clear then.

Then again, maybe not. Ray explained to me that, being a proper scientist, and not a mere ‘science writer’ like me, he doesn’t rush to judgement. Fair enough. His point was ever so slightly undermined by his including and referencing in his email reply a copy of an article from Wattsupwiththat, a hardcore US climate denial website. According to Bates, “I have read some reactions to the paper by scientists who have had time to study it – please see the attachment.  These comments, some of which are by scientists for whom I have great respect, do not inspire confidence in the results or significance of the paper.”

So, who are the folks in the WattsUpwiththat article who Bates finds more convincing than those alarmists at NASA and the NOAA? (didn’t those same NASA shysters who he finds so uninspiring just manoeuvre a space probe 5 billion kilometres across the solar system to map Pluto in exquisite detail?). How about Judith Curry, Patrick Michaels, Richard Lindzen – and my personal favourite and occasional sparring partner, the litigious Honourable Lord Monckton of Blechley. In short, a roll-call of some of the world’s most prominent anti-climate science ideologues, contrarians and spin doctors.

These are also the people Ray Bates has such tremendous respect for that he is prepared to take their word ahead of NASA, the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Society, and their counterparts in every major country in the world.

And as for the IPCC? Bates has found, like many others engaged in motivated reasoning that if you pick and choose your sentences carefully, you can claim – to a lay audience – to be speaking with the authority of the IPCC. As Prof Sweeney has shown so clearly above, Bates is instead grossly misrepresenting and distorting the IPCC’s published reports to buttress his own idiosyncratic, contrarian standpoint.

His Canute-like defence of industrialised beef and dairy exporting at the very moment when every credible scientist and scientific organisation on Earth is warning of a deepening global emergency would be comical, were it not for the fact that, at least in some quarters, Bates is still seen as having something useful to contribute to the debate on how we respond to climate change.

Despite his repeated public utterance on agriculture and climate change, Bates has never – ever – published anything in the scientific literature on this subject, hence his new “concerned citizen” persona, ie. I’m a respected expert when it suits, but just Joe Public when it doesn’t.

Apart from not being an expert of any sort in this field, Bates also refuses to engage with the ample scientific literature, both in Ireland and elsewhere, which shows the absolute vulnerability of the agricultural sector to the ravages of climate change. While the IFA may be forgiven for such blinkered thinking, for a trained scientist to tip-toe over these facts is, to put it mildly, bizarre.

I wonder what the actual experts on agriculture might think? Prof Alan Matthews of TCD is such a specialist. He is also on the newly formed Advisory Council on Climate Change. Back in early June, Matthews committed the treasonable heresy of pointing out that, in the absence of EU subsidies, virtually the entire Irish beef sector would be insolvent. For his insolence, the IFA suggested he be removed from the Advisory Council.

“If you were to add in the additional costs of greenhouse gases those net margins would be even more negative. This really makes you wonder, is this not a cheap abatement option?”, ventured Matthews. Ireland would benefit, both financially and environmentally, by exiting the unprofitable and GHG-intensive beef business and transferring large areas of the country to forestry.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the exquisite irony by now, of the (actual) agriculture expert concerned about climate change and GHG abatement versus the meteorologist cheerfully prepared to gamble on the future of human civilisation and ignore every red flag warning from all the world’s leading scientific academies and journals, just as long as the beef and dairy sectors keep on putting luxury foods on the tables of the world’s middle classes.

Bates’ argument, in summary, is that he reckons future global warming will be on the low end of the range of probabilities set out in the various IPCC reports (MIT scientists have helpfully developed a ‘Greenhouse Gamble’ wheel, which you can click to calculate probability of a range of outcomes. It is not even remotely reassuring). To support this view, he carefully picks and chooses supporting arguments, while ignoring uncooperative evidence (such as the recent NOAA/NASA study) and suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the IPCC climate models have got it wrong (which in turn conveniently ignores the fact that global instrumental observations are also tracking the unmistakable signature of rapid anthropogenic climate change).

He may, of course, be right. Statistically, the likelihood of low climate sensitivity leading to less than 2C of global warming this century is possible, but just not at all likely (even less so  when policymakers follow the advice of contrarians). It is every bit as possible, statistically, that the climate may instead show high sensitivity, leading to 4,5 or 6C+ temperature rises this century, leading to a carbon Armageddon, including the evisceration of global agriculture.

The most likely (c.3C) mid-range climate sensitivity would change the face of the Earth this century, placing billions of people in danger, inundating low-lying (and heavily populated) coastal areas and creating countless millions of climate refugees.

While we can all hope for low climate sensitivity (and that no nasty positive feedbacks kick in any time soon), it would be grossly irresponsible to base a do-nothing policy on what is little more than ideologically motivated, scientifically baseless optimism that is likely to lead to irreversible human immiseration on a scale beyond our bleakest imaginings.

Bates is as entitled as you, me or anyone else to express his views on climate science and, for that matter, agricultural policy. But the fact that he speaks as a rank amateur on the latter while systematically misrepresenting the former means the media and other organisations’ tendency to present him as a disinterested ‘climate expert’ needs to be vigorously – and repeatedly – challenged.

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Francis speaks frankly on the crisis of civilisation

Below, text of my article that first appeared on TheJournal.ie last night, just ahead of the unveiling of the eagerly awaited Papal Encyclical. Thus far, it has been read over 48,000 times, with well over 1,000 shares via Facebook and solid pick-up on Twitter too. What this suggests is that, contrary to the prevailing view within our mainstream media, there is indeed a keen public appetite to be told the unvarnished truth about the unfolding climate and ecological crises.

Ironically, the last time the Irish Times published an article of mine, it attracted almost 700 online comments, and was the ‘most read’ article on Irishtimes.com for most of the day it was published. So, while the public wants journalism to be honest and forthright, editors remain fearful, uncertain, indifferent and distracted; this is masked, I suspect, by hard-boiled cynicism.

Whether this will in any way be dented by the powerful papal intervention seems, at first glance, unlikely. After all, he appears to have been channeling Naomi Klein in pointing out the inescapable fact that one exuberant, restless and ingenious species has, in the blink of a geological eye, overwhelmed the natural world, upended aeons of evolution and swept all before it on what looks ever more like a rendezvous with self-inflicted oblivion.

But, at least to this observer’s eye, there is something dramatically different about this high-level intervention (even allowing for the Catholic church’s many self-inflicted travails). As ever, time will tell.

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FEW COULD imagine the ultra-conservative Vatican at the epicentre of a rebellion against rampant capitalism and its destruction of the natural world. The release tomorrow (June 17th) of what may well be the most radical papal encyclical in modern history strongly suggests we do indeed live in extraordinary times.

A leaked draft of the encyclical (or teaching letter) suggests that Pope Francis, a boxer in his youth, is coming out swinging, warning of the need for truly radical steps to arrest the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem”. Put plainly, he warned: “destroy Creation and Creation will destroy us”.

The pope explicitly links bare-knuckle capitalism with both ecological catastrophe and growing inequality. Given that just 67 billionaires control more than half the entire world’s wealth – each individual billionaire controlling more resources than an average 100 million people – it is clear that the pope is making some powerful new enemies. These same plutocrats bankroll politics and own the media in many countries, so the backlash against Francis will be epic.

In recent months, the science-savvy pontiff, who holds a Masters degree in chemistry, outraged neoliberals by dismissing ‘trickle-down’ economics as “a failed theory”. He went on to warn that “the invisible hand of capitalism cannot be trusted”. He also argued that “excessive consumerism is killing our culture, values and ethics…and the conservative ideal of individualism is undermining the common good”.

Francis is the first pope from the Global South, the part of the world that has been the loser as globalised capitalism concentrated more power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. His experience in his native Argentina, which was torn apart by economic collapses has left Francis deeply skeptical of the very capitalism pretty much every Irish politician, economist and commentator believes is essential to ‘grow the economy’.

Economic growth has come with a fearsome price tag. Half of all the wild animals on Earth have disappeared since 1970, according to a major WWF study. On our current trajectory, within the next three or four decades most of what remains of the natural world will quite literally have been wiped off the face of the planet. This generation of humans is both living through and the driving force behind the greatest global mass extinction event in at least the last 50 million years.

Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of the deniers to claim otherwise, climate change continues gathering both pace and momentum, setting in train processes that are, at least on human timescales, essentially irreversible.

Polar scientists now calculate a minimum of five metres of sea level rise is already ‘locked in’ as a result of unstoppable melting events in Antarctica and Greenland. This is sufficient to redraw the map of the world, and render many of our great coastal cities uninhabitable over time. However, our current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions pathway could, in just another decade or two, increase the amount of ‘locked-in’ ice melt to raise global sea levels by a staggering 20 metres over time.

While global average temperatures have already risen by almost 1C, causing sharp rises in extreme weather events across the world, climate scientists warn that our ever-increasing GHG emissions as a result of burning fossil fuels are rapidly pushing the global temperature gauge towards the +2C ‘red line’. Beyond this point lies a near future of weather disasters, famines, droughts and widespread economic and social disruption on a scale not witnessed since World War II.

The ecological and climate emergency is quite literally the gravest threat human beings have ever collectively faced.

While speaking as the head of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic church, Francis stresses that this encyclical, Laudato si (“Blessed are You”) is first and foremost a moral, rather than an overtly religious message. To drive home this point, the 200-page document will tomorrow be jointly launched by a Catholic cardinal, a Christian Orthodox church leader and a climate scientist who happens to be an atheist.

