Irish LNG plan ‘dead in the water’

The spectre of massive quantities of imported (fracked) gas flooding into Ireland via a new terminal in the Shannon estuary was dealt what looks like a fatal blow when both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail accepted the Green Party’s position that, from a climate point of view, such a development was wholly untenable. My report below was published in early May on DeSmog UK.

IT IS INCREASINGLY unlikely that Ireland will develop new infrastructure to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced from fracked wells in the US, after the plans suffered a series of potentially fatal legal and political setbacks.

First, the European Court of Justice advocate general, Juliane Kokott, ruled that An Bord Pleanála, Ireland’s planning appeals body, erred in not requesting an up-to-date environmental impact study for the proposed Shannon LNG terminal before extending planning permission for a planned project. The decision means the case would have to be referred back to Ireland’s High Court.

Meanwhile, the political climate regarding the project has turned distinctly hostile, with the two major centrist parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil this week signing a joint letter that appears to signal the death knell for the LNG project.

Political pressure

The letter came in response to an explicit demand from potential coalition partners, the Green Party, that the main parties “commit to ceasing the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, particularly LNG terminals, that could allow the entry of unconventional LNG into the Irish energy mix”.

In reply, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil party leaders Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin agreed that it “does not make sense” to build new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure of this kind. In recent years, Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly, has been a major supporter of this project, and his influence was seen as key in having it designated as a European Project of Common Interest.

In the past, the official stance of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has been pro-LNG, with Sean Kelly a massive champion in Europe”, Dr Aideen O’Dochartaigh of the NGO Not Here Not Anywhere told DeSmog. “This week’s statement is significant in that it is a complete u-turn of their policies to date”.

However, O’Dochartaigh cautioned that the document includes significant caveats and opt-outs around energy security, though these appear to relate to the wider issue of a complete ban on all new fossil fuel infrastructure, also sought by the Greens.

The Shannon LNG project appears to be politically “dead in the water”, according to climatologist, Prof John Sweeney, though he warned that some of the promises being bandied about at the moment “feel like something of a honey trap, they could try to back off them when the next recession comes around”.

As DeSmog previously reported, the proposed LNG facility would be a massive deepwater terminal in the Shannon estuary on Ireland’s west coast, capable of docking the world’s largest LNG supertankers, and opening Ireland up to the import of fracked LNG by ship from the US.

Ending fossil fuel licenses

The Green Party also sought a complete phasing out of all fossil fuel exploration licences. The Irish government had already agreed to not allow new oil drilling licences but, on the advice of its Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC), kept the option of gas drilling open. However, in a surprise move, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil this week stated they were “committed to a pathway to phase out all fossil fuel exploration licences”.

This is a stinging rebuff to the CCAC, which last October claimed Ireland would need to continue to explore for new offshore gas as it would be part of the state’s energy supply for the next three decades.

Without gas, Council chairman, economist Professor John FitzGerald claimed there would be “a serious risk to life and limb”. At the time, Climate Action Minister, Richard Burton went along with FitzGerald’s advice, which was roundly condemned by environmental experts.

Professsor Barry McMullin of Dublin City University described the CCAC’s attempt to separate oil and gas exploration as “almost theological” given the reality that both activities are inextricably linked.

While the two main centrist parties have now stated they are open to extending the oil exploration moratorium to include gas, it is understood this does not affect licences that have already been issued, so prospecting may continue in Irish waters for some time.

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Approaching the Precipice

My review of ‘The Precipice’ by moral philosopher, Toby Ord appeared in The Irish Times on May 1st. It’s an intriguing exercise, with Ord estimating humanity at having a one-in-six chance of becoming extinct by the end of this century. Those odds are the same as spinning the chamber of a revolver, Russian Roulette-style, and pulling the trigger. However, I would disagree with how he goes about ranking and assessment of various risks. 

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THE TEAM of US experts secretly working on the development of the atomic bomb made a profoundly worrying discovery in 1942: an atomic explosion would create temperatures on Earth (15 million ºC) hotter than at the centre of the sun.

What might such an unprecedented inferno trigger? Scientists openly speculated that it could well ignite the hydrogen in the world’s oceans, or nitrogen in the atmosphere, setting off a cataclysmic fireball capable of extinguishing life on Earth almost entirely.

Despite being aware of the existential risk this entailed, on July 16th, 1945, the Trinity nuclear test went ahead. As author Toby Ord notes, “this was a new kind of dilemma for modern science”.

As the atomic fireball rose into the desert sky, one observer, Harvard University president James Conant, feared the worst. “My instantaneous reaction was that something had gone wrong, and that the thermal nuclear transformation of the atmosphere…had actually occurred.”

These fears turned out to be groundless, and within weeks the US had dropped two of its deadly new weapons on Japanese cities.

Ord assigns July 16th, 1945, as the beginning of what he terms the “precipice”, our new era of heightened existential risk. Humanity, Ord argues, “is akin to an adolescent, with rapidly developing physical abilities, lagging wisdom and self-control, little thought for its long-term future and an unhealthy appetite for risk”.

While adults impose constrains to keep adolescents in check, no such mechanism exists for humanity to collectively lay down and enforce the rules to keep its awesome destructive power in check, Ord adds. He cites the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention: “This global convention to protect humanity has just four employees, and a smaller budget than an average McDonald’s.”

Adolescence

Ord is a moral philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and while teasing out the many risks humanity faces (he estimates we have a one in six chance of total extinction this century), his overall analysis is sweepingly optimistic. If we can survive our own turbulent adolescence as a species, he believes humanity has quite literally a place among the stars, and a future without limits.

It is a bold, relentlessly upbeat hypothesis. “This book is not just a familiar story of the perils of climate change or nuclear war. These risks that first awoke us to the possibilities of destroying ourselves are just the beginning.”

Rapidly emerging risks from biotechnology to novel pandemics to advanced artificial intelligence, he argues not entirely convincingly, “may pose much greater risk to humanity in the coming century”.

Latterly, carbon emissions, which Ord describes as a minor side effect of industrialisation, have “eventually grown to become a global threat to health, the environment, international stability and maybe even humanity itself”.

Ord’s thesis is that humanity stands at the edge of the eponymous precipice, facing on the one hand extinction, yet on the other a future full of possibilities beyond our present capacity to even imagine. “Humanity opening its eyes, coming into its maturity, and guaranteeing its long and flourishing future. This is the meaning of our time,” he posits.

