We mourn for Cecil while ignoring destruction of natural world

Below, my article, as it appears in this weekend’s Irish Times.

WITH modern technology and firepower, it takes little courage and even less skill to kill wild animals. This week US dentist and recreational ‘big game hunter’ Walter James Palmer found himself squarely in the crosshairs as an international controversy exploded over his casual slaughter of an iconic Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil.

Palmer had paid $50,000 for the privilege of killing a lion for ‘sport’, an activity that is technically legal in Zimbabwe. Cecil was, however, based in the protected Hwange National Park, but was lured out using bait and inexpertly shot by Palmer with a crossbow.

The semi-tame lion, which had been fitted with a GPS tracking device as part of a long-term Oxford University study, fled, wounded, and survived for 40 agonising hours as the weekend warrior and his guides stalked it across the savannah. Continue reading

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Challenging Ireland’s climate contrarian-in-chief

Back in May 2014, UCD meteorologist, Prof Ray Bates penned a heartfelt plea for continued inaction on climate change, under the lurid headline: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’. It was a weak, poorly argued exercise in that most unscientific of pursuits, namely cherry-picking. The piece was duly taken apart on this blog and elsewhere.

The most comical aspect of Bates’ stirring call to climate inaction was that, as far as we could tell, the reason this scientist was demanding that we low-ball the real and rapidly accelerating risks from climate change was his passionate desire to ensure that the expansionist agenda of the Irish agricultural sector not be in any way constrained by such irksome burdens as our legally mandated requirements to cut GHG emissions in the near and medium term. What, you might ask, has exporting beef and milk powder got to do with climate science? Yes, precisely nothing.

As I wondered aloud at the time: “What I am curious to know is why Prof Bates – a meteorologist – spends so much time lobbying for agriculture, and much less time taking about the very real threats that climate change poses to us all – and that very much includes our agriculture sector”. Continue reading

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Francis speaks frankly on the crisis of civilisation

Below, text of my article that first appeared on TheJournal.ie last night, just ahead of the unveiling of the eagerly awaited Papal Encyclical. Thus far, it has been read over 48,000 times, with well over 1,000 shares via Facebook and solid pick-up on Twitter too. What this suggests is that, contrary to the prevailing view within our mainstream media, there is indeed a keen public appetite to be told the unvarnished truth about the unfolding climate and ecological crises.

Ironically, the last time the Irish Times published an article of mine, it attracted almost 700 online comments, and was the ‘most read’ article on Irishtimes.com for most of the day it was published. So, while the public wants journalism to be honest and forthright, editors remain fearful, uncertain, indifferent and distracted; this is masked, I suspect, by hard-boiled cynicism. Continue reading

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A Climate Bill that’s built to fail?

The confirmation earlier today that retired ESRI economist, Prof John FitzGerald has been given the plum job of chairing the Expert Advisory Council on Climate Change has hardly been greeted with universal applause.

The first question is what exactly qualifies FitzGerald for the gig? Many people were wondering the same thing last week regarding Patrick Neary, our one-time Financial Regulator, or The Dog That Didn’t Bark, as he is better known.

What’s the connection between Neary and FitzGerald, you may ask? Well, during his pitiful presentation on the multiple failings of his tenure as regulator, Neary was at pains to point out that while he was a humble civil servant doing a difficult task for which he was ill-equipped and with zero political backing, he took his cues from the real experts, specifically those highly polished top-drawer economists over at the ESRI. Continue reading

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Europe’s air pollution crisis brings climate reality close to home

Below, my article as it appears in this month’s Village magazine…

WHILE global pollution crises, from climate change to plastics in the oceans, are showing no signs of abating, the worst effects are, we in the ‘developed world’ are reassured to believe, clustered in poorer countries and distant ecosystems.

One of the many environmental paradoxes is that, while global ecological indexes are in freefall, we in the more prosperous parts of the world have never had it so good. The outsourcing of heavy industry from much of Europe and the US to the Far East over the last two decades has been a win-win for the west. The cost of manufactured goods plummeted thanks to the vast new pools of cheap labour, leading to the last decade and a half turning into greatest shopping spree in human history.

While we shopped, they dropped. China today burns nearly half the world’s coal. Air pollution is now so severe that Chinese scientists have described its effects as being akin to a nuclear winter, with photosynthesis in plants being disrupted – potentially wreaking havoc on China’s food supply. A 2104 report from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences stated that that Beijing’s pollution levels made the city “almost uninhabitable for human beings”. Continue reading

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Guardian seeks to rouse media from its climate torpor

Below is my article as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine:

THERE is nothing new about newspapers striking poses over climate change. On December 7th, 2009, some 55 major newspapers from all over the world (including the Irish Times) ran a joint editorial just ahead of the opening of the Copenhagen UN climate conference.

Who could forget the dramatic call to arms from some of the world’s most respected newspapers, which began: “humanity faces a profound emergency”.

“Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting… In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

“Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.” Continue reading

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An economic analysis that just doesn’t add up

I was pleased to spot economist Prof John Fitzgerald among the audience at the recent EPA lecture in the Mansion House, Dublin, presented by Prof Myles Allen. As it transpires, Fitzgerald was doing some field work for an opinion article that appeared in the business section of the Irish Times earlier this week, under the headline: ‘Solution to global warming is technology’ (authors rarely get to write the headline, so we won’t hold that one against him).

This is one of only a handful of articles the otherwise prolific Fitzgerald has dedicated to the topic of climate change. It is always welcome to see a senior Irish economist to turn his quill to this vast, challenging topic (two fairly strong critiques of Fitzgerald’s piece, by Profs Barry McMullin and John Sweeney appeared in the Letters Page a week after publication)

To be fair, it started well enough, with phrases such as: “If urgent action is not taken the world’s climate will get worse at an accelerated pace”. That’s as good as it gets, alas. “Governments rarely choose to go to their electorates and tell them they are going to make life more expensive and that there will be no go financial reward for their pain” is how Fitzgerald sums up moves to address climate change. Continue reading

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | 13 Comments

Come back, Liz McManus – your country needs you!

In case you haven’t heard, our current Minister for the Environment is a Labour party TD called Alan Kelly. He is the man who brought us the no-lobbyist-left-behind Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015, a piece of draft legislation that has been warmly welcomed by the IFA, ICOS, IBEC, etc., i.e. by the folks who have worked tirelessly over the last several years to ensure that no meaningful climate legislation ever found its way onto our statute books. In that regard, the Climate Bill looks like ‘Mission Accomplished’.

Kelly was interviewed by Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio yesterday. It was, in a sense, revealing. Kelly is “a person of conviction”, we learned. We know this because he told us he was. We also learned that Kelly’s proudest boast is that Ireland has the “highest growth rate in Europe” (again), and that he pursues what he calls a “progressive agenda”. Kelly is also deputy leader of the Labour party, therefore the proverbial heartbeat from being Tánaiste.

To wind him up a bit, O’Rourke played a clip of former minister, Eamon Ryan describing Kelly as “an anti-green Minister for the Environment…he reads the political tea leaves and sees there isn’t a constituency (in tackling climate change)”. Ryan went on to describe Kelly as “our greatest electoral asset, every time he goes out, he saying Labour doesn’t give a damn about that vision of the future”. Continue reading

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Breaching our planetary boundaries, one by one

Below, my article, as it will appear in the latest Village magazine:

BACK IN 2009, some months before the ill-fated UN climate conference in Copenhagen, an Earth system framework was proposed by an international collaboration of environmental scientists. Their aim was to establish a measurable set of ‘planetary boundaries’ with a view to identifying a “safe operating space” for humanity.

The research team, involving scientists from a range of disciplines, developed a set of nine key boundaries, beyond which lay the risks of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. In January 2015, the team published an in-depth update on their investigations in the journal Science, and it was discussed in depth at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. The findings took even seasoned environmental commentators and observers by surprise.

The paper confirmed that humanity has already breached four of the nine key boundaries, namely biodiversity loss, deforestation, atmospheric CO2 levels and the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture into the world’s waterways and oceans. Continue reading

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Milking the (climate) system, Irish-style

Below, article as it appears in the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine. (I co-authored this piece with Paul Price).

“IT IS DIFFICULT to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. Novelist Upton Sinclair’s famous observation could well have been describing Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, a rare ambitious and ascending star on an otherwise jaded Fine Gael front bench.

Coveney’s understanding of the most basic of scientific facts will clearly not encumber his possible trajectory towards the goal of being Cork’s first Taoiseach since Jack Lynch. So, when Coveney appeared on a recent edition of RTE’s PrimeTime, only the thinnest of smiles betrayed the fact that he was selling a series of fat porkies on national television.

Coveney’s claim that the Irish dairy herd could be expanded by over 300,000 cows in the next five years “while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agriculture sector” is, he must well know, nonsensical.  To defend it, he engaged in some unconvincing waffle about higher yields per animal somehow magically offsetting the massive increase in our national herd. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 38 Comments

The Dream (A Fantasy at Christmas)

It was still dark when Enda Kenny fell awake from a fitful sleep. He rose unsteadily, exhausted, almost stumbling as he made his way to the bathroom. With the light on, he noticed his pyjamas were almost completely soaked in sweat; beads clung to his forehead and over his upper lip. He washed his face, changed his clothing and sat silently in near-darkness in the kitchen for around twenty minutes.

“Jesus H. Christ”, he muttered almost inaudibly, his thoughts interrupted by the ring of his mobile phone. It was Leo Varadkar. “Sorry boss to call so early, but there’s something really strange going on. My phone has been ringing since just after six am. People are freaking out”, said the Health Minister. “Slow down Leo, for feck’s sake”, said Kenny. “Who’s freaking out, what’s this about?” Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Psychology | 2 Comments

What next for the apes who went to space?

