Rout of global biodiversity comes with a heavy price tag

Below, my article as it appeared in the summer edition of ‘Irish Wildlife’, the magazine of the  Irish Wildlife Trust, an organisation well worth supporting. I gave a one-hour presentation followed by a Q&A at an IWT ‘Green Drinks’ event in Dublin in early March, and was really taken by the level of interest and engagement among the audience that evening, and so was delighted when asked to chip in an article for their magazine.

VETERAN Harvard biologist, Prof E.O. Wilson first achieved fame through his study of the complex social and communal lives of ants – myrmecology, to give it its proper title. Wilson, who turns 90 this summer, is also known as ‘the father of biodiversity’.

Apart from his stellar career as a scientist, he is also a gifted writer and commentator. In his 2002 book, ‘The Future of Life’, he wrote presciently: “An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. It is not the fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.” It’s a phrase that has stayed with me since I first encountered it. Continue reading

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Thirty years closer to the End of Nature

Below, my review of ‘Falter’, the new book by veteran environmental writer, Bill McKibben, as it appeared in the Irish Times in May.

UNLESS you’re an economics graduate or a billionaire, chances are you may have never heard of Ayn Rand. Although she died in 1982, her legacy as arguably the most important political philosopher of our time casts a lengthening shadow. Her influence is no reflection of the quality of her output.

“Rand might as well have written in crayon; her ideas about the world are simple-minded, one-dimensional and poisonous,” Bill McKibben writes. But, he adds, “you don’t have to be right to be influential”. Former Exxon chief executive and US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson calls one of Rand’s volumes “my favourite book”, as does his erstwhile boss, the US president Donald Trump.

It might seem incongruous that a celebrated environmental writer finds it necessary in his new book to undertake such an in-depth excursion into the neoliberal swamp watered by far-right thinkers like Rand, but McKibben feels it’s worth the detour. Continue reading

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Eerie media silence as climate breakdown gathers pace

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on April 26th last.

BY ANY objective standards, the global climate and biodiversity crisis should be front page news almost every day. Rationally, you would expect updates on the battle to maintain a habitable biosphere to also be leading most TV and radio news bulletins. We do not, it seems, live in a world governed by reason.

Some years ago, a former editor of Fortune magazine ran a thought experiment: imagine that the world’s scientists had confirmed, with 90 per cent confidence, that a huge meteor would collide with the Earth within a decade. “The media would throw teams of reporters at it and give them the resources needed to follow it in extraordinary depth and detail”, argued Eric Pooley. “After all, the race to stop the meteor would be the story of the century.” Continue reading

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

A society of altruists, governed by psychopaths

Below, the article I filed for Village magazine’s first edition of 2019, which appeared in the middle of March. The Guardian’s George Monbiot has long been the gold standard for excellence in environment and climate reporting, analysis and campaigning.

Like many others, I’ve been an avid reader of his works for many years, but hadn’t had the opportunity to meet with him until his visit in March to Queen’s University, Belfast, in March. They say beware of meeting your heroes, as they usually disappoint. Happily, this was anything but the case.

Monbiot remained polite, engaged, cordial and good humoured throughout, even though clearly fatigued by the end of what turned out to be a long evening (he has also had to contend with serious ill health in recent months). Continue reading

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Duck, dither, dodge, delay: the new, improved climate denial

Below, my report as it ran on DeSmog UK on the latest climate denier get-together, involving our old friends at the ICSF, in what is their 10th sort-of-public meeting. For an organisation with no known membership list and no apparent way of joining (or donating), it is doing a remarkable job in hosting so many meetings involving, in most cases, bringing in speakers from the international denier circuit.

For this latest meeting, they changed tactics and brought in some Irish speakers to answer the question: “Climate Action to 2030 – What is really Feasible?” Many eyebrows were raised at the decision by Teagasc, the state agriculture research agency, to allow one of its senior figures to attend. Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan was clearly unhappy at their presence. He feels ICSF’s talks are “designed to undermine climate science… [and that] is not being open to enquiry and listening to different views”.

My favourite slide from the mini-forum was by a mechanical engineer from UCD. It showed a Tesla in flames, and the chilling headline: ‘Tesla battery reignited twice after fatal crash in Florida’. They’re death traps, I tells ya! Among the shock conclusions: “CO2 benefits of Electric vehicles are highly questionable”; and “Current EV financial subsidies are unsustainable” and, of course, “Internal combustion engines have a long future”. So, business-as-usual, in other words.

We have, it appears, been well warned about these new fangled exploding EVs. Somebody must have forgot to tell those backward Norwegians. In March 2019, 58% of all new car sales in Norway were electric, with Tesla the number one brand. What a bunch of dummies, eh? Didn’t anyone tell them the internal combustion engine has a long future behind it?

Running a talking shop like the ICSF can’t be cheap. All those flights, transfers, speaking fees, hotel room rentals, website, agendas, flyers etc. etc, must be running at this stage to tens of thousands of euros, but, according to its chair, one Jim O’Brien, “ICSF operates to a very modest budget and is entirely self‐funded. It has no vested interests other than disseminating the latest climate science in the public interest”.

Someone should get these guys to build the National Children’s Hospital, given how far they’ve managed to stretch their ‘very modest budget’. The public interest is no doubt already in their debt for their selfless work.

Our plucky band of retired and semi-retired have-a-go iconoclasts have modestly debunked those know-nothings at the IPCC, which is great news all round as we can get back to business-as-usual, now that the most powerful international scientific consensus in history has been so brilliantly unpicked.