Ord’s chapter outlining the key anthropogenic threats lucidly sets out the risks arising from climate breakdown. Reviewing the available evidence, he points out that “we could plausibly end up with anywhere up to 13ºC of warming by 2300 – and even that is not a strict upper limit”.

Ecosystems

The overwhelming consensus among climatologists is that a global temperature increase of 4-6ºC or higher is likely to be lethal to most species and ecosystems on earth, and will virtually wipe out agricultural systems. Yet having grasped this point, Ord lets it slip in concluding that when assessing climate and ecological risks “none of these threaten extinction or irrevocable collapse”.

In his concluding chapter Ord looks beyond the skies, suggesting rather improbably that if we could reach one nearby star, “this entire galaxy would open up to us…if we could travel just six light years at a time, then almost all the stars in our galaxy would be reachable”.

The author believes that humanity is unique not just on Earth but perhaps in the cosmos. “The main obstacle to leaving our solar system,” he concedes, “is surviving long enough to do so.” This view of human exceptionalism might be better leavened with more humility about our all-too-human shortcomings.

Yet Ord is a defiant Utopian, choosing to believe that humanity yearns “to end the evils of our world and build a society that it truly just and human”, adding that “many of the harshest injustices visited on our fellow humans are behind us”.

The Precipice is a well-researched and extensively annotated survey of global existential risk. Yet some of its key conclusions appear ultimately to be as much the product of earnest wishful thinking and techno-optimism as philosophical reflection.

The Precipice – Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity is published by Bloomsbury (ISBN-13: 9780316484893)

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Earth Day – 50 years later, and deeper in ecological debt

This is piece ran on Cassandra Voices on April 22nd, the 50th anniversary of the inaugural Earth Day in 1970:

FIFTY years ago today, more than twenty million people took to the streets in towns and cities across the U.S. in what was and remains the largest environmental protest in history. On that evening’s news, CBS anchor, Walter Cronkite intoned: “a unique day in American history is ending, a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival”.

Cronkite went on to describe Earth Day as an effort at “saving lives from the deadly by-products of that bounty – the fouled skies, the filthy waters, the littered Earth”. One in 10 of the then entire population of America took some part in Earth Day, with bipartisan support across the political spectrum, as well as from both urban and rural areas.

While it harnessed the momentum of the protest and social movements of the late 1960s, such as the anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements, the enduring effect of Earth Day was to be at a political and policy level: by the end of 1970, the (Republican) Nixon administration, bowing to the public mood and with the 1972 presidential election in mind, sanctioned the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as passing a raft of highly significant environmental laws and regulations.

Notable among these were the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and, crucially, the Clean Air Act. In 1972, the U.S. Congress also passed the Clean Water Act, and in 1973, the Endangered Species Act became law. In the years that followed, a raft of other federal laws and regulations were enacted.

Given the vast influence of the U.S., these regulations in turn were widely emulated around the world and have had profound and enduring impacts on water and air pollution in particular in many parts of the so-called developed world, including Ireland.

Hyper-partisan politics

Viewed through the political prism of today’s deeply dysfunctional and hyper-partisan U.S. politics, it seems almost quaint to recall a time when people, irrespective of their politics, religion or skin colour, broadly agreed that eliminating deadly toxins from the air that they breathed and the water that their children drank was a good idea.

Fifty years later, the ideologically toxic Trump regime is busily dismantling large chunks of the progressive regulatory framework that the actions of the U.S. environmental movement ushered into being in 1970. Most sane people think it’s probably a bad idea to allow high levels of mercury, a potent and irreversible neurotoxin, to be released into the air from coal-burning plants.

Yet regulations limiting mercury emissions from coal-burning are currently being scrapped by Trump. So are rules blocking leaking and venting of hydrofluorocarbons from large air conditioning and refrigeration systems. These chemicals are highly potent greenhouse gases and, according to a 2015 NASA study, are also contributing to global ozone depletion.

Criminal enterprise

A devastating list of 95 of the major recent assaults by the Trump administration on environmental regulations was compiled by the New York Times late last year. Anyone still labouring under the impression that this is anything other than a family-run criminal enterprise, abetted by some of the most corrupt politicians/grifters in the long and often deeply corrupt history of U.S. politics, should take some time to review this list.

But the key point remains: the original Earth Day was the foundation event for the modern environmental movement, and affected enduring changes in public and political attitudes towards pollution in particular, especially where the evidence of its deleterious effects were impossible to conceal.

Air and water quality in the developed world improved markedly from the 1970s onwards, partially arising from Earth Day legacy, but also due to the offshoring of much of the West’s highly polluting heavy industries, which had triggered the crisis.

So, wealthy countries began to de-industrialise, not by consuming less and living more modestly, but by shifting the axis of production – and pollution – over the horizon, to poorer countries where environmental standards were mostly non-existent and where politicians and public officials could far more easily be paid to look the other way, and desperate workers would accept a pittance to work in conditions dangerous to their own health and damaging to the communities where they lived.

Global warming

Another crucial element missing entirely from the original Earth Day was any consideration of global warming. While the concept was well understood within the scientific community by then, it had zero traction in the wider public, and much of the scientific establishment treated it more as an academic conundrum about what could possibly happen at some date several decades hence.

In 1970, global carbon dioxide (CO2) levels stood at 325 parts per million (ppm), having risen from 316ppm when systematic scientific measurements began in 1958. The highest pre-industrial CO2 levels had stood at 280ppm, so the atmosphere in 1970 was already carrying 15% more CO2 than before the industrial revolution.

This matters enormously, as the trace gas, CO2 is the atmosphere’s key chemical thermostat. Dial it up, and temperature rise, almost in lock-step. What about in the fifty years since then? Today, global CO2 levels stand at around 416ppm, which means it has risen by over a quarter in just five decades.

This is likely the most rapid shift in atmospheric chemistry in Earth history. The last time there were CO2 levels this high was in the Pliocene, an era from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. Then, sea levels were 20 metres higher than today, and trees grew at the South Pole, and overall global temperatures were 3-4ºC higher than today.

This unprecedented spike in atmospheric CO2 levels since 1970 will continue to impact temperatures on this planet for centuries into the future. Already, it has led to a rise in the average global surface temperature by just over 1ºC versus pre-industrial. This is the largest single temperature shift since the end of the last Ice Age.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the red line for dangerous and irreversible changes to the Earth’s climate system lies at around 1.5ºC, which is already perilously close to today’s levels. The IPCC advises that every effort must be made to decarbonise the global economy to avoid such a scenario.

