Below, my article more or less as it appeared in the Irish Times last Friday. The day it appeared, rain bucketed down across the country, and maybe this is why the article struck a chord – it was the ‘Most Read’ piece on Irishtimes.com all day, and to date, has attracted almost 800 user comments (many, it must be said, from dyed-in-the-wool deniers), and extensive of coverage on Facebook and Twitter. Whether this upsurge in interest lasts longer than the current spell of ongoing severe weather remains to be seen.
IT IS TEMPTING to imagine that a sea change in Ireland’s on-again, off-again relationship with the reality of climate change has occurred in recent times, as extreme weather events yet again battered our coastline, inundated farms and flooded urban areas, with the latest wave of damage already running to over €100 million.
Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, when visiting areas of his home town Limerick battered by flooding commented: “I think we all now believe in climate change… the defences that were here, with the new climates that we are having all around the world, are no longer adequate.”
Next up was Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin. “When calm is restored I think we have to do some serious thinking about long-term flood defences because clearly climate change is a reality”.
Then Brian Hayes, Minister for the Office of Public Works said the OPW had identified some 250 at-risk locations for repeated flooding. However, the costs of trying to defend these locations, Hayes warned, would run into “tens of billions of euros”. The actual government allocation for the next several years is just €250 million.
Meanwhile, back in the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and opposition leader Micheal Martin both agreed that climate change was indeed real. The one who doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo was Environment Minister, Phil Hogan. As the storms rolled in and the flood waters rose higher, Hogan chose instead to join Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney in celebrating securing a renewal of the environmental vandalism also known as Ireland’s latest derogation from the EU Nitrates directive.
“Whether we have scientific evidence or not in relation to climate change, it looks as if we’re going to have these types of weather patterns in the future”, said Hogan. This was about as close to uttering the ‘c’ word as he has managed in two and a half years. And yes Minister, there is evidence alright, mountains – and lakes – of it, in fact.
Not everyone is quite so conflicted as Hogan. The world is “perilously close” to a climate tipping point, International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde warned recently. With a culinary flourish, she added: “unless we take action, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”.
The main difficulty in communicating this fathomless crisis remains a lack of context. RTÉ, for instance, the public service broadcaster with a budget in excess of €300 million should have a team covering climate and environment with the depth and passion lavished on business or sports. Instead, it scrapped its solitary Environment Correspondent post three years ago. And it shows.
RTÉ’s ‘Marian Finucane Show’ on Sunday featured an economist gushing about the rosy future of improved labour market opportunities for his 3-year old daughter by the mid-2030s. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s 2012 document, ‘Turn down the heat’ projects global average temperatures to have smashed the +2°C ‘point of no return’ by the late 2030s.
This locks us into a future of food and fresh water shortages, devastating and intensifying weather extremes, coastal inundation, desertification, ocean acidification and mass extinction events. These ‘business as usual’ scenarios are now widely accepted by the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and, more recently, the IMF, but this stunning reality still has barely made a dent in our national discourse.
Quite how anyone imagines the global economy could survive such relentless disruption has become the question that dare not speak its name, while our economic commentators continue serving up puerile prescriptions for a future that, on our present course, no longer exists.
RTÉ’s dereliction of duty on environmental reporting is a national tragedy. The print media has hardly fared much better, but it has the slender fig leaf of not having a public service mandate. RTÉ’s Audience Council is now inviting the public to comment on its communication of climate change. Submissions close(d) on Monday 17th.
Interestingly, Met Eireann’s head of forecasting, Dr Gerry Fleming pointedly avoided linking the ratcheting up of extreme weather events in Ireland to climate change, stating: “it’s our grandchildren or great grandchildren who will make that call”.
His UK counterpart, the Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, had no such compunctions. “All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change…there is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events”.
The clamour from the Irish public for answers in the face of relentless extreme weather events is gathering pace, yet ironically, outrage is not being directed against the real enemy, which is an energy system utterly dependent on coal, oil and peat-burning. In our displaced fury, we are, Don Quixote style, tilting instead at ‘ugly’ windmills and pylons.
Amid the gloom, some positive news: An Taisce has just established a new climate change committee (disclosure: I’m a member) to take a more forceful approach to communicating this crisis and challenging Ireland’s dangerous do-nothing consensus.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim