Raising the bar on climate change coverage in Ireland

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

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

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

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

It was against this gloomy backdrop that opening the Irish Independent last Saturday morning turned out to be a genuinely unexpected treat. The paper dedicated a full early news page to kicking off a new series, ‘Climate Change And You’, which they very unsubtly subtitled: Climate change is the BIGGEST CHALLENGE facing the country.’

The paper’s review section picked up the theme, with five pages of coverage covering both the impacts of climate-fuelled extreme weather and a spread with an article by Joe Curtin of the IIEA which mercifully avoided the trap of framing climate change as some future crisis that someone, somewhere ought to ‘do something about’ at some conveniently distant future point.

‘Climate change is not a problem for 2100, it’s here now’ was how the article was headed. He wrapped up his piece succinctly: ‘For individuals, it is easy to feel helpless and small in face of such big global challenges. Perhaps the most important thing we can each do is take time to understand what is happening, read the science, and discuss it with our friends, family and community, as well as our political representatives’.

Less helpful was the inevitable ’10 ways you can help’ sidebar, with the usual list of feel-good advice about switching off appliances, cutting waste and greening your commute. This is the kind of advice people have been getting (and mostly ignoring) for the last 15-20 years.

Two welcome new additions to the list were: ‘Go meat-free’ and ‘Lobby your local TDs for change’. The meat-free message is critically important especially in Ireland, but it was then diluted by adding that ‘going meat-free at least once a week…will help reduce agricultural emissions’. In fact, a token step like that may be very easy, but will have no impact whatever on agricultural emissions or the amount meat and dairy in our food system.

If climate change is truly, as the Indo says, the ‘BIGGEST CHALLENGE facing the country’ surely we can do better than giving up meat on one day in seven? Where in the list, I also wondered, was the injunction to cut down severely on air travel, a major and rapidly growing contributor to Ireland’s share of global emissions. More than 25 million people passengers passed through Dublin Airport in 2015 – that’s around six times the entire population of the country. Passenger numbers are up yet again in 2016, with another 13.4% increase in numbers in the first six months of this year.

A new €320m runway is on the cards to cope with our ever-expanding collective travel bug. Yet when you look up ‘sustainability’ on the Dublin Airport website, all you get is some blather about it recycling 34% of its waste. The DAA’s ‘Sustainable Policy Statement’ includes such worthy objectives as ‘Reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions’.

How exactly do you reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions when by far the biggest consumers and emitters are the thousands of aircraft that are buzzing in and out of the airport? The DAA’s Sustainable Policy can be filed alongside the agriculture sector’s ‘Sustainable Expansion’ plans.

In essence, these involve some hand-waving about efficiency and technology while shuffling papers and looking slightly awkward when it is pointed out that overall emissions from both these sectors are, despite ‘efficiencies’, rising sharply. In that context, having a slightly less inefficient jet aircraft or a slightly less inefficient dairy herd than a dairy herd in some other country is, from a scientific standpoint, completely meaningless.

Back in the Indo, the baton then passed to the big-selling Sunday Independent, which gave a splash to the ‘20 Influencers who will shape our response to climate change’. Paul Melia, who compiled the list, noted in his introduction that some on his list ‘may not have necessarily have demonstrated they have skin in the game up to this point, but they must now deliver’

Topping the list is Climate Minister, Denis Naughten. The jury is still out. My first encounter with him was on a very testy RTE ‘Late Debate’ where, as a backbencher, he joined with peat contractor-cum-TD Michael Fitzmaurice in tag-teaming me about the sacred right of people driving industrial machinery to destroy our remaining bogs.

Not the most auspicious start for our soon-to-be Climate Guy, but all politics is local, often depressingly so, and decent politicians sometimes have to say dreadful things to get elected. I stand to be corrected, but the more I hear from Denis Naughten of late, the more there is the suspicion there is in fact a decent politician in there, desperately trying to get out and do some good.

Next on the list is Simon Coveney – a mistake, in my view. Coveney had the chance, when Ag. Minister, to help steer the IFA and the farming lobby generally away from its ill-considered and counterproductive anti-science stance. He funked it completely. Having a Bord Na Mona ecologist on the list will have raise eyebrows too, especially given its toe-curlingly awful ‘Naturally Driven’ greenwashing campaign.

Prof John Fitzgerald, chair of the Climate Advisory Council, is naturally among the 20 movers and shakers listed. Those who saw him in action last week at the Environment Ireland conference were more shaken than moved. Among the howlers from Fitzgerald was his view that people from rich countries emit no more carbon per capita than people from poor countries. This is utterly, demonstrably wrong. Fitzgerald is also wrong in saying climate action will only benefit our “grandchildren or great grandchildren” and therefore there is no current incentive to act.

His view that the technology doesn’t exist yet to make the low-carbon transition suggests his information is seriously out of date. Others were annoyed at Fitzgerald’s suggestion that the EU needs to provide Ireland with “incentives” in order to make the transition. Finally, it might sound like a minor niggle but should we be worried that the Chair of our National Climate Advisory Council speaks in a public forum more than once about a “2 percent” temperature limit not “2 degrees”?

Maybe it’s a slip of the tongue, but it suggests a worryingly thin grounding in the physical sciences. A scientist who sat through Fitzgerald’s talk reckons his approach is that of someone who stopped keeping up with the science 15-20 years ago.

It certainly can’t have helped Fitzgerald’s grasp of climate science 101 to have had the shape-shifting Prof Richard Tol as a former colleague back in his ESRI days. Tol is a professional mischief-maker with all the classic overconfidence of an economist when sounding off on the physical sciences and none of the humility and caution of an actual scientist working in the field.

One ‘climate expert’ who will have been more than a little miffed at being omitted from Melia’s Influencers list is Prof Ray Bates, retired UCD meteorologist and self-appointed National Contrarian-in-Chief. Bates and Fitzgerald appear to take turns at writing opinion pieces in the Irish Times that are often poorly argued rehashes of ideas that mainstream climate science has considered – and then discarded – some years ago.

Back in the Independent, coverage has continued every day this week. Tuesday saw a useful foray into the Farming Independent, including a vox pop of six farmers from the ploughing match. Five of the six, presumably randomly chosen, expressed genuine concern about climate change, underlining my strong suspicion that the farming organisations are hopelessly out of touch with their own members on this issue. That has certainly been my experience of taking directly and frankly to farmers about climate change and its impacts on their lives and livelihoods.

Even if you have missed the print editions, I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Indo’s Climate Change & You web section for a feast of interesting and varied coverage, wrapping in energy, politics, transport, agriculture, finance, infrastructure, healthcare and much more besides.

I contacted the paper’s environment correspondent, Paul Melia to ask what lay behind this seemingly Pauline (no pun intended) conversion by Independent Newspapers to taking a concerted, group-wide approach to its climate change coverage. He replied that in his view, the subject isn’t new to the Indo.

“We just felt a decent series over a week might focus minds on what the issues are, particularly with a new government and national mitigation plans underway”. Presenting challenges and solutions is, he continued, important, “particularly as lots of Irish companies are doing interesting things. Only by talking about this stuff will we get action”. He concluded as follows: “we’re certainly going for it and it’s far from being a one-off”. There is no question the bar has just been raised, albeit from a depressingly low starting point. Credit where credit is due to the Indo’s editorial team for making it happen.

