Out of the frying pan? A tumultuous decade draws to a close

The hottest month ever recorded on Earth occurred in July 2019, during what has been yet another year of record-shattering extremes. France was hit this summer by two ‘once-in-500-year’ heatwaves in rapid succession. Expect extreme weather to dominate the 2020s.

The most dramatic manifestation of this dangerous new world were the more than 80,000 fires that swept across the Amazon jungle this summer, destroying more than 2.2 million acres of forest. Meanwhile, massive blazes from Alaska to Greenland and Siberia burned millions more acres of boreal forests, in a vicious spiral of heating and fire begetting more fire and more heat.

At the beginning of October, Ireland braced for hurricane Lorenzo, the largest recorded storm ever to appear so far east in the north Atlantic. Just two years earlier, hurricane Ophelia became the worst storm to hit Ireland in over half a century.

Happily, Lorenzo failed to follow its projected path over Ireland. However, hurricanes aren’t supposed to be capable of reaching anywhere remotely near the west coast of Europe. Ireland’s chief climate vulnerability is to extreme flooding, and while there were few major domestic flooding events in 2019, a new European scientific study pointed to ‘a continent-wide pattern of changes in flooding in line with what we may expect in a warming world’.

Another thing heating up dramatically in 2019 was public awareness and anxiety about climate change and biodiversity collapse. The emergence of Swedish wunderkind Greta Thunberg as an international figure energised and mobilised millions around the world in a year that has seen the greatest number of people ever take to the streets demanding action on the climate crisis.

The first global school strike was called for March 15th, and upwards of 12,000 students flooded onto the streets of Dublin in a noisy, colourful gathering demanding that the adults in Leinster House start acting like grown-ups and take action.

Later that month, the joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA), chaired by Hildegarde Naughton TD, published its eagerly awaited report. Its work built on the much lauded Citizens Assembly climate recommendations, published in late 2017.

Knowing that politicians love to wax lyrical about targets in the distant future, JOCCA demanded that binding five-yearly carbon budgets be put in place, but this has yet to happen. The European Climate Foundation reviewed Ireland’s draft National Energy & Climate Plan (NECP) and gave it a poor 38% rating. While good on policy detail, it came up woefully inadequate on actual targets, achieving a shocking 5% score.

When announcing Budget 2020 in early October, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe described climate change as “without a doubt our defining challenge”. Carbon tax rose by €6 to €26 in the Budget – an increase reckoned to be high enough to annoy the public but far too low to trigger behavioural change. This will rise to €80 a tonne by 2030, a level at which it may begin to bite, but the question remains: who gets bitten?

Defining it may be, but there is still no inkling of political appetite for the kind of radical societal shift in energy, agriculture and transport needed to achieve decarbonisation by mid-century.

Climate action minister, Richard Bruton clearly has little support around the Cabinet table for any genuinely radical actions, especially those that might tread on the toes of the business and agri-industry lobbyists who hob-nob freely with senior Fine Gael figures.

In fact, they don’t even feel the need to be discreet; Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney were photographed in early March strolling to an international rugby match with IFA president Joe Healy and EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.

In many other countries, such blatant high-level political access by lobbyists would be verbotenbut here in Ireland shure it’s just the lads off to the match followed by a few pints and a bit of a chat, so what’s the harm? Oddly, the same revolving door of political access remains firmly shut in the face of the entire e-NGO sector.

Awkwardly for this government , fobbing off climate activists is getting harder by the week. As the Spring tide of student strikers receded, they were replaced by Extinction Rebellion activists, who have run a series of brazen but effective publicity stunts to keep the pressure on for climate action.

Any hope among the political classes that this storm of protest had blown itself out was extinguished with a second international school strike in September, this time drawing over 20,000 onto the streets of Dublin and thousands more across Irish cities and towns, with upwards of seven million strikers worldwide. Letting the future burn in favour of short-term gain may be profitable, but it is manifestly no longer all that popular.

May’s European elections brought a political dividend to the Greens, with Ciaran Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan picking up seats and newcomer, Saoirse McHugh putting in a creditable performance in the west. Whether this will translate into a bounty of Dáil seats will largely depend on the party’s ability to field quality candidates.

The publication in late October of the EPA’s emissions data for 2018 showed both agri and transport emissions continuing to rise. The launch at Hallowe’en by the Taoiseach of the first update to the Climate Action Plan was an opportunity to gauge the government’s thinking, and Leo did not disappoint.