Based on today’s level of emissions, the global ‘carbon budget’ for +1.5ºC will have been exhausted by 2030. Even the economic downturn arising from the coronavirus pandemic (estimated to see a 5% cut in emissions this year) may only slow this process down by a matter of months.

To avoid breaching the +1.5ºC danger line by 2030, global emissions will need to have fallen by a staggering 60% by then. Nothing short of a global political, economic, social and cultural revolution could effect such a profound transition in such a tight timeframe. In reality, our current economic model, coronavirus notwithstanding, sees emissions actually accelerating at the time we need to be hitting the brakes and bracing for impact.

Anthropocene

However dramatic the rise in global emissions and temperatures have been in the last five decades, this almost pales into insignificance when measured against the toll humanity has taken on the natural world over this period. We have eradicated almost two thirds of all the wild mammals, birds, fish and reptiles in just 50 years.

The last time a global mass die-off on this scale occurred was some 66 million years ago, in the wake of the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs. Many scientists have already designated the current era as the Anthropocene, the era of human impacts, and state that the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth history is already well underway.

Researchers used the term ‘biological annihilation’ to describe the nature and extent of what they termed the ‘frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation’. It should be borne in mind that while this carnage ultimately threatens humanity, it has already laid waste to hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary progress and, in the process, brutally simplified countless once-complex ecosystems.

“The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language”, said Prof Gerardo Ceballos of the National University in Mexico, commenting on the major study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Today, over three quarters of the entire world’s land surface has been ‘significantly altered’ by human actions, with tens of millions of hectares of forests razed and cleared for agriculture. The hunting of wildlife for food is another force accelerating extinctions, with at least 300 species of mammals facing near-term extinctions as a direct result of the bushmeat trade.

At sea, the anarchy is even worse. Over 90% of the world’s large predatory fish, from sharks to tuna, marlin and swordfish, are already gone, with many species now on the brink of extinction. Studies project that as soon as 2048, the world’s oceans will essentially have been emptied of fish.

The vast fishing fleets that scour the oceans have the capacity to catch-and-destroy fish far more quickly than species can breed. Further, ocean acidification as a result of global warming is accelerating, while surface water temperatures are rising quickly, further disrupting marine life.

On top of this, tens of millions of tons of plastic waste is ending up in the world’s oceans every year, then slowly degrading from polymers into near-microscopic monomers, trillions of which are now contaminating the base of the entire marine food chain, as these pollutants are being inadvertently ingested by marine creatures from krill to sea birds. One estimate states that there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans by 2050 than fish.

‘We are stealing the future’

It hasn’t all been one-way traffic. As nature has waned, the human footprint has expanded inexorably. Since 1970, the global population has more than doubled, from 3.7 billion to over 7.8 billion today. In 1970, the total gross domestic product (GDP) of the world economy was around $23.8 trillion (in 2011 values) but by 2019, this had quadrupled, to almost $90 trillion.

Californian environmentalist and author Paul Hawken’s description of the predatory nature and mindset associated with the cult of endless economic expansion has never been bettered: “we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP”.

While the original Earth Day was inspired by people’s experience of ecological degradation they could see and even smell all around them, and while it achieved some notable successes as detailed earlier, its ultimate legacy is one of acute failure.

We humans proved unable (or unwilling) to extend our empathy to other species, to nature itself, and to act unselfishly on behalf of people in other places, or indeed of all future generations. This did not of course happen by accident.

Neo-liberal thought

Generations of neo-liberal thought have helped inure humanity against the pain of the natural world and the suffering of others, both humans and fellow sentient animals, while shielding the billionaire predators, who have profiteered from this ruin, which is the consequences of their actions and inactions.

Our species achieved spectacular evolutionary success not just by brute force and violence, but primarily by our ability to cooperate, and the strength and complexity of our social structures. These have been worn threadbare by decades of atomised consumerism.

This too did not happen by accident. Fifteen years before the inaugural Earth Day, US economist, Victor Lebow laid out the template for the brave new world of expansion and consumption in 1955: “our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

The Consumer Age is now at an end; replaced, I would posit, by the Age of Consequences. As the industrial revolution began in earnest in the early 19th century, poet William Wordsworth, perhaps sensing the fatal shift then underway in humanity’s relationship with nature, wrote presciently:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Shattering the illusion of control

Below, my piece for Greennews.ie, published on March 26th, just as the grim reality of the Coronavirus pandemic was finally hitting home in Ireland:

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Right now, millions of people around the world are waking each day with a sensation of panic in the pit of their stomach, a feeling that likely gnaws at them constantly, and is sharpened with every news bulletin and headline.

For anyone who has been closely following the unfolding horror story that is the global climate and biodiversity emergency, these are feelings are only too familiar. As author David Wallace-Wells wrote recently: “The age of climate panic is here…the planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us”.

Of course, no one really believed him, just as no one has believed the mountains of scientific evidence built up over the last three decades and more. After all, if this stuff was true, then everything we think we know is wrong, and the very edifice of our industrial civilisation is built on sand, and that couldn’t possibly be the case, could it?

Up until a couple of weeks ago, if you tried telling anyone in Ireland that an emergency of the kind we’re now experiencing is not just possible, but almost inevitable , you would be immediately dismissed as a Chicken Licken alarmist, extremist or bug-eyed activist.

That was then. As the shock begins to wear off, the first casualty of our strange new reality may be the shattering of the illusion of control. Many people are now, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives, feeling profoundly helpless – and afraid. Our politicians, business and society leaders are equally stunned, but in Ireland, at least, we have responded reasonably well.

To see how else this crisis might be playing out, you only have to look to the UK or US and their cack-handed efforts to contain the pandemic seriously hampered by the populist antics of Johnson and Trump. Their glib slogans have proven no match for a reality that cannot be bluffed, tweeted or browbeaten out of existence.

During his inaugural speech in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to calm a public deeply traumatised by the economic crash of 1929. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was how FDR memorably put it. He went on to point out the many positives, including that nature “still offers her bounty”. Nearly a century later, we face into the first of many global crises with a bounty that has been severely depleted and nature itself critically degraded.

Crises in purely human-made systems such as economies can indeed be fuelled by raw emotion and likewise abated by a shift in public sentiment or attitude. The rules governing the physical world are altogether less pliable as the climate and latterly the coronavirus crises have shown.

“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act”. These famous words were spoken by Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January 2019.

In words that eerily presaged the arrival of Covid-19, Thunberg added: “You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival”.

World leaders and assorted celebrities gathered at the Swiss resort shifted a little uneasily in their seats as the young activist set out the options in the starkest of terms: “We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail”.

