Mann on a mission – Hockey Stick scientist interviewed

Michael Mann is one of the world’s leading climate scientists. He is director of the Earth Systems Science Centre in Penn State University and has been a lead IPCC author since 2001. His ‘Hockey Stick graph’ became the defining symbol of man-made climate change – and made him a special target of the fossil fuel lobby. You can view the full interview, which I conducted via Skype, below. It runs to just over an hour. Alternately, there’s an abbreviated text version further down.

He is author of ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’, an insider’s account of the murky world of climate denialism and its decade-long campaign against both the science in general and individual scientists in particular. Mann was implicated in the so-called ‘Climategate’ hacking affair in 2009, but was exonerated by several independent investigations.


Here’s an abbreviated text version of the interview I conducted with Prof Mann, as published in the current edition of Village magazine.


JG: Mike, you’re best known for your work on the Hockey Stick. Can you tell us about it, why it’s so important, and why it gets you into so much trouble?

MM: The Hockey Stick is this graph my colleagues and I published a decade and a half ago depicting how temperatures, specifically over the northern hemisphere, have changed over the past 1,000 years. We used information from tree rings, ice cores and coral records, what we call climate proxy data. We know the globe has warmed by about a degree C over the past century but the question of how unusual is that warming requires us to go back in time. The record shows relatively warm conditions around 1,000 years ago, a steady, slow cooling trend into the 1900s – and then an abrupt warming over the past century.

The shape of that curve is like a hockey stick…what it indicates is that the recent warming really is unprecedented as far back as we can go. This curve became iconic in the climate change debate – it became a potent symbol in the larger debate over human-caused climate change, and it thus became an object of attack by those looking to discredit the case for concern over climate change. Climate deniers felt if they could ‘take down’ the hockey stick, then somehow the case for concern over human-caused climate change would collapse like a house of cards. Of course, that’s silly because there’s so much other evidence that tells us climate change is real, and caused by us.

JG: There are many controversies in science. Why do you think climate science has become such a red-hot focus of controversy? In other areas, the controversies are in the (peer-reviewed) journals. Why is this one on the street?

MM: It’s a great question. The fact is that any time you see the findings of science come into conflict with powerful vested interests, they’ve done their best to try to discredit the science and the scientists. Take tobacco, industry documents actually contained the phrase ‘doubt is our product’. They manufacture doubt when it comes to scientific findings that pose some potential threat (to their profits). It isn’t a coincidence that fossil fuel interests are pouring in tens of millions of dollars here in the US to finance a campaign to discredit the science of climate change, and to discredit arguments for renewables and clean energy. The Koch brothers for instance are funding both of those efforts.

JG: If the more serious projections coming from climate science (up to 4C warming by mid-century) are borne out, as I understand it, this means no future for anybody. It’s puzzling that the so-called deniers somehow believe that the impacts won’t affect them. Is this something you’ve thought about?

MM: Denial takes many forms. Those who are orchestrating the disinformation campaign at the top, one might imagine that they’re fairly cynical – it’s quite clear that the fossil fuel companies know that their product is damaging the health of our planet. There may also be some cognitive dissonance. Aside from sociopathic and psychopathic individuals, most people don’t want to believe they’re doing something fundamentally wrong, fundamentally evil, they may want to believe those individuals who claim that the problem is exaggerated, that it’s not going to be as bad as the scientists are saying.

In some cases it’s almost ideological, it’s no longer a matter of logically looking at the scientific evidence, they see (opposition to) climate change as just another part of their cultural and ideological identity, whether it’s gun control or your view on government healthcare. In the US, belief in climate change is about as good a predictor of party affiliation as anything in this country…part of the explanation is changes in our (US) media environment; it’s now possible to isolate yourself in a bubble, in an echo chamber of self-reinforcing sources of disinformation. A study found that people who habitually watch Fox News are actually less informed – the article title was Watching Fox News makes you dumber!

Tens of millions of dollars have gone into a massive PR campaign to divide the public on climate change. In US politics, you don’t need to win the argument, you just need to divide the public, and that’s what fossil fuel interests have had some success in doing.

JG: Ireland doesn’t have the US-style ideological chasm, but instead we have a media that is tremendously uninterested and uninformed. Our leading climate scientist, Prof John Sweeney had to actually boycott a recent TV programme, on the grounds that this type of “debate” (giving oxygen to known climate deniers) is feeding the problem – you’ve experienced this?

MM: Sometimes, if you don’t participate, the fear is that people are only going to hear from the voices of doubt and disinformation, so then maybe it makes sense to do so, but if we allow that sort of framing to continue, if we are complicit in this ‘false balance’ approach, it does a disservice to the public. If you as a scientist share the stage with an industry-funded denier, you are implicitly telling the audience that these are two equally credible voices in this matter – and they’re not.

I’m sympathetic to the view that John Sweeney expressed about the fallacy of false balance when it comes to media coverage. It’s like an astronomer getting into a debate with the president of the Flat Earth Society over the latest stellar observations.

JG: If I may say, you don’t come across like your conventional scientist; most tend to ‘stay out of the fight’ and can be critical of those who do engage. What shaped your path and your decision to get into the fight?

MM: As a young scientist at the University of Virginia, I very much shared the viewpoint you’ve just described, that somehow we scientists have to preserve our scientific purity by not wading into matters of policy relevance, yet if you look back at scientist like Einstein, he played a very profound role in the political discussion (around the development of nuclear weapons). This is a different sort of threat, a threat the whole world is being subjected to by human-caused climate change – it’s an even greater existential threat (than World War II) to human civilisation.

JG: You have a young daughter, as I do. Looking out to the time she’s college-aged, heading out as a young adult, is this where climate science for you becomes personal?

MM: Yes it does. To me, this is a matter of intergenerational ethics, making sure we do not make decisions today that guarantee the fundamental degradation of this planet for our children and grandchildren. There is something unique about this particular problem and this particular juncture in this debate. At no time before, in my view, have humans been in a position to impact the entire planetary environment in such a fundamental way. There’s a qualitative difference now in our ability to change the composition of our atmosphere. With great power comes great responsibility, and we have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t screw it up.

JG: Yet knowing all this, we seem to have chosen the path of ignoring and attacking the science…

MM: Thus far; we can look to the past for some cautious optimism. We were in a similar situation regarding ozone depletion and acid rain. This problem (CO2 and global warming) is larger by many magnitudes. Fossil fuels currently underlie the global economy – Exxon Mobil is the wealthiest company that has ever existed. With that wealth comes a great opportunity to influence, some would say, to buy off, politicians, misleading advertising, funding front groups whose sole role is to poison the debate over climate change and what to do about it. Yet maybe we’re not that far from the point where we will engage in the good faith debate about what to do about this problem.

JG: The IPCC’s AR5 report seemed to give some weight to the idea of there being some kind of pause or slowdown in the rate of warming. This was pounced on by those wanted to portray that as a ‘stepping back’. Has that been a communications problem you’ve had to overcome?

MM: There’s no pause in global warming. Nothing that’s happened in the last 10 years fundamentally changes our understanding of global warming, and how much more we’re likely to see if we continue with fossil fuels – that’s a PR campaign by the Usual Suspects, to misrepresent this one aspect of the science. The IPCC did not change their forecasts of projected warming. If anything, the IPCC is projecting even more warming. Some of the impacts of climate change are unfolding faster than the climate models say they should be unfolding – disappearance of Arctic ice is outrunning the model predictions, leading to even more warming (albedo effect).

Recent articles in leading science journals are arguing that the climate models that project more warming may be the closest to reality. We’re already losing more than a trillion dollars a year from extreme climate-related events. Climate is already costing us around 1% of our global productivity, it’s projected to cost far more in the future, but there’s also the threat to human health, to food security, water security, national security.

Tobacco is a good analogy, here’s a case where the science was in decades earlier and there was a huge cost in human lives for not having acted earlier on the scientific evidence.

JG: As a journalist I’m fascinated as to how my colleagues have (largely) failed to grasp climate change; is that largely because science is so complex for non-scientists and so easy to game?

MM: It’s much more difficult to inform than to confuse. There’s asymmetrical warfare between us scientists and good faith communicators trying to inform the public discourse and those looking to pollute it.  Deniers don’t even have to be internally consistent. And that assumes a level playing field, which of course we don’t even have here. A lot of deniers, I see them as victims, they’ve been misled by fossil fuel interests who have a hidden agenda.

JG: Is there an element of scapegoating, i.e. we’re sensing a threat and we need someone to blame, other than ourselves?

MM: That’s right, you often see the framing crafted to prey on people who are economically disaffected, people who are hurting in their personal lives. I was attacked on a pro-gun website recently by an energy-funded writer arguing that these evil climate scientists want to somehow take away your guns!

JG: I’m aware you have been personally threatened; has that eased off?

MM: If you’re involved publicly in communicating climate change, you will be targeted by vested interests who want to turn you into a villain. There’s always the very real threat that some individual will believe the propaganda and act out.

JG: You’ve used the line ‘If you see something, say something’. Can you explain what this means?

MM: It’s a motto from our Dept. of Homeland Security, if you see something strange or a threat, it’s your duty to report it. We scientists are also citizens and appreciate more than anyone the particular threat of human-caused climate change. This message is also to my fellow scientists, to recognise that we do have a responsibility to report this threat that we see.

JG: Common sense tells us that smoking 40 cigarettes a day for 30 years is probably going to harm our health; common sense also suggests that dumping 35 billion tons of CO2 into a finite atmosphere must have an effect. Do you think it’s up to those who disagree to prove their case?

MM: I like the way you frame the question. It gets at the issue of what we call the null hypothesis. We may have arrived at a point where every meteorological event is operating in a different environment. We’ve fundamentally warmed the atmosphere. The default expectation is that the atmosphere is different to the way it was 100 years ago.

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

A Prime lesson in how not to cover climate change

On Tuesday of last week, PrimeTime did something extremely unusual – at least for RTÉ. It had a programme on climate change. Well, ok, that’s not strictly true; the one-hour show actually carried three items, so climate change was wedged in between a piece on surrogacy and an unintentionally ironic item about… living on a houseboat.

First off, what’s so unusual about this? Well, from what we can work out, the last time Ireland’s premier current affairs programme deigned to do a feature on climate change was all the way back to the eve of the ill-starred Copenhagen COP conference – in December 2009. PrimeTime airs three nights a week, and carries on average, three items per show. That’s nine slots a week, over a four year period, and yet still no room for an item to discuss or analyse the greatest crisis the world has probably ever faced.

We’ve had a few close calls along the way, mind. Back in February, as the flooding crisis reached its peak, the programme invited junior minister Brian Hayes, the IFA president and climatologist, Dr Kieran Hickey into studio. As a climatologist, Hickey was left baffled. “I thought the first question I would be asked on the programme was ‘is this weather linked to climate change?’ And I would have said ‘definitely yes, there is a pattern’. But I wasn’t asked”, he told the Sunday Times.

It could of course, have just been the way the programme panned out. Hickey himself identified a clear flaw in RTÉ’s entire organisational approach: “I think lacking an environment correspondent has been a disaster when we are facing the consequences of climate change”. He is referring to the fact that when its correspondent left the post in early 2011, our national broadcaster chose to eradicate the position of Environment Correspondent.

This was a quite extraordinary decision, one that runs to the very heart of station’s gross derogation of duty on environmental reporting. Consider the 2012 UN climate conference in Durban. Not alone did RTÉ have no reporter to cover the event, the COP 17 conference didn’t even make any of the TV bulletins. RTÉ levies some €180 million in compulsory taxation from the Irish public in the form of the TV licence. On top of that, it brings in another €120 million or so in commercial revenue, largely thanks to its dominant position in our media landscape.

No one begrudges a national broadcaster being freed from the tyranny of chasing ratings and mollifying advertisers if it then discharges its ‘public service’ remit to inform the Irish public and to offer meaningful coverage and context for the critical national and global issues of the day.

Yet on climate change its performance has been abysmal right across the board. It is clear that some individual journalists within the station – Philip Boucher Hayes, Ella McSweeney and Cathal McCoille spring to mind – are fully au fait with the reality of climate change and the extraordinary gravity of the existential threat it poses to us all, yet clearly the people at the controls, the senior management and top editors and producers, appear to be collectively out to lunch.

The most clear-cut evidence to support this view actually comes from the RTÉ’s own Audience Council, which comprises 15 members independent of the station with the remit of “providing a voice for viewers and listeners of the broadcaster”. The Audience Council recently produced a report (Executive Summary of RTE Audience Council Climate Change Research) written by Clare Watson and Mark Cullinane on RTÉ’s performance on covering climate change, and it found that over a two year period, just one in 10 of the 285 news reports on RTÉ Six One that could have mentioned climate change actually did. And even when it was mentioned, it was constantly framed as an ‘international’ story of little relevance to Ireland.

As the Sunday Times report pointed out, “30 major climate-related stories carried by other media between January 2012 and April 2013 were ‘entirely absent’ from Six One News, Prime Time and RTE News online. This is said to demonstrate “a series of significant silences that reflect major gaps in coverage”.

Back in 2008, PrimeTime served up an appalling ‘debate’ between climatologist Kieran Hickey and a climate denier with zero qualifications who tours the US Tea Party anti-science circuit, one Phelim McAleer. It was a toe-curling piece, representing a total abdication of journalistic duty of care, swapping a fact-led analysis and discussion for an ugly brawl, to the obvious delight of McAleer and his energy industry friends.

But now it’s 2014. Things have moved on a long, long way in the last six years. Hell, even the World Bank, the US military, the International Energy agency and the IMF are all saying precisely the same thing the scientific community has been shouting for years: climate change is here, it’s real and we must act decisively or face certain disaster.

So, given the feedback from its own Audience Council and given the overwhelming international consensus for action that stretches far beyond the traditional boundaries of science, how does RTÉ go about putting together a programme on climate change? First, you need to select a panel of four. RTÉ’s first choice for the panel were climatologist Prof John Sweeney (representing the “97% scientific mainstream” science view”), then the IFA president, then a sports psychologist from a London-based climate denier institute with secret funding links to the energy industry.

And finally, Prof Ray Bates of UCD, a bona fide scientist but one with a long track record in ‘low balling’ the risks and talking up the ‘benefits’ of climate change. Bates is perfectly entitled to his views, which are no doubt earnestly held; it just needs to be pointed out that his views are his own, but would place him in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science.

That would have left RTÉ’s initial panel with one voice representing the “97% consensus view” on climate change, facing three people representing a 3% view.  This plan was, however, scuttled when, in an almost unprecedented move, Prof Sweeny contacted PrimeTime and told them he was not prepared to participate in such a lop-sided “debate”.

(To put this in context, PrimeTime had invited a number of people – including this writer – from the ‘environmental’ field into its audience the previous week to have input into what transpired to be a farcical spat between book-promoting Eddie Hobbs and energy minister, Pat Rabbitte. We attended, having been assured that the opportunity would be given to pose the question that, given that 80% of the world’s known fossil reserves can never be burned, is it really a great idea to be spending billions looking for yet more unburnable oil? The ‘climate change’ question was conveniently swept under the editorial carpet that night, much to the disgust of those of us present).

Sweeney is a low-key scientist, not an attention-seeker or rabble-rouser, and so the decision to boycott RTÉ’s flagship TV programme must have been extremely difficult for him. An Taisce (of which Sweeney is president) issued a press statement condemning PrimeTime’s proposed ‘Punch and Judy show’:

An Taisce is asking the Director General and the Programme’s Producers to explain if they understand ‘Climate Science’ and the difference between scientific balance and journalistic balance.  Is PrimeTime fulfilling its ‘Public Service Broadcasting’ remit?  We are sure that it would be possible to find some expert that does not agree that smoking causes cancer but would RTE put them on a panel to discuss lung cancer?

This put the cat among the editorial pigeons at Montrose. I was contacted by a researcher a few days ahead of the programme, and was happy to spend 45 minutes on the phone explaining the rudiments of climate science and what the various organisations were saying about climate change, but when I tried to enquire as to the likely shape of the panel for the programme, zero information was forthcoming (which is, I assume, standard editorial policy).

The figure on PrimeTime’s panel who had caused such consternation is one Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy (sic) Foundation, a lobby group fronted by Nigella Lawson’s octogenarian dad that, apart from systematically distorting the fundamentals of climate science and routinely claiming that climate scientist are corrupt and secretive, is entirely coy about explaining the source of around 95% of its own funding, and has refused numerous FOI requests for disclosure.

The vague ‘Irish’ connection to this rum lot of spoofers, deniers and ideologues is that Richard Tol, formerly of the ESRI, is on the GWPF’s ‘Academic Advisory Council’. Tol is a paradox, being both a talented scholar and a skilled peddler of fudge and ambiguity – no more so than in his infamous little ESRI document, ‘Why worry about climate change?’

Depressingly, he has been the go-to guy for many’s the researcher, and, sure enough, we understand Tol was first invited on by RTÉ, but was unavailable and offered his GWPF buddy Peiser instead. While Tol, as a published researcher has some credentials in this field, Peiser has none (Click here for a full unpicking of Tol and his strongly idiosyncratic views, e.g. “In the case of climate change, economists have shown that climate change is not the biggest environmental problem in the world, denying people the catastrophe that they crave…”).

The PrimeTime team were, apparently, extremely unhappy, both with John Sweeney’s decision to boycott their programme, and also press statements by, among others, the Environmental Pillar and An Taisce, with RTÉ believing that such statements were premature and pre-judged the matter. Of course, none of us likes to feel we’re being told how to do our job, but is this a fair criticism? Below is part of an email sent out by RTÉ researchers ahead of the programme (my emphasis):

“We will be discussing ‘Climate Change’ and we will be asking whether our recent weather is a result of climate change? Is the climate change man made? Is it the world’s biggest crises (sic)? Has Ireland’s climate changed?”

If you are told that a professional climate denial lobbyist is on the show, and that RTÉ is still asking questions like “Is the climate change man made?” then, to be fair, the producers of the programme can hardly be surprised if people from the ‘environmental area’ are just a little concerned about what you might be cooking.

RTÉ then invited Prof Barry McMullin, chair of An Taisce’s newly formed climate change committee* to replace John Sweeney. Barry, an engineer, also declined, and explained his rationale in a very polite letter to PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond.

In essence, climate change is too serious an issue to allow people on who, in his words, “wilfully deny the scientific realities and abuse the public trust”. Peiser & Co, in other words, simply have no business sitting on the panel of an RTÉ current affairs programme, any more than RTÉ would invite on a Holocaust denier to “debate” the reality of the concentration camps with survivors.

Nor would RTÉ get away with having a spokesman for the tobacco industry come on to PrimeTime and diss the mountains of scientific evidence linking tobacco use and conditions such as lung cancer and heart disease. And, if they tried, there would be public outrage and demands for resignations. Yet, when it comes to climate change, when not simply ignoring the issue, RTÉ turns instead into little more than a fact-free undergraduate debating society.

If, at this point, you are saying, hang on a minute, I watched the debate last week, and it was nothing at all like this, that’s because RTÉ back-pedalled from their original 3:1 line up in favour of deniers/skeptics when the heat was applied by the various protests and boycotts. They re-shuffled the deck to replace Sweeney with Joe Curtin, an articulate climate policy researcher with the IIEA, while the IFA ‘slot’ was demoted to the audience and replaced with Eamon Meehan of Trocaire.

This left Curtin pitted directly (and very effectively) against Peiser, with Ray Bates pursuing his own idiosyncratic take on climate science and Meehan making some useful comments about the wider issue of climate impacts in the developing world. The panel debate was preambled by a VT report presented by Robert Short. This was no-nonsense journalism, seeking out expert views and assembling them in a short video format, and steering clear of oddballs and hired guns.

When the debate began, presenter Claire Byrne took the quite unusual step of pretty much insisting that everyone on the panel agree that climate change is real and is man-made. Much as we now know that the Earth is indeed round. Yes, it might sound bleedin’ obvious, but by RTÉ standards, this is a breakthrough – just a shame it took such a bare-knuckled confrontation to get them to apply the absolute minimum of journalistic criteria that we take for granted in so many other walks of life (too bad also that the presenter neglected to challenge Peiser on who secretly funds him to say what he says).

Peiser performed so poorly in the debate – partly because the presenter appeared to be keeping him at arms’ length – that it’s difficult to say what exact point he was trying to make, other than something along the lines that, whether climate change is too small a problem to be bothered with, or too vast a problem to even attempt to tackle, the key is to do nothing – the favourite line of the energy industry worldwide.

No doubt RTÉ will point out that Peiser’s ‘acceptance’ of the basics of climate change proves he was entitled to be involved in the debate. This move was, I would suggest, tactical, given the GWPF’s routine dismissal of mainstream scientific evidence in favour of ‘industry-friendly’ pseudo-science gobbledygook.

Peiser’s boss, Nigel Lawson, is a flat-out Flat Earth-style climate denier, he too represents the GWPF and its barmy ‘policies’, so why should we expect Peiser to be a paragon of reasonableness when Lawson is barking and picks fights with actual experts about rudimentary physics facts he clearly doesn’t understand. It would be downright odd if Peiser disagrees with Lawson when Lawson denies, for instance, copious instrumental measurements showing how heat is transferring into the oceans.

I should interject here to say that I’m a fan of public broadcasting. The odious Fox ‘News’ network is what happens when you hand journalism over to the private sector plutocrats. The criticisms here of RTÉ are based on my expecting better, much better, from them. Some of the best journalists in the country work in RTÉ, many doing a fine job, but the station has this extraordinary blind spot when it comes to the environment.

Having left the Environment Corr. position in abeyance for three years, the station recently filled the slot by comically tagging it on the new ‘Agriculture & Environment Corr’ post, and then filling that post with an economist (again, a decent journalist in his own right, but with zero track record or known expertise or background in environmental science or reporting).

PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond was not best pleased with the stance taken by An Taisce, and he expressed it clearly to McMullin:

We were disappointed that you, among others, chose to decline our invitation to take part in last night’s discussion on Climate Change based, it seems, on the fact that we had one person on the panel who did not share your analysis of the problem… As campaigners, if you feel that it is in your interests, you may, of course, choose to ignore a particular strand of opinion, but as journalists and public service broadcasters, we do not feel ourselves free to do so. We must always reserve the right to choose our panel using our best judgement, and taking into account the state of scientific knowledge on a particular subject, rather than doing so based on the pressure exerted by any campaigning group.

Diamond is of course correct. Journalists can’t have lobby groups telling them what to write and who to interview and who not to. If PrimeTime had truly “taken into account the state of scientific knowledge”, they might have based their entire editorial premise around solid foundations such as the recent AAAS report, What we know. This synthesises the expert views of the world’s leading climate specialists. Even a cursory reading of it would confirm just how far off the mark they were.

But who exactly in the PrimeTime team is equipped to make these calls? If they were preparing a story on some aspect of legislation, they could call on their own legal affairs correspondent to give them a steer as to what way the wind is blowing. Ditto for a crime, health, farming or pretty much any other specialist story you care to mention.

Not having a single solitary reporter among a staff of almost 2,000 whose sole or even main job is to track what happens on the climate and environmental ‘beat’ leaves PrimeTime relying on loose cannons for ‘guidance’, and then blundering into fiascos like Benny Peiser.

If this issue were about some nonsense like Wind Turbine Syndrome or the great fluoridation conspiracy, RTÉ’s lack of interest and expertise would, frankly, be neither here nor there. But it’s not. This is instead about the future of humanity and the biosphere; in truth, it’s about assessing if humanity has a future at all.

And in case anyone from PrimeTime is reading, a reality check: your goose as well as mine is well and truly cooked in the 4C world that we are collectively barrelling swiftly towards. Forget about the economy and the Garda Commissioner for a minute. Forget about your pension or the future you imagined for your children or grandchildren. Climate change, uniquely, is not just a ‘story’ that affects other people, one you can file-and-forget once the show is over and the studio lights have been turned down.

