A safer future? Don’t bank on it

“Disaster myopia” was a new phrase to enter the lexicon of Irish political life this week. This condition manifests itself in an “increasing tendency to discount the probability of a disaster occurring, the longer the interval of time that has elapsed since a disaster last occurred”.

Disaster myopia is, we also learned, reinforced by competitive pressure: “Dealing with the threat from competitors and defending or increasing market share is real, but disaster is an abstraction until it breaks.”

“Was the scale of risk-taking such as to be reckless? Looking back from a point in the middle of the wreckage, recklessness seems like a reasonable word to use but, of course, this is hindsight bias at work.” At the time the future looked different. …Undoubtedly the sceptics could have and, with the benefit of hindsight, should have, articulated their doubts much more consistently.

“Whether this would have made much difference is something we will never know, but it is a matter of profound personal regret to me that I wasn’t more forceful in setting out the contrarian view and didn’t work harder at analysing its implications.”

The above epiphany comes courtesy of Jim O’Leary, a former director of AIB and offers a piercing insight into how groupthink, self-interest and chronic short-termism all conspired to create the circumstances in which the financial bubble-and-bust disaster not only was likely to occur, but in fact became almost inevitable. It also calls to mind the great JK Galbraith’s injunction not to confuse insight and intelligence with the possession of large amounts of money.

Regulars to ThinkorSwim will no doubt have spotted where this argument is headed, given that some disasters are, well, more disastrous than others.

The US National Academy of Sciences yesterday issued a 180-page report entitled ‘Stabilisation Targets for Atmospheric Greenhouse Gases’. It could have been sub-titled: “How to know when your Goose is Cooked”. A small flavour below:

The Earth is now entering a new geological epoch, sometimes called the Anthropocene, during which the evolution of the planet’s environment will be largely controlled by the effects of human activities, notably emissions of carbon dioxide. Actions taken during this century will determine whether the Anthropocene climate anomaly will be a relatively short term and minor deviation from the Holocene climate, or an extreme deviation extending over many thousands of years.”

In summary, the National Academy report (these are the heaviest of hitters in the field, with more Nobel laureates can you can shake a doctorate at) sets out the stark conclusion that (a) we’re in the last-chance cafe; (b) it’s five to midnight and; (c) last orders have just been called…

A man who understood disaster myopia – and climate science itself – better than almost anyone else on the planet was Stanford University climatologist, Dr Stephen H. Schneider, who died suddenly on Monday, aged 65. I met and recorded a 35-minute video interview with Dr Schneider in March 2008. I found him a genial host, generous with his time and his expertise, and patient in filling in the many gaps in this interviewer’s knowledge on complex issues.

Dr Schneider has been the victim of a concerted hate campaign for having the temerity to try to alert the public to the extreme hazards atmospheric destabilisation poses to all life on Earth. A comment of his on the anti-science lobbying campaign funded by corporations sums it up well: “Can democracy survive complexity?”.

An FBI investigation recently found he was named on a neo-Nazi “death list,” and Dr Schneider was bombarded with hundreds of hate e-mails a day. “What do I do? Learn to shoot a magnum? Wear a bulletproof jacket?” Dr. Schneider said in a recent interview in the US. “I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home, and my address is unlisted. I get scared that we’re now in a new Weimar Republic where people are prepared to listen to what amounts to Hitlerian lies about climate scientists.”

He had a wonderful line for the deniers: “When somebody says ‘I don’t believe in global warming,’ I ask, ‘Do you believe in evidence? Do you believe in a preponderance of evidence?’ ”

Our sympathies to his wife, biologist Dr Terry Root. Her loss is our loss too.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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25 Responses to A safer future? Don’t bank on it

  1. Ultan Murphy says:

    From someone who takes the opposing view with regard to climate science, John Gibbons has produced a very good interview with Stephen Schneider. I’ve only noticed the videos section now.

    I would encourage people from either side of the debate to watch John’s film to understand the mind of the people leading the Climate Change debate on an international level. (Other skeptics like myself click here from time to time.)

    I must say that John asked his guest all the pertinent questions in a cool, level headed way. So, well done for the endeavour and it has encouraged me to look at John’s other videos also. Indeed John might have produced a better film for RTE than Duncan Stewart did with “A Burning Question”.