Last May – as much out of embarrassment as actual concern – the Oireachtas declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. It was the kind of stunt that politicians love: grand-sounding declarations drained of meaning and vague aspirations towards action at some indeterminate future point safely beyond the political career horizons of those making the statements.

Not even the sight of prosperous Australia in flames at the start of this year, with unprecedented devastation that left over a billion animals dead, could make a dent in our collective sense of detachment from and indifference towards the fast-approaching darkness.

Professor Liz Bentley of the UK Royal Meteorological Society told the BBC in February that extreme weather events everywhere around the world were “a wake-up call to the reality of climate change”.

She was absolutely wrong. As the Amazon burned, then the Arctic, then parts of Greenland, rather than waking up, humanity simply rolled over, hit the collective snooze button and went back to sleep.

Ecological own-goal

While death, destruction and ruin has been sweeping ever deeper through the natural world as ancient habitats and species are wiped out and entire ecosystems razed to the ground, the chief architects of this maelstrom – people in the so-called developed world – have been astonishingly immune to the blowback from environmental destruction. So far that is.

Now, as the coronavirus pandemic gathers pace, entire populations in the western world are, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, gripped by fear, feeling their ontological security crumble, seeing the tables finally turned as a deadly new viral micro-predator targets homo sapiens as an abundant and largely defenceless host.

We thought we held the whole world in the palm of our hands. We were wrong.

Evidence is emerging that that novel coronavirus we are facing is in fact a spectacular ecological own-goal. As author David Quammen wrote recently, we have created a near perfect environment for the virus to flourish as we cut down forests and kill or cage wild animals and send them to markets. In the process, Quammen says that we are disrupting ecosystems, shaking viruses “loose from their natural hosts” and welcoming them instead as our guests.

Ever-increasing rates of transmission of disease from wildlife to humans are now “a hidden cost of human economic development”, says Dr Kate Jones of University College London. She sees these zoonotic diseases as linked to environmental disruption and human behaviour. It is us, humans, she says, who are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, yet “then we are surprised that we have new ones”.

There will be countless consequences arising from this novel coronavirus outbreak. For one, the return of Big Government. Following decades of neoliberal attack and relentless privatisation, the power of governments to effectively govern has been weakened, with transnational corporations in many cases now wealthier and more politically powerful than nation states.

Any fleeting sense that Apple, Google, Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos were going to save the world from Covid-19 or climate breakdown is well and truly dashed. Anyone expecting the corporate leopards to change their spots in a crisis is a poor student of recent history.

Take EasyJet, for example. Despite possessing £1.6 billion in cash, it is currently lobbying furiously for state aid as much of the world’s airline fleets are grounded. And while demanding taxpayer bailouts, EasyJet has decided in the midst of the current crisis to go ahead and pay out a £174 million dividend to shareholders, including £60 million to its founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

This, in the new Gilded Age, is state welfare for the mega-rich and bare-knuckle capitalism for the rest. Just as Haji-Ioannou fills his pockets with tens of millions, EasyJet has told staff to accept zero pay (yes, zero) for three months.

With hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in Ireland alone and tens of millions across the world as a result of the coronavirus shutdown, the risk of recession tipping into a full scale global economic depression grows daily.

This is why the once-heretical notion of the State providing its citizens with a universal basic income has seen a dramatic comeback. As a recent opinion piece in Bloomberg put it: “The state, much maligned in recent decades, is back, and in its fundamental role: as Leviathan, the preventer of anarchy, and the ultimate insurance against an intolerable human condition in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In the same article, author Pankaj Mishra adds: “It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens”. He was talking about Covid-19 but could as easily have been describing climate breakdown.

If some long-term good is to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it has to be in states rediscovering their mojo, and in a new understanding that the threats that confront humanity are truly global in scale and nature and can only be confronted by decisive action and tough choices based on the best available scientific evidence.

This, combined with a traumatised public newly shaken from the slumber of easy consumerism and political disengagement, could help form the conditions for an era of purposeful austerity where the existential threats that confront us are, at last, squarely addressed. We have few choices remaining. This is one.

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

Climate change making a tough situation worse in sub-Saharan Africa

Though it genuinely feels like a couple of years, it is in fact only a number of weeks since I returned from a working trip to Zambia towards the end of February. The main purpose of the visit was to see at first hand and report on how Zambia is coping with the ever-intensifying impacts of climate change.

I travelled with Irish-based NGO, Self Help Africa, which operates in a number of countries in the region. As a first-timer in Africa, there are significant practical and logistical challenges to be overcome, especially on a short visit, in order to cover as much ground as possible, and SHA were very helpful in accommodating the many demands of a busy itinerary.

My first print report from the visit was filed with the Guardian in early March, and there  also were interview slots on NewsTalk’s Pat Kenny Show, with Mario Rosenstock on Today FM and Declan Meehan on East Coast FM to discuss my findings (a more substantial 1,200-word piece ran in The Irish Times Science page in April). Given the tsunami of coronavirus-related coverage that has blanketed the Irish media since late February, I was grateful indeed to find some outlets prepared to dedicate some coverage to the unfolding climate emergency in central and southern Africa.

On arrival on February 16th, we encountered a country already on alert for coronavirus, in the shape of a fully gowned medical official in Lusaka airport, where all visitors were required to fill out a detailed form relating to their health and travel prior to landing in Zambia. Everyone’s temperature was also being checked and recorded. No such checks were in place in Dublin either on departure or on return a week later.

While the epicentre of the virus has switched from China to Europe (and now to the US), the paucity of healthcare facilities in sub-Saharan Africa mean that coronavirus will, in time, take a grim toll. In Malawi, for instance, there are roughly two ICU beds per one million inhabitants; in these circumstances, anyone needing intensive care is likely to die.

As my visit to Zambia began, the coronavirus still seemed a long way away, in a country still reeling after a series of severe droughts and flooding events over the last two to three years. The average Zambian accounts for 0.29 tons of carbon emissions a year, or around 40 times less than a typical Irish person.

Among the stops on the itinerary was a visit to the Kariba dam, which features a massive 2.1gw hydroelectric power plant that is jointly operated with neighbouring Zimbabwe, and which provides a large portion of electric power for both countries. However, severe drought has seen water levels plummet at Lake Kariba (the world’s largest man-made lake, at 5,500 square kilometres, or more than twice the size of Luxembourg).