This is not a drill. Climate change is on track to plunge us into a new medieval era of collapse and chaos, if not wiping us clean off the map. World Bank president, President Dr Jim Yong Kim acknowledged that the looming 4ºC degree world was, quite simply a “doomsday scenario”. Pause for a moment and read that phrase again. Now, which part of “doomsday scenario” are you still unclear about?

RTÉ’s performance in terms of environmental and climate change coverage over the last three years, and specifically, over the last two weeks, brings to mind the observation of academic and author, Prof Justin Lewis. In failing to address the reality of climate change, the media, he argues, is engaged in “one of the most obstinate displays of inertia in human history, a time when, like latter-day Neros, we fiddle while our planet burns”.

*Disclosure: (a) I am a member of An Taisce’s climate change committee.

(b) I too was asked by PrimeTime to participate, but in the audience only. Two hours before the show aired, I was contacted again and given a promise that I’d be allowed to ‘ask the panel a question’. I judged this to be too little, too late, and politely declined this last-minute offer.


Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

It’s not fair! I can prove I’m better than BOD…

In a recent newspaper article, I wondered aloud if maybe, just maybe, the tide was finally beginning to turn regarding Ireland getting real about climate change. As if to answer the question, the producer of Today FM’s The Last Word contacted me with an invite to participate in an extended live panel discussion on…climate change.

Were the topic politics, economics, business, jobs, marriage equality or agriculture, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at – yet another – panel discussion in yet another radio station with the usual talking heads bashing out various angles of the debate. But for climate change, almost 45 minutes airtime during peak hours in Ireland is genuinely almost unheard of (You can download the podcast from here. It’s no. 7 in the list).

Host Matt Cooper is an experienced media hand, and he guided the first half of the discussion comprising a three-person panel with perspectives from science (Prof John Sweeney), politics (Eamon Ryan) and media (myself). But, like in the Sinatra song, then he went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like: “we are now joined in studio by Lord Christopher Monckton…”

It was like déjà vu all over again. I’d been on Today FM back in January 2011 with Matt Cooper and, yes, His Lordship, but on that occasion, I thought it’d be good fun to point out that among Monckton’s kookier ideas in a career studded with kooky ideas, was that of setting up concentration camps to forcibly and permanently detain…AIDS victims. The exact wording, from his American Spectator article in 1987 was:

“There is only one way to stop AIDS. That is to screen the entire population regularly and to quarantine all carriers of the disease for life. Every member of the population should be blood-tested every month … all those found to be infected with the virus, even if only as carriers, should be isolated compulsorily, immediately, and permanently.”

It had the desired effect of winding up His Lordship into a state of high dudgeon. Still, since he was en route to join fellow crackpot conspiracy theorist Jim Corr at a public meeting, maybe the tone was in fact about right.

Roll forward two years, and Lord Monckton is still getting airtime to ‘balance’ debates in ways that make no sense at all. It’s as if Matt Cooper were having a discussion on the Six Nations and felt the need to ‘balance’ the discussion by bringing on someone who thinks that rugby is the work of the devil and makes the palms of your hand sprout tufts of hair. That may be one person’s point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily make it either relevant or worth including.

This is perhaps my long-winded way of explaining why, despite ample ammunition, I chose to keep the discussion entirely civil and, in so doing, perhaps accord Monckton a parity of esteem with the other speakers which he so blatantly does not deserve.

It’s the classic dilemma: go on the attack and be accused of being an extremist; or keep it all light and fluffy and let a fantasist like Monckton go through his statistical dog-and-pony show largely unchallenged. On the day, I chose the former route, but within hours, was wondering if this was as much a cop-out as taking the high moral ground. Yes, I rattled his cage back in 2011, but, listening back to the recording from this distance, I can see how someone listening in casually could well have been at a loss to decide which of us was the real headbanger.

The whole experience brings to mind the line: “Arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon…no matter how good you are, the bird is going to shit on the board and strut around like it won anyway”. And, in that sense at least, the Honourable Viscount of Brenchley is quite the chess player. He certainly knows how to play the media, and yes, he is full of it too, but he comes from the public school debating tradition where the rights and wrongs of the argument are irrelevant, it’s about strutting about trying to sound awfully clever and working on witty one-liners to clinch the debate by acclaim.

And on the subject of sounding awfully clever, a new Irish website, modestly entitled Global Warming Solved, has appeared in recent weeks. It describes itself as a “family-run independent research group based in Ireland”. The family in question, the Connollys, are perhaps the world’s greatest polymaths – at least if you take their claims at face value.

Here are their four modest ‘key findings’:

1. We are not warming the planet

2. We are not causing catastrophic climate change

3. The scientific consensus on global warming was premature

4. Increasing or reducing our carbon footprint will make no difference to the climate

Ordinarily, you’d say, fair enough, the Connollys are as entitled as Lord Monckton to their opinions, however at variance with the scientific evidence they may be. However, they go further, much further, by actually presenting what they claim is the hard science to support the above four extraordinary propositions. And they do so via a brand new peer-reviewed online journaltheir own peer-reviewed journal, featuring eight of their own articles. There is no mention anywhere on of an Editorial Board, or any information whatever on who exactly is going to do the ‘peer-review’ of these papers, or other papers, should people not from the Connolly family choose to submit a paper.

The actual structure and format of the 8 papers already posted is quite impressive: take Urbanization bias I. Is it a negligible problem for global temperature estimates? This paper follows the recognised presentation style for an academic journal, and is fully referenced. Underneath the paper is a category called ‘Peer Reviews’. I wasn’t sure if this was a joke: do they actually literally mean that anyone who drops by can offer their (entirely unqualified) opinion of the paper and that will then be listed as a ‘Peer Review’? If so, this is Flann O’Brien country, but given that the papers themselves are carefully researched and written, I’ll leave it to those far more qualified than I to – professionally – review them and cast judgement as to whether they hold water.

I’d hate to in any way pre-judge the likely outcome of this scrutiny, but when you make bald statements like this: “Our research has shown that it doesn’t matter whether we double, treble or even quadruple the carbon dioxide concentration. Carbon dioxide has no impact on atmospheric temperatures” then you had better have quite extraordinary evidence to back up that quite extraordinary claim. There are plenty of other extraordinary claims too.

Generally, when people make grand pronouncements claiming to have overturned our understanding of something as highly specialised and intensely studied as atmospheric physics, then those people go directly to one or more of the established major peer-reviewed science journals. Fame, fortune and the Nobel Prize for Physics await anyone who can actually make such claims stand up.

This way, their study, as well as the supporting evidence upon which it is based, can be thoroughly reviewed by a panel of expert peers before being published. This makes a lot of sense. Peer-review helps to iron out any actual errors or omissions, large or small, before the paper makes its way into the public domain. In science, there are very, very few Galileo moments, but lots and lots of people who are convinced they are the next Galileo.

There’s a very good critique of the Connollys’ attempt at re-shaping our understanding of the physics of the greenhouse effect here.). What is truly novel is that one of the authors, Ronan Connolly, joins in the debate attached to the above article and manfully explains and defends their new ‘findings’. The physics involved is way over my head.

Another important thing we look for in a novel paper making potentially ground-breaking claims is: prior publication. Have the authors published hundreds, or even dozens of times previously in the peer-reviewed press? If so, have their articles been cited frequently in other papers (a good guide to the importance of a given paper over time is how frequently other peer-reviewed paper cite it)? There is no evidence presented on the website of any previous publication, and certainly none in a field relevant to the science of climate change.

Ronan Connolly has a PhD in computational chemistry from UCD. Since receiving his PhD, he says he has been working with his dad, Michael, and “we began actively researching climate change in early 2009”, but he doesn’t say anything about the nature of this research. Michael’s stated qualifications also include a PhD, but it’s not stated in what field. “I have lectured and tutored at third level in the fields of physics, chemistry, electronic engineering, computer science, mathematics and statistics” is all the information he provides, though he does also mention having owned and operated the National Aquarium in the past, and he has a strong interest in aquaculture.

Here’s how Ronan Connolly puts it in a comment on the above blog:

“We are acutely aware of the fact that our conclusions differ from the conventional “textbook” understanding of atmospheric temperature profiles. We didn’t come to our conclusions lightly. However, when we looked at the results of our studies, we found that the conventional understanding seems to be incomplete and inadequate.”

Wow, just wow. It is of course possible that the Connollys are right, and that every scientist from John Tyndall to Svente Ahhrenius and all those who have followed and built on their research work over the last century and a half are, well, just plain wrong. It does happen, just not very often. On the other hand, there has never been a shortage of people prepared to come forward seeking attention for what are proven to be half-baked rehashes of poorly understood and partially digested science.

Often, these folks are ‘not even wrong’, i.e. they don’t actually understand the science sufficiently to even be even fully aware of the glaring inconsistencies in their own work. As stated earlier, I’ll leave it to the actual experts to cast final judgement on the efforts of the Connolly family. Unsurprisingly, the denier websites are delighted. The Hockey Schtick blog is a notorious anti-science clearing house, and already they are cheerfully republishing this as though it were actually from a peer-reviewed scientific source. In a tweet, Penn State climatologist, Prof Michael Mann noted wryly: “I suspect that the description of the journal as “peer” reviewed is ironically correct in this case…”

A solid track record of relevant prior publication, for a researcher is a bit like caps for a rugby player. You start in the junior league, then, if you’re really good, work your way into a major club. From there, a tiny handful, the best of the best, progress to the provincial academies, where the successful few are blooded in competitions such as the Rabo Pro 12. From here, an even tinier group come to the attention of the senior provincial coaches; then, the elite 30 or so players in the country come to form the national squad.

What the Connollys have done, I’d suggest, is the elite science equivalent of me phoning up Joe Schmidt, pointing out that I absolutely love rugby, know all the rules, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, and, having played a bit in school, reckon I should be picked for the next two internationals. And to clinch my claim, I point out that I’m older and a far more prolific writer than any of the current Irish squad, so surely that proves I deserve to pull on the green shirt. And besides, when I was playing schools cup rugby in 1979, where was the ‘great’ Brian O’Driscoll? Oh yeah, at home in Clontarf having his arse wiped by his mammy, that’s where!

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | 48 Comments

Gravity of climate crisis has yet to sink in nationally

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 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



Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 1 Comment

A welcome Eye on the climate crisis

Last Tuesday evening, Duncan Stewart’s excellent Eco Eye series turned its focus on climate change, and specifically, the impacts already manifesting themselves on Ireland’s weather. You can watch the full show below:

Among the experts directly interviewed for the show were Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Institute in Manchester. It was a coup to get Anderson, one of the world’s heaviest of hitters on climate science, to participate. What’s refreshing about Anderson is his willingness, as a senior scientist, to join the dots and spell out in clear terms that our current global emissions trends are actually worse than the very worst case scenario that IPCC modelling actually allows for.

Astonishingly, there is absolutely no indication whatever of any intention on the part of the world’s political classes to attempt to limit carbon emissions to within what climate science tells us are the physical limits of the biosphere. We are, Anderson states, on trajectory this century “for temperatures that could be 4, 5, even 6 degrees (C) higher, compared with now”. Today’s global average surface temperature is around 14.5C. Global warming to date has already pushed this figure, which is the average for all land and oceans surfaces, 0.8C higher than the pre-industrial average.

Pushing that figure towards 17, 18, even 20C in the coming decades would unleash a climate catastrophe of quite simply unimaginable proportions, with mass crop failures as extreme temperatures destroy agriculture and with it, global food production. A temperature jolt of this magnitude commits the massive Greenland ice pack to accelerated collapse, with the western Antarctic peninsula similarly threatened. These would mean, over time, rises in global sea levels far beyond any possible means of adaptation. This will force the abandonment of most of the world’s great cities and ports.

The economic and political crises triggered by a destabilised climate system are likely to unleash intensified resource conflicts, with water wars a very real possibility as nation states try to secure adequate supplies for their own populations, even if this means taking control of shared water and agricultural resources by force.

Duncan Stewart chose to tell the climate change story to an Irish audience through the lens of extreme weather, and the serious impacts already being felt by tens of thousands of Irish families who can no longer insure their homes against flood damage. Irish farming is also exposed to an increasingly restive and unpredictable climate, with major shifts in precipitation rates and patterns, as well as a blurring of the traditional Irish seasons.

