It’s nine years to the week since my first posting on ThinkorSwim went live – on the last day of November 2007. It was, in many ways, a different world. The mood was radically different too. For starters, the Greens were in government, holding both the Environment and Energy & Communications portfolios. The needle was moving alright; you couldn’t quite see it but you could sense the palpable energy for change.
While not exactly mainstream, green was certainly in vogue. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report had been delivered earlier that year in a blaze of overwhelmingly positive publicity. The huge success of Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ a year earlier seemed to have struck a real chord with public and media alike. And the dismal failure of the Copenhagen Summit and the Climategate hoax were still two years in the future.
I kept a scrapbook that year of newspaper clippings, mostly from the Irish Times and Sunday Tribune, on climate-related coverage, and by late November, it was bulging. Expert contributors included the late great Dr Brendan McWilliams and of course the indefatigable Prof John Sweeney. The overall editorial tone was, viewed in hindsight, surprisingly serious and business-like. The contrarians and outright deniers were then rarely seen. They were, as it transpired, lying low as the prevailing tide swept a stream of positive coverage along.
Even better, from the tail end of 2007, the conclusion of the wretched two-term Bush presidency was in sight. And while Barack Obama was still at that time a relative ingénue, the public appetite for hope and change was building into a political tsunami that would sweep the corrupt, war-mongering and science-denying Republican Party from power in the US within the year.
My opening post was entitled ‘Wind of change finally reaches Ireland?’ and it focused on the launch of a Government climate communications strategy, which, unlike today, was not just pious ministerial waffle, but was backed up with hard cash, and plenty of it:
Gormley’s €15m climate awareness campaign kicks off in the new year, and is slated to run for two years. Let’s hope the money is well spent. There is a mountain of disinformation and ignorance (both wilful and genuine) out there to be scaled before this issue can be tackled in earnest. In simple terms, how can we mobilise people to solve a problem that many still don’t think even exists? From that standpoint, attacking public apathy and indifference and challenging the ‘business as usual’ mindset seems like the smartest move.
Of course, the Changenow.ie website is long gone, as is any coherent attempt on the part of government to actually offer leadership to the public on climate policy or communicating the need for climate action in the first place. This has made it easy for special interest groups, from Bord Na Mona to the IFA and IBEC, to drown out the (extremely limited) media space allocated to environmental affairs.
I gave a talk to a primary school 6th class a few days ago about environmental issues; one of this students earnestly asked me what was she and her fellow students were supposed to do – she said they heard nothing about this on the radio or TV, and next to nothing in her day-to-day life. Surely, she implored, “the adults should be telling us what to do, and helping to fix this problem right now!” In truth, I had no answer. In truth, we are bombarded hourly by a monsoon of advertising telling us that transport equals private cars and that shopping and travel are the well-worn paths to happiness and self-fulfilment.
It is an appalling betrayal of these children that our generation, not satisfied with wrecking the natural world and plunging into unpayable ecological debt along the way, won’t even have the decency to give them the information to make informed choices about the profoundly changed world that awaits them.
Back in 2007, both RTÉ and The Irish Times actually had full-time Environment corrs on staff, Paul Cunningham and Frank McDonald respectively, both serious reporters with a clear grasp of climate science and a good degree of status and editorial leeway within their respective organisations.
Fast forward to today. The Irish Times left the post go unfilled on McDonald’s retirement almost two years ago, and even locating the ‘Environment’ section on their otherwise excellent website requires serious sleuthing skills. As for RTÉ, the post was – eventually – filled by George Lee, who, despite having no background whatever, has done a creditable job getting up to speed on the Environment beat.
However, the powers-that-be in Montrose split his brief with the far higher profile Agriculture corr role. No prizes then for guessing where Lee is obliged to focus the bulk of his time and energies (when not flitting off to make TV series that indulges his true passion – interviewing people with loadza money).
Back in the tail end of 2007, few had any inkling of the economic chaos that was about to engulf Ireland and much of the world. As Ireland teetered on the brink of financial collapse, all longer-term thinking was scrapped in the scramble for solvency. First overboard went the fledgling strategic thinking on sustainability and energy security the Greens had smuggled into government earlier that year.
Obama’s election in November 2008 was, amid the gloom, a beacon that a better world was, after all, still possible. That light flickered and faded during his two terms, but it certainly remained on. Until, that is, the early morning of November 9th last, when, in a political calamity even more devastating than the Brexit fiasco earlier this year, the American public committed a form of collective hara-kiri.
In choosing demagogue Donald Trump, the world’s most powerful state has placed an unstable, dangerous kleptocrat and his crony network of racists, xenophobes, pirates and bigots at its controls. It is no exaggeration to say the only parallel to be made involves the Nazis’ power-grab via the levers of democracy between 1931-33.
The Wall Street crash of 1929 destabilised societies all over the world, including Germany, but the march of the fascists was, tragically, enabled by those who, for a host of reasons, chose to stand idly by. “The Communists openly announced that they would prefer to see the Nazis in power rather than lift a finger to save the republic”, wrote historian Alan Bullock. There was no one to lift a finger when the Nazis came to purge the Communists, and then so many more.
