A crisis in media and climate communication

Overlaying the climate crunch, there is a parallel full-blown crisis, in Ireland and elsewhere in the Anglophone world in climate change communications. This will not be news to regular visitors to this blog, but happily, there is now a lot more solid evidence to back up this impression.

A valuable new addition to our national understanding of this crunch issue has just been published by the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Climate Science. Its paper, entitled ‘Climate Change Communication in Ireland’, was authored by Emmet Fox and Henrike Rau.

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The paper sets out to review and assess existing research on climate change communication in Ireland, rather than engage in primary research in the field. It points to the “marginalization of climate change in the mainstream media, which is further amplified by its segregation from closely related topics of major public concern in Ireland such as extreme weather events, flooding, energy resources, or economic recovery”. Continue reading

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Cultivating hope, managing despair

There have been countless millions of words written and spoken in recent years on how humanity can and must begin at last to grapple in earnest with the existential challenges of climate change, resource depletion and the ongoing global biodiversity crash.screenshot-2016-10-30-21-38-48img_4683 img_4682

A lot less attention has been focused on how we, as aware individuals and our societies are coping to come to terms with the realities of what it means to be alive right in the middle of the Sixth Extinction.

This week, a workshop, held in Dublin’s Tailor’s Hall entitled ‘Cultivating Hope, Managing Despair’ took a tentative step down this road. It attempted to open a dialogue among a group of around 30 people in attendance, many of who might describe themselves as Early Accepters. The sub-title of the workshop catches the mood more concisely: ‘How to positively respond to the mess we are in without going insane’. Continue reading

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Raising the bar on climate change coverage in Ireland

I’ve often wondered aloud what it might be like to live in a place and in a time where climate change, the world’s biggest, baddest and most persistent crisis, was given media coverage something even vaguely approaching its actual significance.

As we’ve covered before in depth, Irish media performance on climate and environmental coverage in recent years would actually have to improve quite a bit before it could even be labelled abysmal. Notwithstanding the odd well-intentioned foray by its part-time environment correspondent George Lee, the national broadcaster has been truly awful (and none more so than the senior editorial crew of its flagship show, PrimeTime).

The rest of the broadcast media are little better, while climate coverage in the print media, what remains of it, best resembles scorched earth. The erstwhile Paper of Record, since the retirement of its environment corr, Frank McDonald in January 2015, has not so much dropped the ball as picked it up and gone home with it.

The best of the rest over the last year or so has tended to be the Irish Examiner, but even here, its recent coverage of Danny Healy-Rae’s flat capped flat earther insights have given aid and comfort to the lunatic fringe.

Continue reading

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Battling for Ireland’s battered biodiversity

My interview below, with Dr Liam Lysaght, Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, was published in the September edition of Village magazine:

IRELAND’S largely dysfunctional relationship with its natural environment was neatly summed up by former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, when he moaned that his ill-fated Celtic Tiger was being stymied “because of swans, snails and the occasional person hanging out of a tree”.

While the Ahern era was hardly a high watermark of environmental awareness and ecological literacy, one useful resource to emerge from this time was Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre, which was established by the Heritage Council in 2007 and is funded by the it and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The Centre was set up to collate, manage, analyse and distribute data on Ireland’s biodiversity. Headed by Dr. Liam Lysaght, the Centre is based in Waterford city. “We are trying to put in place systems to track changes in the countryside”, Lysaght told Village in a recent in-depth interview. “It’s about building the evidence base to support biodiversity policy”. Continue reading

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Welcome to the Climate Madhouse

Below my article, as published in the September edition of ‘Village’ magazine

IMAGINE for a moment the dilemma: you’re a celebrated climatologist whose work has helped shaped the modern science of climate change. In the course of your work, you have gradually come to the same basic conclusion as pretty much all of your professional colleagues: humanity and the industrial civilisation we have constructed is on a one-way collision course with physics.512JfC3iFlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Clearly, as a scientist, your job is to check and re-check the numbers, then, once the evidence is solid, alert the politicians and policy makers and provide them with the expert guidance so they can make the tough-but-necessary decisions to avert the worst of the projected negative impacts, while hunkering down for those which can’t be entirely avoided.