I contributed later in the show, opening by repeating the quote from the president of the World Bank, who famously described a 4C global average temperature rise as a “doomsday scenario”. There’s an extended version of my interview below (Duncan actually recorded over two solid hours over the course of our interview, so perhaps there’s an über-long version somewhere in the archives?).

Fears that putting climate change on-air would be a major turn-off for Irish audiences appear to be unfounded. The Eco Eye on climate change had 405,100 viewers and achieved an impressive 27.5% audience share. When figures are added in for those who watched the show on RTE+1, the RTE Player and a repeat showing early next week, upwards of 600,000 people will have seen the show. Well done to all at Earth Horizon for a fine effort in keeping the moribund coverage of this crunch issue from disappearing entirely from our national airwaves.

The day after the broadcast, I was invited on to The Right Hook to discuss new European Commission emissions reductions targets with a rather skeptical George Hook. The interview ran to around 15 minutes, and, to be fair to the presenter, he allowed a full and detailed discussion to ensue, rather than trying to shut it down, as is so often the case. Hook was prepared to discuss the issues with me directly. Others, such as Tom McGurk or Pat Kenny, prefer to hide behind the “debate” format, ie. bring in a denier wing nut and use them to stir up a bogus ‘controversy’, with the host tut-tutting in the middle, feigning objectivity while wondering aloud why “the sides in this debate are so deeply divided”.

It’s a cynical ploy, known in the trade as bias-in-balance, it’s also the laziest stratagem in journalism, allowing the interviewer to disguise their ignorance, bias – or both – from their audience. Credit where it’s due to George Hook for being prepared to man up and take responsibility on himself to present the ‘skeptical’ (in the true sense of the word) counterpoint on climate change, and to manage the discussion in a courteous, professional manner. You would think that goes without saying, but sadly, that’s often not the case.



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

Climate change fuelling our weather extremes

Untitled 2Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times this week:

IN THE FIRST week of January last year, I placed an 80 euro bet that 2013 would be among the top ten hottest years since global instrumental records began in 1850. The odds on offer: 1-80. This week, I collected my stake plus meagre one-euro winnings. I was right; so too were the bookies, hence the dismal odds on offer. 2013 has been duly confirmed as the 7th hottest year globally on record.

Astonishingly, all ten of the hottest years ever recorded have occurred in just the last 15 years. Following literally hot on the heels of a tumultuous 2012, last year was again marked by weather extremes, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). “The coldest years now are actually warmer than the hottest years before 1998”, said WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud.

Australia endured its hottest ever year in 2013, while China, Japan and South Korea experienced their warmest summers on record. The giant Brazilian plateau in 2013 experienced “the largest rainfall deficit since records began”, while what the WMO categorised as “extreme precipitation events” rocked Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Austria, which endured their worst flooding events in over 60 years.

Ireland, north America and northern Europe shivered through the bitterly cold spring 2013, as the Jet Stream dipped down, drawing Arctic conditions in its wake. Our excellent summer was a welcome break from weather woes, but it has turned out to be little more than a lull before the current wave of storm systems that have battered both Ireland and the UK.

While recovering slightly from its all-time low in 2012, Arctic summer sea ice extent last year was still 500,000 square kilometres below its 1981-2010 average. That’s an area of Arctic ice six times the size of the island of Ireland that no longer exists. Loss of Arctic ice cover is radically perturbing climate systems in the northern hemisphere.

“Global warming has increased the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, which has altered atmospheric conditions in a manner that stacks the deck in favour of more severe winter outbreaks”, according to Prof Charles Greene of Cornell University in the US.

“The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is ‘caused’ by climate change is that it is the wrong question”, argues Prof Kevin Trenberth of the US national centre for atmospheric research. “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be”.

Climate change means more energy in our atmosphere, rising sea levels and warmer ocean surfaces. When combined with high spring tides, as in Ireland in recent days, the effects can be severe.

The global atmosphere today carries some four per cent more water vapour than in the 1970s. This may sound like a small increase, but it has major impacts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found “high confidence that the intensity of extreme precipitation events will increase with warming, at a rate well exceeding that of the mean precipitation”.

Prof Robert Devoy of UCC has been a lead author in the last two IPCC assessment reports. The evidence, he told me, is unequivocal. “If you put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as we’re now doing, there must be a warming response”. The unpalatable fact, he says, is that we are going to be forced to abandon much infrastructure and housing located in the wrong places, such as estuaries and flood plains as it will be unviable to protect these areas from increasingly restive weather.

Dr Kieran Hickey of NUI Galway sees a strong trend emerging: “Since November 2009, we haven’t had a six-month period in Ireland without a significant weather event or disaster”. The clear threat to Ireland, Dr Hickey told me, is not rising temperatures per se, but “more and more weather extremes from a system ramped up by climate change”.

Meanwhile, the US is now gripped in what is known as a polar vortex. This has led to a predictable outbreak of jeering by flat-earthers and Murdoch-controlled media outlets about the freezing temperatures ‘proving’ that global warming is some kind of hoax.

The reality, ironically, may be the precise opposite. Loss of ice cover in the Arctic is causing heat from the ocean to be released into the atmosphere, reducing the region’s temperature differential versus lower latitudes. This has the effect of weakening the powerful circular wind system known as the polar vortex, allowing it to ‘escape’ southwards – with dramatic consequences.

Former chief climate advisor, Sir David King warned this week that Britain faced having to spend up to £1 billion a year by 2020 building defences against extreme weather events driven by global warming. “Storms and severe weather conditions that we might have expected to occur once in 100 years may now be happening more frequently”, he told the BBC.

Ireland, in contrast, is budgeting to spend just 45 million euros this year on measures against weather-driven events. With every euro spent on flood defences reckoned to save 7-8 euros in damage, this level of expenditure may prove very poor value indeed.

Worldwide, adaptation to rising sea levels and more weather extremes will be an ongoing battle this century. However, unless we sharply curtail the massive carbon emissions that are ratcheting up the global thermostat, every effort at adaptation is doomed to failure as climate destabilisation wrecks economies, devastates food production and risks drawing 100 centuries of human flourishing to an abrupt halt.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and is on Twitter @think_or_swim

Posted in Arctic, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 4 Comments

Time to sign up for the climate change war

Below, my article, as it appears in today’s Irish Times. There has been a pretty strong reaction thus far on Twitter (not that much uptake on Facebook) and quite a useful online discussion accompanying the piece on the Irish Times site – well over 150 postings to date.


Randall Truman got his 15 minutes of fame in early 1980. A long-term resident on Mount St. Helens in Washington State, Truman (83) scoffed when authorities began evacuating the region.

“Nobody knows more about this mountain than me”, he told reporters. “This goddamed mountain won’t blow. Scientists don’t know shit from apple butter”. His folksy defiance made him an unlikely media star.

When, as predicted, Mount St. Helens blew up on May 18, 1980, Truman was buried under 46 metres of volcanic debris.

It’s easy to dismiss the tragic folly of one old man’s stubbornness in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Yet, when it comes to climate change, we are today a society of Randall Trumans, sitting defiantly on our collective front porch, watching the distant smoke plumes rising, feeling the tremors, while all the time decrying those scientific know-alls who keep trying to scare us or tax us with all their waffle about carbon dioxide, melting icebergs, deforestation, biodiversity loss and assorted other eco bugaboos.

We instinctively know better than the actual experts. So do our politicians, economists and media commentators. Are we worried? Hell, no. Just like old Randall, we’ve seen it all before. Assuming that the future will be much the same as the past was a fatal error for Truman, yet this mistaken view is widely held, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

“We climatologists, like other scientists, are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies”, said Prof. Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University. “Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that it poses a clear and present danger to civilisation”.

This apocalyptic prescription is rapidly going mainstream. The World Bank described the projected 4C+ of global warming this century as “a doomsday scenario”. The US military now believes climate change “will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we talk about”, as US Admiral Samuel Locklear put it.

Geophysicist Brad Werner produced a recent paper entitled: ‘Is Earth F**ked’? Despite the provocative heading, it was a sober analysis, with a chilling conclusion: the looming collision of infinite and expanding human demands with a finite and declining biosphere sees the arc of human history bending towards catastrophe.

Nor does Dr. Werner believe this crisis is amenable to ‘top-down’ solutions, as transnational corporations and their billionaire chiefs are the prime drivers of this process, and they either directly own, dominate or finance the bulk of the world’s political and media systems.

You might imagine our ruling elites would be too wise, or at least too self-interested to preside over a complete unraveling of human progress. You would be wrong. In 1938, on the eve of another great crisis, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt issued this blunt warning: “the liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, at its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group”.

Seven decades later, transnational corporatism, turbocharged by neoliberal economic theory, has reached its global apotheosis and, freed at last from the constraints of either human moral agency or state oversight, is in the process of destroying the very civilisation it purports to serve.

This theme was taken up forcefully recently by Pope Francis, who experienced at first hand the disaster visited on his native Argentina by financial speculators. He lambasted trickle-down economics as a sham that heightens injustice and inequality.

Support of neoliberal economics “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system” he wrote. “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market”.

All that remains is resistance. “Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers and other activist groups”, Dr. Werner suggests, is the last hope of at least arresting the runaway growth machine before it destroys us and our children’s future. Politicians may respond to, but will never initiate, this resistance.

Slowly, more and more scientists are doffing their white coats and taking to the streets to demand that society acts on the overwhelming evidence to mitigate the worst of the coming climate calamity. Prof Gus Speth, retired dean of Yale University’s environmental school described his jail cell following his arrest at a climate protest as the most important position he had ever held in Washington.

Financier Jermey Grantham published an unusual open letter to scientists in the journal ‘Nature’ urging them to get off the fence and join the fight. “This is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave”.

Resistance is not for the faint-hearted, as it will be met by fierce coercion. The Arctic 30, comprising jailed environmental activists and journalists, have felt the vicious backlash of the Russian petro-state. As resistance intensifies, so too will suppression and counter-propaganda. Climate change may not feel like your fight today, but that too will change. Make no mistake, this is, quite literally, the fight of our lives. Success is far from certain, but when you consider the stakes, it is surely morally indefensible to countenance not even trying.

Should we fail, author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut suggested this wry message to posterity: “Dear future generations: please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum”.

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


Posted in Biodiversity, Economics, Global Warming, Psychology, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Billionaire baddies bringing us to the brink

Below is my article, as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine. I’ve long been fascinated by denial and our seemingly limitless power to delude ourselves about unpleasant or unpalatable realities. This was brought home to me yet again yesterday, when attending a funeral mass in a Catholic church in Dublin.

The entire occasion was a ritualised flat-out denial of the the most rudimentary of all facts of life – death itself. The deceased was little more than a prop in this macabre theatre. After all, if we can even deny our own mortality, it’s not much of a stretch to see how uniquely well equipped we are psychologically to quash other existential conundrums by ignoring and denying them out of existence.


As evil plutocrat villains go, Australia’s Gina Reinhart is straight from central casting. The daughter of a mining tycoon, she is now regarded as the world’s wealthiest woman, with an estimated worth of around $20 billion. Her fantastic wealth is all inherited; her parents’ vast fortune was made by exploiting Australia’s mineral wealth.

Reinhart is also quite outspoken. Last year she bemoaned the fact that Australians were not prepared to work for less than two dollars a day, unlike African workers. This fact made the multi-squillionaire “worry for this country’s future”.

Reinhart, whose wealth is entirely serendipitous, is not shy of advice for other people who would like to get ahead. They should, she says, “stop whingeing” and “Do something to make more money – spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working”. Mind you, at the two dollars an hour wage she prefers, the average Australian would have to work for approximately five million years to match the pile Ms Reinhart got handed by daddy and mummy.

Reinhart is also, shock, horreur, a climate change denier. In the last three years, tired of all the left wing whining in the media, she has taken the step that more and more billionaires, both home and abroad, have discovered is foolproof in dramatically improving your media profile – and that is, to start hoovering up newspapers and broadcasters. She is now the largest shareholder in Fairfax media.

