All talk, no action: agri sector’s spin over substance

My article, which ran in the Irish Examiner in early February, is below

IRISH agriculture faces enormous threats, both from direct climate change impacts and the urgent need to sharply reduce emissions, yet the sector has been remarkably slow to engage with climate reality. Unfortunately, the latest report, published by the dairy industry lobby group, ICOS is virtually silent on how to achieve significant cuts in total emissions from the sector.

The presence of the chairman of the government’s Climate Change Advisory Council, Prof John FitzGerald, at the launch of ‘Positive steps towards a low carbon future for the Irish dairy sector’ may have given the media the impression that it was an earnest, scientifically-led document. If so, they were misled.

The report was published as the industry’s response to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. It was developed by a 20-person working group, all from the dairy industry, with no apparent NGO or named academic input whatever, and zero dissenting voices. And it shows. Continue reading

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Sinking ever deeper into ecological debt and climate denial

Eschatology, or the study of the end of times, is at least as old as the written word. The concept spans many of the world’s major religions, usually referring to some future day of judgement or reckoning.

Beyond the realms of theology, eschatology as a concept is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, especially after the tempestuous and chaotic first 12 months of the Trump regime. In this time, almost everything we once took for granted about inherent stability, even inevitability, of western democracies and the robustness of our institutions has been shaken profoundly.

As if to add to the sense of impending calamity, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved their famous Doomsday Clock for 2018 forward in late January– to two minutes to midnight. This is the closest it has ever been to the witching hour. Continue reading

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2017: yet another year of living dangerously

And so 2017 comes, at last, to a close. From a climate and wider environmental standpoint, it has been an unmitigated disaster. It hardly bears repeating that the installation of the Trump regime in Washington was the worst possible news, at the worst possible time, for those of us interested in handing on a habitable biosphere to the next generation by mid-century.

Of the 10 years I’ve been operating as a journalist and activist in this arena, 2017 stands out as the most depressing of all, especially coming hot on the heels of the Paris Accord of December 2015, which, for all its inadequacies and compromises, did at least hold out the vague prospect of providing a platform for ramping up far more radical action in the next decade or two. Well, that was then. Having appeared to plateau over the last two years, CO2 emissions took off again in 2017, when human actions added a whopping 3% to global CO2 levels. Continue reading

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Unmasking Ireland’s real ‘climate radicals’

Below, my article as it appeared earlier this month on the OpEd page of the Irish Times. I’ve been intrigued for many years at the way some people are automatically pigeon-holed as outliers and ‘radicals’ in certain debates. Nowhere is this more widely seen than when the media approaches climate and environmental coverage.

Leave aside for a moment the phoney ‘balance’ of allowing folks representing between 0–1% of mainstream scientific opinion equal air time. That’s bad enough, but the reality is in fact worse. The media, civil servants and state agencies defer (consciously or not) to what they perceive are the ‘voices of authority’. That, by itself is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if those voices are of bona fide experts giving independent advice on technical issues.

The real problems start when the ‘voices of authority’ are instead co-opted by most powerful vested interests, the organisations with big media and PR budgets, insider access to politicians and policymakers? Take the employers’ group, IBEC for instance. Last year its turnover was a whopping €21 million. The agri industry and farm lobby group, the IFA has a turnover of around €17 million, with offices in Brussels to ensure its lobbying reach goes well beyond our shores. Continue reading

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Don’t give up on democracy just yet

Below, my article from the November edition of Village magazine, looking back on the historic proceedings of the Citizens’ Assembly:

It’s been a bad couple of years for democracy. The Brexit fiasco was the most humiliating British retreat from Europe since Dunkirk, but this time, entirely self-inflicted. Yet, rather than a wake-up call, Brexit instead turned out to be a blueprint for the bloodless US coup that followed, where right wing extremists, aided and abetted by assorted foreign powers, seized the world’s most powerful political office.

Some 95 million Americans didn’t vote in November 2016. “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”, is how Greek philosopher, Plato presciently put it. Continue reading

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Not waving, drowning: Ten years of ThinkOrSwim

This evening, exactly ten years ago, I tentatively pressed the ‘Publish’ button on my brand new blog, and released the first ThinkOrSwim posting into the wild. Titled ‘Wind of change finally reaches Ireland?’ it foolishly opined that the new government was at last getting real about climate action, “after 10 ten years of inaction and rising emissions”.

