What next for the apes who went to space?

I have no idea where I was on the night of July 20-21, 1969, being far too young to grasp the historic events that were unfolding, as Apollo 11 became the first spacecraft to land humans on a world other than our own. It was, in every sense over my head, albeit in this instance by a good one third of a million kilometres.

In its specially extended coverage, RTE television was still on air at the then-scandalous hour of 3.56am on July 21st as Neil Armstrong took those famous first steps onto the surface of the moon. The RTE Guide, in its edition dated July 18, 1969, featured four solid pages detailing its planned radio and TV coverage of the monumental event.

The usual domestic news stories were swept from the editorial agendas as the dramatic story of Apollo 11’s eight-day journey to the moon gripped audiences around the world. I don’t know what the 1969 version of the water-metering saga was, but even a political soap opera on this scale would surely have been swept away in the dizzy excitement of Apollo 11.

Back then, scientists really were virtually rock stars – presidents and prime ministers listened to and – as often as not – acted under the guidance of the great scientific institutions, be they Nasa and the AAAS in the US, or the UK Royal Society.

Politicians and the media still argued furiously about how best to respond to given scientific findings, but only the truly bone-headed and marginal argued about the facts themselves. The 1969 moon landing was an astonishing triumph for science in its most literal sense, i.e. scientia, the Latin for knowledge. An insatiable thirst to better understand our world had actually propelled one insatiably inquisitive species of higher primates all the way from the African savannah to our neighbouring moon – and back.

A curious side-effect of Nasa’s space programme was that it offered us, for the first time, clear images of Earth as a small blue sphere cradled against the ink-black infinity of space. A famous photo known as ‘Earthrise’ was taken by a crew member of Apollo 8 on December 24th, 1968, the first vessel to complete a lunar orbit. From this new perspective, our limitless world suddenly appeared finite, delicate, yet exquisitely precious – the merest blue smudge in the Cosmos.

Less than two years later, 20 million people took to the streets of America for the first Earth Day, in April, 1970. That massive direct action shook up the political classes and, sensing the new zeitgeist, Republican US president, Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into being in December of that year.

For a long moment in the early 1970s, it really seemed that humanity’s relationship with the natural world might, for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution, be placed on a sustainable trajectory. This would mean awakening to the reality of our place within the living world, not as its master but its child, entirely dependent for our well being, our prosperity and our very lives, on the only known biosphere for a trillion kilometres in any direction.

The influential book ‘Limits to Growth’ was published in 1972, having been commissioned by a think tank known as The Club of Rome. It was chillingly prescient:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

What the authors could not have foreseen back then was not just that growth trends would continue, but that they would in fact ramp up sharply, along an exponential curve, especially since the late 1990s, when vast countries like China and India began the most rapid spurt of industrialization in human history.

Fast forward some 45 years from the moon landings to another historic day: November 12, 2014. On this day, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta reached the comet known as 67P/C-G, a roughly 3-by-5 km chunk of rock (first detected in the year of the moon landing, 1969) last August.  Rosetta has travelled some 6.4 billion km since it blasted off in 2004 – the mission has cost around 1.4 billion euros – if you think that sounds like a lot, it’s less than a quarter of what our government pumped into just one rotten institution – Irish Nationwide – after the banking collapse.

Comets are flying time capsules, fragments that pre-date the formation of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago, so they offer us unique opportunities to better understand our own planetary origins, including tantalising clues as to the origins of life on Earth, as well as possibly trapping ancient organic molecules. I herded the kids into the living room just ahead of 9pm RTE main evening news, so they could see coverage of this truly amazing story. We waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Gerry Adams, water protesters, Ivor Callely, Ian Bailey, the 1916 commemorations were among the ‘top stories’ that filled the screen.

Not one of them was in any sense ‘new’; all have been rumbling along for days or even weeks. Nor did the bulletin offer any particularly notable advances on any of these stories. Eventually, after around 14 minutes, RTE News carried a piece, running to two minutes and 15 seconds. You couldn’t fault correspondent Will Goodbody’s report, but the same cannot be said for the rabbits who are operating the editorial levers in Montrose.

Wondering if I was simply losing my marbles about the significance of this story, I switched over to the BBC’s flagship TV news bulletin at 10pm, where, sure enough, it was the lead item, with the entire opening segment of almost six minutes dedicated to its coverage. Ditto for CNN and Sky News.

To recap: Rosetta is probably the biggest astronomy story since Apollo 11. Yes, the Mars Rover was another technological triumph, but chasing Comet 67P/C-G for billions of kilometres across the solar system and finally successfully intercepting with and then landing a probe on a rock hurtling along at over 50,000 km per hour, is one of those truly rare moments when science fact brilliantly eclipses even science fiction.

The triumph of the Rosetta mission shows how cutting edge science, enabled by ever more powerful computing resources, has continued to advance in the last four decades. Compare and contrast this latest titanic achievement with the media caricature of science being a disconnected series of random events and ever-changing ‘evidence’ and scientists a bunch of self-serving chancers who make stuff up to get research grants.

This incident also brought it forcefully home that, apart from being uninterested in science, just how entirely provincial the outlook of Ireland’s national media really is, whatever its pretentions to the contrary might be.

This point was hammered home the following morning, when our Newspaper of Record relegated the comet landing to the inside pages. If on the other hand Roy Keane is spotted out walking his dog, well hold the front pages! George Bernard Shaw once mockingly described a newspaper as being an institution unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation. It doesn’t seem quite so far fetched a put-down now.

Cast your mind back a couple of weeks, to Sunday, November 2nd and the launch of the IPCC’s AR5 Synthesis Report. This was the Big One, pulling together the main threads of its findings, while weeding out some climate policy trolls (most notably the pseudo-scientific Panglossian hokum pedalled by one Prof Richard Tol) along the way.

To its credit, RTE did a fine job that day, leading its 6pm and 9pm bulletins, with environment correspondent George Lee leaving viewers in no doubt that as to the gravity of this report (I was interviewed by Lee for the bulletin wearing my An Taisce climate change committee hat).

Within 24 hours, the story was a dead letter as far as the Irish media was concerned. It didn’t make a line on the front page of the next day’s Irish Independent, with the Irish Times managing a meagre 2” single column front page piece. By Tuesday, it was business-as-usual, as the Independent’s knuckle-dragger-in-chief penned his latest piece of bilious anti-science twaddle.

In what I can only assume is a desperate search for attention, the author (who confuses being able to type with being able to write) plumbs the sewers of journalism every time he mentions climate change. The irony here is that the Indo’s actual environment corr, Paul Melia, seems to really know his stuff, but get precious little editorial space, while the poo-flinging Ian O’Doherty is promoted, presumably to serve as Daily Mail style click-bait.

When it isn’t conducting intricate manoeuvres with probes half a billion kilometres away, the European Space Agency is, along with its US counterpart, Nasa, at the bleeding edge of research into climate change. Both agencies deploy satellites to take a range of ultra-precise ongoing measurements of ‘the home planet’, from assaying atmospheric CO2 to sea level and ice thickness measurements.

Measuring and understanding the vital functions of a dynamic living biosphere and its ever-changing weather systems involves as phenomenally complex collaborative science as guiding Rosetta across the Solar System to rendezvous with comet 67P/C-G. Curious how as soon as the same scientists who deliver mind-boggling breakthroughs such as the Rosetta mission apply their expertise to measure the degree to which Earth systems are being impacted by climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, glacial ice loss, sea level rise, extreme weather events and widespread pollution, they are suddenly cast as cranks, alarmists and venial grant-seekers who’ll say anything for a couple of hundred euros. Like a certain kind of hack, come to think of it.

Well, that’s what the poo-flingers would have us believe anyhow. Personally, if forced to choose between believing the semi-literate babbling of neoliberal fantasists and the collective expertise and data sets of the world’s scientific institutions, frankly, it’s really not such a tough call.

I was interviewed on Monday’s RTE Drivetime (clip starts around 00.49) about the report. The interviewer asked me straight off the bat whether the IPCC’s findings could in fact be trusted. Seriously. Had he been tuning in, George Lee would probably have been pulling his remaining hair out in tufts. In the movie Groundhog Day, it’s always February 2nd, and nobody ever remembers anything about the day, no matter how many times the hapless weatherman, Phil Connors has to endure it.

As far as the media coverage of climate change is concerned, it’s always February 2nd, and the story is inevitably handled with the same eyebrow-lifted surprise and scepticism. Perish the thought that somebody might open their eyes wide enough and stay focused for long enough to realise: ‘holy crap, this is real, it’s happening, we’re stuffed, and absolutely everything I know, everything I’ve learned and pretty much everything I care about is either irrelevant or dead wrong’.

Not many people, especially media people, are queuing up for a cold shower epiphany like that. But, as the IPCC has laboured to warn us, the “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” of climate change are coming our way, ready or not, and, it appears, sooner than we feared.

*Hat-tip to Prof Brian Cox for inspiring the title of this post.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Another Fine (Gael) mess on climate change

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has in the last week or so taken political recklessness and cynicism to new lows. History may judge that he did more than any other politician of his generation to destroy the future of Irish agriculture. In attempting to dodge Ireland’s responsibility for dealing with climate change, An Taoiseach is also flying in the face of the scientific evidence that confirms that the greatest threat to Irish agriculture is not the regulations dealing with climate change, but climate change itself, to which agriculture is almost uniquely vulnerable.

A 2013 report, authored by Dr Stephen Flood of NUI Maynooth (‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’ – this report was formally launched by Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney) states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output”.

Enda Kenny over the last week expended valuable diplomatic capital in Europe attempting to argue why Ireland should be exempted from shouldering its fair share of the burden of the rapid and immediate decarbonisation that science says is now critical if the most severe impacts of climate destabilisation are to be avoided.

Barely four weeks ago, the same Mr Kenny, addressing the UN Climate Summit in New York, demanded that world leaders show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in responding to climate change. Given the extreme urgency of the crisis, Mr Kenny added solemnly: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste…Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response. We are all interdependent and interconnected … we share a common humanity… and each of us must play our part.”

In less than a month, Mr Kenny appears to have suffered the political equivalent of a lobotomy – in September, climate change is the world’s greatest crisis, and “courage and consistency” is needed in dealing with this “stark reality”. And in October, the same Mr Kenny warned that Ireland would be “screwed” if it attempted to comply with emissions reductions targets it has already signed up to.

It’s a surprisingly short journey from demanding conviction, clarity, courage and consistency to espousing cowardice, cynicism, cute hoorism and chicanery.

According to the October version of An Taoiseach: “It would not be feasible to have targets set that are completely impractical for a country like Ireland. Targets, indeed, that were set and that were agreed by the administration before this one, for 2020, were based on different variations of information that does not stand up…but I don’t want whatever administration or whatever government is in office in Ireland from 2020 to 2030 to be completely screwed by virtue of a wrong base upon which targets were set originally for 2020.”

Mr Kenny’s conversion to the IFA position on climate change appears to follow closely the path taken by his cabinet colleague, agriculture minister, Simon Coveney. When in opposition, Coveney spoke passionately in public about the need for binding, no-excuses climate legislation, stating publicly that what he had read about the science of climate change “sent shivers down my spine”. Back in 2008, Coveney described climate change as “Ireland’s challenge – and we need to meet it”. More recently, Minister Coveney said that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”.

It is easy to understand why public trust in politicians and the political process is now at such a low ebb. Given the scale and gravity of the global ecological and climate crisis, it has never been more vital that we our politicians break free from the lobbyists and spin doctors and exercise principled leadership guided by scientific evidence, not polling data. (for a quick recap on what FG, pre-election, said they would do on climate change, click here).

During his inauguration speech in 1961, as the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear conflagration, president John F. Kennedy said: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Hilariously, Enda Kenny had the temerity to quote JKF in his New York speech, when saying: “President Kennedy reminded us over 50 years ago that we all live on the same planet, we all breathe the same air, and we are all mortal. These words are still true.” If JFK were alive today, he might well wonder what planet Kenny et al do in fact inhabit.

Today, the stakes are every bit as high as in the darkest days of the Cold War, yet all Ireland’s political leaders can offer are weasel words in public while doing highly damaging deals with powerful vested interests like the IFA in private.

Politicians like Mr Kenny and Mr Coveney appear to be prepared to put the safety and security of every citizen of Ireland at grave risk while also jeopardising the future of Irish agriculture in pursuit of a quick buck from ‘Harvest 2020’ – gains that, as the NUIM study confirms, will be quickly reversed as climate destabilisation yields the bitterest of harvests.

Mr Kenny is right: the clock is ticking. He and his government are on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history and are engaged in a monumentally misguided and foolish policy. As the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) put it: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do. Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk”.

Dithering and further delaying action displays just how profoundly out of touch the Irish government is with the state of science on climate change, and calls into question the calibre of scientific advice it is receiving – or responding to. Kenny and Coveney appear to believe Ireland can free-load on the efforts of other countries to address runaway climate disruption, while we continue a policy of ratcheting up our emissions from agriculture and transport in particular in pursuit of growth-led prosperity.

Environment Minister, Alan Kelly is clearly fully on board with this policy. In a press release last week, he bragged: “Having met two weeks ago with outgoing climate change Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, I made it clear that Ireland would not be signing up to any future targets that would be unachievable”. And in a paragraph that reads like it was drafted in Farm Centre, Kelly added: “I am on record as stating that the 2020 targets were unrealistic and unachievable and that did not take into account Ireland’s dependence on agriculture or the fact that we have one of the most climate-friendly agricultural systems in the world.”

The Irish government’s disavowal of its sovereign responsibility to step up to the mark on addressing climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence that this is a vital strategic national interest, is a grossly immoral and inequitable position, and one that does untold damage to Ireland’s reputation as a good faith actor in international negotiations.

I honestly thought the electoral obliteration of Fianna Fail in 2011 must signal an end to the gombeen era in Irish politics, and would usher in a new phase of more responsible, accountable and transparent leadership, and a lowering of public tolerance for sleevenism. More fool me.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 18 Comments

Which to choose: bare-knuckle capitalism – or a habitable world?

I finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything just as a major study by the WWF confirmed that, in a mere four decades, more than half of the wild animals on Earth had been wiped out. From the time I was in primary school to today, life on Earth has been impoverished more rapidly than at any time in the last 65 million years.