Or, in Jim’s own words: “the ICSF proposes that national climate policy should be based on ongoing energy innovation, efficiency and conservation measures compatible with continued economic growth (my emphasis) rather than imposing any economically and socially‐regressive measures”. Brilliant, truly brilliant, gents. A grateful world thanks you for your service.

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THE climate science denying Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) held another behind closed doors meeting, and this time a government agency accepted the invitation.

The group has previously invited infamous climate science deniers from around the world to speak at its events, casting aspersions on the veracity of mainstream climate science. It has also submitted arguments to the Irish Parliament, suggesting climate change isn’t as bad as scientists make out.

The ‘economic’ arguments on climate change are understood to be the topic of the ICSF’s latest event, with the ‘mini-seminar’ on 13 March 2019 titled ‘Climate action to 2030 – what is really feasible?’

Among the guest speakers were scheduled to be Trevor Donnellan, head of economics and farm surveys at Teagasc, Ireland’s national agriculture research agency, David Timoney, a mechanical engineer from University College, Dublin and Kevin O’Rourke, described as ‘an independent specialist in sustainable energy policies’.

Once again, the press, including DeSmog UK, was barred from attending this invitation-only meeting of the secretly funded ICSF, which has in recent months strengthened its ties to the London-based climate denial group, the GWPF, with whom it regularly shares speakers.

The Teagasc press office declined to comment on whether it was aware of the ICSF’s climate science denial. It also declined to comment on whether it considered it appropriate that a government agency official would be speaking at an event from which the public and press were barred, for an organisation which refuses to disclose its sources of funding.

A spokesperson for the Teagasc told DeSmog UK:

“Teagasc has presented results from its research to multiple organisations. This is another opportunity to outline which mitigation measures can contribute to reducing Ireland’s emissions from the land-use sectors”.

Leader of the Irish Green party, Eamon Ryan, criticised Teagasc’s decision to allow Donnellan to speak at the event. He questioned why a Teagasc representative was involved with a group whose events have been “clearly designed to call into question climate science”, GreenNews.ie reports.

Lagging Behind

This week, the Parliamentary All-Party Committee on Climate Action concluded that “Ireland cannot meet its international emissions targets without tackling agricultural sector emissions”, according to a draft report.

Various reports have ranked Ireland as the worst country in the EU on climate action, with much of this failure attributable to the work of powerful lobby groups such as the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and IBEC, the business lobby group.

In another reminder of the close personal ties between agricultural lobbyists and top politicians, the IFA president was photographed accompanying Ireland’s prime minister and foreign minister to the international rugby match in Dublin last weekend. The foreign minister’s brother, Patrick Coveney, is CEO of the agri-food giant, Greencore.

Ireland’s agriculture sector is the number one producer of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for well over a third of total emissions. Greenhouse gases from this sector have begun to rise since 2015, following the removal of milk quotas and the rapid expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd.

Ireland’s has a 2020 EU target for to reduce emissions 20 percent on 2005 levels. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the country will “at best” manage a one percent reduction.

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A harrowing but narrow vision of our climate-wrecked futures

Back in July 2017, I wrote a précis of an astonishing essay published earlier that year in the New York magazine. Titled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘, it set out an uncompromising picture of the rapid unravelling of the global climate system and the ensuing collapse of human civilisations.

While the article itself received massive public attention, the reception within the scientific community was markedly cooler, with criticisms mainly claiming that he had ‘gone too far’ in presenting scenarios on the apocalyptic end of the spectrum. His response to these charges was to pen an annotated version of his article, backing up, line by line, the statements and claims he made. It was an extremely impressive piece of work. Continue reading

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Incoherent, inconsistent – and not really funny at all

Below, my article as it appeared on DeSmog UK earlier this month. This is my 13th piece to appear on DeSmog since May 2017, when I reported on the inaugural ICSF meeting in Dublin, featuring big-name US denier, Richard Lindzen. While barred from attending that meeting (and every meeting since) I did drop by the Sandymount Hotel that first evening to snap a shot of the meeting in progress, and was struck by the uniformly ‘male, pale and stale’ profile of the attendees.

I also dropped by earlier this month to do some more light reconnaissance in and around the meeting, to the same venue, and took the opportunity to snap a new photo discreetly from the rear of the meeting room (see below). You will note, once again, the overwhelmingly elderly white male profile of the attendees (the only person who looked remotely under the age of 50 was one of the speakers, a young GWPF ‘researcher’). Continue reading

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A very British coup: rise and fall of the climate contrarians

In recent months, I’ve been involved as one of a number of authors in an international project for a forthcoming academic publication looking at the state of environmental journalism around the world (my brief covered the UK and Ireland). One of the privileges of taking on this kind of work is that you get to meet and interview some extremely interesting people.

One of these was the former BBC environment correspondent, Richard Black (now director of the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit) In the course of the interview, it transpired that he had just completed a book on the phenomenon of organised climate denial, with a key focus on the UK. As soon as it was published, I got my copy and offered a review to the Irish Times (below), which was published yesterday. Continue reading

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A tale told by an idiot, full of sound & fury, signifying nothing

In many respects, 2018 has been another thoroughly dispiriting year on the climate and environment beat. The publication in October of the IPCC’s SR1.5 report extinguished any remote hope that the pace and severity of climate breakdown might be less than feared.

Paul Krugman in the NYT last month surveyed the horrific damage being done by climate deniers and contrarians in a column titled: ‘The depravity of climate change denial – Risking civilization for profit, ideology and ego’. And frankly, that’s exactly how I see it.