Then Environment minister, John Gormley had just earmarked €15 million for a public awareness campaign on climate change (remember those?), which was due to kick off in early 2008. “There is a mountain of disinformation and ignorance (both wilful and genuine) out there to be scaled before this issue can be tackled in earnest”, was how the younger, ahem, greener me summed it up on that November evening 10 years ago. Continue reading

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Pushing back against the tide of junk science

I published two articles over the summer in Village magazine on the subject of the new Irish climate denier group, the self-styled Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF), founded by retired UCD meteorologist, Ray Bates. The first of these, in the June issue, focused on the junk science being peddled by septuagenarian US climate deniers, Richard Lindzen and William Happer, both of whom were flown in to Dublin as part of an apparent concerted effort by the ICSF to stymie an Irish response to the climate crisis by disguising political lobbying as scientific analysis. Continue reading

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Can direct democracy succeed where politics has failed?

Earlier this month, I was pleased to have my third article appear on Guardian Environment. The topic was one I have previously teased around the edges, here and elsewhere, on numerous occasions. In a nutshell: once we’ve figured out our elected representatives don’t represent us, once we’ve finally grasped that yes, the system is indeed crazy enough to literally burn the world down, destroying itself the rest of us in the process….what then?

Direct action, legal action, protest, civil disobedience; given what’s at stake, and given that everything is on the line, then surely absolutely every option has to be considered. It’s not like time is on our side. Twenty-five years ago, a stark ‘Warning To Humanity‘ was issued by 1,700 top scientists. We ignored it and carried on regardless. Now, it has been reissued, this time signed by tens of thousands of scientists.  Well, I’m with Don McLean on this one: ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will‘. Continue reading

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The Citizens have spoken: no more excuses, climate action now

I spent all day Saturday November 5th in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, covering the penultimate session of the Citizens’ Assembly hearings on climate change. Having watched much of the previous weekend’s deliberations via live stream, I had the sense that something genuinely important, perhaps even historic, was unfolding. The eight hours or so I spent observing the process up close reaffirmed that impression.

If parliamentary democracy is terminally clogged up with fearful politicians and choked with special interest groups, then think of the direct democracy on show from the Citizens’ Assembly as a powerful enema to unblock the BS that has made even the most rudimentary progress on tackling climate change all-but-impossible. My impressions of the process were published on Desmog.uk the day after its Recommendations were issued. It was a privilege to be there to witness it. The full text is below: Continue reading

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Eating the future, one bite at a time

Futurology is a favourite journalistic parlour game, usually reserved for a slow news week or the lifestyle section. When I saw the following bold opening statement in a recent Irish Times magazine cover story, “Half of the babies born today in industrialised countries will live long enough to celebrate their 100th birthday”, it got me thinking about the chasm that separates ‘environmental journalism’ from that altogether rosier alternate world where the rest of the media seemingly reside.

The below was published last Friday on the Irish Times OpEd page, partly in response to the futurology piece the previous weekend. Kudos to the IT for being open-minded enough to print a critique of their own journalism; the mark, in my book, of a responsible, diverse media outlet. Continue reading

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Nuclear near-miss a chilling portend of our climate future

Below, my article as it appears in the current issue of ‘Village’ magazine. I’ve included links to watch the film in its entirety, as well as the subsequent ABC studio discussion. A third of a century later, it’s still strangely gripping and, in the light of all that has happened in world politics in the last year or so, in the words of Yogi Berra, it feels like déjà vu all over again.

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ON THE NIGHT of November 20th, 1983, US network ABC aired a made-for-TV film entitled ‘The Day After’. By some estimates, around 100 million people sat down to watch the film, which dramatized the build up to and the immediate aftermath of an all-out nuclear war between the US and the USSR. Continue reading

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When our leaders won’t lead, can Citizens’ Assembly step up?

Below, an article I ran in a well-known magazine earlier this month in the light of what we learned from the first weekend of the Citizens’ Assembly. I wasn’t able to attend the session in Malahide, but spent much of the weekend following the excellent live-streaming coverage of the event. Regular ThinkOrSwim visitors will know I’m not prone to irrational exuberance, but it did feel like something different was taking place.

I’m not sure who dreamed up the title: ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’, they may perhaps have done so with tongue in cheek. A more accurate way of framing it might have been ‘Dragging Ireland kicking and screaming into grudgingly doing the absolute minimum in tackling climate change’. We are, after all, international laggards when it comes to climate change. Our unfortunately named ‘Climate Action’ minister Denis Naughten is just back from his latest foray at the EU pleading an béal bocht and demanding that the goalposts be shifted – yet again – to allow Ireland to wriggle even further from the very commitments we signed up to as part of the Paris Accord in 2015.