    Regardless of my opinion on climate change, I respect anybody who has put the time and effort into the topic as much as John Gibbons has.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    @Ultan

    Thanks for the generous comments re. that interview. In light of our previous exchanges, it’s also entirely unexpected. I honestly wish there weren’t “sides” to this debate and that everyone were approaching it from the point of view of trying to figure out the extent of the problem, what’s causing it, and what’s the best way to fix it. As Schneider said candidly about global warming in that interview: “I wish to hell I were wrong, John, I really do”.

    Life, of course, is never that simple, but I live in stubborn hope that, as this crisis deepens, more and more people will quit the “debating society” approach, roll up their sleeves and say: ‘right, ideology aside, we’ve got a huge problem, let’s cut the crap and figure out how to fix it’.

    Your posting today leads me to believe that maybe, just maybe, that’s not an entirely forlorn hope. Steve Schneider would surely have approved. JG

  3. James Lally says:

    Very sorry to read of Stephen Schneider’s death. I read his book ‘Science as a Contact Sport’ earlier this year – he was a gutsy warrior on the side of science in a country and in a time when – metaphorically at least – they want to burn, rather than heed scientists, or anyone who dares suggest that rampant consumption and resource exhaustion cannot simply continue indefinitely. As that former AIB director put it, disaster myopia is all around us. Enjoyed watching your interview with Dr Schneider, he came across like a really sincere but very humane scientist.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    @James

    Sincere and humane, yes, that sums up Dr Schneider pretty well. He was also witty, articulate, ferocious, passionate and – frequently – exasperated by people’s determination not to understand even the most rudimentary science. He was also sickened by the cynical anti-science campaign being bankrolled by Big Energy, and appalled that people could tell such vicious untruths without blinking, let alone blushing.

    I found him an inspiration, and his passion undoubtedly inspired many others as well to take up the defence of our ‘home planet’ against those who would, for a quick buck, burn the whole place down.

  5. Eric Conroy says:

    Well done on your interview with Stephen Schneider. He came over as a very good scientist who also is not afraid to give his own passionate views on the risk management inherent in climate change. I also agree with the previous comment that you asked all the right questions to help produce a well-rounded discussion on climate change in 30 minutes. This video would be very useful for the average citizen who is not up-to-speed on the subject. May Stephen Rest In Peace.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks Eric, glad you found the interview useful. Schneider is not well known in these parts, but he’s a hero for many environmental scientists and campaigners alike. His guts in continuing to talk out on this issue, especially given his own health problems arising from a serious brush with cancer in recent years, is legendary.

    Taking on concerted assaults by boo boys, professional denialists and psycho-bloggers is not for the faint hearted. Apart from the usual wingnuts, there are some seriously evil people involved in trying to sabotage public understanding of climate science, and there is little doubt but that Steve Schneider’s life was cut short as a result of the toll this vicious hate campaign took on him.

  7. Cormac says:

    Great post John, and that’s a very useful link.
    Re Schneider, one of the great tragedies of the AGW debate is that scientists, as well as science, are now being targeted, an unprecedented development.

    As for Ultan, there were a few Ultan-types in the recent TV3 program on climate.
    http://www.tv3.ie/shows.php?request=tonightwithvincentbrowne&tv3_preview=&video=25333

    No one asked them Schneider’s question: “Do you believe in a preponderance of evidence?”

    or my own version: ‘What makes you think your understanding of the evidence is better than the professionals?’

    Regards, Cormac

  8. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks Cormac, yes the TV3 “debate” was a sad shambles. The points you made in your article in the Irish Times yesterday about the need for basic “science literacy” for all were never more timely.

    Kevin Myers in particular needs to read something a little more substantial than the Daily Telegraph if he proposes fronting a ‘science debate’. His performance was, frankly, shocking and I’m glad to have passed up on the chance to join in that televised game of charades.

  9. Cormac says:

    To be fair, I thought Kevin tried to be a reasonably balanced chairman, despite his own views on the subject.
    I thought the contribution of the Turn 180 lobbyists really strange – for example the younger guy kept stating his opinions as facts, something most Chairs would have picked up on, not to mention highlighting the difference between informed, professional opinion and random opinion.