The encyclical will make acutely uncomfortable reading for practising Catholics like Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who, in tandem with Environment minister, Alan Kelly, has decided – for short-term gain – to make ignoring climate change de facto government policy.

The timing of Francis’ intervention is propitious: the UN’s major climate conference, dubbed COP 21, takes place in Paris in December, and the pope is taking to the road on an intensive lobbying campaign in support of a deal radical enough to avert disaster. Scientists are impressed. “The encyclical is probably going to have a bigger impact than the Paris negotiations”, said Gavin Schmidt of NASA.

“The attitudes hindering the path towards a solution…go from negating the problem to indifference, to an easy resignation, or to blind faith in technical solutions”, wrote Francis. At a stroke he dismantled the favourite talking points of deniers. He also dismissed ‘market fixes’ such as carbon credits, pointing out that these most likely “give rise to new forms of speculation”.

Laudato si may be the most genuinely radical document in a generation. It strikes at the heart of a deadly crisis by identifying unrestrained capitalism and the ideology of throw-away consumerism as widening inequality while both devastating the natural world and destabilising the global climate.

If Pope Francis’ intervention does indeed prove a decisive turning point, even the most cynical among us may have to concede that, from time to time, miracles do happen.

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Footnote: below, the comments made jointly by Prof John Sweeney and Fr Sean MacDonagh (the latter is known to have had a significant direct input into shaping Francis’ thinking on climate justice and theology in particular) in response to today’s encyclical. I felt it worth carrying them in full:

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THE PAPAL Encyclical Laudato Si, or Praised Be is titled after a famous prayer by St. Francis of Assisi and reflects the commitment of Pope Francis to the themes of environmental stewardship and climate change. In it he calls for an ethical and economic revolution to prevent catastrophic climate change and growing inequality. This eagerly awaited encyclical from the first Pontiff from the Developing World brings immense moral authority to the requirement, especially by developed countries to address in a meaningful way the growing threat of climate change. In what is an endorsement of the environmental movement from the world’s oldest and largest international organisation, Pope Francis, a trained chemist, calls for urgent action to develop policies to reduce greenhouse gases, including substituting fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources.

The Encyclical follows on from a number of comments by previous Popes on the subject and emphasises that climate change is not simply an economic issue, but one with immense moral and ethical dimensions. In the lead-up to the crucial Paris Conference in November, when a global agreement is hoped for it provides an important contribution. The Irish bishops have also been prominent in addressing this issue through their recent project/pastoral letter entitled: “Cry of the Earth” prepared in conjunction with Trocaire. Indeed the two principal authors of this document: Fr. Sean McDonagh and Professor John Sweeney are aware that their work was provided to Cardinal Turkson, the main author of the encyclical. A major conference on Climate Justice supported by Trocaire, Maynooth University and St. Patrick’s College, timed to coincide with the encyclical, will take place in Maynooth next week1.

The main theme of the Encyclical is that of climate justice, essentially that the burdens imposed by the main greenhouse gas emitters should be recompensed, that the polluter should pay principle be recognised. This is highly relevant to Ireland, which has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates in the world. It is also relevant to the current Climate and Low Carbon Development Bill, currently making its way through the Oireachtas.

It is ironic that Irish politicians have refused to accept modest amendments designed to make the bill an effective instrument to tackle Ireland’s contribution to adverse climate change impacts. It is particularly ironic, given the worldwide attention on climate justice, that the government vetoed an amendment to include mention of climate justice in the Bill as recently as last week. It is also regrettable that Ireland refuses to express in its legislation a target for greenhouse gas reduction as far away as 2050, a year that most other countries specify in their legislation.

The Pope’s message is highly relevant to Ireland. It is a reminder of the urgent and compelling need for courageous political leadership to see off short term powerful interest groups in putting in place a legislative regime that is not simply a sop to the problem. It is also a reminder that climate change mitigation is should not simply involved an economist-centred approach, but one that reflects the global as well as local interests of climate justice.

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Climate Bill that’s built to fail?

The confirmation earlier today that retired ESRI economist, Prof John FitzGerald has been given the plum job of chairing the Expert Advisory Council on Climate Change has hardly been greeted with universal applause.

The first question is what exactly qualifies FitzGerald for the gig? Many people were wondering the same thing last week regarding Patrick Neary, our one-time Financial Regulator, or The Dog That Didn’t Bark, as he is better known.

What’s the connection between Neary and FitzGerald, you may ask? Well, during his pitiful presentation on the multiple failings of his tenure as regulator, Neary was at pains to point out that while he was a humble civil servant doing a difficult task for which he was ill-equipped and with zero political backing, he took his cues from the real experts, specifically those highly polished top-drawer economists over at the ESRI.

After all, they weren’t beholden to anyone, they had plenty of analytical tools and no shortage of in-house expertise. They also had ready access to the media, both print and broadcast. If there was anything rotten in the Irish economy, surely the high-powered economists at the ESRI would know about it? Well, apparently not.

While by 2007, the dogs in the street seemed to have spotted that Ireland had become a bubble economy, with critically dangerous levels of dependence on a seriously overheated property sector, none of this was to come between the ESRI’s finest and their economic models and carefully tabulated assumptions as set out in its now-infamous Medium Term Review, 2008-2015.

In its Executive Summary, they projected annual growth rate from 2008-2015 of 3.75%. Even though the cracks were already showing at the time of its writing, FitzGerald et al cheerfully opined: “Our analysis suggests that, even if the current downturn were to be more severe than anticipated, the economy would eventually recover more vigorously to realise the medium-term growth rate”.

While Neary was pensioned off into well-compensated ignomony, nobody at the ESRI, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, lost their jobs as a result of providing this hideously inaccurate State economic forecasting service that, in no small degree, helped steer our Ship of Fools onto the rocks as the economy collapsed and tens of billions of unrepayable gambling debts of dodgy bankers and builders were piled onto the hapless Irish public (in response to this blog, UCD economist Karl Whelan rushed to FitzGerald’s defence on Twitter earlier today. Apart from excoriating the poor quality of this post – naturally – he added: “Fitz has promoted the idea of higher carbon taxes for lower income taxes for at least 25 years. Shooting the wrong messenger”).

You may have found yourself snickering at Neary’s pathetic performance last week, but when he said the ESRI from its economic crows’ nest gave no warning whatever as to the disaster that would befall us, in that at least he was being entirely accurate.

I spotted said Prof FitzGerald at an EPA lecture on climate change in Dublin’s Mansion House back in early March. The fruits of his research appeared later that month in his Irish Times column, in an article inauspiciously titled, ‘Solution to global warming is technology’. Given the vast ranges of uncertainties involved in Earth sciences, understanding climate change and grasping its wider implications is largely about risk assessment.

And if anyone in Ireland should be chastened by their own calamitous personal failure to assess risk, it would be said Prof FitzGerald. This, to me, was a good thing: nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes, but only the truly foolish fail to learn from these painful experience. So what exactly has FitzGerald learned? Well, if his own writing is anything to go by, the answer is: absolutely nothing.

As I explained at length in a ThinkOrSwim posting back in March, FitzGerald’s Irish Times article was again that chilling mix of hubris and incompetence that so many economists seem to bring to climate change. Then again, since FitzGerald’s punishment for being dead wrong about the crash is ready access to the media and now, chairmanship of the Expert Advisory Council that will advise the Government on implemeting the Climate Act when it finally comes into being, what on Earth would be the point of learning from his mistakes?

A cynic once described experience as the process of making the same mistakes, but with increasing confidence. This being the case, we can be said to have a truly experienced figure heading up the Advisory Council. Ireland does of course have a handful of actual climate experts, most notably Prof John Sweeney of NUIM, who has been part of Ireland’s representation as an IPCC expert for many years.

Sweeney has been, it appears, excluded from this new Expert Advisory Council. If you are wondering why, his trenchant response to FitzGerald’s pitiful article back in March could have sealed his fate. Sweeney, a man who rarely seeks out the limelight and is always polite and measured in his exchanges, was unusually animated in calling out the “deeply flawed” nonsense being pedalled by FitzGerald, which he said “betrays the fallacy of framing the climate change problem solely in an economic paradigm”.

Sweeney went on to point out that “narrowly focused economic perspectives on the climate change problem frequently reinforce political inertia by emphasising the “what’s in it for us” issues that enable procrastination based on perceived national self-interest.” The NUIM professor concluded his broadside by pointing out that climate change “is a game changer which cannot be accommodated in conventional economic paradigms”. The science, Sweeney presciently warned, “and not economics or national self-interest, must drive policy”.

And so, in a nutshell, the champions of narrow national self-interest (Coveney, Kelly et al) have ousted the ‘science science’ in favour of that far more pliable pseudo-science of economics, where uncooperative physical realities such as finite resources and limits set by physics, such as the carrying capacity of the atmosphere, can be blithely ignored and reasoned away with a quick tweak of a discount rate (FitzGerald’s former ESRI colleague, the neoliberal economist Prof Richard Tol, has been muddying the waters of climate change policy for years by using an assortment of techniques to low-ball risks and ignore the benefits of dealing with climate change).

I speculated back in March that Prof FitzGerald’s new-found interest in climate change was probably linked to his brushing up the auld CV for the Advisory Council gig, and so it came to pass.

That FitzGerald is hopelessly out of touch with (or, more likely, simply unaware of) the stark realities presented by the physical science of climate change is evidenced by the following knuckle-headed assessment: “It is our grandchildren and great grandchildren who would benefit from applying the brakes today to bring the momentum of climate change to a slow halt. Like development aid, action on climate change involves an appeal to altruism on the part of voters – there is little in it for people living in Ireland today.”