Journalists were reportedly openly fearful that Rinehart would turn them into a “mouthpiece for the mining industry”. That was, I suspect, the last time said Fairfax journalists were openly commenting about anything to do with their new boss’s commercial interests.

Her best buddy is the ultra-corrupt Rupert Murdoch (net value: $13.4 billion) the tycoon who uses his web of media interests to grossly interfere in politics and undermine democratic oversight and accountability around the world. The influence of Murdoch’s odious Fox network in polarising and debasing US politics and demonising science, specifically climate science, is now well understood.

According to Forbes magazine, there are 1,426 billionaires in the world. Collectively, their combined wealth is around $5.4 trillion – $5,431,810,000,000 in longhand.

The net worth of energy industry mega-tycoons the Koch brothers is around $68 billion – around the same as the entire GPD of Cuba, a country with a population of over 11 million. The Koch brothers invest some of their vast wealth in funding anti-climate change disinformation and astroturfing groups. They are also now dabbling in buying up media companies.

Here’s a simple thought experiment: imagine our 1,400-odd billionaires were planning to head off, in a fleet of luxury aircraft, on a flight path that would take them thousands of miles from land and crossing through some hazardous airspace along the way. First off, you can be certain they would insist the aircraft had been thoroughly checked prior to departure. This work would have been entrusted to the best engineers. Similarly, plotting their course, getting detailed weather forecasts and ensuring their planes’ fuel supplies were adequate, all this work would be placed in the hands of the leading experts in their field.

Similarly, if they decided to bring along an in-flight medical team, these would be hand-picked based on experience, expertise and their status among their peers. You get the picture. The world’s billionaires generally know how expensive it can be to take the counsel of numbskulls.

And yet. When it comes to the Big One, i.e. whether or not industrial civilisation can survive the next couple of decades, and whether humanity itself can escape the jaws of an encircling trap comprising resource exhaustion, biodiversity collapse, ecosystem failure and climate catastrophe, the world’s richest people can hardly be accused of doing nothing.

Quite the opposite: their funding, media access and moral support is enabling an international cabal of climate deniers, liars and assorted numbskulls to befuddle and bamboozle with impunity. What these patrician geniuses appear to have entirely misunderstood is that we (and yes, that includes the super-rich) really are all in this leaky tub known as the biosphere together.

Wealth, even humungous wealth, is of little value when international trade has collapsed, the electrical grid is permanently down, the global economy is dead and food production has been destroyed by chaotic weather. All of these scenarios are odds-on in a world in which average surface temperatures have shot up by over 4C this century.

The controversy-averse IPCC routinely low-balls risks by excluding real but difficult-to-measure threats such as permafrost methane releases, yet it still says we have no better than a 50/50 shot at avoiding an impending 4C global warming calamity. And that slim shot assumes we all act now to slash emissions.

You and I can fret, we can lobby, we can make our plans, but in reality, as individuals, we remain almost powerless. Our billionaire betters, on the other hand, have power and influence almost beyond measure. Yet, rather than acting to save even their own necks, many of them work diligently and spend freely to actually hasten our collective appointment with mass extinction.

Let’s conclude with an update to that ancient Greek quotation: ‘those whom the gods would destroy, first they make filthy rich’.

John Gibbons is a specialist environment writer and tweets @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Sceptics | 1 Comment

The oceans: cradle and graveyard of life on Earth

My first newspaper environmental column appeared in mid-March 2008, headlined: ‘Out of our depth in tackling overfishing disaster’. In researching the piece, I was staggered to read a quote from a senior UNEP official to the effect that even if human impacts on the marine world stopped immediately, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”.

Trying to summarise the situation back in early 2008, I wrote: “A lethal cocktail of climate change, overfishing and pollution is causing severe strains on fish stocks worldwide, with the total collapse of commercial fish stocks now predicted to be just four decades away”.

While the main focus of that piece was the lunacy of taxpayer-funded industrial overfishing, it was hard, even back then, to see the catastrophe somehow not extending far beyond the shoreline.

I signed off that opening column as follows: “Unless a radical conservation-led approach to managing the world’s fisheries is quickly put into place with binding and enforced international agreements, the calamity will not be limited to the marine ecosystem. If we simply to carry on our current path, ‘market forces’ will, left unchecked, do the rest and complete the maritime holocaust exactly as scientists are predicting”.

I may have been vaguely expecting an angry mob to march on Government Buildings that day, crumpled Irish Times in hand, demanding that the Irish State “do something” to stop the carnage. If so, that piece was to be the first of many such disappointments over the last six years or so.

No amount of environmental or ecological ‘bad news’ can, it seem, pierce the invisible carapace that appears to shield the public, media and political classes from the breathtaking realities of our predicament. Many column inches have been shed, here and elsewhere, trying to unpick the flaw in our ability to collectively reason that has allowed a mass extinction scenario to steal upon humanity with barely a whimper of either recognition or outrage.

Reporters whose job it is to bring us the stories from war zones and humanitarian disasters, often become cynical about the litany of misery and horror that is their job to relate. Taking that home with you is a recipe for depression, or worse.

South African photographer Kevin Carter in 1993 shot to international attention with a harrowing photo of a starving African child trying to drag herself to a nearby feeding station. In the background, a vulture stood, apparently waiting. That image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize but it also seemed to haunt him. Within a year, he was dead.

Part of his suicide note read: “I am depressed… I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners …”. (Carter’s angst was immortalized in the eponymous song by the Manic Street Preachers).

Writing and researching environmental and ecological issues from the bloodless safety of a computer in suburban Dublin is a long, long way from the front lines that Carter and many others have risked so much to cover, yet the horror still comes crashing through from time to time, no matter how remote you may wish to imagine it.

I had such an experience early this morning when reading a report on ocean acidification by the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey. She was reporting on the release of an international audit (State of the Ocean) of the health of the world’s oceans, by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).

I have read and written on this subject on numerous occasions, yet was still left gasping at the import of this audit. The current acidification “is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun”.

According to Alex Rogers, professor of biology at Oxford University: “The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth”.

The same article quoted Trevor Manuel, co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, describing the report as “a deafening alarm bell on humanity’s wider impacts on the global oceans…unless we restore the ocean’s health, we will experience the consequences on prosperity, wellbeing and development. Governments must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats – in the long run, the impacts are just as important”.

The last major global extinction event, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), occurred around 55 million years ago. The current rate of carbon release into the world’s oceans is today ten times faster than those that preceded the PETM extinction event. “The IPSO scientists can tell that the current ocean acidification is the highest for 300 million years from geological records”, Harvey’s report added.

Overfishing and deoxygenation as a result of run-off of fertilisers and sewage into the oceans is making a desperate situation worse. The IPSO report projects that the average oxygen content of the world’s oceans may fall by some 7% by 2100. Phytoplankton, single-celled plants that live at or near the ocean surface, produce 40-50% of the world’s atmospheric oxygen.

Without the quiet industry of trillions of these organisms, you and I and all our fellow mammals would, quite literally, suffocate. Yet the epic pressures human actions, from hydrocarbon burning to overfishing to wholesale marine pollution are placing on the ecology of the oceans threaten this fine equilibrium.

“People are just not aware of the massive roles that the oceans play in the Earth’s systems”, Alex Rogers of Oxford added. “Phytoplankton produce 40% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, and 90% of all life is in the oceans”.

All life began in the oceans. Our ancient ancestors first crawled or heaved themselves onto the shores around 400 million years ago. The oceans are and remain the cradle of all life on Earth. Destroying this cradle, either intentionally or through carelessness or hubris, means our own sure and certain destruction.

Evolution is unsentimental. From its narrow standpoint, humanity is a dangerous aberration, a defect that will either kill or be overwhelmed by its host. The race is on. Wherever you choose to put your money, neither outcome bodes well for homo sapiens.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | 3 Comments

IPCC AR5 set to reiterate bleakest of messages

Below, my article as it appeared in yesterday’s Irish Times. I had a bit of a swipe at Fine Gael’s former Environment spokesman, Simon Coveney, having sat down recently to re-watch a clip I recorded for back in January 2008 at a conference chaired by Duncan Stewart in which each of the main parties were asked to set out their stall on climate change. In hindsight, Coveney’s performance can best be described as darkly comic. (To get directly to Coveney’s spiel, go forward to around 8 minutes 16 seconds).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is probably the largest international scientific and policy collaboration in history. Later this month, it begins publication of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). More than 830 expert authors have contributed to this titanic project, with the final report running to thousands of pages.

You could, however, sum its findings up in just four words: “the world is defrosting”. This is how Prof Neville Nicholls of Monash University, Australia put it. Human impacts, according to a leaked draft of the report, are changing the planet in ways “unprecedented in hundreds of thousands of years”.

Of course, we already know this, since the last IPCC report, issued in 2007 in a blaze of media publicity and political gesturing, set out the extreme dangers of a business-as-usual emissions trajectory for all life on Earth. Back then, the IPCC warned the world’s leaders that we are now collectively supping at the Last Chance Saloon.

Today, six years and a global recession later, and instead of being reversed, greenhouse gas emissions are literally steaming ahead, at over three per cent a year. “We’re heading rapidly in the wrong direction”, says Dr David Victor of the University of California.

Earlier this year, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels breached 400ppm, their highest levels in at least three million years, and representing an astonishing 30% increase in the amount of this potent heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere in barely 50 years. There is simply no historical analogue for changes on this scale happening so quickly. The time lag here is crucial. During the Pliocene Epoch, fuelled by similar CO2 levels to today, global sea levels rose by a massive 20 metres.

This is only for starters. By mid-century, the world is on target to have doubled the pre-industrial levels of atmospheric CO2, to well over 500ppm. Global temperatures track CO2 levels closely, so we can expect average surface temperature rises of around 2C by that time, with much more heating effectively “locked-in” as what are known as positive feedbacks overwhelm the lag in the climate system’s inertia.

With this, the current 10,000 year interglacial period of generally mild, stable climate that allowed human civilisation and the agriculture that supports it to flourish comes to a dramatic end. To lock in this apocalyptic scenario requires nothing more than maintaining our present path just a short while longer. “The decisions we make in the next decade or so are decisions that will determine the fate of the planet for thousands of years”, says Prof Kerry Emanuel of MIT in Boston (meanwhile, ThinkOrSwim soared to new heights today by having its humble scribblings picked up by WattsUpWithThat, the world’s number one climate denier website)

The oceans too are under assault. Acidification is “virtually certain” to increase, the IPCC warns, and this “threatens the survival of entire ecosystems, from phytoplankton to coral reefs and from Antarctic systems… to many human food webs”. The scenario of acidified, oxygen-starved oceans teeming with jellyfish and almost nothing else is edging from science fiction to climate science fact.

Sea level rise is now projected to be in the range of one metre this century, but the rapid accumulation of CO2 means longer term sea level rises of 5-10 metres and beyond are now looking increasingly certain. This means the abandonment over time of most of the world’s coastal cities and settlements and the loss of millions of square kilometres of land to future generations. In hindsight, our seemingly benign pursuit of relentless “economic growth” may come to be seen as the most dangerous ideology ever to bewitch human society.

Any hope that the IPCC report may err on the side of alarmism is misplaced. For instance, the real-world rate of disintegration of the Arctic ice mass is currently some three decades ahead of the IPCC’s conservative model projections. Controversially, the IPCC report actually excludes modelling of the effects of melting Arctic permafrost, which has the potential to add enormous additional methane emissions and move the needle much faster than the Panel’s published projections.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity”, WB Yeats wrote in ‘The Second Coming’. He could have been describing the forces ranged today on either side of the battle to save humanity from its own hubris.

In one camp are the billionaire energy and media moguls spending freely to buy off politicians, subvert regulatory oversight and befuddle the public. The recent election of a new Australian government headed by a climate denier in the pocket of tycoons Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart was another timely reminder of the capture of politics by the trillion-dollar energy industry.

Closer to home, Murdoch’s Sunday Times recently ran a wildly inaccurate spread under the lurid headline: ‘The joy of global warming’. The neoliberal assault against public understanding of even the most basic scientific facts may yet turn out to be the world’s deadliest undeclared war.