Maybe, just maybe, climate change will one day be covered with as much passion and as many specialist writers and column inches as we currently dedicate to, say, the GAA, business, farming or light entertainment. That may seem a long way off today, but change is funny like that. For ages, nothing seems to happen, then, almost imperceptibly, the whole world suddenly seems to shift on its axis. Let’s keep pushing.

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Battling for Ireland’s battered biodiversity

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

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

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

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

It is, he adds, “quite remarkable that at the moment we don’t even know how many species of organisms we have in Ireland. We know there are 31,000 (species) but it’s estimated to be closer to 40,000, yet they remain to be discovered, so we’re trying to build the knowledge base on what species there are in Ireland, where they occur and how they are changing over time. That is absolutely vital to feed into policy development”.

Biodiversity and nature conservation, he notes, is seen in Irish public life as a problem rather than an opportunity. Hence the decision by Heritage Minister, Heather Humphries, at the behest of the Irish Farmers Association, earlier this year to extend the hedge cutting season. The ban is vital in protecting habitats during nesting and breeding season.

Ireland’s hedgerows are among our few remaining semi-intact areas of biological diversity. This IFA-led and politically sanctioned incursion underlines the asymmetrical balance of power between those trying to defend Ireland’s imperiled wildlife and the well-funded and politically connected lobby groups seeking to erode environmental safeguards at every turn.

Lysaght is an advocate for education and enlightenment rather than conflict. “We have to counteract this view…people love getting out into the countryside, they love being out in the natural environment.”

To coincide with the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, the Centre first rolled out an ongoing initiative called the Bio Blitz. This brings together groups of people to see how many species can be identified within a defined area. While the Bio Blitz is an imported idea, the particular spin put on it in Ireland is to have four or five teams simultaneously in the field at various locations, competing against one another.

“It’s astonishing; everyone is surprised when you tell them there might be 900 different species of moths or 100 species of bees. These kind of figures communicate very simply and effectively”. A winning Bio Blitz site can expect to record over 1,000 species in a 24 hour period – a glimpse into the staggering complexity of the natural world in a country that is in no way thought of as a biodiversity hot spot.

Lysaght is intrigued by the paradox that while nature conservation, at least in Ireland, has negative connotations, on the other hand “there’s hardly a person in the country that isn’t moved by hearing a cuckoo in the wild, yet if you talk to those same people about the need to conserve the countryside, or do something positive for nature conservation – well, there is a disconnect there”.

The ongoing ecological catastrophe of bog mining is, in Lysaght’s view, “symptomatic as to how poor our attitudes to nature conservation are. Frankly, what we are doing to Irish peat bogs is a scandal, there’s no getting away from it. And that’s both the private individuals and the State.”

Raised bogs are, he reckons, probably the rarest habitat that we have in Europe, “Ireland is fortunate to still have some of them remaining, but only a very small percentage of our raised bogs are still intact, and frankly I don’t understand why, for the common good, we don’t just say these, for the common good, have to be protected. Full stop”.

While fair compensation for existing turbary rights needs to be paid, there is, he says, absolutely no reason, other than politics, that this can be allowed to continue. Contrast, he says, projects like the Abbeyleix bog, where the locals have taken ownership of a raised bog donated by Bord Na Mona. This is an oasis of diversity, especially when compared to the adjacent ‘commercial’ bogs, where, he notes, “the scale of destruction is just staggering”. Their dual role as carbon sinks makes this even more reprehensible, he adds.

Lysaght was unimpressed by Bord Na Mona’s ‘Naturally Driven’ advertising and PR campaign earlier this year. “I think it’s disingenuous; what I would say about Bord Na Mona is there are some very good staff in the company who are trying to do a lot in terms of giving back some of the land that’s been cut away; I’d like to see more of these sites being given over to biodiversity and tourism”.

Lysaght finds it ironic that MEP and bog-cutting lobbyist Luke Ming Flanagan is also a big fan of Dutch liberalism, particularly regarding cannabis, but seems to have failed to notice that the same Dutch have spent over €100 million on peatland conservation. Amazingly, as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s, a Dutch foundation raised the money to buy three Irish raised bogs and donated them to the Irish State for nature conservation.

The crucial role of the National Biodiversity Data Centre is in gathering, computerising and making sense of reams of raw data, in an attempt to benchmark the state of Ireland’s biodiversity. Without this, how can we measure future losses or gains? Examples of this are two insect monitoring schemes it operates. These are spread across more than 120 sites all over Ireland. “This is the kind of empirical data that is needed. You can’t – or you shouldn’t be able to – refute, factual data like this”.

Butterflies are one of the main insect groups it monitors, as these have been shown to be among the best species for monitoring the impacts of climate change. “My impression is that the abundance, the biomass of organisms, is declining; probably since the 1970s they have declined hugely”.

Lysaght fondly recalls childhood walks in north Kerry through meadows teeming with wild creatures of every hue. “We know there has been a phenomenal decline in the amount of hay meadows in Ireland”, he adds. “We’ve gone from fantastically rich meadow to a sterile desert across the countryside frankly”.

An ornithologist by training, he grew up in Limerick’s inner city. While much of his work as director of the centre is technocratic by its nature, he is back in the field at every opportunity. This notably included spending a month two years ago cycling 3,200km around the Ireland’s coastline, accompanied by his then 18-year old daughter as he visited dozens of wildlife sites.

“As a State, nature conservation really isn’t on the radar”, he concludes. “It’s seen in government circles as a problem, not as an opportunity”. He is frustrated at the willingness of government agencies to borrow the language of conservation (‘Origin Green’) to use as a greenwashing tool for international marketing purposes.

At the moment, all that stands between much of Ireland’s remaining threatened wildlife and habitats being wiped out by commercial or agricultural interests are small, poorly funded groups of volunteer NGOs who, Lysaght says, are doing their best, but it’s absolutely not enough. “We need an independent State body or office of conservation, primarily tasked not with enforcement but with going out and touting the benefits of nature conservation”.

Rural Ireland has an uneasy relationship with the natural environment, and while acknowledging it, Lysaght is at pains to stress the success stories, such as the Burren farming for conservation project.

Many individual farmers, he stresses, are interested in the natural habitats that surround them. “Once it becomes political, that’s the problem”, he adds.

“Wouldn’t it be brilliant if every townland in Ireland had just one acre of non-fertilised meadow…that’s something tangible, and there are a lot of farmers who wouldn’t mind doing that. Despite his own efforts at putting a positive spin on nature conservation, in reality he is profoundly worried: “We’re losing so much, it’s just slipping away from us as we go about our business”.

In Ireland, nature conservation, measured in terms of goods and services, contributes an estimated €2.6 billion per annum to our economy. This, Lysaght accepts with a shrug, may ultimately be the only metric that might actually catch the attention of our nature-averse politicians.


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Welcome to the Climate Madhouse

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

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

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

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

This graph appeared in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report in 2001 and quickly became the signature icon of rapid climate change. This made Mann the target of vicious and sustained personal and professional attacks by shills funded by fossil fuel interests, culminating in the ‘ClimateGate’ smear attack in 2009 which targeted hacked personal emails by Mann along with other climate scientists.