That view might, in 1995, or perhaps, at a stretch, 2005, have been seen as misguided but understandable. Given the absolute clarity and overwhelming scientific consensus that now surrounds the core science of climate change, and given the extremely narrow window remaining in which the global community can exercise any meaningful control on climate change before it becomes a planetary runaway train, FitzGerald’s opinions sound naive and outdated.

So far, so bad. Prof Frank Convery, late of UCD and Prof Alan Matthews of TCD, are also, according to today’s news report, also likely to be on the Council. Matthews does appear to have a solid grasp of reality, while we await Convery’s inputs with interest. Beyond that, the EPA, Teagasc and the SEAI all get ex-officio seats, with six further spots to be filled.

Prof Ray Bates of UCD may have been busy positioning himself for a spot on the Council. Bates has taken an increasingly skeptical position in recent years; in particular he has been busy pedalling the ‘climate hiatus’ angle – this is the notion, crudely expressed, that global warming has somehow stopped or levelled off since the late 1990s.

According to Bates, “…No completely confident explanation of either the warming hiatus or the models’ failure to replicate it is at present available”. And on this basis, he merrily thrashes even the highly conservative, politically diluted and ultra-cautious IPCC AR5 report on the grounds that ‘it’s the hiatus, stupid’, or arguments to that effect.

Bates quotes career climate contrarians such as Richard Lindzen and Judith Curry to buttress his argument; recently, he sent a link to a document from the secretly funded denialist think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, to defend his challenging the IPCC’s findings on CO2 and ocean acidification. The problem with the ‘hiatus’ argument is that it is incorrect. A major recent NOAA study has blown it clean out of the water. It “refutes the notion that there has been a slowdown or ‘hiatus’ in the rate of global warming in recent years”.

Since the release of the IPCC (AR5) report, “NOAA scientists have made significant improvements in the calculation of trends and now use a global surface temperature record that includes the most recent two years of data, 2013 and 2014—the hottest year on record”. Its conclusion: “Our new analysis suggests that the apparent hiatus may have been largely the result of limitations in past datasets, and that the rate of warming over the first 15 years of this century has, in fact, been as fast or faster than that seen over the last half of the 20th century.”

This is very awkward indeed for those, like Bates, who argue publicly that the short-term interests of industrialised, export-driven agriculture are somehow of more consequence than the existential threats posed by climate change (and before you ask why would an atmospheric scientist be publicly lobbying for Irish beef and dairy expansion, while ignoring all the published science that points out the extreme vulnerability of food production to climate change? I have no idea. I did enquire, but have yet to receive a reply).

Tomorrow (Tues/9th) afternoon sees the Committee Stage of the Climate Bill (list of proposed Opposition amends is here). The indefatigable deputy Catherine Murphy has submitted a slew of useful amendments. “The Bill aims for a low-carbon Ireland but doesn’t say what that means. We think the Bill should include a simple 80% emissions reduction target like recent law in Finland” Oisin Coghlan of FOE is quoted in the Irish Times. “At the very least the Government’s own definition of low carbon should be included in the Bill. Without that clarity the law will fail to deliver the climate action it promises.”

In summary, what most observers would like to see emerge is a clear political signal that Ireland is irrevocably committed to an ultra low-carbon future. This will give confidence to a slew of investment in both renewable and energy-saving technologies, as well as reshaping transport and agriculture policy towards genuine sustainability.

For my money, we have to impose ‘carbon budgets’ on each Government department, in exactly the same way as each operates within a fiscal budget. Failure of a minister to deliver on required reductions their department’s annual carbon budget should be as serious as failing to live within agreed financial targets. Scotland last month produced more electricity from wind energy than used by its entire domestic sector. Clean, locally produced energy and jobs, or filthy, imported fuels that foul the air locally and destroy our shared atmosphere – is that really such a tough choice?

The independence and expertise of the Advisory Council, notwithstanding the abovementioned concerns about its Chair, is still crucial. If Fitzgerald sticks to being an effective chair and lets the actual climate experts get on with their tasks, he may yet prove my reservations groundless.

Behind the scenes, underfunded and outgunned NGOs and umbrella groups like the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and An Taisce have been keeping on the pressure to get a much, much better Bill. They are up against political cynicism, public service inertia and vigorous and well-funded lobbying by special interest groups like the IFA and IBEC.

It’s an entirely unequal battle, but what evens things up in the long run is that those fighting climate change are on the right side of history, and this reality, sooner or later, will be largely uncontested.

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Europe’s air pollution crisis brings climate reality close to home

Below, my article as it appears in this month’s Village magazine…

WHILE global pollution crises, from climate change to plastics in the oceans, are showing no signs of abating, the worst effects are, we in the ‘developed world’ are reassured to believe, clustered in poorer countries and distant ecosystems.

One of the many environmental paradoxes is that, while global ecological indexes are in freefall, we in the more prosperous parts of the world have never had it so good. The outsourcing of heavy industry from much of Europe and the US to the Far East over the last two decades has been a win-win for the west. The cost of manufactured goods plummeted thanks to the vast new pools of cheap labour, leading to the last decade and a half turning into greatest shopping spree in human history.

While we shopped, they dropped. China today burns nearly half the world’s coal. Air pollution is now so severe that Chinese scientists have described its effects as being akin to a nuclear winter, with photosynthesis in plants being disrupted – potentially wreaking havoc on China’s food supply. A 2104 report from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences stated that that Beijing’s pollution levels made the city “almost uninhabitable for human beings”.

While the climate-altering greenhouses gases spewing from thousands of new smokestacks across Asia are demonstrably as much a threat to Ireland as they are to China or India, it remains alarmingly easy for our politicians and policymakers to poo poo such abstractions as the concentrations of an invisible, odourless gas like carbon dioxide (CO2) while instead tilting their ire, Don Quixote-style at ‘unsightly’ windmills.

And while the silent apocalypse being wrought by the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels inches ever closer, we can at least console ourselves that it’s a problem for ‘other’ people (those divided from us either by geography or by time) to deal with.

This narrow view was shattered by a recent report from the World Health Organisation (Europe) that took an in-depth look at the costs to Europe right now from air pollution. The word they used to summarise their own conclusions was “staggering”. It’s hardly an overstatement. The WHO study attributed some 600,000 deaths in Europe every year directly as a result of air pollution; it calculated the annual cost of illness and death at some $1.6 trillion (yes, trillion).

This enormous sum is the equivalent of some 10% of the GDP of the entire European Union. “Curbing the health effects of air pollution pays dividends. The evidence we have provides decision-makers across the whole of government with a compelling reason to act”, according to Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “If different sectors come together on this, we not only save more lives but also achieve results that are worth astounding amounts of money”.

The economic cost of deaths accounts for over US$ 1.4 trillion per annum. Another 10% is added to this to account for the cost of diseases from air pollution, resulting in the total of around US$ 1.6 trillion. The economic value of deaths and diseases due to air pollution is, according to the WHO, based on the amount societies are willing to pay to avoid these deaths and diseases with necessary interventions. In these calculations, “a value is attached to each death and disease, independent of the age of the person and which varies according to the national economic context”.

More than nine in 10 people living in the European Region are exposed to annual levels of outdoor fine particulate matter that are in excess of the WHO’s air quality guidelines. This translates into 482,000 premature deaths in 2012 from heart and respiratory diseases and strokes, as well as lung cancers. Indoor air pollution accounted for another 117,200 premature deaths, five times more in poorer than in higher-income European countries.

A related WHO study tallied that one in four Europeans falls ill or dies prematurely from environmental pollution. So much for this simply being a far-away problem affecting people and places we know and care little about.

The law of unintended consequences applies in attempts at curbing pollution. Many European governments, including the Fianna Fail/Green coalition, moved to introduce reforms in motor taxation to favour vehicles that produced lower CO2 emissions. While this undoubtedly nudged car makers into producing cleaner engines, the single biggest switch was from petrol to diesel combustion.

The massive shift to diesel on Irish roads has happened rapidly. This seemingly ‘environmentally friendly’ move (diesel engines produce around 20% less CO2 per kilometre travelled than petrol equivalents) has a nasty sting in the tailpipe. Diesel engines emit 10 times the fine particles and up to twice the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) of petrol. These toxins have been linked to 7,000 deaths in the UK each year.

A study in the medical journal, The Lancet in 2011 implicated traffic exposure to particulates as the single most serious preventable trigger of heart attack in the general public, and the principal cause of 7.4% of all attacks. Particulates are classed as carcinogens by the WHO. Fine particulates (those below 2.5 micrometers, or less than 30 times smaller than the width of a single strand of hair) are particularly dangerous.

These microscopic particulates penetrate deep into the lungs, and into individual alveoli, passing through cell membranes and migrating into other organs. Established health effects include asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, premature delivery, birth defects and premature death. Infants and children are particularly at risk from the effects of particulates, and these in turn are most intense in urban areas in proximity to heavy traffic.

In April 2015, its Supreme Court ruled that the British government must take urgent steps to tackle air pollution in cities. The UK is facing huge fines from the European Commission for failing to cut levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The Supreme court ordered the UK Department for the Environment to draw up new air quality plans by the end of 2015, setting out how it plans to dramatically tackle air pollution.

According to the WHO analysis, the cost to Ireland of air pollution is just over $2.5 billion annually, estimated at around 1.3% of Ireland’s GNP. The figures are very significantly higher in many eastern European countries, where the annual cost of air pollution averages up to 20% of GNP.

Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency monitors domestic air quality, and in 2014 it raised concerns over levels of the cancer-causing particulates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are produced by burning solid fuels, and ozone which in high concentrations causes breathing problems, damages lungs and can trigger asthma.