The calculus used to measure this is known as the Living Planet Index. It might be more accurately called the Dying Planet Index.

Humanity’s relationship with almost all life on Earth can be defined as extractavist – a phrase used repeatedly by Klein, in her sweeping, angry polemic against the rapidly unfolding madness of one species run amok in the world, destroying everything in its ever-expanding path.

Klein made her name in 1999 with No Logo, a withering assault on the hidden underbelly of the global brand business – the sweatshops, the crooked trade deals and the structural violence of the rich against the poor. This time, however, it’s personal. A neophyte to climate change, Klein admits to only having really tuned into it as an issue as recently as 2009.

She is, however, a quick learner and in the last five years, it has gone from being fodder for her next book to the awful realisation contained in the book’s title: climate change does indeed change everything – and truly understanding this issue inevitably changes you. “I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure…but I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it”.

Having, like Klein, come from an entirely non-environmental background, and slowly, reluctantly, coming to realise the true import of climate change, I could personally relate to her initial desire to look the other way, and simply tune out this avalanche of ecological bad news. “Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right”

As a society, as a civilisation, our response thus far has been about as nuanced as curling, child-like, into a ball and hoping it will just go away. “All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes”.

We’ve become truly accomplished at both understanding and ignoring climate change. In the 24 years since international climate negotiations began in earnest, global CO2 emissions have risen by 61%. Crisis, what crisis? I vividly remember watching on in horror as the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit ended in bitter failure. The Irish Times was one of 55 major newspapers that, in December 2009, ran a joint editorial urging – demanding – that world leaders grasp this last ditch opportunity to avert calamity. One month later, the same paper ran an editorial complaining about the severe cold snap and wondering aloud if global warming wasn’t all just a big ol’ hoax after all.

From the ashes of disaster, sprung clarity. “I have come to think of that night (in Copenhagen) as the climate movement’s coming of age: it was the moment the realisation truly sank in that no one was coming to save us”, writes Klein. After all the guff and rhetoric, this emerged from the ruins of Copenhagen: “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life”.

Klein spares some of her harshest critique for Big Green, namely those multi-million dollar environmental organisations, specifically the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) and the Nature Conservancy. Hilariously, it turns out that the latter actually operates its own oil wells, while the EDF regularly partners with Big Energy and helps it sell the myth that shale gas can be a ‘bridge’ to a mythological renewables-powered future (Klein’s own rejection of nuclear energy as proven low-carbon technology is argued with little conviction and sounds to this observer more like a sop to her readership than a strongly held position).

Klein lambastes the various ingenious schemes, from emissions trading to carbon offsets, many backed by Big Green, that have given the illusion of action while achieving precisely nothing. In its early days, the unofficial slogan of the EDF was “sue the bastards”, and it and other groups enjoyed dramatic successes on a range of environmental issues. Latterly, the joke goes, the new EDF slogan is “creating markets for the bastards”.

Under the leadership of business-friendly Fred Krupp, the EDF ballooned 40-fold from an annual budget of $3 million to $120 million. With the cash rolling, the emphasis for Big Green was developing industry-friendly “solutions” to the obliteration of the planet and the wrecking of our climate system (‘green growth’ is a particular favourite). Anything, in other words, as long as it didn’t fundamentally challenge the neoliberal narrative.

“The refusal of so many environmentalists to consider responses to the climate crisis that would upend the economic status quo forces them to place their hopes in solutions… that are either so weak or so high-risk that entrusting them with our collective safety constitutes what can only be described as magical thinking”, Klein opines.

There should be a special place in hell reserved for cuddly, lovable Virgin chief Richard Branson, who, to huge acclaim, announced in 2006 his commitment to invest $3 billion to develop ‘greener’ fuels for his gas-guzzling airline fleet. His epiphany was Al Gore’s Powerpoint presentation: “As I sat there and listened to Gore, I saw that we were looking at Armageddon.”

Behind the crocodile tears for the future, Branson’s real message was: forget regulations, leave it to industry to innovate and solve climate change! And sure enough, the $3 billion evaporated as the new airline routes expanded. Waiting for telegenic messiahs like Branson or techno-optimists like Bill Gates to lead us out of the ecological wasteland their fortunes are helping create is delusional in the extreme.

Geoengineering is starting to surface in polite circles as our best hope for dealing with the symptoms of climate change, without of course troubling ourselves to actually address the causes. “The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves”, says Klein. Fiddling with untestable global ‘climate management’ schemes is simply an extension of the hubris that brought us to this dire predicament.

In the words of environmental author Kenneth Brower: “The notion that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behaviour”.

Neither Big Green, nor Big Energy (or the political process it has captured) can save us from the unfolding cataclysm that is the Sixth Extinction, which daily gathers pace and steadily builds towards its furious denouement. Change, Klein observes, is coming, ready or not. Whether this begets more barbarism and profiteering or a wider social change that recognises neoliberal growth-obsessed capitalism as a tragic aberration depends on how we react now, in the time that remains.

Klein offers the example of the abolition of slavery as perhaps the best recent analogue for the rapid dismantling of an entire economic system. The slave-driven economic model didn’t end because it wasn’t successful; it ended when it lost its social sanction to operate.

If there is to be hope in challenging a system that seems bent on destroying the living world and everything in it, it must be along similar ground. “We will win by asserting that such (economic) calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation”, Klein concludes.

– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
This article was published in ‘Village‘ magazine 

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Clowns to left, jokers to the Right, stuck in middle with George

This may not be a news flash to most people, but science is hard. Really, really hard. Just how tough was brought home when I recently attended an international congress on multiple sclerosis (MS). The event brought together some 8,000 senior researchers academics and medical specialists from all over the world to spend several frenetic days attending symposia, reviewing poster presentations and debating controversies and advances in our understanding of the disease.

MS is a progressive inflammatory neurological disease. Much is known about the condition, but nature yields its secrets grudgingly, and lots remain unresolved. However, as science advances, more and more incorrect ideas are tested and then discarded, leaving medics and researchers with the least wrong version of reality. That’s how science advances, be it in medicine, technology or, for that matter, climate science.

The conference took place in Boston, home of the original 18th century Tea Party, but it occurred to me that what was missing were the counter-protests by the ‘MS is a hoax’ brigade, those who insist that the scientific research is purely driven by personal greed and ego, or is entirely manipulated by pharma companies and is fundamentally corrupt and its output is junk science.

In the view of the anti-MS folks, someone who develops this crippling disease would be far better off at home with a couple of jars of homeopathic remedies and a nice vapour rub than all these new-fangled intravenous corticosteroids and assorted interferons.

Yes, some scientists are egotists, and some doctors are arrogant asses. Yes, Big Pharma is profit-driven, yet only an utter fool facing a diagnosis of MS would turn his back on the immense strides in disease understanding and treatment in recent years and decades in favour of quack remedies, no matter how ‘natural’ they may claim to be. By and large we trust medical scientists, for no better reason than we simply do not have enough expertise ourselves to either confirm or refute the ‘consensus’ conclusions.

That doesn’t mean slavish obedience. There is still plenty of room for questions, just not the really, really stupid questions that just waste everyone’s time. It may sound offensive to suggest we have no choice but to trust experts, but it’s true nonetheless. Every time you use the internet, a smartphone, get onto an aircraft, swallow a pill or drive across a bridge, you are putting your trust – or even your life – completely in the hands of countless thousands of anonymous experts.

Modern society is far too complex for any one person to develop hyperspecialism in more than a tiny handful of areas. Even within such a seemingly narrow field as MS, there is a vast spectrum of sub-divided expertise, with teams focusing separately on fields from disease biomarkers and MRI imaging to PET scanning and autoimmune disorders. High science is also highly competitive – new ideas are rigorously challenged and ruthlessly dispatched if they fail to withstand repeated scrutiny. Does pharma money influence this process? Undoubtedly, but while the medical profession and industry may have quite different motives, they are bound by a shared objective of delivering better patient outcomes, and so the painstaking process of medical discovery and innovation rumbles along relatively well.

What if, on the other hand, the streets of Boston had been clogged with angry protesters decrying medical corruption, what if Fox News and the Wall Street Journal were demonising the medics who attended the conference and endless MS denier blogs were restating a set of well-rehearsed talking points to bring the science of neurology into disrepute, while harassing and making legal and personal threats against the researchers?

Yet, despite all the uncertainties, despite the many research cul de sacs encountered, despite the various areas of disagreement between leading experts in the field, this branch of science and its practitioners isn’t dragged through the mud on a daily basis. Why? Quite simply, it’s because it doesn’t threaten, by dint of its findings, to upscuttle the world’s political and economic status quo.

In contrast with the relatively narrow field of neurology, climate science is a behemoth, drawing on scores of specialist fields across the physical sciences with physicists, biologists, chemists, meteorologists, computer modellers, systems specialists and many more besides. The work is unfathomably complex, even to most insiders.

For all its well-advertised shortcomings, the IPCC has managed the near-impossible task of synthesising and unifying the most relevant findings from across this vast spectrum of scientific endeavour and drawing conclusions in its Summary for Policymakers that even you and I can, if we are so minded, clearly grasp with no more than an hour or two of close attention. That is no mean achievement.

The five massive IPCC Assessment Reports published over the last 22 years build up into an ominous catalogue of a rapidly evolving global crisis. With every report, the margins of uncertainty diminish as the full scale of our climate imbroglio becomes ever clearer. It’s worth repeating that the basic science of climate change, and the fact that it poses a unique threat to life on Earth, has been well understood for at least half a century. In 1965, president, Lyndon Johnson told the US Congress: “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Since these scary scenarios were still, at that time, safely in the distant future, politicians and industry joined hands in making soothing noises about being ready and determined to act…at some indefinite future point, long after they were safely retired, of course.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the UN Climate Summit in New York earlier this week. His attendance among 130 or so world leaders was of course welcome. The flatulent ooze that emanated from his speech, less so. The world needs to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in its response to climate change, according to a Taoiseach who has displayed precisely none of the above on this issue in his first three years in office. The blather continued: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste.” Back in 2009, then Taoiseach Brian Cowen told a UN conference in the same building in New York that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. He then flew home and did… nothing, just like Enda assuredly will this time.

While our Taoiseach was sounding off in downtown Manhattan, closer to home NewsTalk thought the Climate Summit an opportunity to re-run that hoary old chestnut called: ‘is climate change for real?’ Their vehicle to channel this nonsense is motormouth US radio presenter and Tea Bagger Michael Graham, who has a weekly teapot-stirring slot on The Right Hook. (Shortly before becoming president, Michael D. Higgins engaged in a public debate with Graham, and famously lambasted him as “a wanker” – the audio clip has been accessed over 2 million times on YouTube).

Screenshot 2014-09-28 20.39.58


NewsTalk asked me to ‘debate’ the issue with Graham and I decided it was better to engage than to cede the floor. It’s a tactic many on the environmental side of the argument would strongly disagree with, but we must each make our own decisions, depending on the circumstances.

As Graham began rolling out some standard denier speaking points and straw man arguments, the slightly wicked thought occurred to me that, rather than trying to battle each talking point to a confused standstill, might it not be more revealing to find out what Graham actually understood about the science he was noisily dissing.

When I stated that global average surface temperatures could rise by a catastrophic 4C this century, Graham audibly and repeatedly scoffed at this preposterous notion (the not-so-Leftist World Bank’s own report, here, says we’re bang on track for +4C this century) so, I asked him instead if he knew what the global average surface temperature actually currently is? Long pause, followed by no, he was forced to admit, he had no idea.

Once knocked off his script, Graham’s complete lack of even the most basic understanding of the science shone through. And, as the guy used to dishing it out, he was not taking this very well at all. Graham then rolled out the latest denier meme about there being no global warming since the early 1990s, something, apparently, that all those IPCC reports and models ‘failed to predict’.

The global warming ‘pause’ myth has been debunked countless times. But rather than try to explain the mechanics of how heat is transferred from the earth’s surface and atmosphere to the deeper oceans (“when you’re explaining, you’re losing”) I reversed the question and asked Graham if he could tell me how many of the hottest years on the instrumental record (i.e. since 1850) have occurred since 2000? (um, no he couldn’t).

Obviously, if ‘warming has stopped’, you would reasonably expect there wouldn’t be a cluster of record-breakingly hot years to be found since 2000.  The folks over at the US NOAA keep global instrumental records, and their Top 10 hottest years ever globally are, in descending order: 2010, 2005, 1998, 2013, 2003, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2007, 2004 and 2012. That’s quite some ‘pause’ alright.

Graham got his foot stuck firmly in his mouth when I challenged him, repeatedly, to defend this ‘warming pause’ line in the face of irrefutable instrumental evidence, so he switched instead to wondering aloud how come, given the colossal amounts of CO2 being ejected into the atmosphere annually, temperatures aren’t rising even faster? (a reasonable question, as it happens; the IPCC have it covered).

I then asked Graham if he had any idea how long a typical molecule of CO2 persists in the atmosphere as a heat-trapping agent? (see further down for the detailed answer) “Uh, ah, I don’t know, and you don’t know”, was his reply. When pressed further, he added: “what I know are the thermometers, that’s what I know, and the thermometers aren’t reading the way the IPCC said they would read….” Et ecetera, et cetera. I’ll put this one down to genuine ignorance on Graham’s part.

The problem with carbon emissions is their persistence, at least as much as their volume. “Carbon dioxide emissions and their associated warming could linger for millennia”, according to a report in Nature Climate Change, in an article headlined ‘Carbon is Forever’. For every 100 molecules of CO2 released into the atmosphere today, it takes between 20-200 years for 65-80% of them to be drawn down, principally into the oceans. The remaining 20-45% will persist in the atmosphere, trapping heat for many thousands of years into the future.

Anyone familiar with the exponential function will be aware that cumulative problems (like atmospheric CO2) tend, well, to accumulate. And they get very big, very quickly. This year’s 35-40 billion tonnes joins last year’s, and the last 50 years’ emissions in ratcheting up temperatures (and acidifying the world’s oceans in the process – this WMO report confirms ocean acidification now at its fastest rate in 300 million years). (please note my sources here: peer-reviewed papers from top specialist journals and an official report from an international science agency, not links to fact-free ‘news’ reports in the Daily Mail).