Domestically, the hope that the faucet of anti-science nonsense infecting the Irish media had been finally turned off were well and truly dashed just before Christmas, with the publication of a ‘report’ by retired meteorologist Ray Bates for the secretive London-based climate denier think tank, the GWPF. Continue reading

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Window on ecological annihilation closing fast

Below, my article that appeared in the Irish Times at the beginning of this month, inspired by the publication in October of the WWF’s ‘Living Planet Report‘. Even when generally inured to the drumbeat of ecological bad news, the Living Planet Report is a real punch in the face. Some comments arising were published in the Letters page a few days after publication.

Human history is littered with tales of once-mighty empires and civilisations that crumbled into the dust. While the causes of such collapses are many, ecological overreach and resource exhaustion almost invariably are contributory factors, and societies on the brink of disaster seldom appear to see it coming.

When, for instance, the Mayan civilisation in Central America fell apart in the ninth century, the survivors at least had space to move elsewhere and start again. At that time the world’s population totalled about 400 million. The figure today is almost 20 times larger. Some three-quarters of the Earth’s land surface is dominated by humans and our domestic animals and agricultural systems. Continue reading

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Running Amoc – uncertain future for Atlantic current

Below, my first article to appear in Passive House Plus magazine:

IF YOU LOOK at Ireland on an atlas, one thing that is striking is just how far north the island is located. Follow the lines of latitude east across the Atlantic and we are parallel with the Labrador peninsula in northern Newfoundland. This bleak, chilly landscape, where average winter temperatures rarely rise above zero degrees centigrade was famously portrayed in The Shipping News, a novel by Annie Proulx.

Ireland’s coldest month, in contrast, is January, with average temperatures of 5ºC; relative to Newfoundland, this is positively balmy. The difference between Ireland and Newfoundland is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or Amoc. This is just one part of a complex global system of ocean currents that act like a conveyor belt for currents. The Amoc transfers vast amounts of heat from the Caribbean region and brings this warmth to north western Europe.

One obvious beneficiary of this bounty is Garnish island in Bantry Bay. It enjoys an almost sub-tropical climate, as the warm surface waters drawn from the equator lap its shores, allowing it to support exotic plant species that would not survive elsewhere in Ireland.
Earlier this year, two research papers published in the respected journal Nature reached the same disturbing conclusion: the Amoc has slowed down by some 15% in recent decades, and the trend appears to be accelerating . The impacts of global warming, including the rapid melting of hundreds of billions of tons of fresh water from Greenland and into the north Atlantic is disrupting this vast current.

The idea of the Amoc (also known as the Gulf Stream) closing down suddenly has been dramatised in the 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, which imagined a shutdown of the ocean currents triggering a series of epic superstorms which then plunged the northern hemisphere into a new Ice Age.

While scientists scoffed at the liberties Hollywood took with science, the basic premise that the Amoc could shut down in a relatively short time frame and that this in turn would have catastrophic consequences for the entire north Atlantic region is entirely factual.
Just how severe these impacts might be was explored in depth by Nasa’s former chief scientist, Dr James Hansen and colleagues in a 2016 paper. “If Greenland fresh water shuts down deep water formation and cools the North Atlantic several degrees, the increased horizontal temperature gradient will drive superstorms, stronger than any in modern times”, Hansen explained in a video to accompany the paper. “All hell will break loose in the North Atlantic and neighbouring lands.”

To get a glimpse into just how bad, Hansen’s research team identified a previous period of rapid global warming around 120,000 years ago, towards the end of the Eemian period. At that time, a collapse of polar ice, fast rising sea level and a shutdown of the Amoc led to superstorms of epic dimensions sweeping the region.

A number of rocks, weighing up to 1,000 tons each, have been located perched on a cliff 20 metres above the Atlantic on an island in the Bahamas. Hansen believes these giant boulders were scooped up from the sea floor and tossed inland during a period of mega-storms far beyond anything modern humans have ever endured.

The Amoc shutdown would lead to the temperature difference between the newly chilled northern hemisphere and the even hotter tropics increasing sharply, and this is the fuel for storms capable of levelling cities. Storms notwithstanding, the Amoc shutdown would likely cause land temperatures in Ireland to plummet by several degrees, effectively wiping out our agricultural sector – just look at the severe impacts seen on grass growth for fodder production as a result of this year’s prolonged cold snap.

And while climate change almost never receives serious or sustained media coverage in Ireland, the recent confluence of extreme weather events has left many people wondering aloud if this is a bitter foretaste of what the scientists have been warning about for decades. The summer of 2018 has seen Ireland bask in an extraordinary sustained heatwave, triggering the worst drought in almost a century.

As recently as March 2018, Storm Emma swept in a severe snow event. A few months earlier, in October 2017, the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia battered Ireland, leaving three dead and a swathe of destruction across the country. A hurricane has never before been recorded in this part of the north Atlantic. And just two months earlier, a so-called ‘once-in-a-century’ monster flooding event in August 2017 centred in Donegal triggered landslides, with bridges and roads swept away in the deluge.

Commenting on the Donegal downpour, UCC climatologist, Dr Kieran Hickey suggested to me that: “phrases like ‘once-in-a-hundred years’ to describe these extreme events really need to be retired”. Over the last decade or so, he estimates that Ireland has experienced an extreme weather event, on average, every 6-8 months. This represents a staggering four to five-fold increase in the frequency of such extreme events versus typical Irish weather in the 20th century.