The Citizens’ Assembly meets again over the weekend of November 4-5th to conclude its deliberations. I aim to be in attendance and will be following its Recommendations closely and hope to be reporting on them for an international audience. Continue reading

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Climate denial and the ‘white male effect’

In recent months I’ve found myself in a bit of a running battle with some of Ireland’s leading (I use the word advisedly) climate contrarians. It stems back to the inaugural meeting of the so-called Irish Climate Science Forum in a Dublin hotel on May 5th last. I did my bit to draw critical attention to a secretive group with the stated aim of influencing (aka ‘hobbling’) Ireland’s response to climate change.

While barred as a member of the media from attending, I did drop around to the venue, the Sandymount Hotel in south Dublin, to meet one or two of my moles for a post-meeting debrief. While there, I wandered upstairs to see what I could see. As luck would have it, the back door of the room where the meeting was taking place featured a glass panel, so I whipped out a phone camera and snapped the picture below, which DeSmog.uk subsequently used to illustrate my report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While it won’t win any photojournalism prizes, the photo does have its value. Notice anything at all unsual about the age and gender profile? Me too. That got me thinking about what exactly would make such a bunch of highly experienced, educated people so suddenly gullible, so giddily susceptible to swallowing junk science on the biggest, most critical issue human civilisation (and I use that term advisedly too) has ever faced?

Then, more recently, I was on the receiving end of a formal complaint from one of the lead contrarians (watch this space for a full account once this process has run its course). Among the smorgasbord of charges he levelled against me was one of…ageism. This came as a genuine shock. I was brought up to respect my elders – which is not the same as blindly accepting something somebody says just because they’re a good deal older than me, or indeed because they have more academic qualifications than me.

I’ve certainly never engaged in any of the assorted activities (harassment, bullying, threatening behaviour etc.) levelled by my contrarian accuser against assorted ‘NGOs and activists’, but what about ageism? Nope, not guilty on that count either. The whole encounter brought a 2011 research paper – entitled ‘Cool Dudes’ back to mind. It teased out the intriguing ‘white male effect’, one most predominant in older males.

Could this help solve the riddle of how long-retired cherry pickers like Richard Lindzen or William Happer could get away with peddling their anti-science spiel to audiences you would think are old enough and wise enough to smell the bullshit? I took that idea to The Guardian a couple of weeks back, and this led to a commission, and the article first appeared in Guardian Environment on Friday last.

It caused a bit of a stir (which is usually what happens when you give the denier hornets’ nest a poke), with over 1,100 online comments – a big number, even by Guardian standards. Next, I had the dubious honour of Spectator blog, entitled ‘Are old white men really to blame for climate change denial?‘ (apparently not). Next up, the world’s most popular denier website, Wattsupwiththat, waded in: ‘Guardian: Climate Denial is the Fault of Old White People‘.

And on it went. A denier blog called ‘Climate Skepticism’ certainly had the best headline: ‘More sexist, racist filth from the Guardian’. Quite. Wondering about the identity of the author, the article engaged in a more authentic brand of racist, sexist filth: ‘Is it John Gibbons the dishy young black transexual who sells her body to elderly engineers in the washrooms of Dublin public houses venting her understandable spleen? Or is it John Gibbons the environmental activist and former environmental columnist at the Irish Times, sacked in 2010, much to the dismay of its highly educated, mainly elderly white male readership? I think we should be told’.

Regular ThinkOrSwim visitors will be relieved to learn that, whatever about my alleged nocturnal activies, I am indeed still a regular contributor to the Irish Times; my weekly environment column did indeed come to an end in 2010, but, after 100+ straight weeks, it had probably run its course by then, and I was certainly happy by then to be relieved of the heavy burden of filing a research-based column 50 times a year.

Below is the full version of the article, which the Guardian trimmed slightly for brevity and clarity:

FROM MY vantage point just outside the glass doors, the sea of grey hair and balding male pates had the appearance of a golf society event or active retirement group. It was instead the inaugural meeting of Ireland’s first climate denial group, the self-styled Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) in Dublin last May. All media were barred from attending.

Its guest speaker was retired physicist and noted US climate contrarian, Richard Lindzen (77). His jeremiad against the “narrative of hysteria” on climate change was lapped up by an audience largely comprising engineers and meteorologists – mostly retired. This demographic profile of attendees at climate denier meetings has been replicated in London, Washington and elsewhere.