The debate ran on for a full 20 minutes. I don’t know Michael Graham personally, but he sounded mightily unhappy by the time George Hook brought proceedings to a close. It may even have been keeping him from his sleep. And sure enough, at 5.15am the following morning, he posted this 1,280-word riposte, complete with my mug shot, with the catchy heading: ‘Shouldn’t an “environmental journalist” know more about science than a dopey talk show host?”.

Screenshot 2014-09-28 21.29.41

Here, Graham engages in faux humility, with his aw schucks folks, why did he have to beat up on poor ol’ me line. He adds to the guy-next-door effect with: “But I’m sure that in the heat of an ad libbed radio debate I got some stuff wrong too.” That is putting it mildly.

By paragraph 3, I’ve been lumped in, inevitably, with “climate zealots”. Para 4 sees a long-since corrected typo in a supporting document to the 2007 AR4 report (Himalayan melt by 2350, not 2035) being wheeled out. Again.

Blogging in the middle of the night is never a great idea. Graham opens strongly, by accusing me of being “wrong during our debate on specific, glaring facts, like the warmest year on record…” Now that’s a zinger – if he’s right. According to Graham, 1934 was the warmest year on record. If you check the NOAA list above, you’ll note 1934 does not appear anywhere in the global top 10. 1934 was the warmest year in the US, alright, but the US accounts for 2% of the surface of the Earth. The source Graham links to for this, Bloomberg, is accurate. It says: ‘NASA has revised climate data to show 1934 as the hottest year on record in the US, ousting 1998…’. Graham was so busy copy-n-pasting he failed to notice the phrase “in the US”. Oh dear, this is what happens when you double down on dumb.

A caller to The Right Hook asked if Al Gore hadn’t said the Antarctic would be melted by 2013 (this, of course, is nonsensical). In 2008, after the record-breaking drop in Arctic sea ice extent in 2007, Al Gore did indeed suggest that, if that rate of decline were to continue, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer within 10 years. He may or may not be right about the precise timing, but he’s on the money about the clear trajectory of Arctic collapse.

For the record, Al Gore is not a climate scientist, but he is entirely correct to be raising alarm about the ongoing disastrous retreat of Arctic sea ice (2014 is the 6th lowest summer extent on record) so quite what point Graham was trying to make in his midnight ramblings, I’m still unclear. Graham’s blog is full of hyperlinks, but when you follow them, it’s t o the usual denier factory sources, including the Daily Mail, Wattsupwiththat and Murdoch’s business rag, the once-respected Wall Street Journal.

Graham name-checked the IPCC numerous times in his radio interview. I searched in vain on his blog post to find a single reference that links to a primary scientific source, such as NASA, the IPCC itself, NOAA, NSIDC etc. Not one. Instead, he quotes serial liars like the disgraced ex-bank chief Matt Ridley to prop up his piece. And of course, everyone’s favourite eco-spoofer, Bjorn Lomborg gets a link too.

Graham explains: “Notice the embedded links for my information. Notice they aren’t “IHateLiberals.com”  I’m reporting what organizations like the New York Times, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal have reported.  Mr. Gibbons will point you to other sources. Who’s right? What’s really going on? Don’t take my word, or the word of the oddly uniformed “journalist.” Just think for yourself”.

That is excellent advice, and a pity Mr Graham couldn’t take it on board himself. I checked back over his blog to find the New York Times and BBC links he described above. They’re not there (I did warn earlier about the hazards of blogging in the middle of the night). The “other sources” I will point you to are, whenever possible, primary scientific sources. Graham will never point you to a primary source, mainly, I imagine, because he doesn’t use them, preferring instead to re-heat myths cooked up by serial dissemblers like David Rose .

Having already given an on-air masterclass in how poorly he understands climate science, Graham took to his blog to drive this point home: “Greenhouse gases (including water vapor) make up less than 2 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Humans emit less than 4 percent of that 2 percent. So for us to get GHG levels down in any meaningful way, we have to drastically cut our little slice of the GHG pie”.

The link for this waffle is to a right wing ‘think tank’ called the Manhattan Institute. And it’s a favourite sleight of hand by deniers. The global carbon cycle is huge, but it’s a cycle, i.e. it’s in balance. Atmospheric CO2 levels have remained in the narrow range of 180-280 ppm (parts per million) for at least the last 800,000 years, and probably as far back as 3-4 million years.

Anthropogenic interference in this cycle over the last 150 years has thrown it wildly out of balance. Today, there is 40% more CO2 in the global atmosphere (400ppm, and rising) than at the highest level ever recorded prior to 1850. What Graham calls “our little slice of the GHG pie” is again simply putting his science ignorance up in lights. We’ve known since the mid-19th century that the trace gas CO2 is the critical greenhouse gas. More CO2 also begets more water vapour, hence still more warming.

While CO2 is indeed a trace gas (0.04% of total atmosphere), without it, average surface temperatures would plummet from their current c.15C to minus 18C. Nitrogen (77%) and oxygen (21%) have no atmospheric heat-trapping characteristics whatever. When you fiddle with CO2 (and related trace GHGs, like methane and nitrous oxide) you are literally fiddling with the thermostat for all life on Earth.

So, while the radio debate didn’t go so well for him, and his follow-up blog is risible, Graham did at least manage towards the end to inject some of that trademark Tea Party anti-libberul, um, humour: “they’re not going to agree to keep cooking on cow patty fires so EU liberals can feel good about themselves. Which means even there’s even less “magic unicorn wind” to distribute per person”.

I opened this post by pointing out just how hard science is. Attacking science, on the other hand, is so easy that any idiot with access to a microphone can do it. Effective science communication is hard too. Given the desperate gravity and urgency of the climate crisis, making it as hard as possible for climate deniers to flood the airwaves with misinformation, and calling them (and the media outlets who facilitate them) out at every turn seems to me like genuinely useful – and occasionally, enjoyable – work.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | 5 Comments

If we tolerate this, then our children will be next

I’ve spent more than a decade first researching and then writing almost exclusively on  a range of ‘environmental’ topics, with a special focus on climate change. I joined Twitter in 2010 using the @think_or_swim moniker, determined to use it as a channel for strictly environmental pursuits and networking.

However, in the first week of July, something changed. I began to tweet about the Israeli onslaught into Gaza. Hearing the Israeli Ambassador, the disgusting Boaz Modai brag on radio: “I don’t feel even a bit of shame, I feel pride” for the carnage his country’s military was unleashing on a virtually defenceless civilian population left me shaken and outraged.

After all, this wasn’t the psychopathic dictator Assad pounding civilians in Syria with barrel bombs, this was the suave and sophisticated Israel, ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, the folks with sleek PR and friends and fans everywhere from Dáil Eireann to Capitol Hill that was, in full gaze of the international media, launching a massive (and entirely illegal) collective punishment assault against the hapless and besieged population of Gaza.

Monitoring the assault, often in real time, via Twitter became a ghastly and emotionally distressing daily, often hourly pursuit for the last several weeks. As the bodies, especially of children, piled ever higher, my sense of anger grew apace. The cold-blooded murder of four young boys playing football on the beach was one of the egregious early outrages. Dr Mads Gilbert, Norwegian volunteer surgeon put it plainly: “the Israelis are relentlessly killing and injuring children”.

For me, one five-day-old baby girl will always symbolise the Israeli pogrom of 2014. The infant named Shimah was delivered by emergency caesarean from the body of her mother, who was pulled from the rubble when her home was bombed; she quickly became known as the ‘Miracle Child’. The miracle was short-lived. Shimah died a few days later when the power to her incubator failed as a result of Gaza’s main power plant being bombed by Israel (deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure is – yet another – war crime). It was a “telegenic death”, as the prime minister responsible for this double murder might well have put it.

Just a few weeks before the third round of slaughter unleashed by Israel on Gaza in the last seven years began, Charlie Flanagan was appointed as our Minister for Foreign Affairs. The timing was, to put it mildly, unfortunate. Back in 2010, Flanagan said this in an interview: “Israel has been demonised by an Irish media slavishly dancing to the Palestinian drumbeat for decades [yet] Israel has a far better and more progressive record on human rights than any of its neighbours. The truth must be told”.

The same truth-telling Flanagan is a member of the Oireachtas Friends of Israel group. I’m unsure whether he would be happy describing himself as slavishly dancing to the Israeli drumbeat, but it was instructive to watch Flanagan et al squirm as the naked racism and genocidal intend of Israel’s army and politicians (who enjoy 90%+ domestic public support for their latest bloody crusade into Gaza) drew widespread, perhaps even unprecedented, international odium on Israel.

I broke my own unwritten rule of trying to stay out of ‘politics’ to pen the below article, which appears in the current issue of Village magazine, under the heading ‘If Ireland were Palestine’.


IT IS ALMOST 30 years since an IRA no-warning bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, killing five people. Its primary target, British PM, Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, escaped serious injury.

Thatcher defiantly responded by saying that “all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”. Her composure in the immediate aftermath of the blast won admiration even from among her critics. Just over a year after the attack, Mrs Thatcher and Dr Garrett Fitzgerald met in Hillsborough Castle in November 1985 to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Imagine for a moment that the British government instead chose to respond to this brazen terrorist attack the way in the style of the Israeli cabinet under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First off, air raids batter Dublin city. Large areas are leafleted, telling terrified citizens to flee. As they abandon their homes, some are blown to pieces in the streets. Others, unable or unwilling to leave, die under the rubble of their houses.

The brutality generates a reaction. More bombs explode across British cities, killing civilians. An army barracks is also targeted, while an effort to drive a lorry bomb to the House of Commons is foiled. This time, a massive wave of British armour sweeps over the border. Dundalk, then Drogheda, are pounded by 155mm mobile artillery pieces, while jets scream across the skies. Tens of thousands of refugees clog up the roads as they flee south.

The RAF cripples Ireland’s airports while the Royal Navy imposes a blockade on our ports. Goods can only enter or leave the country with direct British oversight. Food piles up and rots at the ports while officials refuse to allow it to be shipped. Imports are reduced to a trickle.

A police station in Manchester is blown up. The British retaliate to this ‘vicious act of terror’ by bombing Dublin’s main water treatment facilities. Next, they target power stations, permanently disabling Moneypoint in one air raid, while the Aghada and Tarbert stations are next to be destroyed. The Whitegate oil refinery in East Cork is also bombed. Most of Ireland is in darkness, with no clean running water and a growing health crisis as a result of untreated sewage.

International observers are shocked when British ground forces begin shelling UN-run schools and hospitals, where thousands had crowded for shelter as the attacks intensified. A British army spokesman explained how their military were the most moral in the world, and went to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. Who knows, the attacks on hospitals and schools may have been IRA mortars that mis-fired, he explained.

British army howitzers pound Dublin’s Beaumont hospital, killing 18 and wounding 60, mostly patients and medical staff. “The civilian deaths, if they were as a result of our measured response, are regrettable, but the IRA terrorists bear the full responsibility for operating near a hospital”, the British army spokesman added.

Vatican-based journalist David Quinn, reflecting on the deaths of some 1,900 Irish (85% civilians, including 400 dead children), for the loss of around 60 British troops and three civilians, explained: “Britain* has the right to defend itself against brutal foes that are hell-bent on destruction”.


The above vignette may seem a little fanciful, but it’s one way to try to bring home the savagery of the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign waged by the world’s fifth most powerful army against a defenceless enclave.

Rather than cowering in shame for his army’s criminal rampage into Gaza, Israel’s prime minister instead took the time to ridicule the “telegenically dead” Palestinian babies and children being piled up just to try to make his army look bad.

And it certainly does look bad, and not just for the Israeli army. Former US president Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson jointly penned a devastating critique of the latest Israeli incursion in early August. What is not widely reported is that Israel’s brutal assault was both tactical and entirely premeditated.

“This tragedy results from the deliberate obstruction of a promising move towards peace, when a reconciliation agreement among the Palestinian factions was announced in April”, wrote Carter and Robinson.  Hamas had in fact made a huge concession, agreeing to open Gaze to joint control under a consensus government with no Hamas involvement.

The likelihood of reconciliation among the Palestinian factions leading to a peaceful framework for resolving conflict in the region with international approval and oversight was clearly a step too far for Israel, which prefers its own ‘open prison’ policy, where it keeps a semi-starved, humiliated and terrorised population on the edge of despair, presumably in the hope that they will eventually just beg to be deported from their own homeland.

“The new (Palestinian) government also pledged to adopt the three basic principles demanded by members of the International Quartet (UN, US, Europe, Russia): non-violence, recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements. Tragically, Israel rejected this opportunity for peace and has until now succeeded in preventing the new government’s deployment in Gaza”, they wrote.

While Israeli’s latest attack on Gaza is entirely illegal under international law, its conduct went even further this time: “There is no humane or legal justification for how the Israeli Defence (sic) Force is conducting this war, pulverising with bombs, missiles and artillery large parts of Gaza, including thousands of homes, schools and hospitals, displacing families and killing Palestinian non-combatants.

“Much of Gaza has lost its access to water and electricity completely. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. There is never an excuse for deliberate attacks on civilians in conflict. These are war crimes”, wrote Carter and Robinson, who also called for international judicial proceedings “to investigate and end these violations of international law”.

The appropriate channel for such an investigation should be the International Criminal Court (ICC) but neither Israel nor its sponsor-in-chief, the United States, accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, which conveniently keeps their personnel beyond the reach of the law.

Within Israel, the mood is increasingly hawkish, with some 90% of Jewish Israelis fully supporting the attack on Gaza, and just 4% feeling the slaughter indicated the IDF used “excessive firepower”. A popular view in Israel is that since the people of Gaza voted Hamas into power, the entire population is somehow culpable and therefore subject to the war crime known as ‘collective punishment’.

In a terrifying escalation, some politicians are now openly debating the ethnic cleansing of the entire population of Gaza. Martin Sherman of the Israel Institute of Strategic Studies published the following in the Jerusalem Post on July 31st last: “To prevent an even more brutal and extreme successor from taking over, Gaza must be dismantled and the non-belligerent population relocated.” The ICC regards “incitement to genocide” as a crime against humanity.