    However, the big surprise was that the scientists didn’t do a better job of
    explaining why scientists believe what they believe – they could have done with one of the fliers from John Cook’s website
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/

  10. John Gibbons says:

    I think it was well flagged to Kevin Myers that people were aware of his own – well publicised – position on this topic, and I agree, he let the protagonists at it and kept his oar out for the most part. My crib wasn’t about his bias, it was about his competence on this issue. At one point, he seemed to mix up oxygen and CO2, but more importantly (and you touch on it above) he had absolutely no idea as to the basic science of GW/climate change, and that’s why he failed to challenge the Turn 180 guy’s various statements.

    But this is TV, TV3 in fact, so maybe I was expecting a bit much to think the chairman would be expertly picking his way through the nuances, dismantling the straw men arguments and insisting both sides stick to factual analysis of the peer-reviewed science. Considering even RTE’s Primetime hasn’t got to this point yet, I’ll give Kevin 5/10 for a reasonably honest effort.

    The same Kevin Myers wrote a fine piece on the demise of the honey bee in June, a piece he concluded as follows: “Has the bee gone the way of the now-extinct wych elm? And if so, does some ecological disaster await us?” Encouraging writers like Myers to actually fully grasp what’s going on in the wider ecological picture remains an ambition – however forlorn – of mine.

    Their reach and influence could be hugely helpful in turning public opinion, in much the same way that the lazy cynicism of a depressingly large cadre of Irish columnists and “opinion leaders” to date has impaired public understanding and undermined political resolve.

  11. Joe Caulfield says:

    Hey John,
    Joe here.

    Well I thought we did well considering it was our first time
    on the telly. Myers was fair and contested equally. Ray Bates
    and Ger Fleming are reasonable gentlemen. Gavin does great work
    in terms of energy conservation and deserves alot of credit for it,
    however in the debate he appeared emotional and tried to mock
    me a couple of times but it did not work. I think he should stay away from temperature.

    We agree on Hydro as a proven renewable and energy conservation in general. Perhaps we at Turn 180 could convince John and Gavin
    to help lift the ban on test drilling for Uranium in Donegal. In return we
    have a few interesting ideas on Hydro. I suggest we meet to see if
    we can agree on a platform to unite our efforts. Both Ultan and I are
    parents and share many of the concerns expressed by John and Gavin.
    While we may never agree on temperature I think we could be surprised by how much we do agree on. We will never know till we try.

  12. John Gibbons says:

    Joe, thanks for dropping by; there’s not that much in your critique of the TV3 show that I’d take that much issue with. Except. There remains the small matter of catastrophic climate change. Six degrees C this century looks pretty much locked and loaded. That’s precisely where the BAU models take us, and the real-world data is pointing more towards 7-8C. You mention that both yourself and Ultan are parents: then, like me, you must be freaking out about the legacy we’re damning those kids to endure. You and I argue while the world burns. Physics doesn’t care about our politics, religious views, belief systems or much else that we hold dear. The laws of physics are not amenable to argument.

    I know I can sound like a broken record on this whole Sixth Extinction event, but it’s hard to get too excited about nuclear, hydro, renewables etc when the entire basis of our existence (and that of millions of other species) is so profoundly threatened in the near-term. I do however appreciate your comments and am in no way denigrating your suggestions.

  13. Paddy Morris says:

    Joe,

    I wouldn’t see the point of test drilling for uranium in Donegal. We would need a reactor to put it in if we found any, and that is unlikely to happen in Ireland any time soon. We would be better off focusing on making a clear argument for nuclear – ideally small scale. The small scale nukes now being developed come with the fuel sealed in – we would not need indigenous fuel sources.

    By the time the debate on nuclear here has moved from thinking to doing, (15 years+ I’d reckon) one would hope that the new generation of reactors – Travelling Wave, LFTRs (Liquid Fuelled Thorium Reactors), etc. – might be available. This would negate the need to drill for uranium in Donegal. We could just burn what has already been created.

    I would also be more a fan of dismantling the world’s existing stockpile of nuclear weapons, and using that as our fuel supply, than drilling for uranium in Donegal. 10% of US electricity currently comes form dismantled Russian nukes. Literally, swords to plowshares. http://www.thinkorswim.ie/?p=478
    ______

    For a 5 minute overview of ‘everything you need to know about global warming’, see p.7 and 8 of this document:
    http://www.gmo.com/websitecontent/JGLetter_SummerEssays_2Q10.pdf
    This was written by a hedge fund manager, and is a good (and brief) summary.