How many of the people in the room had children or indeed grandchildren, I wondered. Could an audience of experienced, otherwise intelligent people really be this blithely indifferent to the devastating impacts unmitigated climate change will wreak on the world their progeny must inhabit? These same ageing contrarians doubtless insure their homes, put on their seat belts, check smoke alarms and fret about cholesterol levels.

Why then, when it comes to assessing the greatest threat the world has ever faced and when presented with the most overwhelming scientific consensus on any issue in the modern era, does this natural caution desert them and, collectively, they are prepared to quite literally bet their children’s lives on the faux optimism being peddled by contrarians?

As a journalist, I have long found climate denial an intriguing topic, but as a citizen and parent, I’ll admit to being mad as hell about this callous disregard for our future by those who likely won’t be around when the climate hits the fan.

“We’ve been repeatedly asked: don’t you want to leave a better Earth for your grandchildren”, quipped comedian and US talk show host John Oliver. “And we’ve all collectively responded: ‘ah, fuck ‘em!’” This would be a lot funnier were it not so close to the bone.

Short-termism and self interest is part of the answer. A 2012 study in Nature Climate Change presented evidence of ‘how remarkably well equipped ordinary individuals are to discern which stances towards scientific information secure their personal interests’.

This is surely only half the explanation. A 2007 study by Kahan et al. on risk perception identified the “white male effect”, or the ‘atypically high levels of technological and environmental risk acceptance among white males’. An earlier paper teased out a similar point: ‘Perhaps white males see less risk in the world because they create, manage, control and benefit from so much of it’. Others, such as women and non-whites, who haven’t enjoyed such an armchair ride in life, report far higher levels of risk aversion.

The 2011 paper ‘Cool Dudes – the denial of climate change among conservative white males in the US’ observed uncontroversially that: ‘conservative white males are likely to favour protection of the current industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well’. It added that ‘heightened emotional and psychic investment in defending in-group claims may translate into misperceived understanding about problems like climate change that threaten the continued order of the system’.

A paper earlier this year from Vanderbilt University pinpointed what motivates many who choose to reject climate change. It’s not science denial, but ‘regulation phobia’. Most deniers accept science in general, and even pride themselves on their science literacy. However, combatting climate change not alone means more regulations, ‘almost uniquely, it demands a transformation of internalised attitudes’. This, the authors conclude, ‘has produced what can fairly be described as a phobic reaction among many people’.

Facing up to climate change also means confronting the deeply uncomfortable reality that the growth-based economic and political models upon which we depend may be built on sand. In some, especially the ‘winners’ in the current economic system, this realisation can trigger an angry backlash.

“To the extent that assertions of environmental risk are perceived as symbolising a challenge to the prerogatives and competence of social and governmental elites, it is hierarchical men—and particularly white ones – whose identities are the most threatened, and who are thus most likely to form an extremely dismissive posture toward asserted risks”, according to the Kahan study.

This at last began to make sense of these elderly engineers and assorted non-specialists crowding into hotel rooms to engage in the pleasant and no doubt emotionally rewarding group delusion of imagining climate change to be some vast liberal hoax.

In truth, the arguments hawked around by elderly white male climate deniers like Fred Singer, William Happer and Nigel Lawson among others are intellectually threadbare, pockmarked with contradictions and offering little more than a cherry-picked parody of how science actually operates. Yet this is catnip for those who choose to be deceived.

It is, however, deeply unfair to tar all elderly white men as reckless and egotistical. Celebrated naturalist Sir David Attenborough (91) and former Nasa chief, Dr Jim Hansen (76) are examples of courageous climate leadership. But their voices are often lost in a fog of denial.

A century after elderly military leaders cheerfully dispatched millions of young men from the trenches to their slaughter in the First World War, the defiant mood of today’s climate deniers is best captured by the stirring words of Blackadder’s General Melchett: “If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through!”

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‘I have fed – and starved – species greater than you’

Back in the bleak 1980s, some 500 Irish river locations boasted pure, clean water. What of today’s modern, sustainable and super-green Ireland? Now, a mere 21 river locations remain of very high quality, according to the EPA’s newly published Water Quality in Ireland, 2010-2015 report. This represents an astonishing collapse in water quality in just 30 years, and agricultural intensification is the chief culprit.

This may also come as quite a shock to Irish TV viewers, who have been treated to Bord Bia’s latest lush, evocative ‘Origin Green’ advertising campaign, which ironically opens by panning from a height across seemingly pristine rivers and bucolic pastoral scenes reminiscent of a Constable painting.