While there is little doubt the deluge in Donegal was a freak weather event, “if we were to do an in-depth analysis, I suspect we would detect a climate change element in terms of its severity”, added Dr Hickey. An EPA-funded climate attribution project involving Dr Hickey and colleagues at UCC, as well as Prof Myles Allen of Oxford University will spend the next two years investigating the specific fingerprint of climate change on recent extreme weather events in Ireland.

This may help to answer that seemingly eternal question as to whether and to what degree any specific extreme weather event may be influenced by climate change. While it is standard practice among weather forecasters to be reluctant to attribute any single event to climate change (given the huge natural variability within the climate system), climate researchers have been able to establish with a high degree of confidence that man-made climate change ‘dramatically increased’ the likelihood of the extreme heatwave that swept much of Europe during June 2017.

The researchers who carried out this work are known as World Weather Attribution (WAA), an international coalition of scientists who examine and try to quantify the role of climate change in individual extreme weather events.

The extreme temperatures that scorched the European mainland (but missed Ireland) last summer and that have left Ireland sweltering this year will become commonplace by mid-century “unless action is taken to rapidly cut carbon emissions”, the WAA stated.
“Since 1900 we have seen the likelihood of a summer as hot as 1995 increase 50-fold”, according to NUI Maynooth climatologist, Dr Conor Murphy. “By the end of the century our warmest summer on record up to now could plausibly by then be a cool summer”, he added.

The pattern of extreme weather that has rocked Ireland and many other parts of the world in just the last year fits eerily well into the more pessimistic modelling scenarios of climate specialists, who warn of the impact of ‘supercharging’ the global climate by pumping more and more of the powerful heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) along with other gases such as methane, into the global atmosphere is already being felt strongly.

Rigorous instrumental measurement of atmospheric CO2 only began as recently as 1958, but we have quite accurate proxy records stretching back some 800,000 years. In 1958, thanks to the pioneering measuring work of Dr Charles Keeling, we know that global atmospheric CO2 levels stood at 316 parts per million (ppm). Since then, CO2 has increased by almost 40% to today’s level of around 410ppm.

In other words, we have in just the last 60 years drastically altered the basic chemistry of the global atmosphere. Today’s CO2 levels are likely the highest experienced on Earth for at least three to five million years. Since the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, humans have flourished, our numbers expanded exponentially and our impacts are now being felt in every corner of the biosphere, from the upper atmosphere to the ocean basins.
The current interglacial era, known as the Holocene, has been perfect for humans, gifting us a prolonged period of thousands of years of, by historical standards, stable, benign climate, which has made global agriculture possible. This era is now at an end. The Holocene has been officially replaced by a new era, the Anthropocene, the Era of Man.

We have known for decades that loading vast amounts of CO2 into the global atmosphere would lead to a sharp increase in global average temperatures. Already, the world has warmed by over 1C versus pre-industrial. Worse, this heating will, as emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes such as deforestation continue unabated, spike by 2,3, 4C or even more this century.

This may not at first sound catastrophic, but it represents the most rapid rate of change in atmospheric conditions on Earth since a large asteroid slammed into the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico some 66 million years ago. It triggered a devastating global extinction event that famously ended the 230-million year reign of the dinosaurs.

In 2012, the World Bank commissioned a report to better understand what a world 4C hotter than today might look like. Its president, Jim Yong Kim described this level of temperature increase as a “doomsday scenario” that would trigger widespread crop failures and malnutrition and dislocate tens of millions of people from land inundated by rising seas and regions of the Earth, such as much of the Middle East, that become too hot for human habitation or agriculture.

Consider the political impacts on Europe of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing failed states in Africa and the Middle East in recent years. Multiply these numbers by 100 or even 1,000 and you begin to grasp the existential nature of the climate crisis.

Ireland’s island status will offer only the briefest of respites from the wrenching climate-fuelled upheavals that will drastically reshape our world in the decades ahead.

– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

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Long day’s journey into 1.5º

Let’s get this out of the way first. On climate change, things are worse, a lot worse, than most people have been led to believe. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities”, according to the IPCC’s ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released in Korea earlier today.

From where we are today, 1.5°C is desperately close. Human actions have already driven up global average surface temperatures by at least 1°C, so we are already two thirds of the way to the 1.5°C ‘guard rail’ of what could in any terms be regarded as ‘safe’ temperature increases. (‘Stop Climate Chaos’ put out a good summary document early today, while GreenNews.ie also had excellent coverage).

As is becoming ever more apparent, even the amount of temperature increase already in the system is wielding dangerous outcomes in an ever more restive, supercharged global climate system. As the mercury rises, things can only get worse, and not necessarily in a linear fashion.

The IPCC report explains how net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” in the words of Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. He’s probably right, but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the emissions objectives needed to make this ‘unprecedented’ situation a reality.

For starters, globally, emissions have not fallen at all since 2010, so with 2019 just around the corner, than means we have precisely 11 years to hit the IPCC’s 2030 objective of a 45% cut in CO2e emissions. In simple terms, that means every nation on Earth, starting on January 1st next, manages to cut its carbon emissions by around 4% per annum, every year until 2030.

If you think that doesn’t sound too onerous, consider that Ireland was given the (binding) EU target of achieving a 20% cut in non-traded emissions in the 15 years from 2005 to 2020; so, a much longer time frame in which to achieve a much lower rate of emissions reductions. According to the EPA, we’re on target instead to achieve “at most” a solitary 1% cut versus 2005 levels. Take the impacts of the tail end of the last recession out and the figures would have been even worse.