    For a comparison of solar variability, CO2, Temperature, Artic Sea Ice and Sea Level, see the following website.
    http://www.climate.gov/#climateWatch

    For a look at some responses to the points you raised on the show, and those often raised by other sceptics see http://www.skepticalscience.com
    As they say, there is now ‘more evidence than you can shake a hockey stick at’. So that old question seems to arise – ‘Do you believe in evidence? Do you believe in a preponderance of evidence?’

    There is a lot at stake here.

    ___

    For an idea of the type of event that is going to be increasingly likely as the temperature trend continues upwards, see Russia’s banning of grain exports as a third of it’s cultivable land is destroyed by fires: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/05/vladimir-putin-ban-grain-exports

    Russia seems to be rapidly moving towards action on the climate – their previous belief that they could benefit from warmer temperatures is being re-evaluated quite rapidly:
    “At a meeting of international sporting officials in Moscow on July 30, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that in 14 regions of the country, “practically everything is burning. The weather is anomalously hot.” Then, as TV cameras zoomed in on the perspiration shining on his forehead, Medvedev announced, “What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate.”
    http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2008081,00.html?hpt=T2#ixzz0vfKkZWaB

    ____

    If you can falsify the theory of AGW I look forward to seeing you publish a paper doing so – your Nobel awaits.

    If I am wrong in my understanding of this issue I promise to buy you a pint in 50 years – we’ll know by then. Can you buy me a new biosphere if you are wrong?
    (And honestly, I would be vary happy on the day when I bought this pint. I think it is extremely unlikely you are right, but I would genuinely love to be wrong about this)

    Physics doesn’t do do-overs, and prudent risk management would seem to suggest that we act to halt our influence on the climate system immediately, and very rapidly.

  14. denis says:

    The heartbreaking truth is that there is nothing we can effectively do about man made global warming—-alternative energy power systems depend entirely on fossil fuels for construction and backup—-the true EROEI of these power systems is poor, the quality of the energy produced is of a far lower value than the energy used for construction, and the lifespans are far to short to enable us to develop practical fusion power stations.
    Nuclear could help to fill this gap.
    However, power generation is only half of the problem—-the same amount of fossil fuel energy is required for the manufacture of everything else we consume, including our food.

  15. John Gibbons says:

    Denis, I've been reading Clive Hamilton's superb 'Requiem for a Species' and he has taken the next obvious step in this long-running climate soap opera. It runs roughly as follows: (1) it's now too late to fix this problem, the genie is out of the bottle; (2) even if we had more time, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell or on Earth that we would voluntarily choose to save ourselves, that's not how humans or the systems we have constructed work; (3) so, in the words of the reggae philosopher, Bobby McFerrin, don't worry, be happy.

    This approach is beginning to work for me. We can't fix this, we won't fix this, so maybe it's time to move away from frantic efforts at mitigation, adaptation, etc etc and all the soul-searching, anger and agonizing that it entails, and just accept that we as a species stumbled upon vast power centuries before we had collectively evolved the wisdom to use this power wisely and to understand the physical limits of our world.

  16. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Hello? Is that you, John? That’s not your usual font, so I hope you’ve been hacked into or something. It sounds a bit like you alright; a happier, not worrying kind of you. I’ll have whatever you’re on. Hope you haven’t forgotten we’re still on Planet Earth and not the planet you seem to have rocketed off to, a bright blue one in a faraway galaxy with lush forests and coral beaches where dusky maidens are rubbing baby oil on your back and helping you sip martinis from coconut shells with little umbrellas.

    Because I’m still on this one and staring at a possible six degrees rise in temperatures. Does that jog your memory? Maybe the corollary of that would be more helpful. In very simple terms it goes: we’re toast.

    Clive Hamilton’s “Basically, we’re toast, man” book may be working for you, but it certainly isn’t for me. I’m happy, in the way that most people are happy when they can put food on the table, but I worry about where we’re heading. I just can’t forget it, it is real and is happening.

    You have made a major contribution, and maybe your stint at the coalface of controversy has taken its toll. And maybe your sitting back now will make no difference anyway because we will soon be overtaken by events, such as a summer-long drought. That would make everyone sit up and take notice, though the bigger events will take place elsewhere.