I plan to write at length about this trip at a future point. For now, I’ll conclude with the report below as filed with the Irish Times on April 23rd:

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Shifting rainfall patterns a growing threat to farming in sub-Saharan Africa

ONE OF the more ominous indicators of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa has been the dramatic recent shifts in rainfall patterns. With rain-fed agriculture crucial for the livelihoods of millions in the region, a better understanding of this is critical to help the most vulnerable to mitigate climate impacts.

UCD’s School of Earth Sciences is involved in a collaboration with Irish-based NGO Self Help Africa (SHA) in examining isotopes from deposits found in caves in southern Africa to assess historic rainfall patterns before the era of written records.

To better understand current rainfall patterns, SHA has also deployed 184 weather stations and seven river-line gauges across Malawi and Zambia. “We are looking at the critical periods in a crop’s growth cycle, in terms of temperature and rainfall, and aiming to change the planting dates so you can avoid these periods,” according to Paul Wagstaff, senior agricultural adviser with SHA.

Although not indigenous to Africa, as with the potato in Ireland, maize has become a staple for many smallholder farmers, and is now favoured over more traditional crops such as sorghum and millet. While maize is productive, its key limitation is a lack of tolerance to high temperatures and drought conditions.

Gathering timely information via rain gauges and other technologies is only half the story. Disseminating this in a timely manner to farmers in remote areas is equally important. Basic mobile phones are an almost universal and vital part of life in Zambia, with a 2012 study finding that adults spend almost 20 per cent of their daily income on phone credit.

Messaging system

A technology company, Viamo, has developed a user-friendly SMS-based messaging system where farmers in the region can dial a number and receive up-to-date information on rainfall in their area, with advice on, for instance, when to plant.

As the system is voice-activated, illiterate farmers can receive recorded instructions in their local language. If a user has a specific problem, such as insects, the low-cost system can quickly guide them to the appropriate information. It also issues severe weather and disease outbreak alerts.

While cheaper mobiles are common in Zambia, Kenya has a greater number of smartphones, and this offers more sophisticated services for farmers. One system, developed in conjunction with Penn State University in the United States, uses an app that employs artificial intelligence to detect viral diseases in cassava. This app integrates with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation remote sensing software which monitors water availability in a given area.

I visited Zambia in late February in the aftermath of the latest severe drought to hit the region to assess the impacts, as well as to see what steps were being taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change in the region.

As a result of ongoing extreme weather conditions, about 2.5 million Zambians are now in receipt of food aid. Among these is Catherine Milambo, who farms in the village of Malalika in Kafue, in southern Zambia. She described how her typical maize harvest would amount to about 15,000kg, but drought conditions have seen this plummet to about 500kg. Her family now receive aid in the form of mealie meal (a coarse flour made from maize) and small amounts of cash.

Another villager, Habeene Mable, explained her concern at the cutting of trees for charcoal, believing it is contributing to the irregular rainfall that now plagues the region. She has begun to plant fruit trees as part of a project to help farmers diversify crops and increase food resilience.

Dennis Mooya, senior agriculture officer with Zambia’s ministry of agriculture, works with local communities in Kafue and surrounding areas to help them cope with the tough new conditions. “Thirty years ago, we all knew that by the time it was [Zambian] independence day on October 24th, the rainy season would have started, but now it’s after November 15th before you have the first planting rains.”

This loss of almost a month in the traditional rainy season has a major impact on rural smallholders dependent on rain-fed agriculture, he acknowledges. “I think we need to awaken to the fact that we have a problem, a climate-related challenge,” Mooya adds. “Now, let’s ask ourselves what if it doesn’t rain completely – what are you going to eat?”

He points out that 70 per cent of the food produced in Zambia is grown by smallholders. “We need to start thinking about smart agriculture and water-harvesting technologies for these farmers.”

Climate stresses are being exacerbated by unsustainable practices, such as indiscriminate ploughing and land clearance for crops, unmonitored grazing by farm animals and excessive monocropping, according to Wallace Benn, environmental officer in Kafue. Concerted efforts to introduce conservation agriculture techniques are ongoing. These include no-till planting and maintaining almost total soil cover to prevent it drying out.

Benn is deeply concerned at rising temperatures and dramatic shifts in rainfall. “Now, with the whole climate change scenario, everything is falling apart. We even have situations where people are migrating within the country to do something with their lives other than agriculture,” he adds.

“The western world is trying to dedicate resources more to (climate) mitigation – we understand this urgency, but the urgency in developing countries is not mitigation, it’s in adaptation,” says Carol Mwape Zulu, chief climate change officer in the ministry of lands.

“Our livelihoods are impacted and the infrastructure, the little that is there, is getting damaged. It’s drawing development back,” says Mwape Zulu, who is based in the capital, Lusaka. Dedicating more resources towards adaptation, she believes “would be a fair response by the western world towards assisting developing countries”.

In its formal submission to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, Zambia projected climate-driven GDP reductions in the coming decades as a result of declining agricultural activity “and its associated effects on poverty levels, the potential impact of an energy crisis, the higher cost of treating climate-related diseases, and the loss of natural resources”.

Hydroelectric station

South of Lusaka is the Kariba dam, a vast hydroelectric station capable of producing 25 times more power than Ireland’s Ardnacrusha plant, and source of about half the electrical needs of both Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe. The dam is fed by lake Kariba, the world’s largest artificial lake. Despite its huge size, the lake has dropped by about six metres in the past three years, leading to frequent power cuts in both countries.

It is deeply ironic that a clean electricity source in a country with extremely low CO2 emissions (Zambians produce 0.29 tons of CO2 per capita, or 40 times less than the average Irish person) should be severely impacted by the climate-heating effect of emissions produced in the “developed” world.

Another indirect climate impact is that Zambia is now experiencing rapid deforestation, with more than 270,000 hectares being lost annually. Much of this is as a result of farmers cutting trees to produce charcoal to try to offset income losses due to drought and flood damage. The frequent power cuts make charcoal popular in the cities as a reliable material for cooking. Charcoal sellers now line almost every roadside in rural Zambia.

Since the western world has so far failed to act to rein in emissions, mean annual temperatures in Zambia are, according to Irish Aid, projected to rise by a further 1.2 to 3.4 degrees by mid-century. This, even before the impacts of coronavirus are taken into account, paves the way to a dangerously uncertain future.

– John Gibbons travelled to Zambia with Self Help Africa and received practical assistance from the Irish Embassy in Lusaka

 

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Political disconnect from environmental reality remains

When it came to climate and environmental issues, the political parties’ manifestos were a mixed bag indeed. On a positive note, these issues have moved from being almost universally ignored as recently as the 2016 election, to being front-and-centre in Election 2020 – at least on paper. The fact that climate yet again failed to materialise as a crunch issue on the doorsteps was deeply disappointing, and reduces the likelihood that whatever coalition eventually emerges will truly place the climate emergency at the heart of all policy planning in the next several years. My report (below) ahead of the election appeared in the Irish Times on February 5th.