Reading straight from the agri-industry’s Little Book of Fairytales, Varadkar parroted about Ireland ‘”feeding 50 million people” (this is utter nonsense; Ireland is a major net food energy importer, according to UN-FAO data), hinting darkly about having to “treat food production differently to the way we treat transport or electricity”. For anyone still in doubt, Varadkar has made it clear that the most important step to climate action in Ireland is to vote his government out asap.

While whooping it up with the farmers ahead of the election plays well locally for Fine Gael, Varadkar needed a green fig leaf for his recent UN speech in New York, and he pulled a stroke even a Healy-Rae would be proud of when announcing a ban on offshore oil (but not gas) exploration. Ireland, of course, never has and never will bring oil ashore, so his statement was deliciously Machiavellian.

The Climate Change Advisory Council unwisely advised government that gas could be used as a ‘transition fuel’ and this counsel was gleefully jumped on. Not content to keep drilling for gas, the government added a liquid natural gas (LNG) facility in Shannon to its EU list of Projects of Common Interest, a fast-track to funding and high-speed planning.

If offshore gas is bad, LNG imported from the US is much worse, as it’s the product of fracking and is actually significantly worse than even burning coal. The move sparked fierce opposition, including from the Incredible Hulk (aka actor Mark Ruffalo), who pointed out the huge damage done by fracking to poor families in Pennsylvania.

On the home front, an industry group called Renewable Gas Forum Ireland were touting emissions savings of over two million tonnes per annum for a slurry-to-biogas plan. The catch? They want annual subsidies of €116 million, or well over a billion a decade. And one of the big proposed uses of this new gas source? Producing milk powder to sell to Chinese and Saudi mums to help wean them off vulgar, old-fashioned breast milk.

More tree-huggers rushing to help battle climate change are Ibec’s Forest Industries Ireland (FII), a lobby group keen to make sure that as many of the government’s proposed 8,000 hectares of trees planted annually are fast-growing Sitka spruce. FII is under the impression that barren monocultures of Sitka are forests, even quoting David Attenborough, as if the famed naturalist might approve of these wildlife-free industrial timber wastelands.

However, my environmental hero award for of 2019 goes to Cement Roadstone Holdings, which successfully applied to convert the kiln at its Limerick plant from dirty fossil fuels to, um, animal carcasses, used tyres and plastics. The CRH eco warriors naturally argued that the move was really all about… cutting carbon emissions.

As 2019 draws to a close, it’s hard to believe that the Oireachtas actually declared a climate and biodiversity emergency back in May. The fact that only six deputies bothered to show up in the Dáil for this announcement suggested it was really just a bone to throw at the increasingly restive climate action movement.

And so it has come to pass. The lobbyists are more tightly embedded with government than ever before, while hard-core climate deniers like David Horgan of Petrel Resources still have the run of RTÉ current affairs shows, where they can spread disinformation with impunity.

Still, after years of systemic neglect, RTÉ’s Dee Forbes was embarrassed this year into ‘doing something’ about climate change, which it duly delivered in a creditable ‘Climate Week’ series of programmes in November. Just months earlier, all three panellists on Brendan O’Connor’s ‘Cutting Edge’ agreed that environmentalists were just “crusty hypocrites”.

Happily, the years of neglect bordering on hostility from Montrose towards climate science, are all forgotten, now that the national broadcaster has had its woke moment on climate. For now, at least.

And finally, as the COP25 conference in Madrid ended with a cop-out, with negotiators agreeing to disagree, then firmly kicking the can down the road all the way to Glasgow and COP26 next autumn, a recent report by fund management giants, Legal & General sees areas of the world currently home to up to 2 billion people being simply too hot to be habitable later this century.

“What we are likely to see, for the first time in human history, is parts of the world being so hot and so humid that human beings would not be able to survive for more than a few hours without access to air conditioning.” Put that one in your spreadsheet and suddenly the costs involved in maintaining a climate compatible with human (and animal) life don’t seem quite so onerous.

The EU was by some distance the best of a bad lot when it came to climate negotiations, with Trump’s thuggish populist demagoguery empowering others to also welch on their commitments, from Brazil to India, China and Australia (the latter, long known as the Lucky Country, may be fast running out of luck as soaring temperatures and raging wildfires cast a smoky shadow over this major coal exporter’s own continued existence in the longer term).

And, as this piece in the Verge put it, the 2010s was the decade that ‘climate change slapped us in the face’. Compared with what the 2020s has in store, this may come to seem like the mildest of rebukes.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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One Response to Out of the frying pan? A tumultuous decade draws to a close

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