    I think it is within the capacity of humans to solve the problem, I wouldn’t give up hope. Efforts to do so will multiply rapidly once calamities begin to strike. For example, there’s been rapid movement on the electric car front. Just two years ago motoring correspondents were saying this was still years away and might never happen, and here we are now, on the verge of going electric. Though that is as likely to be a response to peak oil than to concerns over climate change.

    Next year, we’ll probably get the summer-long drought. By 2014 or ’15, we’ll have the oil crisis, and this will be followed by food shortages. It gets really alarming after that.

    I had intended to do a piece for your blog on the challenges facing wildlife conservation in a changing climate. But the way things have been going it is looking increasingly likely that ecosystems will not be able to keep pace with climate change and that they will collapse. It seems hardly worth discussing how conservationists might tackle the problems locally; there is an element of moving deck-chairs about on the Titanic about it. For example, you may have read an article some time ago in the Irish Times where it was pointed out that entire forest ecosystems would have to be recreated artificially in new locations if those ecosystems are to survive climate change. That’s like saying the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is in big trouble so let’s recreate it off Hong Kong.

    Which means that our only hope is to reverse climate change, now, even if it means building vast complexes to hoover carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for the next 100 years. There must be a way of doing this, if all else fails.

  17. denis says:

    Coilin, you do not really understand the problems we are facing, if you think that by building things like electric cars and giant CO2 vacuum cleaners we can make everything OK.
    Building things takes energy, which comes from fossil fuel, and the problem we have is the production of CO2, which is of course the by product of extracting energy from fossil fuel—-see the link now ?
    Electric cars are a complete farce—-they only have a very small range, and even this is being overhyped—-just see how far they go on a Winter`s night with the lights, wipers and heating systems on full.
    They are also extremely expensive, which means that anyone foolish enough to purchase one , will have to stress the environment to earn the money to buy it—-yes, to provide jobs takes huge amounts of fossil fuel.
    The production of the lithium for the batteries is doing untold damage to the local environments in China where the lithium is mined.
    We cannot build our way out of our environmental predicament—–this is also true for all short term solutions to producing energy from the wind or waves—-the EROIE [energy return on energy invested ] is just to poor to give us any real energy gain, especially when these low quality energy sources rely totally on fossil fuels to back up the energy production when the winds or waves die, which is more than 70% of the time for wind, and very likely much the same for waves.

  18. John Gibbons says:

    “lush forests and coral beaches where dusky maidens are rubbing baby oil on your back and helping you sip martinis from coconut shells…” hi Coilin, really like the sound of this place you reckon I’ve escaped to, and trust me, were that the case, you wouldn’t see me for dust!

    Back on our Home Planet, yes, things are looking ominous, and every new ‘solution’ I read about seems more like tightening the knot another notch. Despite my reggae references, I haven’t yet taken to puffin’ da ganja down by da beach…I had a page in the Sun. Tribune a couple of weeks back setting out the top 10 converging threats, and should be back in this paper next Sun for my latest doom-laden adventure on the journey from 1-6C… So rumours of my demise on the coalface are somewhat exaggerated!

    Good to see you back on ToS, thought you’d abandoned us for pastures new. Still think you should do that piece on wildlife conservation; someone has to be the keeper of the flame, and it’s amazing how few of us there are, so every individual matters, sometimes if even to just keep the other folk from losing heart.

    I understand where Denis is coming from with his comments above, thought they are perhaps framed a little harshly. JG

  19. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    @Denis,

    Of course I don’t think electric cars are the solution, I was just writing a short piece and gave just one example of something positive that was happening.

    Re the CO2 extractors, I did point out that this would be a method of last resort, but it is actually one of the geo-engineering solutions that are being researched.

    If you had read my previous posts you might have come across other solutions which I mentioned, I’m not going through them all here as they’ve been discussed ad infinitum.

    You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, so fossil fuels will of course be necessary to create the renewable energy infrastructure, such as wind turbines and reservoirs. All the more reason for us to be cutting back on fossil fuel use where possible, as per the 10:10 campaign. Eamon Ryan believes we can not only generate enough wind power offshore to be self-sufficient in energy but could have a big surplus for selling on. This means we could have more than enough for our electric transport needs. You will have read this many times in the papers over the last year or two, various studies have shown this.