This scam was swallowed whole by many in the mainstream, including Irish Times columnist, Prof William Reville, who described ClimateGate as an “explosive development” that will “undoubtedly weaken the AGW case…” Reville went on to defame the entire field of climatology, claiming there was “an understandable temptation for environmental scientists, who depend on government grants, to exaggerate dangers”.

When ClimateGate was finally exposed as a canard many months later, Reville duly reported this fact in his column, while modestly omitting his own role in promulgating this sinister campaign in the first place.

It may seem hard to believe in the post-factual era of Donald Trump and the Republican party’s long-running war on science, but not that long ago, politicians of all hues actually listened to – and generally acted on – the advice of scientific experts.

Even as recently as 1987, a binding international agreement to rapidly phase out the use of ozone-destroying CFCs could be rushed through by politicians in response to a newly identified threat to the global ozone layer. It is almost inconceivable that such concerted bipartisan action could happen today, no matter how dire the threat and no matter how strong the scientific evidence.

And there is no greater or better-researched threat than that of climate change, but instead of mobilising societies to act, financially compromised politicians dither and squabble as the climate crisis slips into a permanent emergency. In Ireland and around the world, the mainstream traditional media, struggling with declining revenues and shrinking newsrooms while chasing clickbait, has spectacularly failed in its primary watchdog duty of alerting the public to the greatest existential threat human civilisation has likely ever faced.

The one area of media which has been surprisingly effective at communicating climate change, and why we are screwing up royally in our response have been the US comedy channels. First, Jon Stewart on the influential ‘Daily Show’ on Comedy Central, and now John Oliver’s often brilliant ‘Last Week Tonight’ on HBO have deployed biting satire and ridicule to rip into climate deniers and anti-science zealots, the very people who have been so skilful in abusing the mainstream media’s conventions, including its obsession with ‘balance’.

This leads to the constant framing of TV discussions as representing two diametrically opposed views of equal status. This may work reasonably well for politics, but when it comes to science, it’s a recipe for disaster. Closer to home, RTE’s vanishingly rare forays into covering climate change (via PrimeTime’s ‘balanced’ studio debates) are casebook studies in how not to present science.

“The success of the industry-funded climate denial machine derives in part from media outlets’ willingness to emphasise conflict over consensus, controversy over comprehension”, is how Mann and cartoonist co-author, Tom Toles put it in their new book, ‘The Madhouse Effect – how climate change denial is threatening our planet, destroying our politics and driving us crazy’.

By stripping away the pretence of balance and focusing instead on the motivation, techniques and shady funding sources of the main actors, under the umbrella of satire, Stewart and Oliver have been surprisingly effective at uncloaking a panoply of fraudsters, from the seemingly plausible to the downright crazy, and exposing them to contempt and ridicule. After all, when the so-called news channels like Fox and CNBC are a joke, many are now turning to actual comedians for the real news.

In the print media, a few cartoonists have been effective where their editorial colleagues have stumbled and failed, none more so than the brilliant Tom Toles of the Washington Post. Toles has kept a constant bead on the climate crisis, deploying scores of cartoons to the subject and, more specifically, mercilessly lampooning the crooks, phoneys, blowhards and liars collectively known as climate deniers.

In what is by any measure a highly unusual collaboration, ‘The Madhouse Effect’ sees the left-brained scientist and the right-brained satirist put heads together to see if they could combine to somehow bridge that gap between what we know about the science of climate change and how we feel about it – and about the quite frightening reality of life in the Anthropocene, as revealed to us through the physical sciences. “A scientist tries to understand the way the world works. An editorial cartoonist tries to show the ways it doesn’t”, is how they squared their joint venture.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider what science is exactly, how it works and what distinguishes it from opinion, dogma and pseudoscience. Here, Madhouse provides an excellent guide. It also clearly sets out the distinction between bona fide scientific scepticism – the very bedrock of the scientific method – and the faux ‘skeptics’ who comb vast data sets to cherry pick one or two results to spread confusion and stoke controversy where none exists.

Put simply, if climate deniers like Benny Peiser, Matt Ridley or Bjorn Lomborg were genuine ‘science skeptics’, they would challenge what they claim to be incorrect scientific findings within the peer review process, and in turn be prepared to present their own fully referenced evidence and supporting data sets to other scientists to review and critique. That’s how science advances.

Charlatans of this calibre who would be laughed out of scientific conferences or journals, so instead peddle their cynical trade in the altogether less critical environment of the media, where slick industry-funded pseudo-experts are always on hand to offer ‘balance’ to the findings of the overwhelming international scientific consensus.

‘Madhouse’ has special scorn for the faux-hippie Lomborg pedalling a ‘kinder, gentler denialism’ where pro-industry special pleading is dressed up as concern for the poor. “It is difficult to know whether climate change contrarians have taken their positions out of good faith, ignorance, wilful ignorance or calculated deceit…history should not be allowed to forget who they are and what they have done”, write Mann and Toles.

Earth is, they continue, “a rarity of literally cosmic proportions. It is an overflowing treasure chest of life-forms of unimaginable variety and beauty. It is perfectly suited to us humans because we evolved to fit it”. It would, they add, amount to “the gravest criminal act of irresponsibility in human history were we to throw it into fatal imbalance because of a wanton addiction to carbon”.

Being aimed primarily at a US audience, much of the good guy/bad guy framing in ‘The Madhouse Effect’ is across the Democrat/Republican political divide, with the Grand Old Party earning the role of chief villains, abetted by a diabolical supporting cast of ghastly power-drunk plutocrats, from Rupert Murdoch to the Koch brothers.

Ireland – Danny Healy-Rae notwithstanding – is a good deal less tolerant of patently mad or corrupt politicians engaging openly in anti-science tirades. Despite this, the ranks of our politics, civil service and newsrooms are filled with otherwise moral, competent people who appear to have chosen not to notice the slowly unfolding catastrophe that is climate change and the global biodiversity crash. The Madhouse Effect truly begins at home.

– ‘The Madhouse’ Effect is published by Columbia University Press in October 2016

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

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


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

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

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

A far longer shadow now stretches over our collective future. A child born in 2016 will still be in their early 30s by mid-century, and likely by then to be facing their own decision on parenthood. For those paying attention to environmental science, the year 2050 has a deeply ominous ring.

On current trends, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels will by then have more than doubled since pre-industrial times, locking in dangerous climate change for millennia. Meanwhile, acidification, pollution and overfishing are on track to have rendered much of the world’s oceans almost lifeless in the same time frame.

Between 1970 and 2010 the total number of vertebrate wild animals on Earth declined by an astonishing 52 per cent, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It is no coincidence that as the natural world went into freefall, human numbers exploded, increasing by 3.1 billion in the same 40-year period.

If half of the volume of the world’s wild animals have been wiped out in the last 40 years, what can we expect to happen to the remainder between now and 2050, as human population is slated to expand to well over nine billion, requiring another doubling of agricultural output and water use as more people adopt western diets and consumer habits? This is playing out against a backdrop of rising temperatures, ever-increasing weather extremes and sea level encroachment in the same period.

Ironically, among the species most vulnerable to human activities are those – including bees, bats and birds – which provide natural pollination services upon which between a third and a half of all our food production depends. Wiping out nature is arguably humanity’s most spectacular own-goal yet.