In an economy like ours where success is only measured in terms of expansion of economic activity, rising emissions move in lock-step with this growth, given how highly dependent our energy, transport and (in Ireland especially) agriculture sector are on highly carbon-intensive systems. Consider also the phalanx of well-funded lobbyists fighting tooth and nail to make sure the economic gravy keeps flowing in their direction.

From IBEC to the IFA, and their many international counterparts, war chests running into hundreds of millions of euros per annum are available to lobby in favour of special interests and against our shared common good. Much of this lobbying happens behind closed doors and is therefore even more pervasive and difficult to unpick.

There are nearly 2 million private cars on Ireland’s roads, powered in around 99% of cases by liquid fuels. EVs are now finally on the visible horizon, but that revolution is going to take quite some time. While renewables have made genuine inroads, our energy sector remains similarly heavily dependent on fossil fuels, from oil and gas to peat.

So, change is tough. Countries in the developing world lack the finance and in many cases are lumbered with antiquated and dirty infrastructure that make an energy transition extremely difficult to achieve quickly. Developed, prosperous countries like Ireland mainly lack political will.

Any TD, especially one operating outside of a major urban area, who dares mention carbon taxes is politically dead meat. In our multi-seat constituencies, picking TDs off, one by one, is relatively simple for lobbyists, as this amazing FG backbencher effort to thwart even the most ridiculously modest carbon taxes in the Budget shows yet again.

Fine Gael-led administrations over the last seven years have been almost comically inept on this issue. Installing a rural TD as our first ever ‘climate action’ minister showed they were not entirely lacking in a sense of humour. Denis Naughten has, as planned, floundered around ineffectually. Whatever his personal abilities or beliefs, he has been handed a no-win brief, and it shows. His toothless National Mitigation Plan has been scrapped and taken back to the drawing board.

“This Report paints in stark terms the reality of the impact of our current trajectory of global emissions and the world we will be living in later this century if our collective ambition for climate action does not increase”, Naughten said today in response to the IPCC report. He added some of his standard spiel about the billions that will flow in the coming years under the National Development Plan (NDP) towards “addressing the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society”.

I for one genuinely wish him well, but would be a lot more convinced if, while talking in terms of tens of billions mañana, Naughten could point in the here and now, to modest, concrete and tangible steps he and his government are taking to prepare Ireland for the greatest peacetime transition in its history. Where are the ad campaigns? Where are the billboards? Or the websites and social media campaigns explaining the stark reality of climate change and what we can do to rapidly transition our society towards a less dangerous future?

They don’t exist. What we get instead is deeply cynical glossy mega-buck ad campaigns from fully state-controlled agencies like Bord Bia (‘Origin Green’) and Bord Na Móna (‘Naturally Driven’) while other state-controlled agencies like the ESB – run by people who presumably love their kids as much as anyone – source coal from Colombia to fuel power stations that help burn down our collective future. Politicians cynically say that the reason they don’t act on climate is that they don’t hear about it on the doorsteps, yet they could, for relative peanuts, engage the public and interest groups in a national dialogue on change.

To date, Naughten’s parody of leadership has involved insisting it’s not the job of politicians to “tell people what to do”. And as Fine Gael’s recent woeful ‘Green Week’ efforts show, it’s clear that Naughten has precious little support around the Cabinet table for anything that ventures beyond facile window dressing and easy PR stunts.

The Citizens’ Assembly showed clearly that we are not simply the narrowly self-absorbed automatons the marketers and political spin doctors believe we are. Given the plain facts, guided by experts, the Irish public displayed a perhaps unexpected appetite for tough choices. This occurred once people understood that the status quo is unacceptably dangerous right now and criminally reckless when the next generation’s needs are taken into account.

Prof Peter Thorne of NUI Maynooth, a contributing author of the report, put it elegantly in the Irish Times today: “The true cost of carbon, if accounting for the warming impact, is likely somewhere in the range of €150-€200 per ton. It’s currently taxed at 10 per cent of that. The result is a huge IOU to future generations.”

The same report quoted Dr Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the IPCC working group on climate impacts. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency”.

Complacency is a very good word to describe the predominant mood in Ireland. How else could a 30-something Taoiseach, in the teeth of the greatest existential crisis in human history, suggest with a straight face that switching to a keep cup was his ‘big idea’ on climate change? Twenty, maybe 30 years ago, that kind of incrementalism was understandable if not exactly laudable. Today? Unforgivable.

RTÉ did a fairly good job on its coverage, with George Lee genuinely animated (it’s a real shame the agriculture part of his dual mandate sucks up so much of his considerable energy). I called out to Montrose around 11am today to do a pre-record for an earlier TV news bulletin (clip embedded in report linked here).

While the Irish Times carried reports throughout the day, I could find almost zero evidence of this story on Independent.ie. The sole story in its Environment section related instead to the issue of whether or not coal and petrol would get a hike in tomorrow’s Budget. This, bear in mind, is Ireland’s largest newspaper group, and not a sausage all day on the biggest IPCC announcement since the Paris Accord in December 2015.

The Examiner took a quirkier approach, linking the IPCC report with tips to reduce your carbon footprint when travelling. Its advice to pack lightly (“this will make your plane that little bit more fuel efficient, as it’s not weighed down with jumpers and swimming costumes you don’t actually end up wearing”) speaks for itself. To be fair, the article does later on actually suggest the need to reduce air travel, but still clings to the view that “Long-haul air travel is unavoidable”.