The delusional Sherman continued: “As counter-intuitive as it might sound, the policy of restraint fuels orgies of delegitimisation and demonisation of Israel across the world.” To his mind, the slaughter of 1,800 people, wounding of 10,000 more, the levelling of entire neighbourhoods, the repeated bombing of hospitals and UN-run schools, the destruction of vital civil infrastructure such as water, power and sewage treatment plants and the killing of 400 children all result from a “policy of restraint”.

Knesset member Ayelet Shaked took this ethnic hatred to its logical conclusion when demanding the deliberate slaughter of Palestinian mothers and their “little snakes”. She explained: “They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists.”

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, our Foreign Minister is a proud member of group known as the ‘Oireachtas Friends of Israel’, along with minister Leo Varadker, former minister Alan Shatter and Labour’s Joanna Tuffy. Ireland has to date pledged 500,000 euros to help rebuild Gaza ahead of the next Israeli blitz.

A far more useful step might be to offer the Palestinians some of the US-made Javelin anti-tank missile systems that the Irish military, at enormous expense, purchased. These compact weapons can destroy Israeli Merkava main battle tanks at a range of up to 2.5km, and would be ideal as a purely defensive weapon – and deterrent – against any future armoured assault on Gaza. When violence no longer pays as state policy, Israel may be forced to resort to politics.

[The seeds of the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, when over 750,000 were driven from their ancestral homes and lands by Israeli terrorists, can be traced back to even before the Second World War. In 1938, historian George Antonius wrote: “the cure for the eviction of Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of the Arabs from their homeland; the relief of Jewish distress may not be accomplished at the cost of inflicting a corresponding distress on an innocent and peaceful population”.

A year earlier, in 1937, Winston Churchill ruminated that “if ever the Jewish army reached the point (of being extremely powerful), who can be sure that, cramped within their narrow limits, they would not plunge out in the new undeveloped lands that lie around them?” This chillingly prescient observation is recalled by Bob Fisk in his definitive tome, The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East. It’s recommended reading on the roots of the Palestine tragedy as well as the wider imbroglio in the region.]


Posted in Irish Focus, Media | 3 Comments

‘We asked for signs. The signs were sent’

We are the children of the Enlightenment. Our ancestors lived for countless centuries with only the vaguest idea of the world around or beyond them. Education and literacy was the preserve of tiny elites, usually in the service of religious or political ends. In the absence of the scientific method, bad ideas, superstitions and false reasoning held humanity in what must have felt like a permanent penumbra.

The Enlightenment swept in a brave new world. Science and technology raced forward in lock-step and those earliest to react found themselves masters of the Earth, as countries like England, Spain and Holland swept all before them in establishing and then gorging themselves on vast colonial empires thanks to their new-found technological edge in navigation and warfare.

The template for today’s globalised consumer society was laid down by the imperial powers, who were both the drivers and main beneficiaries of this astonishing leap forward. Human numbers surged exponentially forward, from fewer than a billion in 1800 to more than seven billion in 2014. No one species had ever come to so dominate the biosphere.

And then, in what felt like little more than the blink of an eye, the period historians refer to as ‘Western Civilisation’ had abruptly ended. Of course, civilisations have bloomed and failed many times in the past, but none of these were global in reach, and none before had the capacity and scale to drive humanity itself, along with much of the living world, towards the abyss.

“To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil fuel combustion was to blame”. This is how Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway frame it in their extended essay, The Collapse of Western Civilisation – a View From The Future.

The authors’ previous collaboration was the critically acclaimed Merchants of Doubt, an in-depth exposé of how the tobacco industry manufactured doubt and bogus controversy to protect their profits for decades, and how this highly effective blueprint for deception and disinformation came to be adopted by the global hydrocarbon industry in its trillion dollar battle to maintain its energy hegemony.

Oreskes and Conway’s latest project allows them to engage in literary and historical hindsight by setting the essay at the end of the tumultuous 21st century and casting a historian’s eye back at the unfolding tragedy of what they call the Penumbral Period (1988-2093).

There was enough, more than enough, clear scientific evidence available to both governments and corporations by the first decade of the century to signal that the current system was unsustainable, unstable and, unless radically altered, certain to lead to disaster. We knew, yet we did not act. The generation with access to more information than any other in human history chose not to act to save itself. Why?

“Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on “free” markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.

“Moreover, the scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind – even those involving imminent threats.”

Western civilisation, the authors suggest, had become “trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism.” Despite all the research undertaken in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the knowledge that accrued from this vast scientific enterprise did little or nothing to dent the powerful economic and political forces wedded to hydrocarbon extraction, a network they label the carbon-combustion complex.

“Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening. Newspapers often quoted think tank employees as if they were climate researchers, juxtaposing their views against those of epistemologically independent university or government scientists.”

The emergence of a powerful new ideology known as market fundamentalism, especially after the end of the Cold War in 1990, deepened the crisis. Market fundamentalism took on all the trappings of a quasi-religious cult, its proponents bitterly opposing even the most rudimentary forms of government intervention in the ‘free market’, such as ensuring broad access to healthcare, education and birth control, or implementing progressive taxation and environmental regulations to protect ‘the commons’.

The founding fathers of market fundamentalism, such as Friedrich von Hayek, respected science and saw it as the natural companion to capitalism. However, “when environmental science showed that government action was needed to protect citizens and the natural environment from unintended harms, the carbon-combustion complex began to treat science as an enemy to be fought by whatever means necessary. ”

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was published in 2006. Commissioned by the UK government, the 700-page report concluded that climate change was “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”. This analysis was roundly and repeatedly attacked – by neoliberal economists and right wing media commentators.

Arguing against regulation of any kind had become so ingrained (and profitable) for corporations that even the repeated presentation of clear scientific evidence failed to shake them from their certainties – with tragic consequences. “It is hard to imagine why anyone in the 20th century would have argued against government protection of the natural environment on which human life depends. Yet such arguments were not just made, they dominated the public sphere.”

The irony here is rich: “The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention”. Neoliberalism collapsed under the weight of its sheer irrationality, and took much of the world with it.

It is, the authors contend “difficult to understand why humans did not respond appropriately in the early Penumbral Period, when preventive measures were still possible. Many have sought an answer in the general phenomenon of human adaptive optimism”. Even more puzzling to future historians is how scientists, the very people whose job was to understand the threat and to warn society, they too mostly failed to grasp the sheer magnitude of the threat of climate change.

The key to understanding how poorly science responded may lay in its very structures, where science is divided up into precise disciplines. This meant scientists with deep expertise in one tiny area could in fact be relatively inexpert in related fields. “Even scientists who had a broad view of climate change often felt it would be inappropriate for them to articulate it, because that would require them to speak beyond their expertise, and seem to be taking credit for other people’s work.”

The establishment of the IPCC was supposed to provide this overarching system-wide perspective. While the collective expertise of the IPCC was vast, it concentrated on physical sciences, often ignoring the all-important social science dimension. “Scientists understood that those greenhouse gases were accumulating because of the activities of human beings—deforestation and fossil fuel combustion – yet they rarely said that the cause was people, and their patterns of conspicuous consumption.”

Many scientists shied away from addressing overpopulation, for instance, wary of being drawn into complex moral, cultural and religious debates they were ill equipped to address. This is despite the fact that exponential population growth, in lock-step with massive increase in average per capita consumption, were driving the very phenomena scientists were painstakingly cataloguing.

Another block for scientists was the concept of statistical significance. The gold standard of 95% confidence means reaching a level of certainty that a given event could have only happened by chance at being less than one in 20. In reality, this is setting the bar impossibly high when trying to make assessments of highly complex systems and the likely distribution of stochastic processes.

More importantly, this gave a field day to skeptics and deniers, who were able to throw back these impossibly high levels of proofs in the face of scientists and repeat the line that events that didn’t meet this level of certainty could simply be dismissed as ‘unproven’.

It is a canon of Western science that it’s worse to fool yourself into believing in something that wasn’t the case than not to believe in something that is. In science, these positions are known as ‘type 1” and “type 2” errors, the authors explain. “So while the pattern of weather events was clearly changing, many scientists insisted that these events could not yet be attributed with certainty to anthropogenic climate change” (Ray Bates comes to mind here).

“Even as lay citizens began to accept this link, the scientists who studied it did not…scientists missed the most important opportunity in human history, and the costs that ensued were indeed nearly “all costs.”

While the scientists dithered, the world burned. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was put in place in 1992. By any reasonable yardstick, it can be said that from that date, the world was in no real doubt other than that GHG emissions would have to be first reined in, then phased out entirely, as part of a global energy transition. Instead, the opposite happened. Between 1992–2012, total CO2 emissions skyrocketed by 38% globally. The ‘shale revolution’ began in 2005 in the Bush-era US, and gathered pace as ‘unconventional’ fossil reserves flooded onto world markets, lowering energy prices and crowding out low-carbon alternatives, be they renewables or nuclear.

Our historian from the future observes that the IPCC had projected a global doubling of atmospheric CO2 by 2050 – in fact, it arrived ahead of schedule, in 2042. The projected 2-3C surface temperature rise turned out to be 3.9C.

“By 2040, heat waves and droughts were the norm. Control measures – such as water and food rationing and Malthusian “one-child” policies – were widely implemented. In wealthy countries, the most hurricane- and tornado-prone regions were gradually but steadily depopulated, putting increased social pressure on areas less subject to those hazards”.

Much worse was to follow. The brutal Northern Hemisphere summer of 2041 led to global food crop failures, famines, food riots and unprecedented panic. “Mass migration of undernourished and dehydrated individuals, coupled with explosive increases in insect populations, led to widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dengue fever, yellow fever, and viral and retroviral agents never before seen”.

By the early 2050s, social order was crumbling – first in Africa, but quickly sweeping through Asia and Europe. The US government declared martial law as its breadbasket dried out and famine swept the continent. As the situation became ever more desperate, the Unified Nations Convention on Climate Engineering & Protection (UNCCEP) began planning a global climate cooling project. Aircraft fuel was seeded with sulphate particles.

For its first three years, the project appeared to be succeeding, and temperatures began to edge downwards. However, an unintended consequence of this desperate geoengineering gamble was the virtual shutdown of the Indian monsoon, leading to famine sweeping across the sub-continent. The experiment was abandoned in 2063, but the shutdown led to a ‘termination shock’ as the heating rebounded fiercely – a projected 0.4C cooling quickly became a +1C of additional heating, pushing global temperatures to +5C over pre-industrial.

By the mid-2060s, a global climate tipping point was passed. There was a sudden and dramatic thaw of permafrost and methane (CH4) release. “Estimated total carbon release of Arctic CH4 during the next decade may have reached over 1,000 gigatonnes, effectively doubling the total atmospheric carbon load. This massive addition of carbon led to what is known as the Sagan effect (sometimes more dramatically called the Venusian death): a strong positive feedback loop between warming and CH4 release. Planetary temperature increased by an additional 6C.”

This methane pulse disrupted ocean temperatures and circulation, and dealt the death blow to the West Antarctic ice sheet. Between 2073-2093, rapid Antarctic melt sent global sea levels surging by five metres. Around this time, the Greenland ice sheet split down the middle and began to quickly slide into the north Atlantic, adding another two metres to sea levels.

Globally, some 1.5 billion people were displaced from coastal regions by the 7-8 metre sea level rise. Coastal cities, towns and ports were inundated and abandoned. Vast swathes of once-fertile agricultural land disappeared. Waves of ‘eustatic refugees’ caused huge disruption in the already distressed communities into which they poured. A second Black Death swept Europe and North America. There were no functioning health systems to arrest its spread. Up to half the affected populations died. Some 60-70% of all species on Earth went extinct during this period.

At +11C, we would assume the Sagan effect (named after Carl Sagan, the famous astrophysicist and science communicator) would have led to the obliteration of all life as a series of positive feedbacks led to runaway global warming and the death of the oceans. However, the authors flinch at such an outcome (after all, who’d have been left to tell the sorry tale of a civilisation that knowingly destroyed itself?).

Our (exceedingly improbable) redemption sprung from a Japanese genetic engineer, Akari Ishikawa, who synthesized a form of lichenised fungus which consumed CO2 highly efficiently during photosynthesis. “This pitch-black lichen, dubbed Pannaria ishikawa, was deliberately released from Ishikawa’s laboratory, spreading rapidly throughout Japan and then across most of the globe. Within two decades, it had visibly altered the visual landscape and measurably altered atmospheric CO2, starting the globe on the road to atmospheric recovery and the world on the road to social, political, and economic recovery.”

The authors can’t help concluding by ridiculing neoliberalism’s role in what happened next: “It might be viewed as a final irony of our story – China’s ability to weather disastrous climate change vindicated the necessity of centralised government, leading to the establishment of the Second People’s Republic of China and inspiring similar structures in other, reformulated nations. By blocking anticipatory action, neoliberals did more than expose the tragic flaws in their own system: they fostered expansion of the forms of governance they most abhorred.”

‘We asked for signs. The signs were sent’ – Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’


Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

A monkey trap of our own construction

In parts of Asia, indigenous populations have developed an extremely simple yet ingenious way of catching the otherwise elusive wild monkeys. The trap involves a hollow object such as a gourd, which is securely staked to the ground, with a narrow opening on the top, just about wide enough for a monkey to squeeze its arm through. Inside, something sweet, like a banana or rice, is set as the bait.

Attracted by the smell, a curious monkey comes along to investigate, and pushes his arm into the gourd or jar to reach the treat. Then, because the hand is full, the monkey is unable to withdraw it. So far, nothing too unusual. What happens next is quite extraordinary.

The monkey continues to pull and twist his hand to no avail, and even the sight of the hunter returning to the trap is not enough to persuade the hapless monkey to give up what it believes is its prize. The trap in this case is entirely of the monkey’s own construction.

That inability to accept a modest, temporary loss of something seemingly within its grasp, even when weighed against the enormous loss that such tenacity entails would, at first, sound like one of those parables about how our cousin primates are, let’s face it, not very clever at all.

That judgement is harsh. Monkeys are powerfully programmed by evolution to hunt relentlessly for food, and to hang onto it for dear life – in this case, literally. What this primate is suffering from is an extreme example of short term reasoning, and a fatal weakness in an otherwise skilled scavenger and survivor.