In January 2008 I witnessed Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney deliver a powerful, passionate speech in Dublin in which he demanded the FF/Green government set “ambitious targets” for emissions reductions, admitting to having had “my own worst fears confirmed” as to the scale of the climate crisis. This is, he added, “Ireland’s challenge, and we need to meet it”.

That was then. And older and no doubt wiser Agriculture Minister Coveney was recently quoted as stating that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”. The future of humanity itself cannot, its seems, compete with the more pressing short-term business of keeping the IFA sweet and a political career on track.

Coveney is no backwoods politician; to the contrary, he is smart, has a young family and doubtless knows the real score on climate change. When even this generation of leaders has abandoned us, you know it’s time to be very, very worried.

John Gibbons is a specialist writer on climate and the environment and is on Twitter @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Psychology | Leave a comment

Sensationalist ice-age story may betray covert media agenda

[This is a slightly extended and fully referenced (hyperlinked) version of an article which first appeared in Village Magazine on 14th August 2013.]

GHOST: But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
List, list, O, list!

— Hamlet. Act 1, Scene V.

On Friday, 12th July, Irish Times readers were treated to a truly extraordinary front page headline: “Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age”. The implication was immediate and unmistakable: if the world is heading into “another ice age” then, by definition, it cannot simultaneously be globally warming. Some fatal flaw must have been found in the theory of global warming, such that it has been decisively refuted. Given that this theory has surely been by far the most intensively studied and comprehensively tested theory in human history, and has robustly survived all those tests to date, this would be simply the most extraordinary revolution in our scientific understanding. Ever. And not just a scientific revolution either — it would have dramatic social and political ramifications. Globally, we could stop worrying about emissions of (so-called?) “greenhouse gases”.

In Ireland, we could safely exploit any and all fossil fuel resources we can dig, drill or frack, anywhere in or around the national territory. Yes, we’d still have the little matter of an “ice age” to adapt to instead, but with all that ice having to form, surely that could only happen very slowly? In any case, the apocalyptic visions of impending collapse of human civilisation promoted by those climate change “alarmists” had clearly been finally debunked. Dr. Pangloss was vindicated and all really is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Except, of course, that none of this was actually so.

To see this, we will have to unpick the story carefully. It’s not a pleasant or pretty exercise, and certainly not one that an ordinary reader should be expected to embark on; but the stakes are high (could hardly be higher) so maybe it is worth the effort.

To begin, we can hardly blame the headline editor; for s/he has just taken a cue from the article lead — which itself is a model of journalistic brevity:

The sun is acting bizarrely and scientists have no idea why. Solar activity is in gradual decline, a change from the norm which in the past triggered a 300-year-long mini ice age.

Now admittedly, we’ve already clarified (retreated?) to a mere “mini” ice age; but still definitely some form of “ice age” nonetheless. So still, presumably, global cooling, advancing glaciers, all that stuff? Definitely a contradiction of this global warming nonsense we’ve been tortured with. And wait, read on — this is all breaking news, and on the highest scientific authority:

Three leading solar scientists presented the very latest data about the weakening solar activity at a teleconference yesterday in Boulder, Colorado, organised by the American Astronomical Society.

So clearly, these three “leading scientists”, with the benefit of the “very latest data” have just predicted an impending (mini) ice age; notwithstanding all the extraordinary disruption of mainstream climate science that such a claim entails.

Or at any rate, a reader could certainly be forgiven for thinking that that’s what she had just read. But such a reader would be sadly mistaken. For these first two paragraphs are actually a model of misdirection: not exactly false, but certainly not meaning what they seem to say on the surface.

In fact, as far as I have been able to establish, the only parts of the Irish Times article properly deriving from the teleconference (actually hosted from Bozeman, Montana, not Boulder, Colorado) are the technical details on the projected evolution of the current and immediately forthcoming 11-year solar cycles. For solar science buffs this is, of course, a genuinely interesting story. The current solar cycle is really quite different from immediately preceding cycles. But in itself, this is hardly breaking news. For example, two years ago (June 2011) we could read in a press release from the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division (AAS/SPD):

As the current sunspot cycle, Cycle 24, begins to ramp up toward maximum, independent studies of the solar interior, visible surface, and the corona indicate that the next 11-year solar sunspot cycle, Cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.

The more recent teleconference featured by the Irish Times is still important, because it updates and refines this ongoing projection of solar activity. But where’s the big “ice age” story that brought the dramatic front page headline?

Well here the plot thickens. In fact, that June 2011 press release was also followed by a flurry of media coverage that linked this aberration in solar activity to a possible new “ice age”. To such an extent that one of the authors at that time, Frank Hill, had to explicitly repudiate this inference:

… a lot of reports have come out and said that we have predicted a new ice age. That is making the leap from low sunspot activity to cooling. We did not predict a little ice age. What we predicted is something that the sun will be doing, not what the Earth’s climate will be doing. That has been the major inaccuracy that I have seen in the media at this point.

One might have imagined that even minimal background research by an alert journalist could have located that previous story, and sensitised him or her to the potential for serious mis-communication here. But apparently not.

Still, perhaps we might blame the scientists themselves for poor communication: maybe they were unclear or ambiguous in what they announced? Well no, apparently not. On the contrary, one of them, Dr. Giuliana de Toma, is explicitly quoted (much later in the article) as saying that the current data:

… did not mean the earth was heading for another “Maunder Minimum”. This was a time between 1645 and 1725 when solar activity was extremely low or nonexistent, a situation which caused a mini ice age. [emphasis added]

Yes, you read that correctly: one of the “leading scientists” whose teleconference was identified as providing the basis for this whole story, is quoted within the text of the article itself as saying that the results do not indicate that the Earth is heading for a (mini) ice age (or, more precisely, for a “Maunder Minimum” — but that apparently amounts to essentially the same thing? or at least that seems to be the Irish Times’ interpretation …).

When contacted independently and asked to comment on this Irish Times story, Dr. de Toma reiterated this position, and for more detailed clarification, she recommended an article which appeared in New Scientist magazine on 12th July 2013 (the same day as the Irish Times coverage). This New Scientist article — reporting on exactly the same scientific data as the Times — carried the headline “Sun’s quiet spell not the start of a mini ice age”!

So: who did make the inference that this change in solar activity may presage “another ice age”? Well, the Irish Times article switched abruptly from the original AAS teleconference participants to offer us commentary from “Irish solar science specialist”, Dr Ian Elliott, who is directly quoted thus:

“It all points to perhaps another little ice age,” he said. “It seems likely we are going to enter a period of very low solar activity and could mean we are in for very cold winters.”

Note carefully that some unspecified number of “very cold winters” (in Ireland? Europe?) is a very far cry from the “ice age” (a global cooling phenomenon) of the article headline. As to a “little ice age” (or “mini ice age” as the Irish Times would apparently have it), this is strictly a term of art with a very different, narrow, and limited meaning. Historically, it denotes a period which overlaps with, but is far from identical to, the previously mentioned Maunder Minimum. Despite the name, it is not properly an “ice age” in the conventional sense at all. None of this would be apparent to the layperson, and is not clarified in the article. We will return to that point (which will turn out to be the nub of this whole disastrous miscommunication). But before that, let’s ask on what basis does Dr. Elliott make this prediction?

And now our already thickening plot positively congeals!

The final, and key, actor in this labyrinthine dramatis personae is revealed as Prof Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading. And the decisive quote is this:

Research by Prof Mike Lockwood at the University of Reading showed how low solar
activity could alter the position of the jet stream over the north Atlantic, causing severe cold during winter months.

Now let’s be clear that Prof Lockwood doesn’t seem to be associated in any way with the recent teleconference or the scientific team that was the ostensible trigger for this article (any more than Dr. Elliott). Nor is he directly associated with Dr. Elliott. Nor, as far as I can tell, does Prof. Lockwood himself suggest that his work allows a connection between the teleconference news and a prediction of “another ice age”. In fact, it’s not even clear whether Prof. Lockwood was actually consulted in the preparation of this article at all. But again, a casual reader could easily suppose that all of these people are part and parcel of a single story, encapsulated as “Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age”. This seems to me to be extraordinarily sloppy reporting (to put it at its kindest).

But let us park all that: does Prof. Lockwood actually claim what he’s reported as claiming? And if so, what should we make of it? The Irish Times article does not give precise sources (of course?), but it seems to be referring to a paper published by Prof. Lockwood and colleagues in the academic journal “Environmental Science Letters”, in the Apr-Jun 2010 issue. From the abstract of that paper, we read:

… We stress that this [anomalous cold winters] is a regional and seasonal effect relating to European winters and not a global effect … the results presented here indicate that, despite hemispheric warming, the UK and Europe could experience more cold winters than during recent decades.

So not “another ice age”. Not even a “Northern hemisphere ice age”. Not even an annualised cooling on a hemisphere basis (remember: “despite hemispheric warming”!). No, none of those things; just somewhat more frequent cold winters in Europe than during recent decades. Maybe. And the full extent even of this dependent on whether we really do enter a Maunder Minimum. Which the “very latest data” explicitly contra-indicates, at least according to the one leading scientist actually quoted on this point.

Or, for another perspective, the interested reader (or engaged journalist!) might consult the highly respected site. Filed there, under (debunking of) “Are we heading into global cooling?”, there’s this useful summary:

The Lockwood quote supposedly about global cooling simply discusses that decreased solar activity may impact winter weather in Europe, and has nothing to do with global temperatures whatsoever. Lockwood has performed numerous studies concluding that the Sun is not responsible for a significant amount of the recent global warming, and has not predicted global cooling.

So: this “story” as dramatically presented (spun?) by the Irish Times turns out to be essentially without any solid scientific foundation to speak of. But the damage has still been well and truly done. The Irish Times readership have, by now, moved on — but those who retain any lingering impression of this story will surely be that significant bit more confused, more disbelieving, more cynical about any future coverage of climate change: “Ah sure, last week it was supposed to be an ice age on the way — that climate change stuff is just a load of oul’ green guff.” Even more critically, the article itself lives on, for the Internet never forgets. It is already a featured link across the climate denialist blogosphere — indeed, precisely because it carries the full authority and credibility of a national “newspaper of record”, this article is virtual manna from heaven for that audience.

And now we come to the rub. Could this all have been an honest journalistic error (or rather, blunder)? Or equally, is it conceivable that the Irish Times was an innocent — albeit credulous – victim of a cleverly disguised denialist sting? In either of these cases, significant damage limitation would still be absolutely possible, simply by publishing a frank retraction and correction — in print, but also incorporated retrospectively into the archived online article. This would immediately turn the ongoing denialist linkage to the story back on itself and help significantly to undermine this particular denialist trope for the future. However: in the absence of such good faith remedy, we may have to seriously consider the alternative interpretation: that the sensationalist construction, presentation and placement of this story was in fact a manifestation of a conscious, deliberate, yet entirely covert, editorial line. If the latter proves even partly the case, then the judgement of our children, and their children in turn, will surely be harsh.

Acknowledgements: Sincere thanks to Phil Kearney, John Gibbons, Paul Price and Duncan Stewart for additional research and critical feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Of course, errors remain the author’s sole responsibility.

Barry McMullin is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University.


On the same day as this critique appeared in Village magazine (14th August 2013), the same Irish Times article was also comprehensively discredited by Dana Nuccitelli, writing in The Guardian newspaper. Nonetheless, as of 18th August, the Irish Times article remained online in its original form without retraction or qualification. However, an apparently unrelated Irish Times story (published on 16th August) blared: “Ireland to experience huge temperature rises, says expert”. The latter represents a welcome step back toward scientific reality (though still managing to implicitly echo another denialist trope, namely that while the world may be warming this is happening “regardless of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we emit into the atmosphere”). And in fairness to the Irish Times, it has been pointed out to me that there has, in the past, been a clearly overt “editorial line” that explicitly acknowledges and recognises the scale of the climate change challenge, such as represented by this editorial from February 2013. But for the present purposes, suffice it to note that the comments section of the more recent (“huge temperature rises”) piece immediately attracted the mischievous, but inevitable, contrarian observation that “… not so long ago scientists said we could be heading into a mini Ice Age … will they ever make up their minds[?].”