The EPA noted that local air quality was significantly impacted by burning coal or peat in the home, as well as the level of vehicular traffic in urban areas. The EPA also expressed concern about the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air in urban areas.

“Ireland must develop and implement policies to reduce travel demand, emphasising sustainable transport modes such as cycling, walking and public transport and improving the efficiency of motorised transport,” according to the EPA.

In tandem with its atrocious performance on the Climate Bill, there is zero indication that the government or indeed the execrable current environment minister, Alan Kelly has any interest whatever in curbing pollution or tackling our spiralling transport and agricultural emissions, any more than he has in lifting a finger on climate change.

To the contrary, the science-illiterate Kelly appears to favour a return to industry-friendly light touch regulation in housing, coupled with vague and deliberately meaningless ‘targets’ on emissions reduction with no mechanism to actually deliver them.

We may now be witnessing a rapid regression to the cowboy building blitz of the boom years, coupled with toothless and useless climate legislation. Meanwhile, the new WHO data on air pollution is a timely reminder that what you can’t see can indeed hurt you. Right now, people are paying with their health and their lives for our failure to address air pollution.

The same steps needed to tackle this epidemic would also set us on the road to climate stabilisation by reining in the reckless burning of fossil fuels and rapidly transitioning to clean, safe alternatives. But as long as we continue to vote in politicians prepared to gamble with our health as well as our future, that prospect remains remote in the extreme.

– John Gibbons writes on climate and environmental issues and is online @think_or_swim

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Guardian seeks to rouse media from its climate torpor

Below is my article as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine:

THERE is nothing new about newspapers striking poses over climate change. On December 7th, 2009, some 55 major newspapers from all over the world (including the Irish Times) ran a joint editorial just ahead of the opening of the Copenhagen UN climate conference.

Who could forget the dramatic call to arms from some of the world’s most respected newspapers, which began: “humanity faces a profound emergency”.

“Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting… In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

“Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.” Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

An economic analysis that just doesn’t add up

I was pleased to spot economist Prof John Fitzgerald among the audience at the recent EPA lecture in the Mansion House, Dublin, presented by Prof Myles Allen. As it transpires, Fitzgerald was doing some field work for an opinion article that appeared in the business section of the Irish Times earlier this week, under the headline: ‘Solution to global warming is technology’ (authors rarely get to write the headline, so we won’t hold that one against him).

This is one of only a handful of articles the otherwise prolific Fitzgerald has dedicated to the topic of climate change. It is always welcome to see a senior Irish economist to turn his quill to this vast, challenging topic (two fairly strong critiques of Fitzgerald’s piece, by Profs Barry McMullin and John Sweeney appeared in the Letters Page a week after publication)

To be fair, it started well enough, with phrases such as: “If urgent action is not taken the world’s climate will get worse at an accelerated pace”. That’s as good as it gets, alas. “Governments rarely choose to go to their electorates and tell them they are going to make life more expensive and that there will be no go financial reward for their pain” is how Fitzgerald sums up moves to address climate change. Continue reading

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | 13 Comments

Come back, Liz McManus – your country needs you!

In case you haven’t heard, our current Minister for the Environment is a Labour party TD called Alan Kelly. He is the man who brought us the no-lobbyist-left-behind Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015, a piece of draft legislation that has been warmly welcomed by the IFA, ICOS, IBEC, etc., i.e. by the folks who have worked tirelessly over the last several years to ensure that no meaningful climate legislation ever found its way onto our statute books. In that regard, the Climate Bill looks like ‘Mission Accomplished’.

Kelly was interviewed by Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio yesterday. It was, in a sense, revealing. Kelly is “a person of conviction”, we learned. We know this because he told us he was. We also learned that Kelly’s proudest boast is that Ireland has the “highest growth rate in Europe” (again), and that he pursues what he calls a “progressive agenda”. Kelly is also deputy leader of the Labour party, therefore the proverbial heartbeat from being Tánaiste.

To wind him up a bit, O’Rourke played a clip of former minister, Eamon Ryan describing Kelly as “an anti-green Minister for the Environment…he reads the political tea leaves and sees there isn’t a constituency (in tackling climate change)”. Ryan went on to describe Kelly as “our greatest electoral asset, every time he goes out, he saying Labour doesn’t give a damn about that vision of the future”. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Breaching our planetary boundaries, one by one

Below, my article, as it will appear in the latest Village magazine:

BACK IN 2009, some months before the ill-fated UN climate conference in Copenhagen, an Earth system framework was proposed by an international collaboration of environmental scientists. Their aim was to establish a measurable set of ‘planetary boundaries’ with a view to identifying a “safe operating space” for humanity.

The research team, involving scientists from a range of disciplines, developed a set of nine key boundaries, beyond which lay the risks of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. In January 2015, the team published an in-depth update on their investigations in the journal Science, and it was discussed in depth at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. The findings took even seasoned environmental commentators and observers by surprise.

The paper confirmed that humanity has already breached four of the nine key boundaries, namely biodiversity loss, deforestation, atmospheric CO2 levels and the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture into the world’s waterways and oceans. Continue reading

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

Milking the (climate) system, Irish-style

Below, article as it appears in the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine. (I co-authored this piece with Paul Price).

“IT IS DIFFICULT to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. Novelist Upton Sinclair’s famous observation could well have been describing Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, a rare ambitious and ascending star on an otherwise jaded Fine Gael front bench.

Coveney’s understanding of the most basic of scientific facts will clearly not encumber his possible trajectory towards the goal of being Cork’s first Taoiseach since Jack Lynch. So, when Coveney appeared on a recent edition of RTE’s PrimeTime, only the thinnest of smiles betrayed the fact that he was selling a series of fat porkies on national television.

Coveney’s claim that the Irish dairy herd could be expanded by over 300,000 cows in the next five years “while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agriculture sector” is, he must well know, nonsensical.  To defend it, he engaged in some unconvincing waffle about higher yields per animal somehow magically offsetting the massive increase in our national herd. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 37 Comments

The Dream (A Fantasy at Christmas)

It was still dark when Enda Kenny fell awake from a fitful sleep. He rose unsteadily, exhausted, almost stumbling as he made his way to the bathroom. With the light on, he noticed his pyjamas were almost completely soaked in sweat; beads clung to his forehead and over his upper lip. He washed his face, changed his clothing and sat silently in near-darkness in the kitchen for around twenty minutes.

“Jesus H. Christ”, he muttered almost inaudibly, his thoughts interrupted by the ring of his mobile phone. It was Leo Varadkar. “Sorry boss to call so early, but there’s something really strange going on. My phone has been ringing since just after six am. People are freaking out”, said the Health Minister. “Slow down Leo, for feck’s sake”, said Kenny. “Who’s freaking out, what’s this about?”

“I really don’t know how to explain this without sounding like I’m losing my marbles, boss, but it’s this dream…” Kenny froze. “Dream…what…dream?” The words tumbled out, almost afraid of the answer. “Jesus boss, don’t laugh, but I’ve just had the worst dream of my life. I woke an hour ago and nearly threw up. Then, the phone started ringing. First, it was Coveney, crying like a baby, then Reilly, then a couple of lads from the constituency office, then my pal from Trinity…” His voice trailed off.

“Christ, man, get to the point”, said Kenny, who became aware that his own lips were bone dry and almost stuck to one another as he spoke. “Sorry boss, this sounds completely mental, I know, but everyone I’ve spoken to in the last hour has had the same dream…seriously, the same actual goddam dream, the same dream. And people are phoning in and emailing from all over the world saying the same thing. Twitter has nearly exploded. Jesus boss, I’m a feckin’ medical doctor and I can tell you for a fact this is impossible, completely impossible. But it’s also true.”

Kenny slumped back into the chair, the mobile phone almost slipping from his sweat-soaked grasp. “This dream, Leo, did it have anything…you know…to do with some kind of… disaster…. anything like that?”

“Em, yes boss, it was that exactly; I felt like I was trapped alive in the worst horror story you could ever imagine…everything had fallen apart, there was floods, storms, looting, rioting, chaos, the lights were out, no water or food, the guards, firemen, hospitals, army, everything gone…but it was right here in Dublin, well, all over Ireland in fact. There wasn’t much contact with the outside world, but from what we could make it, it was at least as bad everywhere else. I know it had to have been a dream, but I’d swear to you it was real, I knew exactly what was going on every moment of it…” added Varadkar.

“Hello, hello, boss, are you still there?” After several seconds of silence, Kenny replied haltingly: “You’ve just pretty well described my dream…Leo, call a Cabinet meeting for noon today; whatever ministers are away, get them back. We need to get the general secretaries of all departments in as well. The Garda commissioner, Civil defense, army chief of staff, you know, the usual suspects. We’ll meet with them later this afternoon. We need to get all the ambassadors on a teleconference too, see if we can get a clearer picture from around the world.”

“What about a press briefing?”, Varadkar enquired half-heartedly. “Christ Leo, what are we going to say to them, some kind of Martin Luther King ‘I have a dream’ moment, I don’t feckin’ think so. Get the press officers in and let them get together and figure something out”. A fit 63-year old, this morning Kenny felt more like 93. His wife Fionnuala appeared. She too looked exhausted and ashen-faced. “Christ Enda, you won’t believe the dream I’m after having…”

———————————–

And so it spread, all over the world. Billions woke that day frightened, confused and anxious. As news spread, churches, mosques and temples quickly filled to overflowing. The impossible had just happened. Years of warnings by leading scientific agencies that the world was on the path to catastrophic climate change and an epic global extinction event had gone unheeded. Nobody knew how it happened but now, everyone knew. The realisation fell like a hammer.