Many people, this writer included, were underwhelmed with Hillary Clinton as a potential US president. However, had I the opportunity to vote, I would have swam a mile at sea to ensure I cast a ballot in her favour. Given the clearly stated intent of her opponent to upend democracy, crush the free press, cosy up to tyrants around the world and abandon his allies to their fate, to do otherwise would have been to abet the likely destruction of democracy in America – and beyond.
Yet, vote suppression notwithstanding, that’s exactly what between 10 and 12 million of the citizens who supported Obama twice did when they stayed at home this time, leaving the field clear for a coup via the ballot box. Already, many are openly wondering if there will even be elections in 2020.
What are the odds of this vile administration concocting a latter-day Reichstag Fire as a cover for forcing through an emergency decree suspending the Constitution, outlawing all political opponents and shutting down the free media? If this sounds fanciful, bear in mind that Turkey’s democratically installed dictator, Recep Erdogan has shown how to get clean away with it, since suppressing a highly suspicious ‘coup’ earlier this year.
He has used this excuse to ruthlessly purge tens of thousands from the military, police, media, education, civil service and judiciary. Anyone, in other words, who might ever be able to stand up to a dictator. To believe this could never happen in America is to engage in precisely the kind of delusional reasoning that, up until November 8th, reassured us a thug like Trump was 100% unelectable.
Back in 2007, atmospheric CO2 levels had hit yet another all-time high, weighing in at just under 385ppm. This year, it’s well over 400ppm, and climbing inexorably, now at the rate of almost 3ppm every year. Humanity’s wriggle room for avoiding a calamitous +2C global average surface temperature increase has narrowed drastically, while the door has effectively slammed shut on any hopes of keeping below the +1.5C ‘guard rail’ referenced just last December at the Paris COP21 conference.
With annual human-caused emissions now running at between 35-40 billion tonnes, close to a third of a trillion additional tonnes of CO2 has been added to the global atmosphere since that first post just nine years ago. And all this, remember, with the scientific community screaming in our ears that we had no time to lose in rapidly peaking and then sharply cutting our carbon emissions. Failure to do so locks in an unstoppable climate calamity that will radically diminish the conditions of life on Earth for millennia to come.
World population back in 2007 stood at 6.6 billion. Another 800 million humans have been added since then: that’s the equivalent of the entire population of the EU and the USA. In the same period, over 700 million acres of the world’s rainforests have been torn down. As these unique habitats burn and fall to the plough, some 135 plant, animal and insect species are vanishing every day – that’s around 50,000 species a year, or nearly a half a million species in just the last nine years.
In reality, our monstrous assault against life itself shows little sign of abating. The climate deniers and contrarians have had a field day spreading truthiness and cherry-picking crumbs of data to befuddle and confuse long before Trump et al. took the art of lying with confidence and without consequence to the heart of the political system.
As if to deliver the coup de grace to the Age of Reason, Trump let it be known that he was considering shutting down NASA’s entire climate science programme. This would, at a stroke, tear out the eyes and block up ears of much the global scientific community, as NASA’s huge array of Earth-facing satellites are a primary source for much of what we know about the global climate system.
So, nine years, 303 blog posts and around 250 newspaper and magazine articles totalling somewhere north of 600,000 words later (a typical novel is some 80,000 words long, by way of comparison), what have I learned? First of all, I’m genuinely in awe of the scientists on the front line, especially those who do the tough, mainly thankless but absolutely critical ‘boring science’ of taking measurements, repeating, checking, and then checking again.
Next, as a journalist looking at this from the outside, I am beyond appalled at the flood of disingenuous rubbish put out by armchair experts and keyboard pundits suggesting some vast conspiracy among practising climatologists in pursuit of grants or glory is so much at odds with the reality of the lives of senior scientists.
When you consider how personally stressful so many scientists find coping with the shocking reality of what their work actually means for us all, having to also fend off the shills, egoists and knuckle-draggers must add hugely to their burden.
I wonder how long cossetted propagandists like James Delingpole would last doing actual work, like collecting samples of penguin shit on ice floes, or retrieving weather data from a station up the side of a mountain. Or squeezing between shifting icebergs in rubber boats, or doing lab work on a research vessel as it pitches back and forth in heavy seas; putting in 16-hour shifts to get the work done while the window of opportunity presents. (for a brilliant account of the day-to-day realities of climate science, I’d recommend Meredith Hooper’s book, ‘The Ferocious Summer’, published back in 2007).
Day after day, year after year, the scientific community does the largely thankless, unseen work of bringing basic facts to the rest of us. It can hardly be blamed if, armed with ample physical evidence, we still fail to act. Without them, we would be not-so-blissfully ignorant of the crisis that now threatens to engulf humanity in an existential predicament without precedent and, ultimately, perhaps, without a happy ending.
Maybe my single take-home is that climate change is tough to tackle, but ultimately nowhere nearly as tough as human change. In the words of the great naturalist, EO Wilson, “change will come slowly, across generations, because old beliefs die hard even when demonstrably false”.
Our tragedy, and the great tragedy for our living planet is that this is time we no longer have.