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Who’d want to live in a world without us? (hint: everything else)

World Population Day earlier this month threw up some portentous figures. Here’s one to conjure with: today, there are 1.8 billion people between the age of 10 and 24 – almost as many humans as were alive at the beginning of the 20th century. The number increases by a million every four days – that’s the entire population of Ireland added in not much more than a fortnight.

Notions that the ‘population crisis’ has somehow or other played out, or was a temporary little demographic glitch have, by now, been well and truly laid to rest. The global population juggernaut blasted through the 7 billion barrier around October 2011. And here we are, less than two years later, with another 200 million humans added to our ever-burgeoning numbers.

Where next? US State Department data suggest we’ll add another billion in the next 12 years (by 2025) and, barring disasters, roll on towards 10 billion humans by 2050. Only the deeply deranged or truly delusional can see this as anything other than a one-way ticket to Hell on Earth.

An elegant insight into the extraordinary times we live in was published in the form of a vast thought experiment by science journalist Alan Weisman in his book, The World Without Us. If you haven’t encountered it, the book’s premise is that humans have, somehow, all simply disappeared. What then? How would nature adjust? What would remain of our great cities, bridges and architecture 10, 50, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 years after humans had disappeared?

How would nature manage with to clean up the quite spectacular mess humanity has carelessly made of almost every square kilometre of the Earth’s surface, from the remotest glaciers to the ocean’s depths?

Weisman sagely sought to maintain journalistic objectivity throughout, but in his concluding chapter he was blunt on the consequences of the exponential increase in human population. “Since we can’t really grasp such numbers, they’ll wax out of control until they crash, as has happened to every other species that got too big for this box.”

Then he made a suggestion that was both bold and simple: “It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal…to henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one”. In essence, this is a global expansion of China’s oft-reviled but strikingly effective one-child policy.

Park your indignation at this appalling intrusion on our god-given freedom to over-breed ourselves into extinction for a moment, and let’s do the numbers (and why not, since pretty much every other option that’s actually on the table eradicates our most fundamental freedoms and takes us clean off the ecological cliff in a matter of decades).

By 2075, instead of powering towards 8.5 billion, this one measure would instead see human numbers fall back to 3.4 billion. A quarter century later, as 2100 dawns, it would be greeted by, in total, some 1.6 billion, that’s fewer than there are 10-24 year olds on the planet today.

It gets better. By 2150, the total number of humans on Earth would be just below 500 million – the lowest figure since 1650. “At such far-more-manageable numbers, we would have the benefit of all our progress, plus the wisdom to keep our presence under control”, says Weisman.

“That wisdom would come partly from losses and extinctions too late to reverse, but also from the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful. The evidence wouldn’t hide in statistics. It would be outside every human’s window, where refreshed air would fill each season with more birdsong”.

A quirk of evolution handed homo sapiens one or two critical advantages over our cousin primates – and, in time, over pretty much every living thing that ever walked, flew, grew, swam or crawled over any part of the world. Evolution (a little like peer-reviewed science) has long been understood to be a ruthlessly self-correcting system. It makes mistakes, but is unerringly good at sorting them out – in time.

Homo sapiens is shaping up to be evolution’s most catastrophic misadventure in perhaps half a billion years. Through an unlikely combination of ingenuity and serendipity, we have thus far eluded a dramatic correction of our numbers. But, crucially lacking the self-awareness to sense the trap closing, we have instead plunged ever forward, blindsided by our extreme good fortune and deafened by assorted ideologies to the low but unmistakable rumble of the gathering storm

There are two scenarios looming: either humanity somehow escapes the clutches of medievalist magicians and pyramid salesmen, be they bishops, billionaires, bankers or economists, and squarely addresses the existential corner we have painted ourselves into – or we don’t. If you are fond of a flutter, I’d suggest the odds in favour of the latter scenario run at around 50-1 on.

In Weisman’s ‘voluntary’ scenario outlined above, there are at most 500 million humans living in a bruised but largely functioning biosphere by the middle of the 22nd century.  The growth economy has been jettisoned in favour of ‘steady state’, and conspicuous consumption is strictly taboo. Biodiversity has been battered, but is now rebounding. We humans have figured out our limits, and the safe limits of our planetary home. Fantasy? Perhaps, but a pleasant one, and infinitely less grim than any other prospective scenario you could care to contemplate.

While we need nature, the reverse is absolutely not the case. The greatest favour we can do to any biological system is to simply withdraw from it, and let it find its own equilibrium. Learned humility could yet turn out to be our smartest evolutionary adaptation since leaving the savannah.

But there’s me indulging in unfounded optimism again. Dmitri Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse is recommended reading for anyone wondering how the next several decades are likely, in practical terms, to pan out. Don’t expect too many feel-good moments, but then that’s not really Orlov’s style (I aim to post a full review of this book separately).

When humans developed language and symbolic reasoning, the writing may have already been on the wall. “In the final analysis, perhaps we, and all life on Earth, would have been safer if humans had not evolved language. Perhaps the use of knowledge that language enables, taken to an extreme only allows us to achieve a higher overall level of suicidal stupidity”, Orlov wryly suggests.

Having lived through the chaotic disintegration of the USSR, Orlov is better qualified than most to write about collapse, yet oddly, reading Orlov brings to mind the title of Homer Dixon’s best-known book, The Upside of Down.

Seriously tough days are coming down the line. Some of us will be prepared (however inadequately), but most will sleepwalk into disaster, waiting for Someone Else to switch the lights back on, re-stock the supermarket shelves or re-boot the empty ATMs. These scenarios grow less theoretical by the month.

Nobody knows with precision the year, or day, that the globalised systems upon which our collective welfare utterly depend reach the point of degeneration and cascading collapse that what we used to describe simply as ‘civilisation’ simply stops working. Permanently. In all likelihood, we’ll only truly grasp that this has happened in hindsight.

Only then perhaps will that simplest, most painful, of lessons become ineffably clear: you can’t have your planet and eat it.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Sustainability | Leave a comment

Obama turns up the heat on climate change denial, inaction

It has been a long time coming, but it was – just about – worth the wait. Last Tuesday, President Obama finally put climate change front and centre on his critical second term agenda. It was perhaps apposite that he had to repeatedly wipe the sweat from his brow during the course of his 45-minute address (or full transcript here) about our warming planet delivered on a sweltering afternoon in Georgetown University.

Just because some politician reads lines off a teleprompter about the environment by no means guarantee they mean a syllable of it. Who can forget David Cameron and his Arctic photo op with huskies, where he cynically promised to deliver the “greenest government ever” to the UK.

Then there was our own Brian Cowen who, back in September 2009 at a UN climate conference in New York warned that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. You could almost hear the guffaws all the way back to Tullamore as Cowen mouthed this meaningless bilge. Let’s face it, the closest Cowen came to green was his facial pallor during that infamous Morning Ireland interview.

So, let’s agree that words are cheap, and all the words in the world don’t mean that it ain’t necessarily so. This week was, I reckon, different. Obama’s speech ran to some 6,000 words. It was “by far the best address on climate by any president – ever”. That’s the considered verdict of the best US president the environment never had: Al Gore.

David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defence Council was quoted as describing it as the speech environmentalists have waited 20 years to hear delivered. Famed climate scientist Michael Mann described it as: “the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years”. Even Bill McKibben, a noted Obama critic, appeared to reckon that the president was deadly serious this time.

I confess to having been a chief cheerleader all the way back to 2008 for Obama as perhaps the only US politician capable of grasping the existential challenge of widespread environmental collapse.

Therefore, some five years and no action later, it’s hard not to feel entirely foolish in believing any politician spawned by the Tweedledumb-and-Tweedledumber US political system could ever even contemplate taking on the vested interests of Big Energy and perma-growth based capitalism to actually make a stand for the common good. After all, who’s making a buck out of clean air, drinkable water, a healthy biosphere or a stable future climate anyhow?

I watched the speech in full. For me, it was indeed the real deal. Obama the master orator repeated the phrase “carbon pollution” almost 30 times throughout his speech. It’s a hell of a better phrase that “carbon dioxide”, which nobody beyond the scientific community seems to actually understand.

It opened with an unfamiliar but powerful tale: from Christmas 1968, when the astronauts of Apollo 8 did a live broadcast from lunar orbit. “Later that night, they took a photo (‘Earthrise’) that would change the way we see and think about our world”, said Obama, who was just about old enough to remember, as a child, this momentous broadcast.

“It was an image of Earth — beautiful; breath-taking; a glowing marble of blue oceans, and green forests, and brown mountains brushed with white clouds, rising over the surface of the moon.

“And while the sight of our planet from space might seem routine today, imagine what it looked like to those of us seeing our home, our planet, for the first time. Imagine what it looked like to children like me. Even the astronauts were amazed. “It makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

From here, Obama explained the century and a half of scientific investigation and discovery that led to growing concerns that the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “might someday disrupt the fragile balance that makes our planet so hospitable”. That was the view of the US National Weather Service, which began systematic recording of global atmospheric CO2 levels in 1958 under Dr Charles Keeling.

His eponymous Keeling Curve stood at just over 300ppm of atmospheric CO2 in 1958. This was, historically, anomalously high, well beyond the 180-280ppm range that global atmospheric CO2 levels have oscillated within in the course of the past million years or so. Since 1958, the Keeling Curve has climbed ominously.

On May 9th last, it broke the 400ppm level – almost certainly the highest level of atmospheric CO2 level in the last three million years. This represents an increase of over 25% in atmospheric CO2 levels in just over half a century – a rate of increase for which there is no analogue in the geological record.

“That science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind”, said Obama. “The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. Last year, temperatures in some areas of the ocean reached record highs, and ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record — faster than most models had predicted it would. These are facts.”

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren…I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Obama then turned to address the near-certain responses of the special-interest funded naysayers by pointing out that every major environmental initiative, from the 1973 Clean Air Act to the Montreal Protocol on eliminating CFCs in 1987, to tacking leaded petrol, carcinogens in plastics or regulating tobacco, has been fought by the same cabal of monied interests whipping up a media storm by threatening apocalyptic economic consequences – that simply never come to pass. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth society”, is how the president himself memorably put it.

An environmental movement pioneered by Bill McKibben that is gathering some strength is divestment. Put simply, “you can have a healthy fossil fuel industry or a healthy planet, but not both”. The divestment movement targets investors, large and small, to get their money out of dirty energy. Universities, faith groups, pension funds, among others, are being challenged to get their money out of industries that are in the business of destroying the biosphere.

Obama took this movement centre stage when he said: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest”.

Probably the single most dangerous thing humans do today is burn coal. Every year some 8 billion tonnes are consumed, producing over 20 billion tonnes of CO2 in the process, as well as millions of tonnes of heavy metals, toxic fly ash, arsenic, low level radiation, SO2, carbon monoxide (CO), mercury and much else besides. If you charged an ecocidal maniac with responsibility for coming up with a global power source, that person would undoubtedly choose coal as the ultimate weapon of collective self-immolation.

Coal burning is an ugly relic of the 19th century industrial revolution, and should have long ago been consigned to the slag heap of history. But coal is dirt cheap, plentiful, and, as long as you aren’t paying for its environmental wreckage, it’s also hugely profitable. Those profits buy a lot of political and media leverage, and so Old King Coal keeps on killing – and making a killing – decade after decade.

Cleaner new technologies, like renewables and nuclear, are expensive (at least initially) and are frequently under attack from both the political Left and Right – an unholy alliance that plays right into the hands of the hydrocarbons industry.

There is an excellent series of expert commentaries on Obama’s landmark speech collated by the Science Media Centre. These include Prof Nicholas Stern, Bob Ward and Prof Myles Allen. Overall, there is a strong, albeit guarded, welcome for his specific initiatives, but particular praise for the return of the most sorely missing component – political leadership – to a crisis that is, at its heart, a crisis of politics and society at least as much as science and ecology.