That, in a sane world, is how the system works. This is not, however, the world in which we live, and it certainly is not the planet that renowned paleoclimatologist, Prof Michael Mann inhabits. He sprung to fame in 1999 with the publication of a reconstruction of the global climate record stretching back some 1,000 years, which became known as the ‘Hockey Stick graph’ since, from past to present, it slopes gently downwards, before turning sharply upwards in recent decades, like the blade of an American ice hockey stick.

Continue reading

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Who’d choose to bring a child into a climate-changed world?

Below is my article, as published in yesterday’s Irish Times, under the headline (not my wording) ‘Is having children bad for the planet?’ I’ve added in some of the sources below that I used when researching this piece. The features editor suggested adding a picture of me with my two daughters, given that I had mentioned my own circumstances. I have tried as far as possible to keep my personal life out of my writing, but having penned a piece posing the question as to the wisdom or otherwise of bringing a child into a climate-changed world, I felt it only fair to put my cards on the table regarding my own situation and how it has informed some of the choices I have made.

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ONE OF the biggest decisions any of us will ever face is whether or not to become a parent. While for women, bearing children was until recently almost a foregone conclusion, today in Ireland one in five women, either by choice or circumstance, will never become mothers.

The drive to reproduce is as ancient as it is powerful, but can become derailed, in humans as in other species, in situations of extreme stress. For instance, birth rates have plummeted in Greece since its economic crash. This also happened during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s.

More modest but marked declines in fertility rates have been measured since 2009 across most of Europe, the US and Australia as widespread anxiety about the future caused people to postpone or abandon plans to start families. Continue reading

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It’s a Vision thing

Last week the Visions 2100 international roadshow came to Dublin. I first encountered it, driven by the irrepressible John O’Brien, as a side event at last December’s COP21 conference, where, as one of 80 contributors to the book from around the world, I attended and spoke at the Paris launch (click here for a backgrounder piece I wrote at the time).

The venue for last week’s event was the newly refurbished Great Hall in Tailors Hall, Christchurch, home of An Taisce. The hall was packed out for the event, with standing room only. Speakers included former communications minister, Alex White, Dr Cara Augustenborg of UCD, Aideen O’Hora of Sustainable Nation and myself.

Climate committee chair, Phil Kearney welcomed the launch on behalf of An Taisce. Cara’s account of the meeting is here, and there’s another report by sustainability blogger, Aideen O’Dochartaigh here.

Since there are ample meeting reports above, I’ve added a video recording I made of the event below, for anyone who might be interested in catching up.

For the record, below is my ‘vision’ for the world in 2100, as published in John O’Brien’s book. Some would call it dystopian, but as was pointed out at the meeting, my estimate of there still being 50 million humans alive in 2100 is exactly one million times more optimistic than the lowest estimate in the book!

“First, the good news. Against the odds, we made it to 2100. Only fifty years ago it looked like it was game over for homo sapiens. It sounds crazy now, but back in my grandparents’ time they really did carry on for a while like there was no tomorrow: tearing down rainforests, flattening mountains, poisoning the seas, waging war on nature – all in pursuit of this strange idea they called ‘growth’.

There aren’t that many books now, but our teachers describe the Age of Madness, as it’s called, when the scientific community repeatedly warned that Earth systems were in extreme danger. But nobody listened, and few chose to act.

How could this have happened? Everyone, it seems, was competing with everyone else for money, resources, status. No one seemed to notice that this spree couldn’t last forever. Even the revelation back in 2015 that half of all the world’s wild animals had been wiped out failed to ring the alarm bells. And as for all the warnings about climate change, they always seemed to be about someone else, or some time in the future…

Well, that future is now. This generation has learned the hard lesson of hubris – and humility. There’s barely fifty million of us now globally. Life is tough, but we’re managing. This time, we’re keeping it simple. They say the Earth is healing, maybe they’re right. Maybe we can at last live in a world where, in the words of the poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme”.