An emergency session of the United Nations was summoned, and leaders of over 190 countries, including Kenny, flooded to New York for an intensive behind-closed-doors briefing session with senior scientific members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Society and their counterparts from another 20 or so major nations, including China and Japan. Even the Russians came in from the cold. Long-standing enmities and even the bitterest of rivalries were, for now, put on ice.

CEOs and chairmen of the world’s major transnational corporations were also invited to participate, as were the publishers and senior editors of over 300 newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and news websites. Senior delegates from all the world’s major religious organisation also attended.

After several days and nights of intense negotiations, four figures emerged to make a joint address to the UN General Assembly. They were US president, Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Jean-Claude Juncker on behalf of the EU. This was their statement:

“Something truly unprecedented has happened in the last few days. While we may never fully understand what has just occurred, its import is crystal clear. Together, we stand at the edge of the greatest crisis in human history. It is, quite simply, without precedent. Our scientists have been telling us this, in so many words, for years, but we, the politicians, the business community, religious and civil society, we haven’t been listening. We have been asleep. It took a dream to wake us up.

“Having consulted with other world leaders, we are today declaring a global climate emergency. With immediate effect, all energy production is being nationalised, and energy rationing will begin shortly. Every coal-burning plant in the world is to be fully decommissioned within 10 years. A trillion dollars is being ring-fenced for a multi-national renewable and nuclear energy programme. Work begins immediately.

“We are also declaring 500 million hectares of land off-limits to all human activity or encroachment. All logging and mining in these conservation areas is hereby declared illegal, and these will be rigorously enforced. We are also declaring the entire Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland regions, including surrounding oceans, as completely off limits to anything other than strictly regulated scientific activities. New laws are being put in place to enshrine the right of the natural world to exist and to flourish, and to be strictly protected from human encroachment.

“With immediate effect, couples will be limited to one child. To support this policy, policies, customs and religious rules restricting the rights of women and girls to full educational equality, including free access to family planning services, will be outlawed. Stringent new carbon taxes will be targeted at non-essential or luxury items. All tax shelters for corporations and rich individuals are being shut down, and we are restoring the top rate of income tax for high earners to the levels that applied in the early 1960s – ranging from 70–92%.

“Much of the proceeds of these new taxes will be used to improve conditions for the low-paid and those in poorer countries. Our shared ambition is to tackle income inequality, both between individuals and between states, as the only safe way of ensuring the social cohesion that is going to be essential in the extremely difficult times that lie ahead.

“Yes, these new regulations will impose hardships on some, but, as we all now know, the alternative is to be complicit in the greatest calamity in all of human history, and the destroy this world for all future generations. This would be the gravest stain on our species. We stand together, collectively determined that this generation will not and must not let this catastrophe come to pass.”

———————————–

Some called it a communications failure, but it might be better thought of as a failure of imagination. Decades of growth and seemingly endless economic and population expansion and its accompanying ideologies had inured the world to the reality of the ever-tightening resource crisis, spiralling emissions, collapse in global biological diversity and the great unravelling of complexity across the biosphere.

The consequences of this massive fraying of the very fabric of life on Earth were, until that fateful night, beyond the reach of people’s imagination, and thus, in a very real sense, unreal, remote and of no great consequence.

And so began a new era in human affairs, one that would, in time, become known as The Great Contraction. Whether even such radical steps could avoid or forestall the severe impacts of a battered biosphere and a restive climate system would only become apparent by mid-century.

But, in starting over, there was reason to believe once more.

Merry Christmas.

Posted in Global Warming, Psychology | 2 Comments

What next for the apes who went to space?

I have no idea where I was on the night of July 20-21, 1969, being far too young to grasp the historic events that were unfolding, as Apollo 11 became the first spacecraft to land humans on a world other than our own. It was, in every sense over my head, albeit in this instance by a good one third of a million kilometres.

In its specially extended coverage, RTE television was still on air at the then-scandalous hour of 3.56am on July 21st as Neil Armstrong took those famous first steps onto the surface of the moon. The RTE Guide, in its edition dated July 18, 1969, featured four solid pages detailing its planned radio and TV coverage of the monumental event.

The usual domestic news stories were swept from the editorial agendas as the dramatic story of Apollo 11’s eight-day journey to the moon gripped audiences around the world. I don’t know what the 1969 version of the water-metering saga was, but even a political soap opera on this scale would surely have been swept away in the dizzy excitement of Apollo 11.

Back then, scientists really were virtually rock stars – presidents and prime ministers listened to and – as often as not – acted under the guidance of the great scientific institutions, be they Nasa and the AAAS in the US, or the UK Royal Society.

Politicians and the media still argued furiously about how best to respond to given scientific findings, but only the truly bone-headed and marginal argued about the facts themselves. The 1969 moon landing was an astonishing triumph for science in its most literal sense, i.e. scientia, the Latin for knowledge. An insatiable thirst to better understand our world had actually propelled one insatiably inquisitive species of higher primates all the way from the African savannah to our neighbouring moon – and back.

A curious side-effect of Nasa’s space programme was that it offered us, for the first time, clear images of Earth as a small blue sphere cradled against the ink-black infinity of space. A famous photo known as ‘Earthrise’ was taken by a crew member of Apollo 8 on December 24th, 1968, the first vessel to complete a lunar orbit. From this new perspective, our limitless world suddenly appeared finite, delicate, yet exquisitely precious – the merest blue smudge in the Cosmos.

Less than two years later, 20 million people took to the streets of America for the first Earth Day, in April, 1970. That massive direct action shook up the political classes and, sensing the new zeitgeist, Republican US president, Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into being in December of that year.

For a long moment in the early 1970s, it really seemed that humanity’s relationship with the natural world might, for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution, be placed on a sustainable trajectory. This would mean awakening to the reality of our place within the living world, not as its master but its child, entirely dependent for our well being, our prosperity and our very lives, on the only known biosphere for a trillion kilometres in any direction.

The influential book ‘Limits to Growth’ was published in 1972, having been commissioned by a think tank known as The Club of Rome. It was chillingly prescient:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

What the authors could not have foreseen back then was not just that growth trends would continue, but that they would in fact ramp up sharply, along an exponential curve, especially since the late 1990s, when vast countries like China and India began the most rapid spurt of industrialization in human history.

Fast forward some 45 years from the moon landings to another historic day: November 12, 2014. On this day, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta reached the comet known as 67P/C-G, a roughly 3-by-5 km chunk of rock (first detected in the year of the moon landing, 1969) last August.  Rosetta has travelled some 6.4 billion km since it blasted off in 2004 – the mission has cost around 1.4 billion euros – if you think that sounds like a lot, it’s less than a quarter of what our government pumped into just one rotten institution – Irish Nationwide – after the banking collapse.

Comets are flying time capsules, fragments that pre-date the formation of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago, so they offer us unique opportunities to better understand our own planetary origins, including tantalising clues as to the origins of life on Earth, as well as possibly trapping ancient organic molecules. I herded the kids into the living room just ahead of 9pm RTE main evening news, so they could see coverage of this truly amazing story. We waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Gerry Adams, water protesters, Ivor Callely, Ian Bailey, the 1916 commemorations were among the ‘top stories’ that filled the screen.

Not one of them was in any sense ‘new’; all have been rumbling along for days or even weeks. Nor did the bulletin offer any particularly notable advances on any of these stories. Eventually, after around 14 minutes, RTE News carried a piece, running to two minutes and 15 seconds. You couldn’t fault correspondent Will Goodbody’s report, but the same cannot be said for the rabbits who are operating the editorial levers in Montrose.

Wondering if I was simply losing my marbles about the significance of this story, I switched over to the BBC’s flagship TV news bulletin at 10pm, where, sure enough, it was the lead item, with the entire opening segment of almost six minutes dedicated to its coverage. Ditto for CNN and Sky News.

To recap: Rosetta is probably the biggest astronomy story since Apollo 11. Yes, the Mars Rover was another technological triumph, but chasing Comet 67P/C-G for billions of kilometres across the solar system and finally successfully intercepting with and then landing a probe on a rock hurtling along at over 50,000 km per hour, is one of those truly rare moments when science fact brilliantly eclipses even science fiction.

The triumph of the Rosetta mission shows how cutting edge science, enabled by ever more powerful computing resources, has continued to advance in the last four decades. Compare and contrast this latest titanic achievement with the media caricature of science being a disconnected series of random events and ever-changing ‘evidence’ and scientists a bunch of self-serving chancers who make stuff up to get research grants.

This incident also brought it forcefully home that, apart from being uninterested in science, just how entirely provincial the outlook of Ireland’s national media really is, whatever its pretentions to the contrary might be.

This point was hammered home the following morning, when our Newspaper of Record relegated the comet landing to the inside pages. If on the other hand Roy Keane is spotted out walking his dog, well hold the front pages! George Bernard Shaw once mockingly described a newspaper as being an institution unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation. It doesn’t seem quite so far fetched a put-down now.

Cast your mind back a couple of weeks, to Sunday, November 2nd and the launch of the IPCC’s AR5 Synthesis Report. This was the Big One, pulling together the main threads of its findings, while weeding out some climate policy trolls (most notably the pseudo-scientific Panglossian hokum pedalled by one Prof Richard Tol) along the way.

To its credit, RTE did a fine job that day, leading its 6pm and 9pm bulletins, with environment correspondent George Lee leaving viewers in no doubt that as to the gravity of this report (I was interviewed by Lee for the bulletin wearing my An Taisce climate change committee hat).