Actually, yes it is. Realistically, we’re going to need to drastically reduce the amount of non-essential aviation globally. A strict carbon rationing system would at least mean it could be done equitably, but imagine the kerfuffle if Prof Peter Thorne’s suggested €150-€200 per tonne carbon tax were applied to aviation? A return economy class flight from Dublin to Los Angeles generates around 2.3 tonnes of CO2e, which, at a median €175/tonne carbon tax, would slap an additional €402 on your ticket price. Now, I wonder how would an idea like that fly politically?

To bring a long day to a conclusion, BBC’s Flagship program, Newsnight, had a segment on the IPCC report. It made the idiotic editorial decision to give a platform to a flat-out denier, Myron Ebell, of the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute to “debate” the IPCC report, in the interests of balance, don’t you know. (I wrote about this individual in the IT back in Nov 2016)

In summary: we thought 2ºC represented the red line beyond which lay the dragons of climate chaos. Now we know it’s 1.5ºC, tops. This concept was first put on the public agenda in Paris in December 2015, and has now taken solid form in today’s report.

And there’s the rub. We already know that, if every country on Earth honoured each and every one of their (non-binding) Paris commitments in full (and they assuredly won’t, Ireland included) then the world is on a glide path for, not 1.5, not 2, but a calamitous 3.4ºC average temperature increase in the decades.

The real value of today I would suggest, is not to remind us of the near-impossibility of keeping global temperatures within the 1.5ºC guard-rail, but instead, as a timely, stinging final warning of the simply unconscionable consequences of not succeeding. Until we fully grasp the price of failure, the cost of striving to succeed will always seem too high.

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

Organised denial targets Dáil climate committee

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) has been in session over the last couple of weeks. It is tasked with reviewing the recommendations of last November’s Citizens’ Assembly section entitled: ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’ and bringing proposals to government.

Already, the lobbyists (who were barred from addressing or influencing the deliberations of the 99 ordinary Irish citizens who comprised the Citizens’ Assembly) are swarming over the JOCCA. One of the more, let’s say, interesting submissions it received was from our old friends, the Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF).

Regular readers will be familiar with this grouping of mainly long-retired engineers and weathermen which has set itself up, Canute-like, to try and hold back the ever rising tides of scientific and real-world evidence that climate change is real, it’s extremely dangerous, it’s here right now and it’s quickly getting worse.

Some people feel the ICSF are just a group of harmless science hobbyists with a lot of time on their hands engaged in the pleasant group delusion of having heroically unpicked a century and more of climate science and found it to be basically bunk. That the people who believe they have upscuttled the most powerful global consensus in any branch of the physical sciences are completely unqualified to do so (not a single atmospheric scientist/climatologist listed among the 10 signatories attached to their JOCCA submission) makes their plucky little band even more, well, remarkable.

I’m just not one of those people. This murky group includes some extremely well connected and no doubt influential individuals. The scope for this mischief-making to do real and lasting damage to climate action in Ireland is too real for them to be laughed off as harmless amateur science meddlers. Below, the report I filed for the investigative site, DeSmog.uk yesterday detailing their latest play:

CLIMATE DENIAL group the Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) has significantly escalated its lobbying campaign to prevent climate action.

The group’s main function until now has been to hold behind-closed-doors meetings with infamous climate science deniers as guest speakers. But it has now submitted a document to the Irish Parliament insisting climate change simply isn’t as bad as scientists make out, DeSmog UK has learned.

The group, which has no publicly accessible membership or officer list, has run a series of ‘invitation-only’ events in Dublin over the last 18 months allowing familiar faces from the world of climate denial, such as Richard Lindzen, William Happer, Henrik Svensmark and Nicola Scafetta to showcase their debunked arguments against taking action on climate change.

Its seventh talk, which once again bars media and NGOs, took place on Wednesday September 26 in Dublin, and featured William van Wijngaarden, who was expected to make his oft-repeated claim that the greenhouse gas influence of agricultural emissions are “significantly less than hitherto estimated by the IPCC”.

As a result of the strong recommendations arising from a Citizens’ Assembly report on climate change issued late last year, the Irish parliament recently convened a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) to examine the Assembly’s findings and make recommendations for action to government.

Ireland is one of the worst performing countries in the EU in terms of meeting its mandated obligations on emissions reduction, largely due to the lobbying power of key interest groups, including the agri-industrial and transport sectors. Instead of meeting its 2020 EU obligation to achieve a 20 percent cut in emissions versus a benchmark of 2005, Ireland is currently on track to achieve “at most” a one percent emissions cut, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Submission

The ICSF submission to the JOCCA, which has been seen by DeSmog UK, runs to 25 pages and includes almost 100 references. None of the people whose names accompany the ICSF submission have relevant qualifications or expertise in climate science. No scientific advisors are identified.

The document was submitted by the chairman of the ICSF, Jim O’Brien, a retired engineer. The submission was ‘supported’ by nine other named individuals, mainly retired engineers. They include Former Siemens and Science Foundation Ireland chairman Brian Sweeney and Dr Ed Walsh, former chair of the Irish Council for Science Technology and Innovation.

The submission, entitled ‘Latest Climate Science, Sept 2018’ is a mish mash of charts and graphics from a range of contrarian and denier sources, including the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) and its references section is a who’s who of climate science denial, including John Christsy, Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, William Happer, Matt Ridley and Willie Soon.