LAST MAY, the Oireachtas declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. That was the easy bit. Since then, political inaction has spoken louder than words.

Despite Election 2020 being framed against an increasingly apocalyptic backdrop of rolling climate-fuelled disasters such as the Australian fires, there remains scant evidence that Irish politics has begun to grasp the meaning of the term “emergency”.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the election manifestos of the main parties, with Fine Gael’s being perhaps the most disconnected from reality. While it alludes to the need to “prevent catastrophic climate change”, it offers little indication as to how this useful goal might be achieved.

In October 2018, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that in order to avoid locking in potentially catastrophic and irreversible impacts, global carbon emissions needed to more or less halve by 2030.

To put this in context, nothing on this scale has ever been attempted in peacetime. For Europe, it potentially represents the most far-reaching reboot since the Marshall Plan to reconstruct the ruined continent in the late 1940s

In terms of Irish emissions, the last 15 years have been quite literally an unmitigated failure, with improvements in the energy sector papering over spiralling transport and agricultural emissions. Our per capita emissions are now the third-highest in the EU.

Just days from the election, it remains extremely difficult to read the public mood on climate action. As recently as last October, more than half of respondents to an Irish Times poll regarded climate as a crunch issue, with most also prepared to personally accept a financial hit in tackling it.

With recent polling showing only 6 per cent of voters regarding climate as the decisive issue influencing their vote, can this extraordinary level of public concern have simply vaporised in the last few months, or is it lurking below the political radar, waiting to resurface as the X factor in this election?

Biodiversity goals

With the three main parties running neck and neck in the polls, it is looking increasingly likely that whoever goes on to form the next government will need to have the Green Party on board, especially if it achieves about 10 per cent of the vote.

Unsurprisingly, the Greens’ manifesto on climate is the most ambitious, framed in terms of bending all policies towards the overarching goal of delivering 7 per cent annual emissions cuts, in tandem with major biodiversity goals.

Should Fine Gael be in pole position to form a government, it is difficult to see how the chasm in climate ambition between the two parties could be bridged. One of the few areas where Fine Gael appears progressive is in its plan to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars after 2030.

The party’s commitment to planting 8,000 hectares of forestry annually is deliberately vague on whether this will be biodiverse-rich native species or just more dead zones of industrial timber.

Fine Gael plans to increase carbon tax to €80 a tonne by 2030, but its manifesto includes the clearly counterintuitive commitment to “increase the fuel allowance” as a measure to offset the impacts of the tax.

Should Fianna Fáil be wooing the Greens into coalition, their manifesto gives them a clear edge on the outgoing government. While all three major parties have run scared of proposing herd reduction to mitigate spiralling agri sector emissions, Fianna Fáil ups its game on biodiversity, and overall is felt to be pliable on key green demands.

Favoured interests

Fianna Fáil plans to sharply increase funding for the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

This has been significantly eroded over the last decade. You have to seriously question our values when favoured interests like the (private) greyhound and horseracing industries receive vastly more taxpayer largesse than wildlife and biodiversity protection.

Fianna Fáil and the Greens would also broadly agree on commitments towards rewilding and marine protected areas, plus supporting a full ban on smoky coal and rapid rollout of a national retrofitting programme.

One Green Party proposal that could transform the apparently deadlocked agricultural debate is to increase the amount of Irish land farmed organically to 20 per cent by 2030.

At a stroke, this would cut emissions and pollution, reduce damaging and expensive inputs, boost biodiversity and reward farmers for protecting nature.

If Sinn Féin is in the mix, its flat rejection of carbon taxes (a view also held by People Before Profit) could present a serious roadblock to any agreed climate action programme, but there is common ground on issues like fracking. However, senior Green Party sources indicated scepticism around Sinn Féin’s actual commitment to a strong climate agenda.

Sinn Féin’s proposal to trial a “basic environmental income” for farmers to reward them directly for stewardship is worth exploring. Some of its proposals appear inconsistent; for instance, it wants to strengthen trawler inspections while weakening farm inspections.

With just 10 years in which to radically transform Ireland’s energy, transport and agricultural systems, this election may well be the most significant in decades. This Saturday, think globally, then vote for the parties and people that best represent your values.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

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Climate Change is (Sort of) Affecting Ireland’s Election

My pre-election analysis of where the parties stood on the climate issue was published on Desmog.uk.

LAST MAY, Ireland was among the first countries in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. In September, over 20,000 students took to the streets of Dublin demanding urgent climate action. And, plugging into the new ecological zeitgeist, RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, produced a week-long series of climate-related programmes and events that were broadcast in November.

In that context, Ireland seemed set for its first ever “climate election”, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dissolved the Dáil (parliament) and called an election for February 8th. Climate activists have been canvassing under the banner of “One Future Ireland”, with the slogan: “Act now for faster and fairer climate action”.

However, recent polls suggest that fewer than one in 10 people see climate as the most important issue when deciding how to vote. Parochial concerns have once again crowded out the bigger picture.

Election choices

The Irish electoral system involves proportional representation and multi-seat constituencies, which means that, unlike in the UK, the number of seats won by smaller parties tends to closely match their level of public support.

From the point of view of enhanced climate action, a coalition involving the centrist Fianna Fail with the Green party is considered a reasonable option. Ireland’s Labour party may also be in the mix, and is seen as pragmatic on climate issues.

However, the rejection by other left-wing parties of any form of carbon tax may scupper the chances of building a broader left-wing alliance to push a more genuinely transformative climate agenda.

So, where do the parties stand on climate action?

Fine Gael

Fine Gael’s election manifesto calls for a ban on all new fossil fuel cars by 2030, as well as supporting a target of reducing greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2030. It also supports planting 8,000 hectares of forestry annually and has committed to support a carbon tax rising steadily to €80 per tonne by 2030. It also favours a ten-fold increase in the amount of domestic retrofitting.

Fianna Fail

The other major Irish political party is Fianna Fail, which was widely blamed for leading the country into severe recession in 2008 and was almost wiped out electorally. It has since recovered and is now leading in the polls, and may well be the lead partner in forming a coalition government after this election.