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Flights of folly at Dublin airport

Fallout from the recent Brexit vote may prove something of a gift for the Dublin Airport Authority’s (DAA) ambitious plan to have a second runway built and ready for business by 2020.

The huge cloud of economic uncertainty now parked over Britain may put the kibosh on its own 2015 Airport Commission recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow, at the eye-watering cost of almost €23 billion. The fact that Boris Johnson fiercely opposes the Heathrow expansion plan hardly increases its chances of success.

Another heavy hitter against the Heathrow plan (on cost grounds) is Willie Walsh’s IAG, owners of Aer Lingus. One of the reasons IAG splashed out for Ireland’s national carrier was to access Dublin as a cheaper hub.

Planning permission for Dublin airport’s second runway was issued in 2007, using a land bank bought up by the DAA as far back as the 1960s. The crash of 2008 saw expansion plans mothballed. However, since 2011, passenger numbers have rebounded strongly, growing by some 35% to over 25 million in 2015. Continue reading

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An Inconvenient Truth – 10 years on, it’s truer than ever

How’s this for a deeply unpromising script idea: making a movie about a failed politician trailing around the world presenting wonkish slide shows on his laptop to mostly small audiences about, of all things, climate change?

It hardly helped that the ex-politician in question, former US vice president Al Gore was reviled across the political spectrum. Democrat supporters blamed him for gifting the White House to George W. Bush with his incompetent run and premature concession in Florida in November 2000, while Republicans hated him mostly for not being a Republican.

It might have been only a slight overstatement to call Gore a pariah in the mid-2000s. For him to then choose to relaunch into public life by campaigning on one of the few topics even more unpopular than himself seemed to underpin his tag as a serial loser.

The film that emerged from Gore’s travelling slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth, didn’t exactly blow Hollwood away either – at least not at first. Director, David Guggenheim recalled that prior to its debut at the Sundance Festival in June 2006, they brought the film reel to a major studio for a preview, which Gore attended.

Continue reading

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Bord na Mona: of strip-mining and greenwashing

You can hardly have missed the hugely expensive PR and advertising blitz from the semi-state, Bord na Mona, whose ad agency has come up with a snazzy new campaign called ‘Naturally Driven’. They even managed to get RTE’s George Lee down to do a segment for the news to announce its new-found interest in sustainability, while Apart from its cloying 30-second TV ad, you can enjoy the full five minute corporate video here. Or, if you’d prefer to apply a ‘truth filter’, some wag has re-scripted and re-voiced a 30-second parody version here.

This multi-media campaign also included broadsheet adverts featuring a hare on it hind legs in a pristine environment of wildflowers and other native flora. The caption: ‘This land is his land. We never forget that’. The sub-text helpfully explains how ‘at Bord na Mona, we’re responsible for over 80,000 hectares of Irish landscape, and that responsibility extends to those who inhabit the land’.

Well, I can only imagine how grateful the countless million of plants and creatures, great and small, which have been ground to pulp under the wheels and tracks of Bord na Mona machines or have been slowly-but-surely doomed by the annihilation of their habitat will be to discover their tormentors are in fact really their carers and advocates.

Of all the vacuous tripe rolled out under the umbrella of ‘corporate rebranding’, this current campaign may well be the subject of doctoral theses for future academics on how senior executive in organisations, drunk on self-delusion and introspection and incapable of critical thinking, can actually sign off on material as profoundly, irredeemably dishonest as ‘Naturally Driven’. Continue reading

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We had better hope Jim Hansen is wrong this time

Former NASA chief climatologist, Jim Hansen has an unfortunate knack of being right a lot more often than he’s wrong. And when it comes to projecting the future path of climate change, he has an equally unfortunate habit of being well ahead of the scientific posse.

Back in the sweltering summer of 1988 Hansen testified to the US Congress on climate change, a phenomenon that was, until his electrifying presentation, seen as something of a scientific curio, an issue that some distant future generation would, eventually, have to confront. Hansen confirmed that not only was it real, it was already happening. Calculations Hansen published in the late 1980s of likely future climate change track what has actually occurred with uncanny accuracy.