Among its claims are that current global temperature trends continue below IPCC model predictions and that ‘recent research’ shows lower climate sensitivity than estimated by the IPCC. The main source for the latter is retired meteorologist, Ray Bates, founder of the ICSF. It also quotes papers by Lindzen and Yong-Sang Choi which have been thoroughly debunked.

According to John Sweeney, Emeritus Professor at the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit, Maynooth University, the ICSF submission: “cannot be taken seriously by any responsible atmospheric scientist”.

He added that it: “perpetuates long-debunked science, such as the non-existent temperature hiatus, the myth of discrepancies in thermometer observations and the spurious explanation of urban heat islands as the cause of higher temperatures on land”.

Also commenting on the ICSF submission, Green Party senator, Grace O’Sullivan told DeSmog UK: “it puts forward cherry picked data that does not represent either the consensus or the lived reality on any of these issues. They claim to be a sceptical group, checking the science. Yet every single conclusion on every single issue comes out against mitigation measures. Surely this is a bizarre and unlikely coincidence?”

Senator O’Sullivan added that she could not “begin to fathom the group’s true aims and motives, but these materials need to be viewed with the deepest ‘skepticism’ themselves”. She added that the work of the committee “is too important to be set off course with distractions and misrepresentations such as these”.

DeSmog UK made numerous efforts to contact ICSF chair, Jim O’Brien, to ask him about the submission, as well as the funding and ongoing lobbying activities of the Forum, but he did not respond to an invitation to comment.

Ireland’s Regulation of Lobbying Act requires all individuals and groups engaged in lobbying to register and verify their details on the Lobbying.ie website and make written returns every four months. Environmental groups such as the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and An Taisce publish details of their lobbying returns as required, but nothing has been filed on behalf of the ICSF at the time of writing.

Under current regulations, groups engaged in lobbying must register if they have at least one paid employee. As it does not disclose any operational details publicly and has declined to answer questions from DeSmog, it is unclear whether or not the ICSF has any paid employees and if so, if it is required to register its lobbying activities.

The ICSF has recently launched its website, where it sets out its contrarian agenda plainly, attempting to claim the IPCC ‘got it wrong’ on key issues. From there, it revisits debunked denier talking points, such as: “there are solar-related and other natural influences on earth’s climate… the relative magnitudes of these influences may be comparable to or possibly even greater than those of GHG.”

“ICSF members do not foresee a planetary climate emergency”, it continues. The organisation claims that its members are “characterized by an open and enquiring mind on climate science, driven by the imperative of objectivity without any vested interests”.

This open-mindedness does not extend to answering media questions, however. Its events have hand-picked attendees lists, the group has a secret membership and officer list, and there is no visible process for applying to join.

It has also yet to explain how it has funded seven meetings involving international guest speakers. It claims to be “modestly self-funded through member contributions only”.

The ICSF’s ‘Useful Links’ page gives an insight into its approach, in which legitimate sites such as the AMA and Climate Home are interspersed with denier blogs such as Watts Up With That and SEPP plus pseudoscience from Bjorn Lomborg. Tellingly, the ICSF chooses not to provide a link to the UN’s official advisor on climate science, the IPCC.

Posted in Global Warming, Sceptics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Creed gets creamed over dodgy dairy data

Going right back to late last year, a concerted campaign has been led by folks in the Department of Agriculture to create ‘alternative facts’ about emissions emanating from our rapidly expanding dairy herd. A new phrase – decoupling – was rolled out to promote the idea that amazing technological breakthroughs had allowed the dairy sector to ramp up production without any commensurate increase in carbon (specifically, methane) emissions.

Were it true, this would be very good news indeed. But, of course, it’s not. An eagle eyed Dáil researcher first tipped off An Taisce to this newly minted ‘decoupling’ lingo, and it was duly investigated and found to be, well, complete nonsense. On June 25th, I drafted a release on behalf of An Taisce calling on Minister Creed to ‘retract misleading Dáil statements on rising dairy emissions’.

To be absolutely fair, we had given the minister two full months to deal with this before going public, and he had declined to take a step backwards. In his written response to An Taisce, Creed had stated: “The 8% increase in emissions I referred to is the growth in total agricultural emissions and reflects that while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, other sub sectors of agriculture are contracting. It is valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data”.

Briefly, Creed & Co. had tried a favourite statistical sleight of hand: talk on the one hand about dairy production rising by around 27%, then switch when describing emissions to talking about emissions for the entire agriculture sector, which in this case had risen by a still quite scandalous 8%. To the unwary, this could be sold as a massive increase in dairy output, with “only” an 8% increase in emission. Et Voila, decoupling!

No doubt some clever principal officer in the department, or perhaps in Teagasc, dreamed this one up, but it’s still just a simple three-card trick. Since Creed decided in his wisdom to double down, we took the story to the Farming Independent, and they did a reasonable job with it, albeit capping it with a desperately bland and somewhat misleading heading that framed this as a simple dispute between Creed and An Taisce, rather than pointing out where he had been deliberately misleading, and the fact that, when challenged, he had no answers.

I had also had a chat with the editor at the investigative website, DeSmog.uk and he had no difficulty in recognising the deception involved, so I filed a piece for them, which they labelled: ‘EXCLUSIVE: Ireland’s Government Using Fake Data to Pretend Dairy Emissions Aren’t Rising Fast‘. That was a lot closer to the truth.