The campaign was developed by agency Rothco with a whopping €536,000 production budget. Bord Bia will spend at least as much again this year on TV, press and online ads, including advertorials pushing the message that the Irish agri sector is not only uniquely sustainable, it is also somehow involved in “solving one of the planet’s most pressing problems”. Quite.

This miraculous gift to problem-solving is known as the National Food Sustainability Programme, to which thousands of Irish farmers are signed up. I wondered just how tough it was to receive Origin Green certification, so I contacted Bord Bia to find out. They confirmed to me that, to date, some 0.5% of applicants have been deemed ‘not eligible’. In other words, 99.5% of farmers in Ireland are practising sustainable, ecologically friendly agriculture.

With such a uniquely talented, well-regulated and conscientious pool of farmers, small wonder we are the envy of the world when it comes to sustainability. Which makes it all the more mysterious as to how some two thirds of total water pollution is attributed by the EPA to the agricultural sector. And why it is also the number one threat to biodiversity, as well as Ireland’s largest source of greenhouse gases.

Indeed, it’s equally baffling to the Irish Farmers Association; its press release on the report talks at length about the ‘disproportionately negative impact on water quality’ of…urban areas. Nowhere did the IFA spin doctors mention agriculture being in any way culpable, let alone the chief offender. Perhaps they were too mesmerised by the stunning overhead photography and silken prose in that lavish new ‘Origin Green’ ad to actually read the EPA report?

The current advert follows an earlier Bord Bia series from some years back featuring a very young Saoirse Ronan wandering dreamily through a monocultural landscape while cooing about greenness, sustainability, nature etc. etc. It too was as visually stunning as it was vacuous, appealing to an Ireland that exists only in the minds of commercial filmmakers.

Nor is Bord Bia alone in schmaltzy, deeply deceptive advertising. Fellow semi-state, Bord na Móna faces huge problems over its environmentally destructive core business. Its answer has been to hilariously rebrand itself as ‘Naturally Driven’ and churn out soft-focus ads that glibly feature butterflies, ladybugs and sphagnum moss, while glossing over the massive and ongoing environmental wreckage it makes its actual money from.

This blizzard of eco-blarney did some unintended good in annoying ecologist, Pádraic Fogarty sufficiently to inspire him to research and write a hard-hitting book entitled ‘Whittled away – Ireland’s vanishing nature’. For him, Bord Bia’s deeply cynical Saoirse Ronan ad campaign was the last straw.

It is no coincidence, as Fogarty points out, that Bord Bia received three times more in taxpayer funding for its PR work than the National Parks and Wildlife Service to look after our actual natural heritage. It is equally unsurprising that during the recent recession the NPWS – now under the ministerial remit of agri industry-friendly Heather Humphreys, found its funding top of the list to be slashed.

Imagine for a moment that Mother Nature had access to a top creative agency, with celebrities willing to do the voiceovers – what might such an ad campaign look and sound like? The NGO Conservation International put together such a series a couple of years back, featuring the voices of Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson, Kevin Spacey, Ed Norton and Penelope Cruz, among others.

The series, entitled ‘Nature is speaking’, is beautifully produced, but the charity didn’t have millions in taxpayers money, like Bord Bia to buy TV space. It relied instead on social media to spread the word. My favourite, entitled ‘Mother Nature’, has so far been viewed over 6.8 million times on YouTube. “I have been here for aeons”, Mother Nature warns us. “I have fed species greater than you, and I have starved species greater than you…your actions will determine your fate, not mine”.

So much for that ridiculous ‘saving the planet’ conceit. Saving ourselves is always what this has really boiled down to, despite our fonder delusions about planetary stewardship. And frankly, even that more modest project looks to be well beyond our collective abilities.

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Right here, right now. Climate change impacts get real

Below, the original version of my article, which ran in the Irish Times last week, including some links:

THE US National Weather Service is not noted for making alarmist pronouncements. So, when it earlier this week described Hurricane Harvey as “unprecedented – all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced”, it became clear we are fast moving into dangerous new climatic era.

Meteorologist and science communicator Eric Holthaus set the facts out bluntly: “in all of US history, there’s never been a storm like Hurricane Harvey, but there’s an uncomfortable point that, so far, everyone is skating around. We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen and we didn’t care… Harvey is what climate change looks like”.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ireland again felt the latest lash of extreme weather with the sudden recent deluge that caused havoc in Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula. Met Éireann labelled it a “once in 100-year event” and pointedly avoided discussing any possible climate component. Continue reading

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