Within 24 hours, the story was a dead letter as far as the Irish media was concerned. It didn’t make a line on the front page of the next day’s Irish Independent, with the Irish Times managing a meagre 2” single column front page piece. By Tuesday, it was business-as-usual, as the Independent’s knuckle-dragger-in-chief penned his latest piece of bilious anti-science twaddle.

In what I can only assume is a desperate search for attention, the author (who confuses being able to type with being able to write) plumbs the sewers of journalism every time he mentions climate change. The irony here is that the Indo’s actual environment corr, Paul Melia, seems to really know his stuff, but get precious little editorial space, while the poo-flinging Ian O’Doherty is promoted, presumably to serve as Daily Mail style click-bait.

When it isn’t conducting intricate manoeuvres with probes half a billion kilometres away, the European Space Agency is, along with its US counterpart, Nasa, at the bleeding edge of research into climate change. Both agencies deploy satellites to take a range of ultra-precise ongoing measurements of ‘the home planet’, from assaying atmospheric CO2 to sea level and ice thickness measurements.

Measuring and understanding the vital functions of a dynamic living biosphere and its ever-changing weather systems involves as phenomenally complex collaborative science as guiding Rosetta across the Solar System to rendezvous with comet 67P/C-G. Curious how as soon as the same scientists who deliver mind-boggling breakthroughs such as the Rosetta mission apply their expertise to measure the degree to which Earth systems are being impacted by climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, glacial ice loss, sea level rise, extreme weather events and widespread pollution, they are suddenly cast as cranks, alarmists and venial grant-seekers who’ll say anything for a couple of hundred euros. Like a certain kind of hack, come to think of it.

Well, that’s what the poo-flingers would have us believe anyhow. Personally, if forced to choose between believing the semi-literate babbling of neoliberal fantasists and the collective expertise and data sets of the world’s scientific institutions, frankly, it’s really not such a tough call.

I was interviewed on Monday’s RTE Drivetime (clip starts around 00.49) about the report. The interviewer asked me straight off the bat whether the IPCC’s findings could in fact be trusted. Seriously. Had he been tuning in, George Lee would probably have been pulling his remaining hair out in tufts. In the movie Groundhog Day, it’s always February 2nd, and nobody ever remembers anything about the day, no matter how many times the hapless weatherman, Phil Connors has to endure it.

As far as the media coverage of climate change is concerned, it’s always February 2nd, and the story is inevitably handled with the same eyebrow-lifted surprise and scepticism. Perish the thought that somebody might open their eyes wide enough and stay focused for long enough to realise: ‘holy crap, this is real, it’s happening, we’re stuffed, and absolutely everything I know, everything I’ve learned and pretty much everything I care about is either irrelevant or dead wrong’.

Not many people, especially media people, are queuing up for a cold shower epiphany like that. But, as the IPCC has laboured to warn us, the “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” of climate change are coming our way, ready or not, and, it appears, sooner than we feared.

*Hat-tip to Prof Brian Cox for inspiring the title of this post.

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

Another Fine (Gael) mess on climate change

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has in the last week or so taken political recklessness and cynicism to new lows. History may judge that he did more than any other politician of his generation to destroy the future of Irish agriculture. In attempting to dodge Ireland’s responsibility for dealing with climate change, An Taoiseach is also flying in the face of the scientific evidence that confirms that the greatest threat to Irish agriculture is not the regulations dealing with climate change, but climate change itself, to which agriculture is almost uniquely vulnerable.

A 2013 report, authored by Dr Stephen Flood of NUI Maynooth (‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’ – this report was formally launched by Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney) states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output”.

Enda Kenny over the last week expended valuable diplomatic capital in Europe attempting to argue why Ireland should be exempted from shouldering its fair share of the burden of the rapid and immediate decarbonisation that science says is now critical if the most severe impacts of climate destabilisation are to be avoided.

Barely four weeks ago, the same Mr Kenny, addressing the UN Climate Summit in New York, demanded that world leaders show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in responding to climate change. Given the extreme urgency of the crisis, Mr Kenny added solemnly: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste…Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response. We are all interdependent and interconnected … we share a common humanity… and each of us must play our part.”

In less than a month, Mr Kenny appears to have suffered the political equivalent of a lobotomy – in September, climate change is the world’s greatest crisis, and “courage and consistency” is needed in dealing with this “stark reality”. And in October, the same Mr Kenny warned that Ireland would be “screwed” if it attempted to comply with emissions reductions targets it has already signed up to.

It’s a surprisingly short journey from demanding conviction, clarity, courage and consistency to espousing cowardice, cynicism, cute hoorism and chicanery.

According to the October version of An Taoiseach: “It would not be feasible to have targets set that are completely impractical for a country like Ireland. Targets, indeed, that were set and that were agreed by the administration before this one, for 2020, were based on different variations of information that does not stand up…but I don’t want whatever administration or whatever government is in office in Ireland from 2020 to 2030 to be completely screwed by virtue of a wrong base upon which targets were set originally for 2020.”

Mr Kenny’s conversion to the IFA position on climate change appears to follow closely the path taken by his cabinet colleague, agriculture minister, Simon Coveney. When in opposition, Coveney spoke passionately in public about the need for binding, no-excuses climate legislation, stating publicly that what he had read about the science of climate change “sent shivers down my spine”. Back in 2008, Coveney described climate change as “Ireland’s challenge – and we need to meet it”. More recently, Minister Coveney said that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”.

It is easy to understand why public trust in politicians and the political process is now at such a low ebb. Given the scale and gravity of the global ecological and climate crisis, it has never been more vital that we our politicians break free from the lobbyists and spin doctors and exercise principled leadership guided by scientific evidence, not polling data. (for a quick recap on what FG, pre-election, said they would do on climate change, click here).

During his inauguration speech in 1961, as the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear conflagration, president John F. Kennedy said: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Hilariously, Enda Kenny had the temerity to quote JKF in his New York speech, when saying: “President Kennedy reminded us over 50 years ago that we all live on the same planet, we all breathe the same air, and we are all mortal. These words are still true.” If JFK were alive today, he might well wonder what planet Kenny et al do in fact inhabit.

Today, the stakes are every bit as high as in the darkest days of the Cold War, yet all Ireland’s political leaders can offer are weasel words in public while doing highly damaging deals with powerful vested interests like the IFA in private.

Politicians like Mr Kenny and Mr Coveney appear to be prepared to put the safety and security of every citizen of Ireland at grave risk while also jeopardising the future of Irish agriculture in pursuit of a quick buck from ‘Harvest 2020’ – gains that, as the NUIM study confirms, will be quickly reversed as climate destabilisation yields the bitterest of harvests.

Mr Kenny is right: the clock is ticking. He and his government are on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history and are engaged in a monumentally misguided and foolish policy. As the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) put it: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do. Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk”.

Dithering and further delaying action displays just how profoundly out of touch the Irish government is with the state of science on climate change, and calls into question the calibre of scientific advice it is receiving – or responding to. Kenny and Coveney appear to believe Ireland can free-load on the efforts of other countries to address runaway climate disruption, while we continue a policy of ratcheting up our emissions from agriculture and transport in particular in pursuit of growth-led prosperity.

Environment Minister, Alan Kelly is clearly fully on board with this policy. In a press release last week, he bragged: “Having met two weeks ago with outgoing climate change Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, I made it clear that Ireland would not be signing up to any future targets that would be unachievable”. And in a paragraph that reads like it was drafted in Farm Centre, Kelly added: “I am on record as stating that the 2020 targets were unrealistic and unachievable and that did not take into account Ireland’s dependence on agriculture or the fact that we have one of the most climate-friendly agricultural systems in the world.”

The Irish government’s disavowal of its sovereign responsibility to step up to the mark on addressing climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence that this is a vital strategic national interest, is a grossly immoral and inequitable position, and one that does untold damage to Ireland’s reputation as a good faith actor in international negotiations.

I honestly thought the electoral obliteration of Fianna Fail in 2011 must signal an end to the gombeen era in Irish politics, and would usher in a new phase of more responsible, accountable and transparent leadership, and a lowering of public tolerance for sleevenism. More fool me.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 18 Comments

Which to choose: bare-knuckle capitalism – or a habitable world?

I finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything just as a major study by the WWF confirmed that, in a mere four decades, more than half of the wild animals on Earth had been wiped out. From the time I was in primary school to today, life on Earth has been impoverished more rapidly than at any time in the last 65 million years.

The calculus used to measure this is known as the Living Planet Index. It might be more accurately called the Dying Planet Index.

Humanity’s relationship with almost all life on Earth can be defined as extractavist – a phrase used repeatedly by Klein, in her sweeping, angry polemic against the rapidly unfolding madness of one species run amok in the world, destroying everything in its ever-expanding path.

Klein made her name in 1999 with No Logo, a withering assault on the hidden underbelly of the global brand business – the sweatshops, the crooked trade deals and the structural violence of the rich against the poor. This time, however, it’s personal. A neophyte to climate change, Klein admits to only having really tuned into it as an issue as recently as 2009.

She is, however, a quick learner and in the last five years, it has gone from being fodder for her next book to the awful realisation contained in the book’s title: climate change does indeed change everything – and truly understanding this issue inevitably changes you. “I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure…but I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it”.

Having, like Klein, come from an entirely non-environmental background, and slowly, reluctantly, coming to realise the true import of climate change, I could personally relate to her initial desire to look the other way, and simply tune out this avalanche of ecological bad news. “Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right”

As a society, as a civilisation, our response thus far has been about as nuanced as curling, child-like, into a ball and hoping it will just go away. “All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes”.