Today’s babies face a daunting panoply of converging resource and ecological crises as they become young adults in the next couple of decades. Unsurprisingly, some people are beginning to think again. For example, an initiative called ConceivableFuture.org was launched in the US in 2014. “The climate crisis is a reproductive crisis…. As we consider having families, it becomes clear that the perils of climate change have made this a terrifying time to make such choices. We now have to worry that the planet won’t support our children”, according to its manifesto.

In the era of climate change and global ecological contraction, a growing number of people are coming to believe that the best thing they can do for their future children is not to have them in the first place. As retired Nasa chief, Dr James Hansen stated recently, “we’re in danger of handing young people a situation that’s out of their control”.

US meteorologist, Eric Holthaus put it more bluntly: “Why the hell would someone of procreating age today even consider having a baby? It feels like an utter tragedy to create new life, fall in love with it and then watch it writhe in agony as the world singes to a crisp”.

As if to answer his own question, he recently became a father for the first time – as much perhaps an act of defiance as of hope. Suffering from acute anxiety, as is now widespread among climate scientist and activists, Holthaus added: “our baby has brought us back from the brink. It’s impossible to be hopeless with a newborn”.

A new word – solastalgia – has been coined to describe a profound sense of loss for the ongoing loss of the natural world, and the contemplation of its total destruction. The realisation that the very real gains in human welfare in the last century and more have been secured as a result of a Faustian bargain with nature is profoundly disconcerting.

And me? I have two children, many fears but absolutely no regrets. Becoming a parent almost 14 years ago forced me to contemplate time spans beyond my own lifetime, and this was the spark for a fraught journey into environmental journalism and lobbying. In the words of author Alice Walker, activism is the rent we pay for living on the planet.

– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and blogs at Thinkorswim.ie

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It’s a Vision thing

Last week the Visions 2100 international roadshow came to Dublin. I first encountered it, driven by the irrepressible John O’Brien, as a side event at last December’s COP21 conference, where, as one of 80 contributors to the book from around the world, I attended and spoke at the Paris launch (click here for a backgrounder piece I wrote at the time).

The venue for last week’s event was the newly refurbished Great Hall in Tailors Hall, Christchurch, home of An Taisce. The hall was packed out for the event, with standing room only. Speakers included former communications minister, Alex White, Dr Cara Augustenborg of UCD, Aideen O’Hora of Sustainable Nation and myself.

Climate committee chair, Phil Kearney welcomed the launch on behalf of An Taisce. Cara’s account of the meeting is here, and there’s another report by sustainability blogger, Aideen O’Dochartaigh here.

Since there are ample meeting reports above, I’ve added a video recording I made of the event below, for anyone who might be interested in catching up.

For the record, below is my ‘vision’ for the world in 2100, as published in John O’Brien’s book. Some would call it dystopian, but as was pointed out at the meeting, my estimate of there still being 50 million humans alive in 2100 is exactly one million times more optimistic than the lowest estimate in the book!

“First, the good news. Against the odds, we made it to 2100. Only fifty years ago it looked like it was game over for homo sapiens. It sounds crazy now, but back in my grandparents’ time they really did carry on for a while like there was no tomorrow: tearing down rainforests, flattening mountains, poisoning the seas, waging war on nature – all in pursuit of this strange idea they called ‘growth’.

There aren’t that many books now, but our teachers describe the Age of Madness, as it’s called, when the scientific community repeatedly warned that Earth systems were in extreme danger. But nobody listened, and few chose to act.

How could this have happened? Everyone, it seems, was competing with everyone else for money, resources, status. No one seemed to notice that this spree couldn’t last forever. Even the revelation back in 2015 that half of all the world’s wild animals had been wiped out failed to ring the alarm bells. And as for all the warnings about climate change, they always seemed to be about someone else, or some time in the future…

Well, that future is now. This generation has learned the hard lesson of hubris – and humility. There’s barely fifty million of us now globally. Life is tough, but we’re managing. This time, we’re keeping it simple. They say the Earth is healing, maybe they’re right. Maybe we can at last live in a world where, in the words of the poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme”.

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Flights of folly at Dublin airport

Fallout from the recent Brexit vote may prove something of a gift for the Dublin Airport Authority’s (DAA) ambitious plan to have a second runway built and ready for business by 2020.

The huge cloud of economic uncertainty now parked over Britain may put the kibosh on its own 2015 Airport Commission recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow, at the eye-watering cost of almost €23 billion. The fact that Boris Johnson fiercely opposes the Heathrow expansion plan hardly increases its chances of success.

Another heavy hitter against the Heathrow plan (on cost grounds) is Willie Walsh’s IAG, owners of Aer Lingus. One of the reasons IAG splashed out for Ireland’s national carrier was to access Dublin as a cheaper hub.

Planning permission for Dublin airport’s second runway was issued in 2007, using a land bank bought up by the DAA as far back as the 1960s. The crash of 2008 saw expansion plans mothballed. However, since 2011, passenger numbers have rebounded strongly, growing by some 35% to over 25 million in 2015.

The price tag on the Dublin airport expansion is put at €320 million, a trifling sum relative to the multi-billion euro Heathrow plan. However, the sting in the tail for the DAA is that the planning permission, from Fingal County Council, came with 31 conditions, one of which, to reduce noise impacts on local residents, severely caps the number of takeoffs or landings at both the new and existing runway between 11pm and 7am.

This presents a serious pickle for the DAA’s chief, ex-Glanbia high flier Kevin Toland, who has been brought in specifically to deliver major growth at the airport. Toland was recently quizzed by Fingal councillors, one of whom wondered if the DAA’s assumptions about future growth in aviation demand actually took account of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which has been signed up to by the DAA’s sole shareholder, the Irish state.

Toland’s stance appeared to suggest that neither he nor the Irish government are losing too much sleep over the likelihood that Ireland might actually treat its binding EU and international commitments on sharply reducing emissions in any way seriously.

Considering the government is happy to allow another state-owned company, Bord na Móna to continue wrecking Ireland’s most important natural carbon sinks until at least 2030 suggests Toland is correct in not being too concerned about his political masters actually acting on emissions reductions any time soon.

In a letter to Fingal councillor David Healy, the DAA described the conditions of use attached to their planning permission as “onerous”. New EU regulations on noise abatement came into effect in June 2016 and the DAA has made it clear it would like a more ‘flexible’ agency to be overseeing the interpretation of its planning permission than An Bord Pleanála, and has strongly hinted that unless it gets it, the second runway is off the table (an as-yet unidentified agency is being teed up for this task).

This is designed to pile political pressure on a government already sold on growth-at-all-costs, one that views regulating climate change as annoying red tape rather than critical to human safety and welfare. Ireland’s National Aviation Policy (ie. expand and grow aviation) clearly trumps the 2015 Climate Action & Low Carbon Development Act, which, in theory, binds all sectors of the Irish economy towards achieving strong, permanent cuts in carbon emissions.

Thanks to Food Harvest 2020 and FoodWise 2025, our agri sector’s emissions will continue to spiral, while the transport and energy sectors are faring little better.