    I do believe electric cars have a future, that the batteries won’t depend on lithium alone, there will be magnesium ones also, with limitless supplies of that mineral. If their range is more limited, we’ll just have to get used to that. I mentioned previously that I thought hydrogen fuel cars would be part of the mix anyway.

    Yes, it could be argued that cars in themselves are something we cannot afford in terms of their environmental cost, the carbon impact of their production, etc, but that’s a battle for another day, we’re not going to solve that one right away.

    I don’t fly, but haven’t yet taken the step of giving up driving, and won’t if the EVs are powered by green electricity, assuming I will be able to afford one, which is a big if. My current car is 92 reg and going fine, I don’t believe in buying a new(er) car while the old one still works, I’m aware of the amount of fossil energy that goes into their manufacture.

    I would agree that we are really talking about massive changes in lifestyle if we are going to make any difference, but that isn’t going to happen overnight, there will be too much resistance, so we’ll have to take it a step at a time in our personal lives; insulation, new kinds of heating, solar panels, metered water, electric cars, public transport, green shopping, recycling,local food production, allotments, staycationing, the list goes on and on and has been well-covered by John over the years.

    All the savings will balance what we use to make the renewable power gear. The gas and coal-fired power stations will not be necessary to back up the wind stations if we build storage reservoirs. (I notice that the first reservoir proposed – for north Clare – was recently refused permission, but we will have no alternative but to build these somewhere.) I wouldn’t take your word for it that wind is not a viable solution; there is massive development of wind farms going on around the world, not so much here, unfortunately, but it’s coming. I think wave might not be such a good source, as it’s secondary energy, generated by the wind, so why not just use the primary source and avoid the losses, though there might be places where it’ll work well.

    Finally, in my last comment I said Hong Kong when I should have said somewhere south of the Great Barrier Reef; like Perth, maybe, or Elephant Island. No doubt many readers noticed but were too polite to say.

  20. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    @John,

    Not sure what you’re on about, but could you possibly post the text of your recent Sunday Tribune article as I didn’t see it and would like to. Jeez…now I’ve to buy the Tribune every Sunday as well! Together with the Sunday Times and SBPost, that’s about 10 kilos of papers. What a waste of wood pulp.

    I’ve posted a response to Denis. That’s another hour of my life I’ll never see again, and the sad part is that your readers are already well clued in and don’t need to hear any lectures from me. Is it any wonder I haven’t been posting here for months?

  21. denis says:

    Hi Coilin—-appreciate your long answer to my rant—-would really like to meet you sometime [ likewise most other posters ] to talk through our ideas—-maybe a meeting can be arranged ?—-that would be fun, a very necessary component of life, of which we need as much as we can get !
    Denis.

  22. John Gibbons says:

    @Coilin

    Sorry for delay in responding, am travelling at the minute. Link to that Trib article is below:

    http://www.tribune.ie/article/2010/jul/25/2020-vision-why-we-have-10-years-to-save-our-plane/?q=Gibbons

  23. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    The wonderful weekend we’ve just had was high summer at its most glorious – and I hope Denis had a lot of fun! – but something struck me that reinforced the pessimism that is never too far below my surface.

    It was not a climate matter, though in some ways it was related. I was looking for butterflies, not for sentimental reasons but with modest scientific purpose. Well, scratch that; it was for the thrill of finding interesting ones.

    My first destination was a 10km square in Wexford – grid ref T04 – which had not yet been surveyed for butterflies, so I hoped to add something to the butterfly atlas. I did come across eleven common species, but of much greater interest, I thought, were the buzzards I sighted in three different parts of the square. This large bird of prey was down to a few dozen pairs in Northern Ireland forty years ago but over the last fifteen years it has returned to almost every corner of Ireland, barring the far west. This lightning-speed resettlement was not made solely from the Northern Ireland base; there was immigration too. A result of climate change? Hold that thought.

    Next day, another part of Wexford, a slightly different objective: I’m searching for scarce woodland butterflies. (Because their distribution is not fully mapped.) I study the Ordnance Survey satellite map to find some likely woodlands or, this being Wexford, any woodland at all.