We’ve become truly accomplished at both understanding and ignoring climate change. In the 24 years since international climate negotiations began in earnest, global CO2 emissions have risen by 61%. Crisis, what crisis? I vividly remember watching on in horror as the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit ended in bitter failure. The Irish Times was one of 55 major newspapers that, in December 2009, ran a joint editorial urging – demanding – that world leaders grasp this last ditch opportunity to avert calamity. One month later, the same paper ran an editorial complaining about the severe cold snap and wondering aloud if global warming wasn’t all just a big ol’ hoax after all.

From the ashes of disaster, sprung clarity. “I have come to think of that night (in Copenhagen) as the climate movement’s coming of age: it was the moment the realisation truly sank in that no one was coming to save us”, writes Klein. After all the guff and rhetoric, this emerged from the ruins of Copenhagen: “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life”.

Klein spares some of her harshest critique for Big Green, namely those multi-million dollar environmental organisations, specifically the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) and the Nature Conservancy. Hilariously, it turns out that the latter actually operates its own oil wells, while the EDF regularly partners with Big Energy and helps it sell the myth that shale gas can be a ‘bridge’ to a mythological renewables-powered future (Klein’s own rejection of nuclear energy as proven low-carbon technology is argued with little conviction and sounds to this observer more like a sop to her readership than a strongly held position).

Klein lambastes the various ingenious schemes, from emissions trading to carbon offsets, many backed by Big Green, that have given the illusion of action while achieving precisely nothing. In its early days, the unofficial slogan of the EDF was “sue the bastards”, and it and other groups enjoyed dramatic successes on a range of environmental issues. Latterly, the joke goes, the new EDF slogan is “creating markets for the bastards”.

Under the leadership of business-friendly Fred Krupp, the EDF ballooned 40-fold from an annual budget of $3 million to $120 million. With the cash rolling, the emphasis for Big Green was developing industry-friendly “solutions” to the obliteration of the planet and the wrecking of our climate system (‘green growth’ is a particular favourite). Anything, in other words, as long as it didn’t fundamentally challenge the neoliberal narrative.

“The refusal of so many environmentalists to consider responses to the climate crisis that would upend the economic status quo forces them to place their hopes in solutions… that are either so weak or so high-risk that entrusting them with our collective safety constitutes what can only be described as magical thinking”, Klein opines.

There should be a special place in hell reserved for cuddly, lovable Virgin chief Richard Branson, who, to huge acclaim, announced in 2006 his commitment to invest $3 billion to develop ‘greener’ fuels for his gas-guzzling airline fleet. His epiphany was Al Gore’s Powerpoint presentation: “As I sat there and listened to Gore, I saw that we were looking at Armageddon.”

Behind the crocodile tears for the future, Branson’s real message was: forget regulations, leave it to industry to innovate and solve climate change! And sure enough, the $3 billion evaporated as the new airline routes expanded. Waiting for telegenic messiahs like Branson or techno-optimists like Bill Gates to lead us out of the ecological wasteland their fortunes are helping create is delusional in the extreme.

Geoengineering is starting to surface in polite circles as our best hope for dealing with the symptoms of climate change, without of course troubling ourselves to actually address the causes. “The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves”, says Klein. Fiddling with untestable global ‘climate management’ schemes is simply an extension of the hubris that brought us to this dire predicament.

In the words of environmental author Kenneth Brower: “The notion that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behaviour”.

Neither Big Green, nor Big Energy (or the political process it has captured) can save us from the unfolding cataclysm that is the Sixth Extinction, which daily gathers pace and steadily builds towards its furious denouement. Change, Klein observes, is coming, ready or not. Whether this begets more barbarism and profiteering or a wider social change that recognises neoliberal growth-obsessed capitalism as a tragic aberration depends on how we react now, in the time that remains.

Klein offers the example of the abolition of slavery as perhaps the best recent analogue for the rapid dismantling of an entire economic system. The slave-driven economic model didn’t end because it wasn’t successful; it ended when it lost its social sanction to operate.

If there is to be hope in challenging a system that seems bent on destroying the living world and everything in it, it must be along similar ground. “We will win by asserting that such (economic) calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation”, Klein concludes.

– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
This article was published in ‘Village‘ magazine 

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

Clowns to left, jokers to the Right, stuck in middle with George

This may not be a news flash to most people, but science is hard. Really, really hard. Just how tough was brought home when I recently attended an international congress on multiple sclerosis (MS). The event brought together some 8,000 senior researchers academics and medical specialists from all over the world to spend several frenetic days attending symposia, reviewing poster presentations and debating controversies and advances in our understanding of the disease.

MS is a progressive inflammatory neurological disease. Much is known about the condition, but nature yields its secrets grudgingly, and lots remain unresolved. However, as science advances, more and more incorrect ideas are tested and then discarded, leaving medics and researchers with the least wrong version of reality. That’s how science advances, be it in medicine, technology or, for that matter, climate science.

The conference took place in Boston, home of the original 18th century Tea Party, but it occurred to me that what was missing were the counter-protests by the ‘MS is a hoax’ brigade, those who insist that the scientific research is purely driven by personal greed and ego, or is entirely manipulated by pharma companies and is fundamentally corrupt and its output is junk science.

In the view of the anti-MS folks, someone who develops this crippling disease would be far better off at home with a couple of jars of homeopathic remedies and a nice vapour rub than all these new-fangled intravenous corticosteroids and assorted interferons.

Yes, some scientists are egotists, and some doctors are arrogant asses. Yes, Big Pharma is profit-driven, yet only an utter fool facing a diagnosis of MS would turn his back on the immense strides in disease understanding and treatment in recent years and decades in favour of quack remedies, no matter how ‘natural’ they may claim to be. By and large we trust medical scientists, for no better reason than we simply do not have enough expertise ourselves to either confirm or refute the ‘consensus’ conclusions.

That doesn’t mean slavish obedience. There is still plenty of room for questions, just not the really, really stupid questions that just waste everyone’s time. It may sound offensive to suggest we have no choice but to trust experts, but it’s true nonetheless. Every time you use the internet, a smartphone, get onto an aircraft, swallow a pill or drive across a bridge, you are putting your trust – or even your life – completely in the hands of countless thousands of anonymous experts.

Modern society is far too complex for any one person to develop hyperspecialism in more than a tiny handful of areas. Even within such a seemingly narrow field as MS, there is a vast spectrum of sub-divided expertise, with teams focusing separately on fields from disease biomarkers and MRI imaging to PET scanning and autoimmune disorders. High science is also highly competitive – new ideas are rigorously challenged and ruthlessly dispatched if they fail to withstand repeated scrutiny. Does pharma money influence this process? Undoubtedly, but while the medical profession and industry may have quite different motives, they are bound by a shared objective of delivering better patient outcomes, and so the painstaking process of medical discovery and innovation rumbles along relatively well.

What if, on the other hand, the streets of Boston had been clogged with angry protesters decrying medical corruption, what if Fox News and the Wall Street Journal were demonising the medics who attended the conference and endless MS denier blogs were restating a set of well-rehearsed talking points to bring the science of neurology into disrepute, while harassing and making legal and personal threats against the researchers?

Yet, despite all the uncertainties, despite the many research cul de sacs encountered, despite the various areas of disagreement between leading experts in the field, this branch of science and its practitioners isn’t dragged through the mud on a daily basis. Why? Quite simply, it’s because it doesn’t threaten, by dint of its findings, to upscuttle the world’s political and economic status quo.

In contrast with the relatively narrow field of neurology, climate science is a behemoth, drawing on scores of specialist fields across the physical sciences with physicists, biologists, chemists, meteorologists, computer modellers, systems specialists and many more besides. The work is unfathomably complex, even to most insiders.

For all its well-advertised shortcomings, the IPCC has managed the near-impossible task of synthesising and unifying the most relevant findings from across this vast spectrum of scientific endeavour and drawing conclusions in its Summary for Policymakers that even you and I can, if we are so minded, clearly grasp with no more than an hour or two of close attention. That is no mean achievement.

The five massive IPCC Assessment Reports published over the last 22 years build up into an ominous catalogue of a rapidly evolving global crisis. With every report, the margins of uncertainty diminish as the full scale of our climate imbroglio becomes ever clearer. It’s worth repeating that the basic science of climate change, and the fact that it poses a unique threat to life on Earth, has been well understood for at least half a century. In 1965, president, Lyndon Johnson told the US Congress: “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Since these scary scenarios were still, at that time, safely in the distant future, politicians and industry joined hands in making soothing noises about being ready and determined to act…at some indefinite future point, long after they were safely retired, of course.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the UN Climate Summit in New York earlier this week. His attendance among 130 or so world leaders was of course welcome. The flatulent ooze that emanated from his speech, less so. The world needs to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in its response to climate change, according to a Taoiseach who has displayed precisely none of the above on this issue in his first three years in office. The blather continued: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste.” Back in 2009, then Taoiseach Brian Cowen told a UN conference in the same building in New York that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. He then flew home and did… nothing, just like Enda assuredly will this time.

While our Taoiseach was sounding off in downtown Manhattan, closer to home NewsTalk thought the Climate Summit an opportunity to re-run that hoary old chestnut called: ‘is climate change for real?’ Their vehicle to channel this nonsense is motormouth US radio presenter and Tea Bagger Michael Graham, who has a weekly teapot-stirring slot on The Right Hook. (Shortly before becoming president, Michael D. Higgins engaged in a public debate with Graham, and famously lambasted him as “a wanker” – the audio clip has been accessed over 2 million times on YouTube).