The deepening climate crisis makes Ireland building massive new aviation capacity seem more an act of international sabotage than rational policy, but measured purely in terms of narrow self-interest, it’s a sure fire winner.

*The above article was recently published in a well-known satirical magazine

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An Inconvenient Truth – 10 years on, it’s truer than ever

How’s this for a deeply unpromising script idea: making a movie about a failed politician trailing around the world presenting wonkish slide shows on his laptop to mostly small audiences about, of all things, climate change?

It hardly helped that the ex-politician in question, former US vice president Al Gore was reviled across the political spectrum. Democrat supporters blamed him for gifting the White House to George W. Bush with his incompetent run and premature concession in Florida in November 2000, while Republicans hated him mostly for not being a Republican.

It might have been only a slight overstatement to call Gore a pariah in the mid-2000s. For him to then choose to relaunch into public life by campaigning on one of the few topics even more unpopular than himself seemed to underpin his tag as a serial loser.

The film that emerged from Gore’s travelling slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth, didn’t exactly blow Hollwood away either – at least not at first. Director, David Guggenheim recalled that prior to its debut at the Sundance Festival in June 2006, they brought the film reel to a major studio for a preview, which Gore attended.

“I remember listening to one of them snore, then waking up awkwardly when the lights came up”, said Guggenheim. “I saw the executives going into another room and huddling, then coming back and the head of the studio saying to us, ‘We do not believe that this will ever have a theatrical distribution. We do not believe that anyone will pay to have a babysitter come so that they can go see this movie. Stop dreaming, this movie will never have a theatrical release.”

And yet. The film became a critical success, landing two Oscars along the way and grossing over $24 million in the US, small beer by Hollywood standards, yet one of the most commercially successful documentaries of all time. More importantly, it reignited the moribund environmental movement in the US after years of Bush era denialism.

Globally, it helped redefine ‘environmentalism’ as being a far broader church than that occupied by traditional environmentalists. Along the way, it helped to squarely frame climate change as the overarching ecological – and existential – crisis of the 21st century.

Watching An Inconvenient Truth was a deeply personal, emotionally wrenching experience for many people back in 2006. I know because I was one of them. Climate change had long been lurking in the shadows of public consciousness, poorly understood, frequently misrepresented and, as an issue, desperately short of passionate, persuasive advocates.

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth”, Winston Churchill drily noted, “but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened”. My first time to stumble over the deeply inconvenient reality of climate change in a world of ever-escalating human impacts had happened in the first two or three years of the 2000s, as I began to read my way into the subject, initially as an intellectual curiosity. The more I researched, the greater grew my sense of personal unease.

Yet all around, life went on as before. Not a single person in my work, family or social circle at that time shared this growing sense of dread. It’s neither pleasant nor healthy to remain in a constant state of high anxiety, especially when all around you seem perfectly relaxed. So, despite being fairly well informed, I too began to chill, to compartmentalise my anxiety and box off my concerns.

Though unaware at the time, I was probably experiencing what psychologists call the bystander effect: surely if things were really as serious as all that, other people would be alarmed too? But they weren’t. The invisibility of the issue in the media was both baffling and oddly reassuring. If there really was a massive story here, the media would be all over it by now?

The bystander effect hobbles us in three ways: first, there is a lack of sense that it’s anyone’s job in particular to intervene, so we’re off the hook as individuals for failing to act. Second, we all engage in social referencing, subtly aligning our actions with those around us; if they aren’t bothered, why should I be? Finally, few of us are comfortable sticking our necks out, especially if the issue seems complex or contested, so we mostly stay schtum.

By mid-2006 my incessant low-level ecological panic was showing signs of finally receding. Watching An Inconvenient Truth in the cinema changed all that. It was an environmental epiphany – that electrifying moment when everything I’d been reading and trying to process emotionally for several years came crashing into focus. It was like waking from a dream into a world that looked familiar, yet felt changed, utterly and beyond recognition. I knew in that moment that the days of being an eco-bystander were over.

For me, the stand-out moment from the film was when Gore produced a chart on a giant screen tracking the uncanny lock-step relationship between CO2 levels and global temperatures stretching back through the millennia. By 2005, the year of filming, global atmospheric CO2 levels were approaching 380 ppm (parts per million), the highest level in at least 800,000 years.

In a sleek piece of visual theatre, Gore then climbed aboard a cherry-picker and began to ascend, all the while tracking the graph showing CO2 levels 50 years into a business-as-usual future as they spiralled out of sight. Allowing such a future to come to pass was, he argued, “deeply unethical”. He could have added: suicidal.

Today, more than one fifth of the way into that half-century time frame, the global CO2 figure has smashed through the 400ppm level, and continues to climb at the rate of some 3ppm every year, taking us rapidly into a completely new climatic era, the anthropocene.

“Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves: what were our parents thinking? Why didn’t they wake up when they had a chance? We have to hear that question from them. Now”. These were the sombre remarks with which Gore concluded the film. I had a two and four year-old at home at that time, and the statement hung accusingly in the air.

They are now 11 and 13, and beginning to ask the questions I dreaded a decade ago. “How are we going to die?” my eldest child enquired, with an earnestness I found unnerving, during a recent conversation. I reassured her that while the situation is serious, there is still hope and the most important thing is to not stop trying, no matter what.

Given that, ten years later, global emissions have barely even begun to plateau, should we judge An Inconvenient Truth a failure? Certainly, if failure can be measured by the number of times Gore has been publicly accused of fronting a gigantic hoax, then yes, it’s a failure. However, I’d suggest the almost unprecedented level of hysterical vitriol Gore’s fact-laden documentary attracts indicates how close to the bone he had in fact struck. Even the comments on the Irish version of the Netflix site where the film resides are full of visceral loathing that goes far beyond any rational appraisal of the good and bad points of the film.

This is hardly accidental. The fossil fuel industry and its paid shills via countless think tanks, websites and right wing media outlets have run a frenzied counter-factual campaign featuring such sophisticated put-downs as ‘Al Gore is fat’ in a desperate attempt to sufficiently tarnish his reputation as to render An Inconvenient Truth toxic-by-association.

Though now looking ever more desperate, the campaign rumbles on to this day. A favoured ploy is to focus obsessively on a number of minor errors in the film, employing the dubious stratagem that if you can ‘prove’ that it’s not 100% accurate, then it must be 100% false.

The reputable ‘Skeptical Science’ website points out some errors in the film. Gore’s choice of mount Kilimanjaro to illustrate glacier retreat was unfortunate, but his wider point was accurate. Another forensic analysis found two notable errors and 8 smaller flaws in the film.

Compare and contrast with telegenic Danish climate denier academic, Bjorn Lomborg’s book ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’. It was similarly reviewed, and found to contain a whopping 337 errors and flaws, or 33 times more than Gore’s film and accompanying book. We all make mistakes, but when your book racks up an average of two factual distortions per page, it can begin to seem a little more than just carelessness.

There have undoubtedly been better documentaries made on climate change than An Inconvenient Truth, but none, it’s fair to say, have been as influential or as enduring.

The above article appears in the June 2016 edition of Village magazine

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Bord na Mona: of strip-mining and greenwashing

You can hardly have missed the hugely expensive PR and advertising blitz from the semi-state, Bord na Mona, whose ad agency has come up with a snazzy new campaign called ‘Naturally Driven’. They even managed to get RTE’s George Lee down to do a segment for the news to announce its new-found interest in sustainability, while Apart from its cloying 30-second TV ad, you can enjoy the full five minute corporate video here. Or, if you’d prefer to apply a ‘truth filter’, some wag has re-scripted and re-voiced a 30-second parody version here.

This multi-media campaign also included broadsheet adverts featuring a hare on it hind legs in a pristine environment of wildflowers and other native flora. The caption: ‘This land is his land. We never forget that’. The sub-text helpfully explains how ‘at Bord na Mona, we’re responsible for over 80,000 hectares of Irish landscape, and that responsibility extends to those who inhabit the land’.

Well, I can only imagine how grateful the countless million of plants and creatures, great and small, which have been ground to pulp under the wheels and tracks of Bord na Mona machines or have been slowly-but-surely doomed by the annihilation of their habitat will be to discover their tormentors are in fact really their carers and advocates.

Of all the vacuous tripe rolled out under the umbrella of ‘corporate rebranding’, this current campaign may well be the subject of doctoral theses for future academics on how senior executive in organisations, drunk on self-delusion and introspection and incapable of critical thinking, can actually sign off on material as profoundly, irredeemably dishonest as ‘Naturally Driven’.

How about this, direct from the extended video: “Today, we continue to harvest peat in a responsible manner, to help generate electricity to power Irish homes, yet at the same time we are actively contributing to ensuring Ireland meets its renewable electricity targets”. Hilariously, the ‘responsible peat harvesting’ bit is accompanied by footage of giant machinery open-cast mining peat in a barren moonscape as far as the eye can see. Japanese whaling ships are branded ‘Research Vessels’ and engage in a gigantic fraud, along with Norway and Iceland, known as ‘scientific whaling‘.

Bord na Mona is the landlubber equivalent of the scientific whaler, sweeping all life before it while insisting that it’s destroying the bogs so that it can ‘restore’ them at some future point. And, just like the whalers, they’ll tell you about all the local communities who depend on them. The reality, as set out in more detail below, is that the entire peat-for-energy racket is so hopelessly uneconomic, the ordinary electricity consumer is lumped with compulsory surcharges to prop this house of cards up.

By one calculation, the jobs of each and every employee engaged in burning peat for power production are subsidised to the tune of around €240,000 per annum. For that money up in smoke, three or four sustainable jobs with a long term future that involve neither destroying the environment nor poisoning or flooding your neighbours could be financed.

If Bord na Mona wants us to believe it is sincere about its new-found interest in sustainability, and restoring and rehabilitating peatlands, it would be a whole lot more convincing if it fessed up to the fact that the reason these once-pristine landscapes have been destroyed is because Bord na Mona destroyed them.

Its new campaign seems to position the organisation not as a prolific ecological pariah intent on redeeming itself for its atrocious ‘stewardship’ of tens of thousands of hectares of sensitive, once-ecologically rich bogs but as some disinterested party that has stumbled innocently upon degraded peatlands and is now determined to, in their own words, “create havens of natural beauty for local communities to enjoy, working responsibly with nature…etc. etc.”

Apart from taking zero responsibility for its own actions to date, Bord na Mona’s wilful intention to continue strip-mining peat for electricity production for the next 14 years makes a mockery of the formal policy of its owner, the Irish state, to rapidly and permanently decarbonise the entire economy. This places the board and management of Bord na Mona on the same moral plane as the executives in Exxon, Shell and other fossil fuel ‘producers’ who peddle excuses and talk about ‘jobs’ and repeat hollow slogans about ‘sustainability’ while the global environmental collapse they are so generously contributing towards continues to gather pace.

Below, including some edits, is the text I drafted earlier this month on behalf of An Taisce’s climate change committee in response to this campaign:


BORD na Mona’s corporate rebranding as ‘Naturally Driven’ is an exercise in cynicism. It pedals empty PR slogans in place of genuine reform of what could well be Ireland’s single dirtiest, most polluting and ecologically damaging organisation

“We suggest they drop their new ‘Naturally Driven’ slogan and replace it with the phrase ‘Profit Driven’. Then Bord Na Mona would at least be able to sell its business plan with a straight face”, according to An Taisce.

The industrial harvesting of peat is one of the least sustainable and most environmentally (un)friendly industries on the face of the planet. There is no long term future in peat and there can be no short term future in it either if we hope to prevent the devastating consequences of climate change and global biodiversity loss.

Born na Mona have effectively told us that they will stop harvesting peat when there is essentially no peat left to harvest  and through a flashy media campaign have marketed this as ‘progress’. This semi-state company continues to destroy some of Ireland’s most endangered habitats and unique cultural landscapes beyond repair. Often this is done in open breach of environmental law.

The organisation claims they have turned over a new leaf and have the best interests of local communities at heart, yet at the height of the past winter’s floods Bord na Mona continued to pump flood water off their bogs and back into the Shannon. This kept Bord na Mona’s peat dry while downstream communities bore the brunt of flood waters.

Bord na Mona bogs are also a significant source of water pollution. Communities throughout the region have seen streams that once teemed with fish reduced to dark peat-ladened mires. There is a serious health implication with this pollution in the form of THMs, which are chemicals created when peaty water is treated with chlorine. Long-term exposure to THMs can cause an increased risk of certain cancers, reproductive problems and damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

Its statement that it will continue to devastate Ireland’s fragile boglands for the next 14 years to feed millions of tonnes of peat into three hopelessly inefficient, loss-making peat-fired power stations being propped up by compulsory levies on electricity bill-payers is about as far from ‘sustainable’ as it is possible to be.

Based on the current level of subsidies being paid, it is estimated that over the remaining life of these peat-fired stations, up to €1.5 billion in PSO subsidies will be handed over to keep them open. Apart from the economic madness and regional environmental degradation, destruction of our bogs is a massive contributor to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Given our legally mandated EU commitment  to urgently decarbonise the Irish economy, there is no justification whatever for Bord na Mona, a state-controlled company, continuing a policy that completely undermines national efforts to achieve rapid reductions in dangerous greenhouse gases.

An Taisce expressed concern at Bord na Mona’s statement: “Our target to cease harvesting peat for power by 2030 is a clear destination point in our journey to sustainability”. Apart from the complete unacceptability of continuing peat harvesting for power generation for another decade and a half, nowhere in the above statement does Bord na Mona commit to exiting its equally damaging horticultural and domestic peat businesses.

“For a company engaged in the massive strip-mining of millions of tonnes of Ireland’s most fragile landscapes to boast on its website that it is becoming more ‘environmentally friendly’ by encouraging its employees to “print less, turn off lights and recycle more” strongly suggests an organisation that is in the most profound denial of the environmental consequences of its ‘core business’ and is instead engaged in an expensive greenwashing exercise.

The government need immediately to put an exit strategy in place that will bring about the cessation of peat extraction by 2020 at the very latest. We need to develop a vision that can deliver true sustainability and prosperity for communities that have been ignored for too long. This must be part of a broader government agenda for the development of rural Ireland. This is a portfolio that warrants a full Ministerial position.