From there, the wheels kept rolling. While it was probably easy enough to ignore a specialist website, next, the science editor of the UK Independent picked up the story, sourcing DeSmog, under the heading: ‘Irish government using wrong data to downplay greenhouse gas emissions from cows’. And, to add insult to ignominy, the Guardian’s environment editor, Damian Carrington tweeted out a link to my DeSmog piece, which he captioned: ‘Fake Moos’.

Nor did the fun end there. Nearly a month later, the Irish edition of the Sunday Times contacted me about the piece and filed their own report, headed: ‘Dairy row heats up – An Taisce calls on minister to correct ‘misleading’ GHG figures’. Maybe what still bothers me and others most about this story is that, even when caught red-handed telling whoppers on the Dáil record, Creed has, as of right now, still not retracted his statements.

On a positive note, they have at least got the message and ‘decoupling’ has been quietly excised from the lexicon of Agri Spin, so it was not in vain after all. Creed and his officials are quite entitled to have their own views on dairy expansion, and their critics are equally entitled to challenge these, but there is, I believe, absolutely no excuse for allowing our public representatives to manufacture their own ‘alternative facts’ to support these views. That’s a red line we must hold at all costs.

Below, for the record, is my piece as it appeared in DeSmog:

IRELAND’S AGRICULTURE Minister, Michael Creed and his officials are mounting a co-ordinated campaign to mislead the Irish parliament (Dáil) about the true state of spiralling dairy emissions, DeSmog.uk has learned.

Emissions from Ireland’s rapidly expanding dairy sector have shot up in recent years, in direct conflict with government policy. But the government continues to use bunk data to assert that this is not the case.

On 26 April 2018, Minister Creed told the Dáil: “in the five-year period 2012-2016, dairy cow numbers have increased by 22 percent and corresponding milk production by 27 percent while emissions increased just 8 percent, demonstrating a level of decoupling is occurring.”

This point was amplified by one of Creed’s senior officials, Jack Nolan, at a parliamentary joint committee hearing, when he claimed: “S​ince 2015 we have increased milk output by 13.5 percent, whereas emissions have only increased by 1.6 percent. Massive efficiency gains are happening at the moment”.

Junior Agriculture Minister, Andrew Doyle in December 2017 made the same point about apparent dramatic decoupling of dairy output from carbon emissions.

All these claims are refuted by data compiled by Ireland’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA). This indicates that carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from dairy rose by a massive 24 percent from 2012 to 2016,​ ​which closely tracks the 22 percent increase in national dairy cow numbers and a 27 percent milk production hike in the same period.

An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, became aware of the statements being made within the parliament and wrote to Creed on May 4th last, pointing out the erroneous data and requesting that he formally correct the Dáil record.

In response, Creed admitted to An Taisce that his claim of ‘only’ eight percent emissions increases arising from a 27 percent increase in dairy output “is the growth in total agricultural emissions and reflects that while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, other sub-sectors of agriculture are contracting”. It is, the minister added, “valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data”.

However, An Taisce told DeSmog UK that the minister’s response was “simply indefensible”. ​By not correcting his statement, “it seems the minister is now willing to mislead the Dáil and the public, even when called out. This is unacceptable. We now publicly call on the minister to correct the Dáil record as a matter of urgency”.

The reason officials like Creed are prepared to go to such lengths to present a rosy picture of agricultural emissions is that rapid expansion of the national dairy herd is de facto  government policy, even though it flatly contradicts the Irish state’s EU and Paris Agreement obligations to slash carbon emissions.

Recent EPA projections showed that, instead of meeting its EU obligations to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, Ireland would “at best” achieve a negligible one percent cut versus 2005 levels. Agricultural emissions, meanwhile, continue to spiral, hence the pressure on ministers to massage the figures to present a ‘good news story’ on dairy emissions.

More pressure was ratcheted on Irish government inaction with the publication earlier this month by Climate Action Network Europe of its ranking of EU countriesin terms of their ambition and progress in tackling climate change. Ireland was ranked 2nd worst in the EU, only ahead of coal-dependent Poland in the rankings.

Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar is clearly uneasy at the growing reputational damage arising from what he admits is its status as a climate “laggard”. He told the European Parliament earlier this year that he was “not proud of Ireland’s performance” on climate, but domestically, the grip of the powerful agri-industrial lobby on government policy remains unshaken.

Having failed to manage emissions, it appears at least some in the Irish government have switched focus to concentrate on managing climate change messaging instead.

Disclosure: John Gibbons is a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate change committee.

Posted in Agriculture, Irish Focus, Media, Pollution, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Epic emissions targets failure: it’s the politics, stupid

Below, an article I ran in a well-known satirical publication in mid-June:

FOR YEARS, whiny environmental types have been warning repeatedly that the Irish state is treating its legally binding international obligations to cut our carbon emissions as a bit of a joke. This in turn has prompted indignant responses from both politicians and their civil servants to the effect that this was grossly unfair and that, given enough time, Ireland would surprise everyone.

And, in a sense, we have. Not even the gloomiest eco-NGO type could possibly have predicted that instead of cutting emissions by 2020 by 20% versus 2005, we would instead “at best” achieve a 1% cut. Or, put another way, we’ve squandered the last 15 years doing sod all about the biggest crisis in modern history.

Imagine that the Department of Finance set a key revenue target of €20 billion, but ended up only raising €1 billion. That might sound like an almost impossible level of incompetence, leading to mass resignations, but it’s precisely the degree of abject failure Ireland has shown on curbing carbon emissions. Continue reading

Posted in Agriculture, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments