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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Drafting a roadmap for a climate-altered world

I was delighted back in May to receive an email from Andy Revkin letting me know he was coming to Ireland in early June and offering to meet up for a chat when he was in Dublin.  We spent a very pleasant couple of hours in a city centre café one Sunday morning, where we were joined by environmental broadcaster, Duncan Stewart for an animated conversation. Afterwards, myself and Andy headed across to Stephen’s Green and found a quiet spot where I recorded an interview with him on his thoughts and insights after more than three decades in the front line of climate and environmental reportage. Below, is the interview, as carried on the Life Science page of the Irish Times in early July (since this was recorded, Andy has taken on a new role as head of a new communications initiative at Columbia University)

ANDREW Revkin is an acclaimed US science and environment writer who has reported on the climate crisis since the late 1980s for the New York Times, Discover magazine and ProPublica. Author of several award-winning books, in 2018 Revkin joined the National Geographic Society as strategic adviser for environmental and science journalism. He is also a musician and song writer. Continue reading

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Rout of global biodiversity comes with a heavy price tag

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

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

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

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Thirty years closer to the End of Nature

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

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

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

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

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Eerie media silence as climate breakdown gathers pace

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

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

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

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A society of altruists, governed by psychopaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spokesperson for the Teagasc told DeSmog UK:

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

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

Lagging Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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A harrowing but narrow vision of our climate-wrecked futures

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

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

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Incoherent, inconsistent – and not really funny at all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Window on ecological annihilation closing fast

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

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

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

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