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We had better hope Jim Hansen is wrong this time

Former NASA chief climatologist, Jim Hansen has an unfortunate knack of being right a lot more often than he’s wrong. And when it comes to projecting the future path of climate change, he has an equally unfortunate habit of being well ahead of the scientific posse.

Back in the sweltering summer of 1988 Hansen testified to the US Congress on climate change, a phenomenon that was, until his electrifying presentation, seen as something of a scientific curio, an issue that some distant future generation would, eventually, have to confront. Hansen confirmed that not only was it real, it was already happening. Calculations Hansen published in the late 1980s of likely future climate change track what has actually occurred with uncanny accuracy.

Fast forward to 2015, a year in which global temperatures were smashed by record margins to make it, by some distance, the hottest year ever recorded. And temperatures recorded in first two months of 2016 have been described by climate scientists as “off the charts”.

The February 2016 global temperature anomaly is +1.35C above average. It took from the beginning of the industrial revolution until October 2015 to record a +1C global temperature rise. To add another 0.35C within less than six months has left the scientific community running out of superlatives.

And now Hansen is back. He and 19 colleagues have just published a blockbuster paper in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics. While the IPCC’s assessment reports represent the conservative mainstream view of climate science, Hansen and his colleagues can be said to be at the bleeding edge.

What their research has concluded is profoundly disturbing, throwing into question almost everything we think we know about how climate change is likely to play out in the 21st century. While the IPCC plumped for a likely maximum sea level increase this century of around 1 metre, Hansen argues this may be a hopeless underestimate.

“The models that were run for the IPCC report did not include ice melt, and we also conclude that most models, ours included, have excessive small scale mixing, and that tends to limit the effect of this freshwater lens on the ocean surface from melting of Greenland and Antarctica”, Hansen told a press conference marking the launch of his paper last month.

How Hansen sees this playing out in the real world reads like apocalyptic science fiction. Instead of a slow, incremental increase in sea levels, he believes we are looking at multi-metre sea level rise in the coming decades, not centuries.

Nor will this be a gentle process: he predicts devastating superstorms quite unlike anything since the last Ice Age, and the near-shutdown of major ocean currents such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), or the Gulf stream, that vast current of warm tropical water that keeps northwest Europe, including Ireland, from not being frozen solid for several months a year.

If this is beginning to sound familiar, you’re probably thinking of the movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, where abrupt climate change triggered a massive freeze in the northern hemisphere. That, of course, is purely speculative; there is already far too much excess heat in the system for the return of widespread Ice Age conditions anytime in the next hundred millennia.

What is truly alarming, according to Hansen, is that as the heat differential between the equator and the northern hemisphere increases, this is likely to fuel powerful mid-latitude storms, on a scale not endured in thousands of years.

Such storms could be powerful enough indeed to pick up massive boulders weighting thousands of tonnes and toss them hundreds of metres inland. We have clear evidence that this has happened before – and he believes it can happen again.

With severe storms battering the world’s coastal regions, compounded by rapid sea level rise, the nightmare scenario of most of the world’s great cities being lost to coastal inundation moves from being some distant spectre far beyond the year 2100 and bang smack into the middle of this century. Cork, Dublin, Galway, Belfast, Limerick, Wexford… the list goes on, and that’s just on this tiny island.

Apart from the unimaginable human misery and forced migration of millions, the economic impact is almost incalculable Most of our critical infrastructure, including all the world’s great ports and trading hubs would be lost.

Not everyone agrees. Prof Peter Thorne of NUIM was among those who reviewed Hansen’s paper, and while not ruling out worst-case scenarios, he believe publicising them may be counterproductive.

“Does this actually confuse, does it cause despair, does it help or hinder? I don’t know whether communicating something like this actually elicits a response that says: let’s do something”, added Prof Thorne.

*This  article is published in the April 2016 edition of Village magazine

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One man’s meat is another’s global ecological calamity

The article below is a referenced version of my piece that appeared in the Weekend Edition of the Irish Times on Saturday last. Writers don’t get to choose the headlines  –’Meat is madness’ – my preference would have been to emphasise the stark choice we face: unbridled meat consumption locks in climate havoc, yet compared to other swingeing lifestyle changes we face, cutting back sharply on meat is in fact among the least unpalatable. Lack of awareness that meat (especially from ruminants) is a key driver in just about every environmental crisis you can mention, is widespread. That’s what this article is really about addressing.


IRELAND HAS a serious obesity problem. By 2030, this will have spiralled into a full-blown public health emergency. World Health Organisation projections show that, on current trends, one in two Irish adults will be clinically obese within 15 years.

Ireland also finds itself among the very worst in the league table of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, where we are 45 per cent above the EU average in per capita emissions. And, despite binding international commitments to rapidly reduce this pollution, data from the Environment Protection Agency confirms our emissions, like our waistlines, are instead continuing to expand.

At first glance, there might seem little to connect GHG emissions with an obesity epidemic, but they can also be seen as two sides of the same dysfunctional coin. This is the conclusion of a major new study from researchers at Oxford University.

The current global food production and marketing system is generating a glut of cheap processed meats which are fuelling dangerous climate change while also feeding a pandemic of diet-related ill health which is costing between $700 billion and $1 trillion a year in healthcare and related costs.

If people in developed countries like Ireland and the US simply ate no more than the recommended levels of meat, some 5.1 million premature deaths could be avoided by 2050, according to the Oxford study. They further calculated that a worldwide switch to a vegetarian diet would yield 7.3 million lives saved.

While these would be welcome reductions in ill health, hospitalisation and premature death from heart disease, cancers and diabetes, the carbon dividend of such a dietary transformation is no less significant. Researchers calculated that reining in our meat consumption to the recommended levels would cut GHG emissions from agriculture by a hefty 29 per cent.

A global shift to a vegetarian diet would deliver a profound reduction in agricultural GHG emissions, slashing them by 63 per cent, while also easing a host of related chronic ecological problems, from deforestation to desertification, eutrophication and water stress.

This would have the vital co-benefit of also freeing the land available to grow food directly for humans and so reducing hunger levels among the poor.

Globally, the production of just meat and dairy products generates some 14.5 per cent of all emissions – this is greater than the output of every car, bus, lorry, train and ship in the world – combined.

The influential UK think tank, the Chatham House institute in 2014 produced a study that found low levels of awareness among the public about the true costs of their dietary choices. However, “consumers with a higher level of awareness were more likely to indicate willingness to reduce their meat and dairy consumption for climate objectives”.

Closing what they call the “awareness gap” is a vital first step. The study noted the “striking paucity of efforts” to rein in consumption. They also suggest that both governments and environmental groups have been “reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to shift consumer behaviour”.

The reason seems to be the fear of backlash, principally from powerful vested interest groups, and in few countries is this more apparent than Ireland, where national food policy is shaped primarily by the agri-industrial lobby.

It’s worth considering what is at stake. “Without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below 2˚C will be nearly impossible. Tackling unsustainable meat consumption is therefore a necessity”, the Chatham House report added.

Left unchecked, by 2050, global meat and dairy consumption will have risen by 76 per cent compared with today, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This would represent a lethal double whammy for both human health and the biosphere.

Change in human behaviour is difficult, but not impossible, to achieve. A separate study by researchers at Reading and Oxford universities recommended taxing the ‘carbon footprint’ of foods such as beef and dairy products to reflect their true health and environmental costs.