Author Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance describes what he calls value traps. Of these, “the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of a commitment to precious values…the facts are there but you don’t see them”. In the case of the monkey trap, Pirsig writes: “the monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped – by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the bait. He cannot see that freedom without the bait is more valuable than capture with it”.

The wisest of apes, the highly evolved genus homo sapiens on the other hand would of course never trade certain future disaster for the possibility of avoiding modest losses in the here and now – right? The evidence that we have indeed evolved to be able to detect and so evade latterday monkey traps is, to put it mildly, unconvincing.

Over the 200 millennia or so since our species first evolved, we gradually overcame just about every obstacle that nature could fling in our path, from sabre toothed tigers to lethal microbes, expanding our numbers and our reach to now occupy almost every habitable square kilometre on the surface of the planet. While there are today over seven billion humans alive, our numbers have more than quadrupled in just over a century, and risen seven-fold since the 1830s.

Despite much talk of the population explosion having been defused, Earth’s numbers continue to balloon by the population equivalent of the Republic of Ireland every two-and-a-half weeks.

In just the last two centuries, we have figured out how to harness the colossal power of fossil energy to literally reshape the world to our enterprises. More than half the forest cover on the entire planet has disappeared since 1800, as humans pushed ever deeper into uncharted regions and brought them under the plough.

The evolutionary monkey trap has now been well and truly sprung. Science has, for probably the last half century or so, begun to grasp and quantify this massive unstructured reshaping of the biosphere by the actions and waste products, some deliberate, many incidental, of billions of humans simply going about their business.

Veteran broadcaster David Attenborough put it in the plainest of language recently: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface and, since humans don’t actually live there, you would expect our impacts on these vast systems to be limited. The opposite is the case. A lethal cocktail of chronic overfishing, widespread pollution, eutrophication, increases in near-surface water temperatures, reef destruction and rapid ocean acidification has already taken a fearsome toll on the web of marine life.

Even if all human impacts stopped tomorrow, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”, according to Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A million years, bear in mind, is five times longer than the evolutionary history of our species. But of course we won’t stop fishing, we won’t stop polluting and, rather than conserving the world’s greatest reef system, the current Australian government plans to use parts of them as an offshore dump for mining waste.

The greatest monkey trap of all is climate change. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our current business-as-usual trajectory will see average global surface temperatures increase by between 4 and 6 degrees centigrade this century, with ‘positive feedbacks’ in the climate system causing temperatures – and sea levels – to continue rising for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years into the future.

Back in 1992, leaders of all the world’s governments got together for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Even though the data was nowhere near as robust as is available today, scientific guidance on the scale and severity of the growing climate crisis was unequivocal. Climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth, including human life.

What emerged from the conference were the 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration, a bold document drawn up to guide humanity onto a sustainable path with the natural systems upon which we depend. Environmental protection was finally to be placed as a key pillar of all future human progress, rather than some annoying afterthought.

And to make sure the politicians were left in no doubt as to the scale of this crisis, later in 1992, a panel of 1,700 senior scientists issued a public appeal, headlined: “Warning to Humanity”. Humans and the natural world were, they wrote, “on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment . . . if not checked, many of our current practices . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life as we know it”.

What followed instead were two decades of the most relentless resource plunder, habitat destruction and pollution in the last two centuries, as China, India and much of the Far East raced to play ‘catch-up’ with the world’s major polluters. This unprecedented evisceration of the rich diversity of life on Earth has been celebrated as an era of record “economic growth”.

So what exactly is at stake? A major paper in the science journal Nature argued that Earth is on the cusp of one of the greatest ever die-offs, involving mass extinctions of species.

“When we kick over into a mass extinction regime, results are extreme, they’re irreversible and they’re unpredictable,” according to Dr David Jablonski of the University of Chicago. Prof Stuart Pimm of Duke University added: “We are living in geologically unprecedented times. Only five times in Earth’s history has life been as threatened as it is now.”

Mistaken ideologies and distorted politics make a resolution of our ecological crux all but impossible within the prevailing growth-fixated paradigm. “The current political system is broken,” according to the British government’s chief science adviser, Dr Bob Watson. “Nothing has changed in 20 years, we are not remotely on a course to be sustainable.”

Tackling climate change was, for a short few years, beginning to gain traction on Ireland’s political agenda. The electoral wipeout of the Green Party in 2011 heralded the sudden end of that brief dalliance. The appointment of a political fixer with zero interest in or understanding of the Environment brief was Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore’s two-fingered salute to sustainability.

In the 20 years since the Earth Summit, Ireland’s average temperature has increased by 0.75C, exactly in line with a projected 4C calamity this century. The last five years in particular have seen our once-benign climate turn distinctly hostile, with record-breaking flooding events followed by almost unprecedented Arctic conditions, followed by still more flooding. The fodder crisis in 2012 in particular was a wake-up call to those in Irish agriculture who think that climate change is somebody else’s problem.

Three major recent reports, from the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the European Environment Agency all point to the same stark conclusion: the climate crisis is rapidly turning into a planetary emergency that is fast moving beyond humanity’s ability to contain, let alone reverse.

“This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths,” according to Leo Johnson of PwC. “One thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2 degrees, but 4, and, at our current rates, 6.” While this is strikingly unvarnished language coming from a firm of management consultants, PwC’s Johnson did gloss over one salient fact – neither individuals nor societies can possibly ‘plan’ for a 4-6C apocalypse.

The climate change monkey trap is a self-constructed trap into which humanity has plunged its right arm. Its left arm is up to the elbow in another gourd labelled ‘ecological overload’.

Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man’ was written by Prof Michael Boulter of London’s Natural History Museum. He summed up our existential conundrum pithily in an interview in 2008: “I think human beings are a failed species – we’re on the way out. Our lives are so artificial they can’t possibly be sustained within the limits of our planet.”

If this all sounds like bad news, Boulter, with the cold eye of a scientist, was able to point to a silver lining: “The planet would of course be delighted for humans to become extinct, and the sooner it happens, the better.”

Persisting in the belief that once the world wakes up to the certain fact that we’re in the process of wiping ourselves out we will decisively to draw back from the brink appears little more than a comforting myth. Author Chris Hedges explores this painfully when he wrote “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.”

Even now, at two minutes to midnight, there are real steps we can take to at either delay or (if extraordinarily lucky) even dodge disaster. For starters, scientists now estimate that 80 per cent of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground to avert disaster.

We now have no choice but to forgo the easy wealth that comes from burning this vast carbon store and switch to low-carbon sources. Like it or not, this also means the winding down of consumption-based capitalism and major declines both in energy consumption and living standards.

And this remains, perhaps the greatest challenge of all. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise ape’, having struggled to overcome all natural obstacles, is now facing the most intractable evolutionary conundrum of all – learning and accepting our own limitations as but one species among many, which together form the web of life on Earth. Only by letting go can we hope to escape the trap our ingenious rapacity has sprung for us.

This description coined by the great 19th century naturalist, John Muir has never been bettered: “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim. This article was first published in the summer 2014 issue
of An Taisce’s magazine.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology | 5 Comments

Musing on the Climate (In-)Action Bill…

The Prologue

As anyone in Ireland with an interest in climate change is well aware, the present Government promised significant legislation on climate policy already in the programme for government agreed between the coalition parties when they took office:

Climate Change: We will publish a Climate Change Bill which will provide certainty surrounding government policy and provide a clear pathway for emissions reductions, in line with negotiated EU 2020 targets.

That was March 2011.

And funnily enough, we are still waiting.

But sure, that’s only three years. Thirty-eight months. We want to get this right after all. For goodness sake, it’s not like there’s any rush, and this Government has an awful lot of other Very Important Business to sort out. It’s Ireland — you know what they say: “if you don’t like the climate, just wait five minutes and it’ll change anyway”. Or is that weather? Ah but sure it’s all the same, isn’t it?

Anyway: it’s not like there hasn’t been any progress in the meantime. There’s been loads of it. Huge progress altogether. Absolute gobs of it. A consultation. A Roadmap. An Interim Report. A Statement of Progress. A Final Report. A Draft Heads of Bill. Submissions and opening Statements for Oireachtas Committee Hearings. Resumed hearings. Continued hearings. Still more hearings. A Ministerial meeting. Concluding hearings. (Yet another) Report.

But then … yes, well worth waiting for, a real result: Government agreement (yay!) and, wait for it … a revised Draft Heads of Bill. Taa daa!

Oh well. We are where we are, I suppose.

When Physics and Politics Collide …

So, without further ado, here is my entirely personal brain dump of visceral reactions to this long, long, awaited, revised, updated, and thoroughly modern Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Bill (while there’s still maybe a tiny lingering chance to improve it before it finally becomes law).

  • In essence, the primary effect of the Bill is simply to enshrine in national legislation that the State will indeed abide by international agreements that it enters into. On the face of it, this seems to be of somewhat — what shall we say? — convoluted value. Surely, agreements are, and will remain, agreements, regardless of such hyperbolic belt and braces? Indeed, it suggests that the Bill might be cynically read as political posturing designed to deflect attention from a lack of genuine understanding or engagement with the true scale and urgency of the climate challenge.

    But on more mature reflection, maybe this core substance of the Bill does actually say something important — albeit more a possible insight into the Irish national psyche than the existential threat of climate change. In fact, a very literal reading of the Bill would seem to mean that the only thing it actually binds us to is that we will not, in any circumstances, act in advance of or go beyond mitigation obligations that arise through international (EU/UNFCCC) agreement. That is, the Bill seems to propose (accidentally? tacitly? covertly?) to bind us, as a matter of law, to make the minimum achievable contribution to global mitigation. This is hardly a recipe for good faith engagement in negotiations; but I can see that it’s an entirely “rational”, pragmatic, position to adopt. After all, the presumption is always that we are too small to matter either to actual absolute global mitigation, or to diplomatic engagement by the large scale emitters; so the logical thing is to keep our heads down, and just maximise our own scope, at the margin, to continue using the cheapest available global energy sources (i.e. fossil based).

    Ah, ‘twould be a great stroke, altogether.

  • In any case, scientific understanding has moved on even since the initial Heads of Bill were published: the IPCC has now definitively endorsed the finite GHG budget approach to global mitigation policy (see e.g., IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary, Fig TFE.8, pp. 102-5). It follows that the Government now has a number of obvious obligations both to the Irish people and to the global community with whom we share a single atmosphere. Firstly, it should explicitly articulate our claim to a specific share of this finite and rapidly depleting global resource. Secondly it should explain how, in their view, this claimed share conforms with global justice and equity. Finally, given this budget claim, the Government should elaborate a timeline for its prudent consumption: one focussed on putting in place the best measures possible to adapt to the absolutely necessary aftermath of zero — or better, negative — nett GHG emissions.

    Now that would have been a Climate Bill worth waiting for.

  • And for the record: “low carbon development” is simply no longer an option. As a very minimum gesture of political honesty, that phrase should certainly be struck from the title and the text of this Bill. Only “zero carbon”, or, preferably, “negative carbon” development is now defensible.

  • Moving on. In a context where effective global mitigation will require approximately 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground, the Government should clearly declare a moratorium on exploration for new fossil fuel resources in the national territory, whether conventional off-shore resources, or unconvenional on-shore resource extracted by so-called “fracking” techniques, and an explicit plan to ensure winding down of extraction from currently licensed deposits (including peat and off-shore gas).

  • But yes, Ireland is a small country, and its emissions are, in absolute terms, a relatively small part of the global challenge. It follows that Ireland’s climate and the welfare of its people in a globalised economy are now, in practice, at the absolute mercy of mitigation decisions by the large scale GHG emitters. Therefore, it is absolutely central to our national interest that we engage in intensive and sustained diplomatic effort to facilitate and encourage collective agreement to radical mitigation on a global basis. I can’t conceive of any higher national priority in the unique historical predicament in which we now find ourselves. Of course, that would require a commensurate allocation of dedicated, highly qualified, diplomatic resources. In fairness, in comparison to just about every other area of state expenditure, this would represent a tiny absolute investment in the interest of literally incalculable returns: what price a livable planet?

  • Of course, the credibility, and hence effectiveness, of any such diplomatic effort would depend completely on a willingness to show good faith: which would surely mean proceeding with aggressive unilateral mitigation ahead of global agreement. It seems to me that such “leading by example” represents the only significant leverage we might still have remaining under our own control that could be effective in mitigating the intensity of future global climate disruption. And without such mitigation, all efforts at effective adaptation will surely be rapidly overwhelmed.

  • To be clear, our own entirely selfish long term national interests absolutely rely on effective global action to bring nett global GHG emissions to zero with extreme urgency – within the next 20-30 years at the very most. (And yes, I’m painfully aware that the three years already squandered on this pitiful legislative tokenism already represents a tenth or more of that time period — just thrown away!) This points precisely at an overwhelming argument for unilateral local mitigation (ahead of EU/international agreements): it is the only way to achieve credibility in our diplomatic efforts — essentially trying to “shame”, or at least “embarrass”, the big emitters into the scale and urgency of action that we desperately need them to achieve.

    Now realistically, I don’t really believe that that sort of “short term sacrifice for long term security” approach is — yet — a “saleable” political proposition in this country. To the extent that we collectively think about the problem at all we either hope that maybe all those pointy-headed scientists have got it wrong after all (i.e., they are just all “over-alarmists”); or else that other “small nations” will take on the fight in our place (Costa Rica? Denmark?) and we can then simply be “free riders” on their early “sacrifice”. (An important irony here: this presumed “sacrifice” may be largely imagined anyway: facing reality, transcending denial and division, can be empowering for societies as well as individuals.)

    So is free-riding really the national vision of ourselves that this generation of Irish political leaders wishes to bequeath to their children and grandchildren? As we approach the centenary of the sacrifices of 1916 — which, regardless of any other judgement, were certainly selfless, idealistic, and dedicated to achieving freedom from tyranny — was it really for this kind of choice that those founders of this nation fought and died? Shall we really now fix forever the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood at the level of aspiring to be “the best small country in the world for business” — while that very world is being recklessly degraded around us?

    An Béal Bocht was intended as satire, not a policy manual.