Screenshot 2014-09-28 20.39.58

 

NewsTalk asked me to ‘debate’ the issue with Graham and I decided it was better to engage than to cede the floor. It’s a tactic many on the environmental side of the argument would strongly disagree with, but we must each make our own decisions, depending on the circumstances.

As Graham began rolling out some standard denier speaking points and straw man arguments, the slightly wicked thought occurred to me that, rather than trying to battle each talking point to a confused standstill, might it not be more revealing to find out what Graham actually understood about the science he was noisily dissing.

When I stated that global average surface temperatures could rise by a catastrophic 4C this century, Graham audibly and repeatedly scoffed at this preposterous notion (the not-so-Leftist World Bank’s own report, here, says we’re bang on track for +4C this century) so, I asked him instead if he knew what the global average surface temperature actually currently is? Long pause, followed by no, he was forced to admit, he had no idea.

Once knocked off his script, Graham’s complete lack of even the most basic understanding of the science shone through. And, as the guy used to dishing it out, he was not taking this very well at all. Graham then rolled out the latest denier meme about there being no global warming since the early 1990s, something, apparently, that all those IPCC reports and models ‘failed to predict’.

The global warming ‘pause’ myth has been debunked countless times. But rather than try to explain the mechanics of how heat is transferred from the earth’s surface and atmosphere to the deeper oceans (“when you’re explaining, you’re losing”) I reversed the question and asked Graham if he could tell me how many of the hottest years on the instrumental record (i.e. since 1850) have occurred since 2000? (um, no he couldn’t).

Obviously, if ‘warming has stopped’, you would reasonably expect there wouldn’t be a cluster of record-breakingly hot years to be found since 2000.  The folks over at the US NOAA keep global instrumental records, and their Top 10 hottest years ever globally are, in descending order: 2010, 2005, 1998, 2013, 2003, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2007, 2004 and 2012. That’s quite some ‘pause’ alright.

Graham got his foot stuck firmly in his mouth when I challenged him, repeatedly, to defend this ‘warming pause’ line in the face of irrefutable instrumental evidence, so he switched instead to wondering aloud how come, given the colossal amounts of CO2 being ejected into the atmosphere annually, temperatures aren’t rising even faster? (a reasonable question, as it happens; the IPCC have it covered).

I then asked Graham if he had any idea how long a typical molecule of CO2 persists in the atmosphere as a heat-trapping agent? (see further down for the detailed answer) “Uh, ah, I don’t know, and you don’t know”, was his reply. When pressed further, he added: “what I know are the thermometers, that’s what I know, and the thermometers aren’t reading the way the IPCC said they would read….” Et ecetera, et cetera. I’ll put this one down to genuine ignorance on Graham’s part.

The problem with carbon emissions is their persistence, at least as much as their volume. “Carbon dioxide emissions and their associated warming could linger for millennia”, according to a report in Nature Climate Change, in an article headlined ‘Carbon is Forever’. For every 100 molecules of CO2 released into the atmosphere today, it takes between 20-200 years for 65-80% of them to be drawn down, principally into the oceans. The remaining 20-45% will persist in the atmosphere, trapping heat for many thousands of years into the future.

Anyone familiar with the exponential function will be aware that cumulative problems (like atmospheric CO2) tend, well, to accumulate. And they get very big, very quickly. This year’s 35-40 billion tonnes joins last year’s, and the last 50 years’ emissions in ratcheting up temperatures (and acidifying the world’s oceans in the process – this WMO report confirms ocean acidification now at its fastest rate in 300 million years). (please note my sources here: peer-reviewed papers from top specialist journals and an official report from an international science agency, not links to fact-free ‘news’ reports in the Daily Mail).

The debate ran on for a full 20 minutes. I don’t know Michael Graham personally, but he sounded mightily unhappy by the time George Hook brought proceedings to a close. It may even have been keeping him from his sleep. And sure enough, at 5.15am the following morning, he posted this 1,280-word riposte, complete with my mug shot, with the catchy heading: ‘Shouldn’t an “environmental journalist” know more about science than a dopey talk show host?”.

Screenshot 2014-09-28 21.29.41

Here, Graham engages in faux humility, with his aw schucks folks, why did he have to beat up on poor ol’ me line. He adds to the guy-next-door effect with: “But I’m sure that in the heat of an ad libbed radio debate I got some stuff wrong too.” That is putting it mildly.

By paragraph 3, I’ve been lumped in, inevitably, with “climate zealots”. Para 4 sees a long-since corrected typo in a supporting document to the 2007 AR4 report (Himalayan melt by 2350, not 2035) being wheeled out. Again.

Blogging in the middle of the night is never a great idea. Graham opens strongly, by accusing me of being “wrong during our debate on specific, glaring facts, like the warmest year on record…” Now that’s a zinger – if he’s right. According to Graham, 1934 was the warmest year on record. If you check the NOAA list above, you’ll note 1934 does not appear anywhere in the global top 10. 1934 was the warmest year in the US, alright, but the US accounts for 2% of the surface of the Earth. The source Graham links to for this, Bloomberg, is accurate. It says: ‘NASA has revised climate data to show 1934 as the hottest year on record in the US, ousting 1998…’. Graham was so busy copy-n-pasting he failed to notice the phrase “in the US”. Oh dear, this is what happens when you double down on dumb.

A caller to The Right Hook asked if Al Gore hadn’t said the Antarctic would be melted by 2013 (this, of course, is nonsensical). In 2008, after the record-breaking drop in Arctic sea ice extent in 2007, Al Gore did indeed suggest that, if that rate of decline were to continue, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer within 10 years. He may or may not be right about the precise timing, but he’s on the money about the clear trajectory of Arctic collapse.

For the record, Al Gore is not a climate scientist, but he is entirely correct to be raising alarm about the ongoing disastrous retreat of Arctic sea ice (2014 is the 6th lowest summer extent on record) so quite what point Graham was trying to make in his midnight ramblings, I’m still unclear. Graham’s blog is full of hyperlinks, but when you follow them, it’s t o the usual denier factory sources, including the Daily Mail, Wattsupwiththat and Murdoch’s business rag, the once-respected Wall Street Journal.

Graham name-checked the IPCC numerous times in his radio interview. I searched in vain on his blog post to find a single reference that links to a primary scientific source, such as NASA, the IPCC itself, NOAA, NSIDC etc. Not one. Instead, he quotes serial liars like the disgraced ex-bank chief Matt Ridley to prop up his piece. And of course, everyone’s favourite eco-spoofer, Bjorn Lomborg gets a link too.

Graham explains: “Notice the embedded links for my information. Notice they aren’t “IHateLiberals.com”  I’m reporting what organizations like the New York Times, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal have reported.  Mr. Gibbons will point you to other sources. Who’s right? What’s really going on? Don’t take my word, or the word of the oddly uniformed “journalist.” Just think for yourself”.

That is excellent advice, and a pity Mr Graham couldn’t take it on board himself. I checked back over his blog to find the New York Times and BBC links he described above. They’re not there (I did warn earlier about the hazards of blogging in the middle of the night). The “other sources” I will point you to are, whenever possible, primary scientific sources. Graham will never point you to a primary source, mainly, I imagine, because he doesn’t use them, preferring instead to re-heat myths cooked up by serial dissemblers like David Rose .

Having already given an on-air masterclass in how poorly he understands climate science, Graham took to his blog to drive this point home: “Greenhouse gases (including water vapor) make up less than 2 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Humans emit less than 4 percent of that 2 percent. So for us to get GHG levels down in any meaningful way, we have to drastically cut our little slice of the GHG pie”.

The link for this waffle is to a right wing ‘think tank’ called the Manhattan Institute. And it’s a favourite sleight of hand by deniers. The global carbon cycle is huge, but it’s a cycle, i.e. it’s in balance. Atmospheric CO2 levels have remained in the narrow range of 180-280 ppm (parts per million) for at least the last 800,000 years, and probably as far back as 3-4 million years.

Anthropogenic interference in this cycle over the last 150 years has thrown it wildly out of balance. Today, there is 40% more CO2 in the global atmosphere (400ppm, and rising) than at the highest level ever recorded prior to 1850. What Graham calls “our little slice of the GHG pie” is again simply putting his science ignorance up in lights. We’ve known since the mid-19th century that the trace gas CO2 is the critical greenhouse gas. More CO2 also begets more water vapour, hence still more warming.

While CO2 is indeed a trace gas (0.04% of total atmosphere), without it, average surface temperatures would plummet from their current c.15C to minus 18C. Nitrogen (77%) and oxygen (21%) have no atmospheric heat-trapping characteristics whatever. When you fiddle with CO2 (and related trace GHGs, like methane and nitrous oxide) you are literally fiddling with the thermostat for all life on Earth.

So, while the radio debate didn’t go so well for him, and his follow-up blog is risible, Graham did at least manage towards the end to inject some of that trademark Tea Party anti-libberul, um, humour: “they’re not going to agree to keep cooking on cow patty fires so EU liberals can feel good about themselves. Which means even there’s even less “magic unicorn wind” to distribute per person”.

I opened this post by pointing out just how hard science is. Attacking science, on the other hand, is so easy that any idiot with access to a microphone can do it. Effective science communication is hard too. Given the desperate gravity and urgency of the climate crisis, making it as hard as possible for climate deniers to flood the airwaves with misinformation, and calling them (and the media outlets who facilitate them) out at every turn seems to me like genuinely useful – and occasionally, enjoyable – work.

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