Fast forward to 2015, a year in which global temperatures were smashed by record margins to make it, by some distance, the hottest year ever recorded. And temperatures recorded in first two months of 2016 have been described by climate scientists as “off the charts”. Continue reading

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One man’s meat is another’s global ecological calamity

The article below is a referenced version of my piece that appeared in the Weekend Edition of the Irish Times on Saturday last. Writers don’t get to choose the headlines  –’Meat is madness’ – my preference would have been to emphasise the stark choice we face: unbridled meat consumption locks in climate havoc, yet compared to other swingeing lifestyle changes we face, cutting back sharply on meat is in fact among the least unpalatable. Lack of awareness that meat (especially from ruminants) is a key driver in just about every environmental crisis you can mention, is widespread. That’s what this article is really about addressing.

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IRELAND HAS a serious obesity problem. By 2030, this will have spiralled into a full-blown public health emergency. World Health Organisation projections show that, on current trends, one in two Irish adults will be clinically obese within 15 years.

Ireland also finds itself among the very worst in the league table of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, where we are 45 per cent above the EU average in per capita emissions. And, despite binding international commitments to rapidly reduce this pollution, data from the Environment Protection Agency confirms our emissions, like our waistlines, are instead continuing to expand.

Continue reading

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Choosing to fail: Prof Kevin Anderson interviewed

Prof Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is one of the world’s best known and most influential – and outspoken – climate specialists.

He was in Dublin for several days in early March at the invitation of An Taisce’s climate change committee (of which I’m a member), and he completed a whirlwind schedule with talks in DCU, NUIM, the RIA and the IIEA among other appointments, as well as a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin to brief President Higgins on the state of climate science.

I met him* in Dublin city centre just ahead of his final formal engagement: a lecture in the RIA on the chasm between where the physics tells us we need to be heading to avert disaster and where the timid steps proposed by our political classes are actually taking us.

As an aid to navigation, the first 10 minutes or so deal with Kevin’s observations on Ireland’s response to climate change. The next five minutes deal with the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, then he moves to address the growth paradox; then, he deals with his own decision not to fly. From there, he deals with climate sensitivity and extreme events. Next, he deals with the relative merits of carbon taxes versus rationing. From here, he examines the fitness for purpose of the neoliberal economic and political model. He also discusses the ‘new normal’ of life in a climate-changed world, where human impacts have already wrought disastrous changes to much of the natural world upon which we depend. The interview concludes by placing a moral framework on humanity’s relationship with the world. He remains deeply concerned that society, despite the overwhelming evidence of the need to act, that “we will choose to fail”.

*A full version of this interview will appear in the April edition of Village magazine

 

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Election 2016: more fudge and waffle on climate change

Below, my article written for Village magazine’s post-election special issue. The election campaign was notable for the fact that environmental issues generally and climate change specifically were completely written out of the political and media script. Twenty, maybe even 10 years ago, this might have been at least understandable. But, in 2016, just weeks after the historic Paris Agreement, and after the hottest year ever recorded, it seems nothing short of delusional.

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To say that environmental issues didn’t have much of an impact on Election 2016 would be a bit like observing that feminism hasn’t exactly been the defining feature of Donald Trump’s US presidential run.

The topic was completely ignored in the botched opening Leaders’ Debate on TV3, and again, on RTÉ’s seven-way debate the following week. The Green Party had fallen foul of an internal RTÉ decision to exclude it from a slot among the extended parties. Continue reading

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2011-2016: five more lost years for Ireland’s climate response

Below, my article as it appears in the Election Edition of Village magazine. This was written ahead of the publication of the assorted party manifestos (these are just now starting to trickle out) but it seemed a more useful exercise to step back to looking at the 2011 FG/Labour Programme for Government and see, from the environment/climate standpoint, how they actually performed. Here’s what I concluded.

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THE OUTGOING Fine Gael/Labour coalition government did manage to pull off one headline act that had eluded the previous FF/Green administration, and that was they got climate legislation, of sorts, onto the statute books for the first time ever. Continue reading

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