We humans have caught ourselves in an elaborate trap of our own construction – we have painted ourselves and much of life on Earth into a stark evolutionary corner. I would sum up Obama’s message as follows: either we apply our considerable collective ingenuity to resolving this impasse, or our only lasting legacy to posterity will to have been the instigators – and victims – of the Sixth Extinction.

* As a postscript to this article, I was surprised to open the Irish Times the following day (Weds/26) to find not a mention of this speech, which did get a few paragraphs in some of our other dailies, as well as some limited pick-up by RTE. (The major US networks didn’t bother carrying it live). Thursday and Friday passed, and still nothing in the Paper of Record. I did try the limited means at my disposal to encourage the Irish Times to pick up the story, including offering an analysis piece, but to no avail.



Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Media | 8 Comments

Science does not support rigid anti-nuclear stance

Below, my article, as it appeared in this Thursday’s Irish Times. To date, it has attracted over 180 comments on the site, with a strong pickup on both Facebook and Twitter. Having grown accustomed to having the online discussion of any of my Irish Times articles being hijacked by the usual rump of denier boo-boys, the discussion this time is surprisingly vitriol-free, generally constructive and well worth a read in itself.

To any regular ToS reader who may be under the impression that I’ve converted to techno-optimism, rest assured this is not the case. There is an enormous question mark hanging over the likelihood of a sustained, serious global response to the climate crisis. Such a response would entail massive decarbonisation of all our energy systems on a scale never contemplated other than in a wartime mobilisation. This would have to start now, not in 5, 10 or 20 years’ time, it would likely need to achieve compound annual CO2 output reductions greater than 5%, and this would have to continue for the next 40 years without letting up. 

Can such a miraculous transformation be achieved? That, ultimately, is at least as much about politics as it is engineering or physics. Let’s dream for a moment and imagine that the world’s governments decided to act to save the future. The idea that such an energy revolution could be achieved without including a massive scaling up of nuclear power, especially the newer generation technologies, is pure fantasy.

Environmentalists who are determined to ‘save the planet’ need to work through the frightening facts regarding how our entire electromagnetic civilisation still depends utterly on the burning of hydrocarbons on a massive scale and the uncontrolled release of GHGs, most notably CO2 resulting from this activity. Renewables, for all their many virtues, cannot, repeat, cannot under any rational scenario, be scaled up to replace fossil energy, even allowing for major energy efficiency gains and demand reduction. So, in a nutshell, nuclear is either a major part of the ‘post-carbon’ energy mix, or you can be quite certain that the ‘post-carbon’ era will involve few, if any, humans.

11/6/2013: As a fascinating and entirely unexpected postscript to this article, a letter was published in the Irish Times today, from Mary Finnegan, who is Chairperson, Friends of the Children of Chernobyl (a charity separate to Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International). Here’s what she wrote:

“As a Chernobyl worker, I found myself agreeing with John Gibbons (“Science does not support critics of nuclear power”, Opinion, June 5th).

There was an increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer for the first few years, but no evidence of major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 25 years after the event. This is not a popular thing to say, but it’s based on scientific fact.

Our charity was founded in 1993 to aid Belarusian children who were affected by the Chernobyl disaster. However over a period of 20 years we came to the realisation that the illnesses affecting many of the children of Belarus were primarily due to the consequences arising out of poverty, deprivation and the ignorance of basic hygiene standards to maintain a healthy standard of living. Poverty is the big problem in Belarus in 2013: I have seen children with physical and intellectual disabilities (whose parents sometimes are ashamed of them), living in appalling conditions, with mothers in dire straits. They have no home help, no respite, no hoists, and very little assistance from the state.

I am neutral in the nuclear debate. As a nurse in care of the elderly, I see the results of breathing air contaminated by fossil fuel burning. My final point is that all Chernobyl charities should be realistic, and tell it as it is”.


“There is no such thing as a ‘pro-nuclear environmentalist’,” says the US-based lobby group ‘Beyond Nuclear’. “Environmentalists don’t support extractive, non-sustainable industries like nuclear energy, which poisons the environment; releases cancer-causing radioactive elements and creates radioactive waste deadly for thousands of years”.

This was in response to a new documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, which charts the almost Pauline conversion of five well-known environmentalists from bitterly opposing to strongly advocating nuclear power. What’s most likely to get us into trouble, Mark Twain observed, is not what we don’t know, “it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so”.

There are few subjects on which so many people, from politicians to rock stars, NGOs and environmentalists passionately and confidently espouse views that are so completely at variance with observed reality as nuclear energy.

The cultural roots of this antipathy run deep. For instance, the iconic cartoon series, The Simpsons has been mercilessly lampooning nuclear power as corrupt and unsafe for over 20 years.

Still, after the which thousands of people reportedly died horribly, with hundreds of thousands more deaths and birth defects in the last quarter century, small wonder people are terrified. These fears spectacularly re-surfaced in Fukushima in March 2011.

Now, take a moment to re-read the previous paragraph. It sounds like the death knell for nuclear power; and it would be, were it true. Certainly, lobby groups from Greenpeace to Chernobyl Children International (CCI), have worked tirelessly to propagate this apocalyptic appraisal. The scientific evidence has been, to put it mildly, uncooperative.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) has extensively reviewed the evidence post-Chernobyl and concluded that total fatalities were around 50. Yes, 50. These were mainly among emergency workers, as well as a handful of fatal childhood thyroid cancers.

The greatest long-term threat to affected populations post-Chernobyl is not, Unscear found, from any epidemic of cancers or birth defects, but “widespread psychological reactions to the accident, which were due to fear of the radiation, not to the actual radiation doses”. People have been quite literally frightened to death by radiation scare stories.

The CCI website today carries photos of limbless children, which the charity clearly intends to portray as current victims of an ongoing epidemic of deformities. “In the first instance, there was no increase in birth defects, even in the affected regions. None. Zero”, according to cancer specialist Prof. John Crown. “The children whose deformities are highlighted by the charities did not get them as a result of radiation”.

Despite the Unscear report being by far the largest international medical and scientific review of the Chernobyl disaster, I failed to locate a single mention of it on the CCI website. As for Fukushima, a total of zero of the 19,000 or so fatalities from the earthquake and tsunami are accounted for by radiation.

Even accepting that fears of nuclear accidents have been grossly exaggerated, why risk it and instead simply concentrate on renewables and energy conservation? Having run the numbers, environmentalist Michael Shellenberger said in Pandora’s Promise: “I ended up feeling like a sucker. The idea that we’re going to replace oil and natural gas with solar and wind, and nothing else, is a hallucinatory delusion”.

This position has a powerful ally in Dr James Hansen of Nasa who has consistently urged for a radical decarbonisation of global energy supplies as our last shot at averting catastrophic climate change. While strongly supporting renewables, he adds: “it is not feasible in the foreseeable future to phase out coal unless nuclear power is included in the energy mix”.

A Nasa paper published in April pointed out that some 1.8 million lives have already been saved globally in recent decades where nuclear power has replaced fossil fuels. Ironically, fly ash produced by a coal burning plant like Moneypoint in Co. Clare emits around 100 times more radiation than a similar sized nuclear power plant. Globally, some 3,500 people a day, many aged under five, die as a result of breathing air contaminated by fossil fuel burning.

The ongoing gross misrepresentation of the risks and benefits of nuclear energy as a power source has perhaps been the single greatest factor stymying the development of ‘next generation’ technologies, including molten salt and pebble bed reactors that offer more efficient and much safer alternatives.

Prof David McKay of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change recently endorsed a novel solution for dealing with its problematic 100 tonnes of plutonium and 35,000 tonnes of depleted uranium wastes. Rather than being buried, this waste material could fuel a new generation of “fast breeder” reactors and provide enough zero-carbon energy to power Britain for up to 500 years.

McKay is adamant that such research is complementary, rather than a threat, to renewable technologies.

Pandora’s Promise throws down the gauntlet to set aside our preconceptions and come up with workable solutions on a massive enough scale to address the most dangerous crisis humanity has yet faced.

Famed environmentalist Bill McKibben accepts that nuclear must be part of any serious push towards zero-carbon, but admits being reluctant to say so in public as “it would split this movement”. And that is the nub of the matter.

Environmentalists have done such a thorough job of demonising nuclear energy that many now feel unable to retreat from these positions without serious loss of face. The roots of this hostility go back to the Cold War, where the environmental and anti-war movements converged in opposing nuclear weapons.

That battle is largely over, but humanity’s deadliest foe is now CO2. New threats will not be vanquished by repeating old slogans.

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

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Nuclear | 19 Comments

Ecological Ponzi scheme ignores natural capital

Below, my article, as it appears in today’s Irish Times:

AT THE weekend, I took a load of junk from the garden shed up to the local recycling centre. Use of the Ballyogan facility costs €30 per car. Of course, there are always cheaper options. I could have headed instead for the Dublin mountains, found a quiet spot, and dumped my detritus there instead. Moral scruples apart, the prospect of a €3,000 fine or a 12-month prison term tips the scales against a moonlight fly-tipping escapade.

The “polluter pays” principle is a concept most people accept as self-evidently reasonable. It is also a strong deterrent to excessively wasteful practices. Yet this is almost precisely the opposite of how the world’s major industries operate today.

This is hardly surprising. Deregulation and the globalisation of capital has made it easier than at any time in history for industries to maximise profits while washing their hands of the messy “externalities”.

It’s an axiom in business that what is not measured cannot be managed. And the world’s most egregious non-measurement is the impact on ‘natural capital’ of human activities. Natural capital is defined as ecological services such as clean water, biodiversity and a stable atmosphere, which businesses benefit from but, as these are “unpriced”, do not pay towards.

The UN’s Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB) commissioned a major report to quantify these, and the results are simply staggering. When economically costed, natural capital is being consumed, degraded or exhausted with a price tag of $7.3 trillion – annually. To grasp the enormity of this figure, it’s more than 100 times greater than the €64 billion the Irish government sunk into our toxic banks.

The study found that most of the world’s ‘high impact’ businesses are in fact hopelessly insolvent when the true costs are included. For example, coal-fired power generation in eastern Asia and the US generates $690 billion in annual revenues, but the environmental price tag is $768 billion – or more than $70 billion greater than the entire gross revenues.

Cattle ranching and farming in South America earns $16.6 billion a year, but its impacts run to $350 billion – or 19 times greater. Wheat and rice farming in southern Asia generate revenues of around $100 billion, but deplete $500 billion of natural capital in the process.

“We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP”, is how ethicist Paul Hawken famously described it. By far the biggest contributor to our annual overconsumption of natural capital is the emission of greenhouse gases. The study values the social cost of emitting one tonne of CO2 at $106. Annually, this comes to a whopping $2.7 trillion to account for present and future damages from climate change. Worryingly, the study actually excluded costing for “catastrophic events”. Depletion of global fresh water and land use contributes another $3.7 trillion in annual losses imposed by unsustainable business and agricultural practices.

The main focus of the TEEB study, ‘Natural capital at risk: the top 100 externalities of business‘ was to quantify the costs and risks for to investors, businesses and governments as these “external” costs begin to rebound and re-internalise in the shape of weather disasters, ecosystem collapses and spikes in global food prices.

“If unpriced natural capital costs are internalised, a large proportion would have to be passed on to consumers”, the report authors note. “The risk to agricultural commodity prices is particularly striking, where the costs are universally higher than the revenues of this sector”.

What this report has identified is in essence a global ecological Ponzi scheme that dwarfs even the 2008 financial bubble. The world economy, and by extension, our current and future prosperity, depends utterly on a functioning biosphere and a stable climate. Greenhouse gas reduction is expensive, but the cost of irreversible climate destabilisation is beyond calculation. Unsustainable business practices and the ideologies that sustain them may well be the greatest threat civilisation has ever faced.

The world’s top five hydrocarbon energy companies earn $375 million – every day – by privatising their profits while fly-tipping the risks onto humanity, including future generations. This cash purchases political acquiescence, science denial and media collusion. With great wealth comes epic hubris. Exxon Mobil’s CEO, Rex Tillerson dismisses the climate change his industry is fuelling as “an engineering problem”.

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

Posted in Biodiversity, Economics, Global Warming, Sustainability | 1 Comment