They warned, however, of the risk of pushing the public towards sweeter dietary options that are equally unhealthy. Their solution: a CO2 tax of around €4 per tonne on high-emissions foods combined with a 20 per cent sales tax on sugary drinks. They estimated this intervention alone would reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas output by 18.5 million tonnes, while avoiding some 1,250 premature deaths annually.

The practical impact of such a tax would be to significantly push up the price of red meat, including beef and lamb, which could lead to a 20 per cent drop in consumption.

Shortly after this study was published, the UK government took the unexpected step of introducing a levy on sugary drinks. The Irish industry, backed by finance minister Michael Noonan, has been quick to decry such a move here. Taxes do work. A 10 per cent tax in Mexico on sugary drinks saw consumption fall by 12 per cent within a year.

The Irish agribusiness lobby is, unsurprisingly, fiercely opposed to levies on high carbon foods. Ireland’s national beef herd comprises over five million animals, with another 1.2 million dairy cows. The dairy sector, following the euphoria of last year’s lifting of quotas, is now in crisis as milk prices have slumped to barely the cost of production.

Dramatic expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd has run roughshod over our need to sharply cut agricultural emissions, which today count for around a third of all our GHGs. Irish taxpayers may soon be facing multi-billion euro EU fines as a result of this complete failure to manage either agriculture or transport-related emissions.

While dairy farmers struggle, the beef sector remains on life support, surviving thanks to massive EU transfers. Prof Alan Matthews of TCD quoted Teagasc figures last year confirming that, were it not for EU subsidies of around €400 per hectare, beef farming “could not continue”. If, he explained, “you were to add in the additional costs of greenhouse gases, those net margins would be even more negative”.

As a way of making food, beef production is strikingly inefficient. “Beef has one of the lowest ‘feed-to-food’ conversion efficiencies of commonly consumed foods. Only 1 per cent of gross cattle feed energy and 4 per cent of ingested protein are converted to human-edible calories and protein. As a result, beef uses more land and freshwater, and generates more GHG emissions per unit of protein than other commonly consumed food”, according to the 2016 Global Food Policy Report.

Defence of our high-emissions national agricultural policy is often based on the argument that, as a ‘food island’, we are a special case. This claim is severely dented by FAO data for 2011, which shows that Ireland is in fact a net importer of food calories – shockingly, we import food calories for 1.4 million people more than we export for. Rather than Ireland feeding the world, we’re not even feeding ourselves, according to research to be presented later this month in NUI Galway by Dr. Colin Doyle.

Shifting away from an excessively meat-based diet will directly benefit human health, while reducing hunger among the poor, easing animal welfare concerns and offering farmers a genuinely sustainable future.

High-tech alternatives, such as ‘Beyond Meat’ are fast emerging, using plant-based ingredients to closely mimic the taste, texture and smells that make meat so alluring, while trimming the health impacts and global environmental havoc our ancient carnal predilections are now wreaking.


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Choosing to fail: Prof Kevin Anderson interviewed

Prof Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is one of the world’s best known and most influential – and outspoken – climate specialists.

He was in Dublin for several days in early March at the invitation of An Taisce’s climate change committee (of which I’m a member), and he completed a whirlwind schedule with talks in DCU, NUIM, the RIA and the IIEA among other appointments, as well as a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin to brief President Higgins on the state of climate science.

I met him* in Dublin city centre just ahead of his final formal engagement: a lecture in the RIA on the chasm between where the physics tells us we need to be heading to avert disaster and where the timid steps proposed by our political classes are actually taking us.

As an aid to navigation, the first 10 minutes or so deal with Kevin’s observations on Ireland’s response to climate change. The next five minutes deal with the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, then he moves to address the growth paradox; then, he deals with his own decision not to fly. From there, he deals with climate sensitivity and extreme events. Next, he deals with the relative merits of carbon taxes versus rationing. From here, he examines the fitness for purpose of the neoliberal economic and political model. He also discusses the ‘new normal’ of life in a climate-changed world, where human impacts have already wrought disastrous changes to much of the natural world upon which we depend. The interview concludes by placing a moral framework on humanity’s relationship with the world. He remains deeply concerned that society, despite the overwhelming evidence of the need to act, that “we will choose to fail”.

*A full version of this interview will appear in the April edition of Village magazine


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Election 2016: more fudge and waffle on climate change

Below, my article written for Village magazine’s post-election special issue. The election campaign was notable for the fact that environmental issues generally and climate change specifically were completely written out of the political and media script. Twenty, maybe even 10 years ago, this might have been at least understandable. But, in 2016, just weeks after the historic Paris Agreement, and after the hottest year ever recorded, it seems nothing short of delusional.


To say that environmental issues didn’t have much of an impact on Election 2016 would be a bit like observing that feminism hasn’t exactly been the defining feature of Donald Trump’s US presidential run.

The topic was completely ignored in the botched opening Leaders’ Debate on TV3, and again, on RTÉ’s seven-way debate the following week. The Green Party had fallen foul of an internal RTÉ decision to exclude it from a slot among the extended parties. Continue reading

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2011-2016: five more lost years for Ireland’s climate response

Below, my article as it appears in the Election Edition of Village magazine. This was written ahead of the publication of the assorted party manifestos (these are just now starting to trickle out) but it seemed a more useful exercise to step back to looking at the 2011 FG/Labour Programme for Government and see, from the environment/climate standpoint, how they actually performed. Here’s what I concluded.


THE OUTGOING Fine Gael/Labour coalition government did manage to pull off one headline act that had eluded the previous FF/Green administration, and that was they got climate legislation, of sorts, onto the statute books for the first time ever. Continue reading

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 5 Comments

Every sector must pull its weight on curtailing climate change

Below, my article as it appeared in today’s Irish Examiner. I wrote this piece on behalf of An Taisce, prompted by this self-serving and misleading piece by the IFA in the same paper last week. The agribusiness lobby has been working flat out to twist the outcome of the Paris Agreement into (yet another) blank cheque for industrialised food production, including of course the exporting of vast amounts of meat and dairy produce to sate the appetites of the world’s emerging middle classes.

Rather than simply serving the ‘need’ for this energy and emissions-intensive foodstuff, the Irish state is actively using all its political, commercial and marketing nous to stoke up demand for these products, at the behest of the rancher class of Irish farmer that the IFA now primarily represents, and, more particularly, the giant agrifood PLCs, such as Glanbia, Kerry and APB Foods. Continue reading

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Met Éireann & climate change: time to break the silence

What is it with Met Eireann and climate change? Take the below, entirely typical, recent comments from forecaster Joanna Donnelly:

“It is a global phenomenon that needs to be looked at globally over decades and not days…Our climate is changing but you could not use the weather in any one country in any one month, day or year to say that this is the evidence of climate change…Climate change is evident all over the globe all of the time”.

The above quote is from a news article in the Irish Independent, dated December 3rd last. Just four days later, the Irish Examiner carried a report headed: ‘Storm Desmond: All the evidence points to climate change, says Met Office’. The Met Office in question is of course the UK version. Its chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo had no difficulty stating the obvious, which is: “all the evidence points to climate change”. Continue reading

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