It too supports an €80 per tonne carbon tax by the end of the decade, but unlike Fine Gael, it has committed to a nationwide ban on smoky coal. Its proposals on biodiversity protection are quite strong, and include supporting 30 percent of Irish territorial waters being designated as Marine Protected Areas. The party has traditionally been seen as having close links to the construction industry, and this is reflected in its ongoing commitment to road-building.

Sinn Fein and PBP Party

The third largest party in the state is Sinn Fein, though it has never been in government in the Irish republic. It supports a total ban on all offshore fossil fuel drilling, as well as banning the importation of fracked gas. For farmers, it proposes a novel “environmental basic income”, which aims to voluntarily transition them towards more sustainable practices.

Sinn Fein is supported by the left-wing People Before Profit (PBP) party in rejecting any carbon taxes. Sinn Fein argues that higher carbon taxes “will make people poorer, but will not make the state greener or cleaner.” While it is unclear whether Sinn Fein will participate in forming the next government, its absolute rejection of carbon taxes is a likely major stumbling block.

The PBP manifesto also suggests taking multinational agri corporations into public ownership.

Green Party

While currently having only three of 166 seats in parliament, the Green Party is hopeful of increasing that to between 10 and 15, and seems keen to be involved in government. Electoral support for the Green Party is currently hovering between seven and 10 percent in recent polling.

Its manifesto is by far the most comprehensive and coherent on climate action, and it includes the need for Ireland to commit to at least seven percent annual greenhouse gas emissions reductions (the government’s current Climate Action Plan aims for just two percent cuts per year).

On wind energy, the Greens propose an additional five gigawatts by 2030 and a massive 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2040. This would make Ireland a major net energy exporter. It also wants Ireland to aim for 30 percent tree cover by mid-century, as well as transitioning 20 percent of farming to be organic.

Their transport policies are detailed and support a full modal shift from car dependence to high quality public transport and cycling. The Greens also support reducing the national herd by 50 percent – a target also supported by the PBP party.

Agriculture attention

The apparent slump in public interest has been mirrored by media coverage, where climate action has once again been pushed to the margins of the national discussion. In the first televised leaders’ debate featuring all seven parties, the only climate-related question discussed over the course of two hours was whether parties supported reducing the suckler herd to cut emissions.

Ireland’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are the third highest in the EU, and while mandated to cut emissions outside the EU Emissions Trading Scheme by 20 percent by 2020, according to government figures, it will only have achieved “at best” a reduction of around one percent. Emissions from the agricultural sector have in fact risen by around eight percent since 2015.

While agriculture is a relatively small part of the Irish economy, it produces 34 percent of total emissions, and the agri-industrial lobby has been highly active in downplaying the need for climate action, fearful that it will lead to a reduction in cattle numbers.

The Irish Farmers Association recently hosted a conference featuring Dr Frank Mitloehner, of UC Davis, California, an agricultural scientist and self-described “GHGguru” with strong ties to the meat industry, in which he downplayed the global warming influence of methane from ruminant livestock.

Mitloehner has been described as “a representative example of the growing manner in which animal agribusiness has been able to utilise the strategies already used by climate change deniers in order to distort the debate on livestock production and its environmental effects.”

The outgoing government has been led by Fine Gael, a centre-right party with strong ties to both industry and agribusiness. It has given ongoing political shelter to the agri industry’s attempts to downplay emissions, worried about a possible political backlash in rural constituencies.

So while climate change remains an important part of the conversation, it seems unlikely it will decide the nation’s vote.

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Mitigate, Adapt, or Suffer – stark choices in Election 2020

Below, my article, as it appeared on Green News on January 24th, ahead of Election 2020.

GENERAL ELECTION 2020 must be the ‘Climate Election’. As the global climate and biodiversity emergency deepens, it is surely inconceivable that Irish politics can continue to ignore and sideline the greatest crisis in human history. After all, ignorance is no longer an excuse.

Yet, this is manifestly the case. In his comments announcing the General Election for February 8th, Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar stated: “We are beginning to make real headway on climate action and the environment”.

However, over the last decade, successive Irish governments have grossly failed to act on climate change, choosing to listen to vested interests rather than to the scientific advice. The strong recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on climate action helped shape an ambitious report last year by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA).

However, its recommendations have since been whittled away through the influence of lobbyists seen in the anaemic Climate Action Plan. And now, the long-awaited Climate (Amendment) Bill has fallen with this Government.

No time left to squander

We do not have three, four or five more years to squander in half-measures, easy options and lazy compromises. The next Government – whatever its political hue – must place strong climate action in line with science and put equity at the heart of its programme for government. None of the significant problems faced by the next Cabinet can be solved in isolation from measures to tackle climate breakdown.

Every action undertaken by every department and every State and semi-state agency must, as and from 2020, be ‘climate-proofed’ to ensure it is compatible with the overwhelmingly urgent need to rapidly decarbonise all aspects of our economy. At the same time, we must also prepare our communities to cope with worsening climate impacts and climate shocks in the decade ahead.

The media too have a solemn responsibility to reflect the scientific reality in its coverage and to ask the hard questions of all political candidates in terms of fully thought out commitments on climate action. In this regard, RTÉ’s refusal to host a debate focusing on the climate emergency is deeply regrettable.

Until our media hold our politicians to account on crunch climate and environmental issues, there is little or no prospect of the kinds of breakthroughs we so urgently need. We cannot afford to see Election 2020 as simply another ‘horse race’ where politicians and pundits frame the debate as politics-as-usual.

The climate strikers of 2019, many of whom are still too young to vote, are demanding that we act decisively to tackle the deadly threat of climate breakdown. The apocalyptic fires in Australia that have already razed an area the size of the island of Ireland are yet another warning call that climate breakdown is real – it’s here now, and it’s getting worse.

There is no room for complacency in Ireland. We are particularly vulnerable to extreme flooding, coastal inundation and storm damage, although as the summer of 2018 also illustrated, drought conditions are also becoming more frequent.

Faster, fairer climate action

As an open, highly trade-dependent economy, we are especially vulnerable to supply chain or market disruption arising from escalating and ongoing weather disasters and the likely political or economic ‘domino effect’ consequences arising.

The UN’s median projection is that by mid-century, there will be some 200 million climate refugees worldwide, though it concedes that this number could be as high as one billion people.

Any government coming to power in the 2020s that is not focusing on developing climate resilience, while working equally hard to meet our Paris Agreement targets on climate mitigation, is grossly negligent.