  • But back to practical national and local policy action. Even with the most optimistic view of the prospects for urgent, radical, global GHG emissions reduction, we know that serious, disruptive, climate change is already committed to. While there will be significant regional disparities in the particular speed and severity of these impacts, Ireland will certainly not be immune. Accordingly, all Irish infrastructural investment should now be reviewed and prioritised to focus on building maximum resilience to unpredictable climate shocks, including the real possibility of abrupt regional climate regime shifts. The government should lay out their projected 50-year risk assessment scenario of “worst case” climate change impacts for Ireland — including international conflict, global food shortage, disruption of trade etc. — as a basis for gauging the adequacy of adaptation investment.

  • And what, you ask, of the “Expert Advisory Body” to be established under the new Act (when finally it arrives)? Surely that, at least, is worthwhile progress? Surely that, at least, will ensure that this, and future, Governments can have their policies informed by the best available, completely objective, scientific evidence, decoupled from denial, vested interests, and wishful thinking; and further, will be continuously held to independent account?

    Well, I hope so. I dearly wish so.

    But … a truly independent Expert Advisory Body would not contain any members who are constrained — by their employment — in commenting on government policy. And all appointments to the body would be made manifestly free of political influence through rigorous and transparent public scrutiny. For the moment at least, this Bill offers none of that. But yes, if there is still scope for something meaningful and useful to be recovered from this dismal and seemingly interminable legislative process then that is probably still the one aspect where it might be achieved.

The (Still) Open Future

They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now. — Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

The climate change challenge is unprecedented and affects all aspects of government and societal well-being. It represents a “long emergency” of indefinite duration and severity. We are sleepwalking our collective way into a genuinely existential challenge for human civilisation. Merely passing an Act of the Oireachtas was never going to be an adequate response. But still: it could have been symbolic, it could have put down a marker. It could have said clearly that we recognise that it is no longer any use saying, ‘we are doing our best’: we have to do what is actually necessary.

So let me put my cards fully on the table at last: I long since gave up seeing this legislation as important in itself. To me, it has manifestly been a device to delay, procrastinate and deflect attention from any need to actually do anything at all — and it has served that purpose extremely well. I don’t see any scope at all for it to be somehow reformed, at this eleventh hour, into anything meaningful or effective. At the risk of repeating myself, it seems to me that the unpalatable truth remains that, neither at political or societal level is there remotely the degree of understanding or engagement with the climate issue that would allow serious debate about the steps that might now be physically necessary (as opposed to “politically possible”).

So: where are we in the end? Shall we just resign ourselves to a fatalistic acceptance, a prospect of hopeless inaction in the face of overwhelming fate?

Of course not. First, it is possible that the new Expert Advisory Body will confound my doubts and skepticism, and deliver firm, unflinching, truth to power; and further, that power will listen, will digest, and will, ultimately, act. But secondly, of course, this predicament is not going away. The laws of physics don’t compromise, they don’t listen to reason, they don’t do negotiation or engage in brinksmanship. So climate change impacts will grow, in both clarity and severity. This will be discontinuous — but inexorable. So, action will also grow. Tragically, it will be later than necessary, and much less effective for that. But there are good tipping points as well as bad. There will certainly be tipping points for progressive societal and political recognition of the reality of our situation, and the conviction that planetary boundaries are real and tangible forces constraining — but never dictating — our collective future. The future is open: and we can, always, choose how we engage with it. If politics truly is the “art of the possible” then political leadership can and must be the art of changing the politically possible to encompass what is actually necessary.

In the meantime, here and now each of us has the chance, the opportunity, and yes, even the moral obligation to do whatever we can to bring those good tipping points forward in time. So, honestly, pragmatically, knowing that our knowledge is always imperfect, yet knowing still that we must act anyway, let us speak the truth as best as we can know it, and plead for what is collectively necessary. Right now, the facts of the climate change threat are so stark that, in truth, the only rational response is to raise a commensurate, honest, alarm that can start to fuel truly effective action. By facing reality squarely we can still take a first great step.

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.” “It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.” “The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk,–”taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.” — Phineas Finn (Anthony Trollope, 1868)

Barry McMullin is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University. He is also the Chair of the Climate Committee of An Taisce.

However, he rants (and occasionally tweets) on an entirely freelance basis!

Special thanks to Paul and Lizzie, and John G. for very helpful comments and improvements on the original draft: responsibility for the remaining excesses (grammatical and otherwise) rests, of course, with the author.

Posted in Global Warming | 4 Comments

The meteorologist and the scourge of climate ‘over-alarmism’

Back in March, there was quite a kerfuffle when RTE PrimeTime tried to set up a ‘debate’ about the reality of climate change by initially loading a panel 3:1 in favour of the 3% ‘skeptical’ position that rejects or downplays the reality and gravity of man-made climate change. Under pressure, specifically from An Taisce, PrimeTime relented, eventually giving the 3% position a mere 50% of the panel slots.

In the course of a lengthy posting after the event I described one of the panellists, retired UCD meteorologist (as distinct from ‘climatologist’) Prof Ray Bates as “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.”

Bates was not best pleased. On April 4th, I received the following email, which he also cc’d to PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond, reporter Robert Shortt and correspondent, George Lee. He clearly wanted this exchange to be as public as possible.

Hi John,

I’m not in the habit of reading blogs, but it has been drawn to my attention that my name has appeared in a blog of yours commenting on the RTE Prime Time programme of 18 March:

Naturally, this arouses one’s curiosity.

I wonder if you could possibly back up a couple of things you have said about me:

1) Could you give me a reference to some instance in which I have talked up the benefits of climate change?

2) On what grounds do you describe me as a climate sceptic?



The questions clearly merited a response, so I took a few days and replied, on April 8th, in some depth and detail (see below). As a professional courtesy, I did not cc the email to third parties, preferring to put the points privately initially to Bates and allow him to respond, privately or publicly, whichever way he decided.

That was over five weeks ago, and to date, no reply, not even an acknowledgement of receipt of my email has been forthcoming. The matter might well have rested at that, until yesterday’s Irish Times, which devoted a large chunk of its op-ed page to more of the same-old-same-old by Bates under the lurid (not to mention tautological) heading: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’.

The author’s apparent lack of respect for many of the world’s top practising climate scientists and for the highly complex processes used to develop IPCC consensus positions shines through this article, as he picks and chooses the bits of the IPCC report that he “approves of” while dismissing out of hand much of the thrust of the 2nd Working Group (WG2) Report. Bates also floats a favourite red herring of the skeptical lobby by decrying the ‘failure’ of climate models to account for “the warming hiatus”. And, while decrying the inaccuracy and sloppiness of everyone bar himself, Bates attacks this report as follows:

“Multiple tipping points” – a concept that is not endorsed by the report of the first working group even under the most pessimistic of model projections for the 21st century – are freely referred to.”

Good point, except, as Paul Price points out, it’s not true.

The phrase “Multiple tipping points” is not “freely referred to” by WG2. The phrase is used precisely ONCE in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) and ZERO times in the Technical Summary. In the draft SPM the IPCC says:

“The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain, but the risk associated with crossing multiple tipping points in the earth system or in interlinked human and natural systems increases with rising temperature (medium confidence).”

This, Price adds, is “sound science and far from alarmist”.

“As with his shaky ‘hiatus’ ‘evidence’ and his overlooking of the stark warnings in Working Group 1’s report, this example illustrates Bates’ bias toward low balling climate risk despite the abundant, and alarming, evidence given by both the WG1 and WG2 reports”, Price adds.

What most informed observers of the rigorous (if not tortuous) process by which large panels of expert reviewers argue line by line over each section of the report before it’s agreed is that this process is innately conservative. In fact, one of the strongest criticisms of the IPCC AR process is that it constantly lags behind ‘real world’ scientific advances.

Also, it is deeply cautious and conservative by simple dint of having to find consensus not just among thousands of scientists, but also among government and diplomatic representatives of the 154 participating countries. When you consider these include petro-states like Russia, Canada and Saudi Arabia, it’s not hard to imagine the level of political pressure being brought to bear on participants to downplay climate risks and impacts. All of which makes Bates’ claims even more fanciful.

Here’s a link to the full list of AR5 Authors and Review Editors – over 800 in all. Have a look in particular at the institutions represented in WG2 – including the US Geological Survey, Goethe University, Polish Academy of Sciences, Stanford University, King’s College, London, US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, South African Space Agency and the Russian Academy of Science. In fact, there’s even a representative from that notoriously climate alarmist corporation, Exxon Mobil on the WG2.

But, according to Bates, this bunch are really just hand-waving alarmists.

“…The (WG2) report conveys no corresponding sense of caution. The most pessimistic climate model projections are taken as if they were completely reliable and are applied to deriving the most alarming impacts in various sectors”.

The WG2 has precisely 309 Contributing Authors and Review Editors, all with internationally recognised expertise in the highly specialised fields of ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’. Imagine just how large any one person’s ego would have to be to casually dismiss this huge array of practising (and publishing) experts as being simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

So what, you might ask, is Ray Bates’ actual point? Well, it appears to all boil down to the desire to protect Irish agriculture (yes, agriculture) from any possible negative effects of pesky GHG emissions controls. In his own words:

“The over-alarmist stance of the second working group’s report should not induce the public or our legislators into supporting blanket policy options affecting agriculture that serve neither the interests of this country nor those of the wider world.”

Interestingly, Bates’ performance on that PrimeTime back in March was another billet doux to the unique entitlement of the Irish beef and dairy sectors to produce as much meat and butter as the Chinese middle classes can eat, and devil take the hindmost when it comes to the massive carbon footprint that both industrial beef and dairy farming entail.

But here’s the thing. The IFA and ICMSA already have well-oiled PR machinery working around the clock to make sure that climate legislation doesn’t affect agriculture, and that, presumably, when we fail to meet our legally mandated GHG reductions targets as a result, said organisations will throw their hands in the air in faux surprise and demand that ordinary taxpayers cough up the multi-million euro fines. But to be fair, that’s their job (whether ordinary farmers will thank their leadership in the longer term for their coyness on climate change is another matter entirely).

What I am curious to know is why Prof Bates – a meteorologist – spends so much time lobbying for agriculture, and much less time taking about the very real threats that climate change poses to us all – and all very much includes our agriculture sector.

Here’s what I wrote to Ray Bates on April 8th:


Hi Ray

Thanks for your email. It reminds me that our correspondence now stretches some six years. I still have the cutting of the Irish Times letter you wrote about one of my early columns on climate; you were correcting my interpretations of some data, as I recall, but in a constructive way, which I certainly appreciated at that time.

First off, I haven’t cc’d this email to various RTE staff, as I’m not sure what this has to do with them. The statements I made were on my blog, not on RTE. Whatever difference of opinions or emphasis you and I may have, I’d hope we can resolve between ourselves.

Let me take them in sequence:

1) In the PrimeTime debate, you focused to what I would regard as inordinate degree on Irish agriculture; late in the debate, long after agriculture had been discussed, you brought the discussion straight back, stating: “climate models are projecting that by the end of the century, most of the warming will be concentrated in the southern Mediterranean countries, they’ll become very dry and hot in the summer whereas the Irish climate will be relatively much less affected, so agricultural capacity in European countries is going to be greatly diminish because of climate change…whereas the Irish agricultural capacity will be relatively unaffected…it’s important that we maintain agricultural production in Ireland so if we have to adhere to the 80-95% (GHG) reduction targets we won’t be able to do this…Irish food output per unit of output has a very low carbon footprint…”

First, a question: as a meteorologist: can I ask why your overriding focus in that PrimeTime programme appeared to be on agriculture? Granted, food security is important, so are many other topics, but none of these warranted much comment from you. Why?

My second observation is that most climate scientists I’ve spoken with – including a lengthy recent interview with Prof Michael Mann of Penn State University – state that the overwhelming imperative for civilisation is that we urgently, drastically and permanently reduce GHG emissions, including emissions from agriculture. Irish agriculture produces huge quantities of beef and dairy products. Neither of these are, as you know, in any way “low carbon”. I thought you might have suggested that we need to adopt our diets to reduce meat and dairy consumption, not just to cut GHGs, but also to reduce obesity and heart disease. You could have pointed out that the ‘western diet’ is driving the clearance of rain forests, desertification of agricultural land from over-grazing, etc. but instead, you chose what I see as ’special pleading’ that Irish agriculture be allowed to shirk its GHG reductions commitments.

You were the sole scientist on that panel, yet where did you set out the utterly dire consequences of allowing global average temperatures to spiral +2, +4 or more this century? (RCP8.5) Is it that you don’t accept that is likely? What I personally find astonishing is that these projections fall within the BAU, i.e. we can and mostly likely will achieve these in the coming decades to century, thanks largely to the public being unaware that this is where business-as-usual takes us, and more specifically, that climate change of that magnitude will cause far-reaching, devastating consequences, including setting in train irreversible sea level rises for centuries into the future, mass coastal abandonment, huge drops in global agricultural output, water stresses, etc. etc. In this ghastly set of scenarios, which as the IPCC report put it: “increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts”.

So, pitching to an Irish audience that “it’s important that we maintain agricultural production in Ireland” when you are referring to highly GHG-intensive forms of agriculture, is to me, surprising. The fact that you also believe that Irish agriculture will be “relatively unaffected” until the end of the 21st century by climate change I also find surprising. I’m sure you’re aware of the work by Dr Stephen Flood et al. of NUIM, specifically his paper: ‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’. Its summary states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output” (my emphasis). This of course is only to mid-century. We can expect impacts to accelerate later in the century, as warming intensifies.

Let me contrast this with your PrimeTime statement, inter alia: “the Irish agricultural capacity will be relatively unaffected…”. I’m surprised that you never sought to point out that agriculture everywhere (including Ireland) is highly vulnerable to climate change, as the expert evidence has shown. Instead, as I saw it, you “talked up” the (relative) benefits of Ireland being “relatively unaffected” by climate change this century and being able to take advantage of the (presumed) collapse in central and southern European agriculture to export food to these devastated regions. As I’ve demonstrated above, I don’t believe your opinions here concur with the ICARUS research work, which, unless I’m mistaken, is the benchmark in Ireland for measuring likely climate impacts on our agriculture.

Having looked at your very impressive list of Scientific Publications  I couldn’t find a single paper there that dealt with the impacts of climate change on agriculture or food security (if I’m mistaken, of course, please feel free to correct me). Therefore, am I right in saying this is not an area in which you are a published expert? Why then all the focus on agriculture and climate change/food security? I’m aware this is a topic you regularly speak on. As a non-specialist in this field, would it not be prudent to reference the ICARUS research and the clear warnings set out therein for agriculture in a warming world, specifically including Irish agriculture? Or even to caution that your views may be at variance with the ICARUS research regarding Irish agriculture.

2) I stated that your views “would place (you) in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science”. That is not the same as calling you a ‘climate sceptic’. For instance, I understand that you have spoken and corresponded recently in support of the view that there has been a ’15 year pause in global warming’, i.e. little or no warming trend since 1998. I was very surprised to hear this attributed to you, but the sources were unequivocal that this is your stated position. Perhaps you could, without going into tremendous depth, clarify this?

Ray, I’m well aware that you are a scientist of the highest repute, and we’ve enjoyed a cordial exchange of views over the years, including agreeing to disagree on a number of occasions. You got to express your angle on climate change to several hundred thousand people via that Prime Time programme; I got to reach maybe a few hundred via my humble blog, so Advantage to you on that front! I didn’t write to RTE management or the BAI complaining about the broadcast; I made some – very brief – references to your contribution in the midst of a 3,200 word posting looking at the overall framing of this “debate”. I’m a little disappointed that you chose to involve three people from RTE, none of whom I know or have engaged with, into your complaint about my blog posting. That is of course your right; feel free if you so wish to circulate this response to RTE, but if you do so, please do so in full, so context is not inadvertently lost.

To conclude: both of us know that climate change is a huge problem and both of us presumably agree that BAU is simply not an option. I think we could both agree that the Irish media largely ignores this story, and when it is covered, often focuses on dissent rather than consensus. As a journalist, citizen and parent, I feel compelled to do what I can to try to improve our understanding and communication of climate change, and will happily work with anyone to that shared end. Unlike you, I am not an expert, nor do I pretend to be. I occupy that ill-defined niche of a science communicator.

There’s a bigger fight here to be waged than you and I exchanging volleys of emails. I’d like to believe that we’re both ‘good faith actors’, i.e. we’re both broadly on the same side, seeking the same outcome – a safer future for all and urgent steps towards climate stabilisation for the sake of posterity, both for humanity and for the natural world. You may well find my ‘advocacy’ approach frustrating, and I admit to finding your approach at times similarly frustrating, but relative to what we agree on, these are or should be trifles.

Finally Ray, have you reviewed the AAAS publication, ‘What We Know ? I’d love to hear you step up and talk about the overwhelming consensus among top published scientists and academies about the need for urgent, immediate no-excuses action, while we still can, to arrest climate change. When the AAAS states: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts”, I think that is far, far more important than Harvest 2020. Don’t you?

When the AAAS states: “The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do”, I don’t see how lobbying for sectoral special interests to be exempted from contributing to the urgent, critical task of GHG reductions could possibly be more important than us all working together, in good faith, to avoid, at all costs, “abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes”.

Ray, if you want to meet up for a chat at any time, I’m happy to do so. I’m not deliberately trying to be on your case here, but I do hope you’ll reflect, rather than just react, to at least some of the foregoing. I’m assuredly wrong from time to time, and hope I’m big enough to accept that and to learn from it and try and be less wrong next time. But I’m not sure I’m entirely wrong about this.


John Gibbons



Postscript: At exactly the same time Bates was taking the ‘over-alarmist’ professional climate experts who warn about possible tipping points to task, stunning news was breaking of “unstoppable, irreversible” accelerated western Antarctic collapse.

The over-alarmists this time came in the shape of two papers due for publication this week in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters. “This is really happening,” said Thomas Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”

“The collapse of large parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica appears to have begun and is almost certainly unstoppable, with global warming accelerating the pace of the melting… Today we present observational evidence that a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat,” glaciologist, Dr Eric Rignot said in a NASA news conference. “It has passed the point of no return.”

Disgracefully, NASA climatologists seemed to show little concern for what some might well regard as the real threat here: what possible impacts their scare-mongering research findings could have on Harvest 2020!

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

When will accuracy trump ‘balance’ in media climate coverage?

Is the media now the largest remaining impediment rather than aid to an effective public and political response to climate change? If so, how exactly did this come about, and is there anything that can be done to reverse this?

I have argued and will continue to put forward the proposition that the effective, honest and forthright communication of the reality of climate change is probably the most important work anyone, anywhere can be engaged in right now. This came up repeatedly in my recent interview with climatologist, Prof Michael Mann.

He and other top professional scientists have gradually and perhaps grudgingly come to realise that their remaining ‘above the fray’ simply left the field wide open to chancers, industry hacks and attention seekers. In the US, the situation is further complicated by how intensely politicised the science has become. For most Americans, acceptance or denial of the basics of climate science is now as clear a marker of political affiliation as your stance on the three Gs – guns, god and gays.

In Ireland, the situation is nowhere near as polarised, but from my observation, much of the fringe ‘climate contrarianism’, rather than being reflected, is in fact being generated from within the media. Some of this is conscious, but much seems to be related to a toxic amalgam of innate suspicion of ‘consensus’ in tandem with an extremely poor grasp of basic science and of how scientific understanding actually advances.

Go back two weeks, and RTE radio hosted a ‘Late Debate’ on climate change, in which I participated. Also speaking for the 97% scientific consensus was Frank McDonald of the Irish Times. Pitched against us were Eddie (‘The climate is always changing’) Downey of the IFA and Richard Tol, formerly of the ESRI and more recently making a thorough nuisance of himself misrepresenting the IPCC’s work and providing Manna from Heaven for climate deniers everywhere.

If I were being extremely polite, I’d describe Tol as an outlier, a crank and a narcissist who enjoys the limelight above all else. If I were less polite, I’d direct you to Bob Ward of the LSE, who has catalogued in forensic detail the alarming litany of ‘errors’ in Tol’s work. Strangely, Tol’s miscalculations and unfortunate jumbling up of data gleamed from other papers almost invariably lends weight to his central theme, which is to low-ball the risks and hype the costs of addressing climate change. To be fair, Tol has been at this for years, but it’s good to see his modus operandi finally receive the attention he so clearly craves.

However, for the purposes of the Late Debate, Tol was able to pretty much single-handedly swing the framing of the entire discussion from ‘what the holy hell are we going to do to address climate change’ to something of an ‘oh-yes-it-is-oh-no-it’s-not’ parlour game. The presenter lapped this faux controversy up and Eddie from the IFA purred gratefully as Tol went through his well-rehearsed contortions.

Wiser souls would no doubt have not taken the bait, but I’m clearly not that wise, and couldn’t help but wade in swinging, pointing out just how full of crap Tol et al’s 2008 ESRI projections for a never-ending boom in Ireland were, and so, on that basis, anything else he might be offering his ‘expert’ advice on should be treated with caution. And, if that weren’t reason enough to have the asbestos gloves on when handling Tol’s scholarship, this little beauty from his ESRI days in 2009, entitled ‘Why Worry About Climate Change’ will have you reaching for the whiskey and revolver. Rather than rehashing and refuting line by line the rubbish therein, suffice to enjoy instead our idiot savant’s ‘Reference’ list for the article, as follows: Tol et al, Tol, Tol, Tol, Tol, Tol, Tol et al, Tol et al.

Adrian Kelleher in Village magazine did a devastating take-down in 2011 of Tol, his dodgy GWPF friends and his even dodgier neo-liberal utterances (“new religion of climate change”… “fanatics” and “adherents of the Church of Gaia” … “economists have shown that climate change is not the biggest environmental problem in the world, denying people the catastrophe that they crave” etc. etc. etc.).

I’ll leave the last word on Tol to Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, widely regarded as one of the most important books in the last couple of decades. Taleb is a world-renowned expert in risk management and assessment. “Tol is clueless about ruin probabilities. Totally clueless about risk in general…you idiots fail to understand evidence of harm and precautionary warning”, was Taleb’s devastating critique in a spiky Twitter exchange. He said much else besides about Tol too but I’ll let you look those up yourselves.

Trojan investigative work by Bob Ward and others have helped to neutralise Tol, but not before he did serious damage (as was clearly his intent) to the communication and public understanding of the IPCC AR5 report. Meanwhile, RTE’s new Agriculture and Environment Corr, George Lee has confounded those (including this writer) who feared his appointment would be long on economics and agriculture and short on environment.

I met Lee last month, when he dropped out to Dun Laoghaire to record a slot for the evening news on the release of the third and final part of the AR5 report, this one focusing on mitigation. I was impressed to find him fully up to speed and entirely engaged with the sheer gravity of what the IPCC report had to say. And he delivered it straight, no spin, no bull, no Tol.

This run continued the following day, when RTE Drivetime asked me to comment on the AR5 report. (from 02.17–02.25) Anyone who follows presenter Philip Boucher Hayes will be aware that he clearly recognises climate change as the mother and father of all crises. What made this interview unusual was the marked absence of red herrings – the interviewer asked me to set out the scale of the problem as outlined by the IPCC, as well as possible responses, plus an indication of the costs involved in choosing not to respond. The mitigation/adaptation debate is an important one, but the notion that this is an a la carte menu that humanity can dip in an out of if and when it sees fit is bunk, and Boucher Hayes seemed to be well aware of that.

So far, so good. It could not, of course, last. The following morning the Irish Independent carried an unusually ugly, ignorant piece by columnist Ian O’Doherty. I was going to do a line-by-line rebuttal of it, but on re-reading, it’s little more than the babbling of a willy-waving attention-seeker desperate for instant notoriety. The personalised nature of his attacks on Mary Robinson were, however, despicable. O’Doherty is what he is, but more shame on whatever editor actually allowed that stuff into print.

That was Tuesday. The following day, George Hook unearthed another ‘Emeritus Professor’ to wage war on reality, in the form of one Leslie Woodcock, retired from the University of Manchester and now a mainstream peddler of climate conspiracy theories. CO2, Leslie tells us, is “the gas of life”, and global warming is “absolute nonsense”.

Having been on with Hook some weeks ago for an interview in which he appeared open-minded and certainly seemed to take note that there might be something to this whole climate change malarkey, it was just a tad depressing to hear him wheel on Woodcock explain how practicing scientists have “been indoctrinated by the powers that be”. You could almost hear Woodcock’s tin foil hat crinkle as the interview progressed.

“The balance of evidence in this case is that there is no hard evidence to suggest any fluctuations in temperature are actually caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – CO2 is the gas of life…everything grows faster as the temperature goes up, or if CO2 goes up. There’s no evidence at all that anything unusual is happening as a consequence of burning fossil fuels…the small rise in temperatures actually stopped around 15 years ago, temperatures are actually going down right now…”

At this point, George Hook appeared to have twigged that his esteemed guest might be just a little, how shall we say, potty.  One of the hazards with getting the word ‘Professor’ before your name is that, long after you retire, and no matter how hopelessly idiosyncratic or, in Woodcock’s case, totally wrong you are, people in the media will continue to seek out your opinion to “balance” the debate that’s raging in their minds between on the one hand, the largest science collaboration in world history and on the other, a few duffers and blow-hards who love the sound of their own voices and are far beyond caring about being objective, factual or even vaguely scientific.

So much for Tuesday and Wednesday, surely the circus would at least take Thursday off? Well, not exactly. Instead, it moved to a huge piece in the unfortunately named ‘Life Science’ page in the Irish Times. The headline was catchy: ‘Galway’s drowned forests show climate change is nothing new’. And yes, they found another retired professor – Michael Williams – to set that over-excitable IPCC crowd straight on, well just about everything.

Williams is a retired geologist, and he just loves climate change. Human evolution “would not even have begun were it not for climate change…not only is climate change inevitable…at present the Earth is cooler, sea levels lower and atmospheric levels of CO2 are less than they have been for most of Earth history”.

Hurrah, everything is hunky dory so! What was all that rubbish a couple of short weeks back about climate change racing out of control and smashing through 2C and on towards 4C by mid-century, bringing in its wake a devastating global extinction event and catapulting Earth systems through one or more tipping points and into a chaotic new phase?

No sweat, says the retired geologist. We’ll, you know, adapt. Maybe by moving the global agricultural systems needed to feed over 7 billion humans, well, somewhere else, c’mon, there must be a couple of vast undiscovered continents we can just up sticks and move to? “Since we are the ultimate in animal adaptation humans must continue to adapt”, Williams sagely advises.

Cynics might well ask what exactly a geologist would know about human adaptive capabilities, over and above, say, the actual experts in human adaptive capability? Who knows, but, like Woodcock, Williams is a Professor and so, at least in some media quarters, that makes him an expert is all manner of things.

So what would the geologist suggest we do next? Who needs the IPCC AR5 report and its 800 authors drawn from the world’s elite of published scientists? Who needs its 2,000 page report drawing on the expertise of 9,200 peer-reviewed studies? Clearly not Prof Williams. The IPCC says that only massive mitigation at a global level can give us any reasonable chance of halting ‘dangerous, irreversible  anthropogenic interference in the global climate systems’.

Bah humbug to all that. “Education and planning for an uncertain future is a substitute for panic and the spending of billions in funds to temporarily defer the inevitable. Instead, why not use the funding and our ingenuity to plan for future environmental changes”? Says Williams. Yes, cynics might well ask what a geologist knows about the “uncertain future” and the implications of “spending billions” over and above, say, the actual experts in planning for both adaptation to and mitigation of climate impacts.

Williams is of course perfectly entitled to his own opinion, however at variance his views are from the international expert consensus. These are obviously personal views, but here’s the thing: they appear on a page called ‘Life Science’, the person offering the idiosyncratic opinions is referred to as Professor. At no time did the writer of the piece, or her editor, interject to point out that Williams’ fascinating tour of paleo-climatology is completely and absolutely irrelevant to the existential conundrum a densely populated, deforested, highly polluted world teeming with billions of humans and in the grip of a mass extinction event faces in the coming decades as a result of sharp increases in global average surface temperatures on a scale and at a rate far beyond the adaptive ability of either humanity or (what’s left of) nature.