    I already have one in mind but I pick another I haven’t visited before. Not far from Gorey, it looks like broadleaf woodland from the air and is surrounded by rushy fields with thick hedgerows. For miles around there is nothing but intensively farmed land.

    Arriving at the gate, I find that deep drains have been dug around the rushy fields and they are dry as a bone. This was the only damp grassland remaining for miles around, and now it’s gone, victim of the Celtic Tiger’s last gasp. The woodland is similarly disappointing: it is abandoned and completely overgrown. Without a single discernible path or sunny glade, it is devoid of butterflies. In a heavily managed environment, an unmanaged woodland is not the wildlife paradise that people might think; it, too, needs management in the absence of a fully functioning natural ecosystem.

    If a butterfly species is found anywhere inside a 10km square, it will appear as a red dot on the butterfly atlas. One small colony, perhaps occupying a single patch of unused ground, may be the only representatives of a particular butterfly species in a 10km square, but will still register as a red dot.

    Take the silver-washed fritillary, for example; it is a rare enough butterfly, recorded in perhaps sixty 10km squares in Ireland. Sixty red dots on the map paint a fairly healthy picture for that butterfly, but what if they are all single colonies located in single fields or small copses? Here’s the rub. Many of our rarer butterflies are just that, hanging on to survival in tiny refugia such as undisturbed grassland on quarry edges. They are just a few minor developments away from total extinction in Ireland.

    Who would blame a farmer for taking the bank’s eagerly proferred money to rid his acres of the snipe-grass endured by his predecessors for generations? No one would. And no doubt the farmer is proud of his newly drained fields and fine bales of silage.

    But what’s happening here? The intensively farmed landscape of Wexford may look lush and green, but it has lost its diversity of habitat types: ponds, scrub woodland, marshes, heathland, etc. Only the few butterflies and birds suited to the modern farming landscape can survive; the rest are at risk. The eleven different butterflies I found in T04 were just common species which are found everywhere. “Well of course they were, what did you expect from a three-hour visit?” is what you may be thinking. But by the law of diminishing returns I would probably not pick up more than one or two more in ten hours. I had plateauxed at two hours.

    By the time that intensive farming as we know it hits the wall – and that is only a matter of time – some of our butterflies will be extinct. It will be extremely difficult to reinstate them afterwards, when farming becomes environmentally sustainable, as it must.

    Not only butterflies but, by extension, many kinds of birds, bees and all manner of wild creatures and wild plants will be lost from the Irish countryside before we begin farming sustainably. We are in the middle of a mass extinction event, here in Ireland, and climate change will make it a double-whammy, in a negative sense.

    I go on to the second site, an old oak woodland being carefully managed for its wildlife interests. And I find a woodpecker in it, which makes it only the third known site in Wexford with woodpeckers. (It’s amazing how they can find the places that meet their exact requirements; they must cover an awful lot of ground.) After they were discovered breeding in Wicklow last year, further searches revealed about twenty pairs in Leinster. But think of the buzzard and how it occupied the land in fifteen years. It is likely that most of Ireland will also have woodpeckers fifteen years from now. Yippee? Well, certainly exciting, but the question must be asked, what brought them here? There is little doubt it was climate change. And there is a flipside to that: besides gains, there will be losses. And because many species will be unable to move fast enough to keep pace with climate change, and will find that intensively farmed land and motorways present insurmountable barriers to their movement, and will come into conflict with other species, the losses will far outstrip the gains.

    Ireland’s biodiversity was low to begin with, compared to mainland Europe; and it’s now getting lower by the year. And with even moderate climate change there will be severe losses. More extreme scenarios don’t bear thinking about. As things stand, we have all these lush green fields everywhere with hardly anything of note in them. They are deserts compared to pre-1960s fields. As Nancy Griffith might put it, there’s trouble in the field; and something’s got to give.

  24. Paddy Morris says:

    @Colin
    That last comment is very interesting, thanks. Might be worth posting as a blog?

    Thanks again. As someone from Wexford, I’ll have to keep an eye out for those woodpeckers next time I’m down…

  25. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    @Paddy,

    Thanks. I didn’t present it to John as a blog article because I hadn’t researched it thoroughly.

    For the record, the species is Great Spotted Woodpecker, I forgot to mention. If you come across one, the person to notify is Dick Coombes at BirdWatch Ireland, who is tracking the bird’s progress in Ireland.

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