I fully support the One Future campaign that launched earlier this week, and want an incoming Government that:

  • Delivers rapid emissions reductions of no less than 8 per cent per annum
  • Prioritises high quality public transport, making it both accessible and affordable to all, while investing heavily in protected infrastructure for cycling
  • Dramatically ramps up a national home retrofitting programme, to deliver warmer, safer houses requiring little or no fossil fuel heating
  • Fully withdraws support from all fossil fuel extraction and importing projects from peat burning to importing of fracked LNG
  • Supports a radical transition of our agricultural system away from low-margin commodity production to resilient, sustainable agriculture focused on meeting the food security needs of Ireland while helping restore Ireland’s battered biodiversity
  • Strongly supports and puts finance in place for renewable energy projects, large and small. Every home, school, office and farm in Ireland should be offered a fair, predictable price for delivering clean indigenous electricity to the national grid
  • Protect nature as a key national objective and redirects harmful subsidies for the likes of sheep grazing on hills and mountains towards supporting farmers to be custodians of these vulnerable landscapes
  • Protect our waterways, coasts and estuaries that are under pressure from pollution and overfishing as trawlers wreak havoc on the sea floor, destroying the breeding grounds for many species and killing huge numbers of sea creatures as ‘by-catch’

As John Holdren, a Harvard energy expert and former climate adviser to Barack Obama, famously noted:

“We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be.”

That is the real choice we all face in Election 2020.

John is an environmental journalist and commentator. This article is based around a recent release he wrote on behalf of An Taisce.

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

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

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

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

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RTÉ finally spins spotlight onto concerted climate action

Over the last decade and more, I’ve been in an uncomfortable position regarding RTÉ. On the one hand, I’ve long been a stout defender of public service broadcasting as a vital bulwark against total domination of our media landscape by agenda-peddling billionaires and the vagaries of advertisers.

Public funding should, at least in theory, free our state broadcaster to be able to give due attention to what is genuinely important in society, not just what is popular at a given moment. Some of its output, such as the ‘RTÉ Investigates‘ unit, fulfils this public service mandate superbly, uncovering wrong-doing and investing resources in journalism that looks past the headlines to the stories hidden from view.

On the other hand, its output over the last decade and more on climate change, biodiversity and crunch environmental issues generally has been, with one or two exceptions, abysmal. A recently published paper by DCU researchers noted the overall low amount of media coverage climate issues receive in Ireland compared to other European countries, adding: “Climate change is predominately framed as a political or ideological game, emphasising the personalities or parties involved, rather than the extent of the challenge”. Continue reading

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Meat & dairy sector turns to chemical industry PR playbook

Below, my article as published on the investigative website, Desmog UK on October 4th. Ireland’s meat and dairy industries have been feeling the heat, both from a public turning increasingly towards vegetarian and vegan options as concern over the environmental impacts of ruminant agriculture mount and from the high profile Go Vegan World billboard campaign drawing attention to the ethical issues involved in animal farming. The rapid rise of social media mean that the once-mysterious workings of abattoirs as well as the horrors of much of the live export trade (especially involving very young calves) are now there for everyone to see. However tempting it may be for Agri industry interests to blame do-gooder environmentalists, these trends are real and aren’t going away. The question now is whether the new ‘Meat and Dairy Facts’ campaign is going to be, well, factual, or just double down on cherry picked industry talking points while ignoring all inconvenient data. Time will tell.

IRELAND’S embattled beef and dairy sector has taken the unusual step of bringing in a public relations and lobbying firm with links to the tobacco and agri-chemicals industries to defend the sector against a growing chorus of critics.

Continue reading

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How flawed logic puts the world in danger

Below, my review of ‘The Irrational Ape’ by David Robert Grimes, which was published in the Irish Times on September 22nd last. In an era of fake news, with crackpot theories and conspiratorial nonsense ricocheting around social media at dizzying speed, it’s well worth taking a few hours to step back from the fray and read Grimes’s thoughtful foray into the neverlands, where fact and fiction lose all meaning. If you’ve read Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, you’ll be broadly familiar with much of the ground covered here, but Goldacre’s book is now a decade old, and the world has changed almost beyond recognition since then so The Irrational Ape is as timely as it is readable.

SPARROWS are hardly your typical counter-revolutionaries. Yet, in 1958, the Chinese government, under Chairman Mao Zedong, declared the humble sparrow to be “public animals of capitalism”. What happened next is where farce meets tragedy. Having seen that sparrows eat grain, the authorities ordered a nationwide persecution of the hapless birds. Within a year, more than a billion sparrows were dead, and the species was functionally extinct. Continue reading

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Why you should take to the streets with your children

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on September 20th, to coincide with the Student March for climate, which saw some 20,000 take to the streets of Dublin, with thousands more joining protests in cities and towns across Ireland and around the world. In all, an estimated 7 million people marched that day for climate action, making it the single largest such day in the history of environmental activism.

YOU COULD call it the Greta effect. In recent decades, as the global climate and biodiversity crises deepened, the environmental movement has at times seemed almost moribund. It has been essentially the same tiny handful of activists facing off in an asymmetrical struggle against public indifference, media disengagement and political apathy.

That this wall of wilful silence could remain intact in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence about the depth and gravity of the global ecological crisis is of itself astonishing. What is no less remarkable is just how quickly things can change. Continue reading

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The Story of the Decade – Media and Climate Change

Below, my piece as commissioned as one of a series of retrospective articles to mark the 10th anniversary of the Irishenvironment.com website, run by Bob Hernan.

THIS TIME 10 years ago, the portents for real climate action seemed genuinely encouraging. With the science-literate Obama regime in Washington, Merkel in Germany and a Labour government in the UK that seemed prepared to listen to the advice of experts, steady political progress was being made towards the crunch climate conference to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009.

That was then. With the clarity of hindsight, it should have been obvious that despite all the political posturing and media column inches, there was almost no clear public awareness or understanding of the true depth and existential nature of the climate and biodiversity crises. Continue reading

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2029 – A letter from the future

We live in consequential times. “What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years”, is how former UK chief scientific advisor Prof David King put it recently.

There is no shortage of scientific evidence presaging the grim price our civilisation will pay for failing to prevent climate breakdown while in the process inflicting near-fatal damage on the natural world. What is however most striking in 2019 is just how rapidly the climate system is unravelling. For instance, scientists had not expected the permafrost within the Canadian Arctic to begin melting at depth until the 2090s. Instead, it is happening on a wide scale right now, 70 years ahead of schedule.

The scorching European double-heatwave of June and July saw all-time heat records smashed right across the continent, with temperatures approaching 35ºC within the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. Both these heatwave are considered to be once-in-500-year events, yet six such episodes have now occurred in Europe since 2003. Continue reading

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