Of course, there are those who will argue that it’s not the job of the Irish Times Life Science page to only offer the IPCC ‘side of the story’ (the 97%+ global expert consensus ‘side’). But here’s the thing: this page, to the very best of my understanding, completely ignored the IPCC AR5 report, all three parts of it, in fact. On the other hand, the entirely personal opinions of one retired geologist are worthy of two thirds of a broadsheet spread, with a headline so lurid it even got picked up by RTE’s It Says in the Papers. Deniers everywhere must have been rubbing their hands in glee.

The piece was also just plain sloppy. “For example, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 reduced global temperatures by over 10 degrees, and it took another five years for climate to return to normal”, Siggins quotes Williams. This is out by a factor of ten. In fairness, when challenged, the writer accepted it as a slip of the pen and the online version has been updated. However, were the “degrees” centigrade or farenheit? There’s a huge difference, but who knows, since the piece (on a Science page!) doesn’t bother saying.

The Irish Times letters page carried two pieces highly critical of this article the following Monday. One, by physicist Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, states that Williams’ views are  “completely at odds with the consensus of climate scientists worldwide…in the first instance, the past climate changes cited by Professor Williams occurred over many thousands of years, allowing plants and animals time to adapt. In addition, these changes occurred at times of low (or no) human populations. The threat we face today is a climate that is changing over decades, not thousands of years, and the likely effects on a densely populated world”.

O’Raifeartaigh added: “It is telling that in his discussion of the ice ages, Professor Williams makes no mention of the critical role greenhouse gases played as an amplifying effect in global warming”. Another thing the good Professor seems to have overlooked is the small detail that the geological record gives us an exquisite view of the effects of sudden climate shifts.

Take the end-Permian era 252 million years ago. This mass extinction event took place in the blink of an eye, at least in geological terms. The whole episode took little more than 100,000 years. The event was triggered by a massive release of carbon. Ocean chemistry went haywire as the water acidified from excess carbon. When it was over, more than 90% of all species alive had been wiped out, and of the surviving species, their numbers were drastically reduced. It took some 10 million years for life on Earth to begin to recover its diversity.

The fossil record faithfully records the five great mass extinction events that have befallen Earth in the last half a billion years. What the sediments reveal is how devastating sudden climatic changes are on the balance of life. The great Ordovician extinction 444 million years ago is – literally – written in stone.

“The change here from black to gray (in the sediment) marks a tipping point, from a habitable sea floor to an uninhabitable one, and one might have seen that in the span of a human lifetime”, Dr Jan Zalasiewicz, a stratigrapher at the University of Leicester tells author Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction (a book I would very strongly recommend to Prof Williams, whose own field of expertise is, well, Sedimentology).

Ironically, the end-Ordovician extinction event was triggered by rapid global cooling. The point is that rapid shifts from the climatic norm – in either direction – are associated over and over again with extinction events. Whether the precipitating cause is a meteor strike, mass volcanic eruption or anthropogenic carbon dumping is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is the rate and magnitude of the disturbance.

As Kolbert sets out so starkly: “Right now, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy”.

Prof Walter Alvarez is a highly decorated earth scientist who became famous for first developing the theory that the (non-avian) dinosaurs were in fact wiped out as a result of a global cooling event triggered by an asteroid impact some 65 million years ago that brought the Cretaceous era to a juddering end Most geologists have heard of Alvarez. I wonder what Prof Williams would make of Alvarez’ observation that the current global crisis of life is being driven not by a speeding asteroid but by “one weedy species…we’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings”.

Paul Price also had a hard-hitting critique of this Williams interview published in the letters page. Below are the main points he made in a comment appended to the online edition of the Irish Times, which he addressed both to Williams and to writer Lorna Siggins:

 1. Can you point to the exact time frames in which average global temperature changed “by as much as 16 degrees, in time frames as short as decades”? Please state your references.

2. Can you tell us the total average surface temperature change between ice age glacials & interglacials? Surely you know that the difference was only about 4 to 5ºC and the transitions took thousands of years? This compares with humanity’s current track toward a possible 4 to 6ºC change within 200 years (IPCC AR5 WG1). Can you give evidence that this is not an extreme risk?

3. Do you think, as IPCC WG2 do, that climate change beyond adaptation limits for many regional human and ecological systems is possible by the end of this century, if radical mitigation of emissions is not undertaken quickly?

4. Are your cherry-picked, misleading, out of context factoids actually representative of your own ‘business-as-usual’ values to attempt to deny the best assessment we have of climate science as given by the IPCC. They state that business as usual is not tenable:

“Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.” IPCC AR5 WG1 p19

5. Are you really as clueless about climate science as you appear to be? Why do you apparently disrespect climate science and climate scientists to allow yourself to speak in such a misleading way from your position as a geologist non-climate-expert?

These are serious charges, and we look forward to Prof Williams or the Irish Times addressing them in detail.

I’d like to add one or two more myself:

Dear Irish Times ‘Life Science’ page, can you remind us exactly how much space you dedicated to covering publication of the three main releases of the IPCC’s blockbuster AR5 report in recent months? (hint: somewhere between ‘very little’ and ‘none at all’). Given that the IPCC is the largest scientific collaboration in the world, and only publishes its Assessment reports every seven years or so, in what way would you consider this to not be worthy of extensive coverage on a page ostensibly dedicated to science and the public understanding of science?

The editor of this section caused quite a stir last July with a front page ‘news’ story entitled: ‘Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age’. Denier website Wattsupwiththat and UK denier think tank, the GWPF both liked this story – a lot. So much, in fact, it’s now in their online ‘news’ archives.

Given that this flies in the face of just about everything we know about climate change, small wonder it made the front page. Too bad, perhaps, it was simply untrue, as Prof Barry McMullin carefully unpicked here and, far more publicly embarrassingly for the paper, the UK Guardian savaged the report here. As unfortunate coincidence would have it, another stalwart of the same Life Science page is (yet) another retired professor, William Reville of UCC, a man who brings startling levels of academic rigour to his occasional forays into environmental science: “many leading greens seem to be Marxists” or DDT “poses no health hazards” and my personal favourite: “The green movement believes in God, or more precisely, a Goddess called Gaia”, etcetera etcetera.

Meanwhile, back to the Williams interview. Here, I have to agree with the comments Paul Price made in his letter to the Irish Times: “(Williams’) unscientific cherry-picking of a series of geologic and ice age climate facts created a highly misleading picture that is entirely irrelevant to the mitigation and adaptation decisions required by us now… ‘Opinion’ pieces by non-experts may be acceptable for politics or entertainment but on a matter of science, and one of such grave import for all our futures, knowledgeable, critical reporting is required…. it is the responsibility of The Irish Times and its reporters to have sufficient critical and fact checking ability to avoid supplying the public with badly misleading information on climate change, just as would be expected in reporting vaccination for example.

“At the very least reporters should read the IPCC report summaries. Climate change affects all our futures, therefore our media need to work much harder and contact climate scientists for help when writing climate stories to ensure accuracy. Otherwise journalism betrays our trust in this pivotal decade.”

Surely, after five full IPCC reports and countless thousands of peer-reviewed papers over the last two decades or so, that’s not too much to ask?

The Irish Times delivered its response to the challenge thrown down by O’Raifeartaigh and Price, in a manner of speaking, by running two letters from out and out climate change deniers a couple of days later, including a serial denier, David Whitehead, associated with a Flat Earther grouping calling itself Turn 180. Its stated aim: ‘is to inform the Irish public that Carbon Dioxide is not a pollutant, nor is it the cause of Global Warming’ (yawn).

Whitehead wasted no time in labelling people who do not share his anti-science views as “shrill, hysterical…ignorant”. Another letter writer chimed in: “the thought police are on the warpath again – a lone voice queries the popular assertion of “climate change” and is condemned in tones reminiscent of Animal Farm… I find myself wondering whether “global warming” might not simply be the latest iteration of atavistic superstition.”

In the interest of yet more ‘balance’, further responses from both Price and O’Raifeartaigh were published a couple of days later…and so the merry-go-round spun on and on. A letter drawn up by An Taisce’s newly formed climate change committee (disclosure: I’m a member) and signed jointly by Barry McMullin and James Nix was submitted but, sadly, not published. It was headed: ‘Honesty and integrity in climate science reporting’.

Among the points it addressed were:

“To maintain trust, and to properly serve the society that sustains them, our public media need to embrace their responsibility to reflect honestly and accurately the overwhelming scientific consensus on the core findings of climate science and the scale and urgency of the human predicament this science describes. The status of this scientific consensus must be clearly distinguished from mere shared opinion, ideology or, worst of all, “groupthink” – indeed, it is the very opposite.

“Consensus among a large, diverse and distributed group of scientific experts is achieved only through the most intense, prolonged, severe and transparent processes of critical review, experiment and argument, all directed with the explicit aim of uncovering any conceivable weakness or error. Science does not and cannot deliver unambiguous or definitive “truth” on any issue – it is always open to new challenge, refinement or correction: but it is the very best approach yet discovered to identifying and eliminating error.”

The letter concluded by urging Ireland’s Paper of Record to follow the lead of the Los Angeles Times and Sydney Morning Herald among other media who have recently introduced explicit policies to refuse to give oxygen to deliberate misrepresentation of climate science. In a nutshell, that means refusing to run material that promotes demonstrable falsehoods, such as Whitehead’s letter. Maybe it’s reading too much into the decision of the paper not to publish this considered official response from An Taisce, but it does suggest the paper may not yet ready to fully take on board its own Editor’s Statement, which includes the following: “Above all else, we commit ourselves to accuracy; the most essential test of our profession”.

More broadly, quite how you overcome the mindset among some in journalism that gleefully showcases irrelevant contrarianism in a way that is clearly designed to dent public confidence in the reliability of climate science and the need to take urgent, far-reaching actions to avert disaster is perhaps another day’s work.

Trying to unpick media coverage on a moving point like climate change is a tricky and thankless pursuit, and yet it remains critically important. It’s only by calling our media to account, over and over again, that we can hope to see any progress, however slight, in the accurate communication of climate science. After all, it’s not like our lives don’t depend on it.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | 41 Comments

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 , , , | 16 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 OPRJ.org 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 Irishtimes.com all day, and to date, has attracted almost 800 user comments (many, it must be said, from dyed-in-the-wool deniers), and extensive of coverage on Facebook and Twitter. Whether this upsurge in interest lasts longer than the current spell of ongoing severe weather remains to be seen.


IT IS TEMPTING to imagine that a sea change in Ireland’s on-again, off-again relationship with the reality of climate change has occurred in recent times, as extreme weather events yet again battered our coastline, inundated farms and flooded urban areas, with the latest wave of damage already running to over €100 million.

Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, when visiting areas of his home town Limerick battered by flooding commented: “I think we all now believe in climate change… the defences that were here, with the new climates that we are having all around the world, are no longer adequate.”

Next up was Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin. “When calm is restored I think we have to do some serious thinking about long-term flood defences because clearly climate change is a reality”.

Then Brian Hayes, Minister for the Office of Public Works said the OPW had identified some 250 at-risk locations for repeated flooding. However, the costs of trying to defend these locations, Hayes warned, would run into “tens of billions of euros”. The actual government allocation for the next several years is just €250 million.

Meanwhile, back in the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and opposition leader Micheal Martin both agreed that climate change was indeed real. The one who doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo was Environment Minister, Phil Hogan. As the storms rolled in and the flood waters rose higher, Hogan chose instead to join Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney in celebrating securing a renewal of the environmental vandalism also known as Ireland’s latest derogation from the EU Nitrates directive.

“Whether we have scientific evidence or not in relation to climate change, it looks as if we’re going to have these types of weather patterns in the future”, said Hogan. This was about as close to uttering the ‘c’ word as he has managed in two and a half years. And yes Minister, there is evidence alright, mountains – and lakes – of it, in fact.

Not everyone is quite so conflicted as Hogan. The world is “perilously close” to a climate tipping point, International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde warned recently. With a culinary flourish, she added: “unless we take action, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”.

The main difficulty in communicating this fathomless crisis remains a lack of context. RTÉ, for instance, the public service broadcaster with a budget in excess of €300 million should have a team covering climate and environment with the depth and passion lavished on business or sports. Instead, it scrapped its solitary Environment Correspondent post three years ago. And it shows.

RTÉ’s ‘Marian Finucane Show’ on Sunday featured an economist gushing about the rosy future of improved labour market opportunities for his 3-year old daughter by the mid-2030s. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s 2012 document, ‘Turn down the heat’ projects global average temperatures to have smashed the +2°C ‘point of no return’ by the late 2030s.

This locks us into a future of food and fresh water shortages, devastating and intensifying weather extremes, coastal inundation, desertification, ocean acidification and mass extinction events. These ‘business as usual’ scenarios are now widely accepted by the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and, more recently, the IMF, but this stunning reality still has barely made a dent in our national discourse.

Quite how anyone imagines the global economy could survive such relentless disruption has become the question that dare not speak its name, while our economic commentators continue serving up puerile prescriptions for a future that, on our present course, no longer exists.

RTÉ’s dereliction of duty on environmental reporting is a national tragedy. The print media has hardly fared much better, but it has the slender fig leaf of not having a public service mandate. RTÉ’s Audience Council is now inviting the public to comment on its communication of climate change. Submissions close(d) on Monday 17th.

Interestingly, Met Eireann’s head of forecasting, Dr Gerry Fleming pointedly avoided linking the ratcheting up of extreme weather events in Ireland to climate change, stating: “it’s our grandchildren or great grandchildren who will make that call”.

His UK counterpart, the Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, had no such compunctions. “All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change…there is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events”.

The clamour from the Irish public for answers in the face of relentless extreme weather events is gathering pace, yet ironically, outrage is not being directed against the real enemy, which is an energy system utterly dependent on coal, oil and peat-burning. In our displaced fury, we are, Don Quixote style, tilting instead at ‘ugly’ windmills and pylons.

Amid the gloom, some positive news: An Taisce has just established a new climate change committee (disclosure: I’m a member) to take a more forceful approach to communicating this crisis and challenging Ireland’s dangerous do-nothing consensus.

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



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