I have no idea where I was on the night of July 20-21, 1969, being far too young to grasp the historic events that were unfolding, as Apollo 11 became the first spacecraft to land humans on a world other than our own. It was, in every sense over my head, albeit in this instance by a good one third of a million kilometres.

In its specially extended coverage, RTE television was still on air at the then-scandalous hour of 3.56am on July 21st as Neil Armstrong took those famous first steps onto the surface of the moon. The RTE Guide, in its edition dated July 18, 1969, featured four solid pages detailing its planned radio and TV coverage of the monumental event.

The usual domestic news stories were swept from the editorial agendas as the dramatic story of Apollo 11’s eight-day journey to the moon gripped audiences around the world. I don’t know what the 1969 version of the water-metering saga was, but even a political soap opera on this scale would surely have been swept away in the dizzy excitement of Apollo 11.

Back then, scientists really were virtually rock stars – presidents and prime ministers listened to and – as often as not – acted under the guidance of the great scientific institutions, be they Nasa and the AAAS in the US, or the UK Royal Society.

Politicians and the media still argued furiously about how best to respond to given scientific findings, but only the truly bone-headed and marginal argued about the facts themselves. The 1969 moon landing was an astonishing triumph for science in its most literal sense, i.e. scientia, the Latin for knowledge. An insatiable thirst to better understand our world had actually propelled one insatiably inquisitive species of higher primates all the way from the African savannah to our neighbouring moon – and back.

A curious side-effect of Nasa’s space programme was that it offered us, for the first time, clear images of Earth as a small blue sphere cradled against the ink-black infinity of space. A famous photo known as ‘Earthrise’ was taken by a crew member of Apollo 8 on December 24th, 1968, the first vessel to complete a lunar orbit. From this new perspective, our limitless world suddenly appeared finite, delicate, yet exquisitely precious – the merest blue smudge in the Cosmos.

Less than two years later, 20 million people took to the streets of America for the first Earth Day, in April, 1970. That massive direct action shook up the political classes and, sensing the new zeitgeist, Republican US president, Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into being in December of that year.

For a long moment in the early 1970s, it really seemed that humanity’s relationship with the natural world might, for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution, be placed on a sustainable trajectory. This would mean awakening to the reality of our place within the living world, not as its master but its child, entirely dependent for our well being, our prosperity and our very lives, on the only known biosphere for a trillion kilometres in any direction.

The influential book ‘Limits to Growth’ was published in 1972, having been commissioned by a think tank known as The Club of Rome. It was chillingly prescient:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

What the authors could not have foreseen back then was not just that growth trends would continue, but that they would in fact ramp up sharply, along an exponential curve, especially since the late 1990s, when vast countries like China and India began the most rapid spurt of industrialization in human history.

Fast forward some 45 years from the moon landings to another historic day: November 12, 2014. On this day, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta reached the comet known as 67P/C-G, a roughly 3-by-5 km chunk of rock (first detected in the year of the moon landing, 1969) last August.  Rosetta has travelled some 6.4 billion km since it blasted off in 2004 – the mission has cost around 1.4 billion euros – if you think that sounds like a lot, it’s less than a quarter of what our government pumped into just one rotten institution – Irish Nationwide – after the banking collapse.

Comets are flying time capsules, fragments that pre-date the formation of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago, so they offer us unique opportunities to better understand our own planetary origins, including tantalising clues as to the origins of life on Earth, as well as possibly trapping ancient organic molecules. I herded the kids into the living room just ahead of 9pm RTE main evening news, so they could see coverage of this truly amazing story. We waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Gerry Adams, water protesters, Ivor Callely, Ian Bailey, the 1916 commemorations were among the ‘top stories’ that filled the screen.

Not one of them was in any sense ‘new’; all have been rumbling along for days or even weeks. Nor did the bulletin offer any particularly notable advances on any of these stories. Eventually, after around 14 minutes, RTE News carried a piece, running to two minutes and 15 seconds. You couldn’t fault correspondent Will Goodbody’s report, but the same cannot be said for the rabbits who are operating the editorial levers in Montrose.

Wondering if I was simply losing my marbles about the significance of this story, I switched over to the BBC’s flagship TV news bulletin at 10pm, where, sure enough, it was the lead item, with the entire opening segment of almost six minutes dedicated to its coverage. Ditto for CNN and Sky News.

To recap: Rosetta is probably the biggest astronomy story since Apollo 11. Yes, the Mars Rover was another technological triumph, but chasing Comet 67P/C-G for billions of kilometres across the solar system and finally successfully intercepting with and then landing a probe on a rock hurtling along at over 50,000 km per hour, is one of those truly rare moments when science fact brilliantly eclipses even science fiction.

The triumph of the Rosetta mission shows how cutting edge science, enabled by ever more powerful computing resources, has continued to advance in the last four decades. Compare and contrast this latest titanic achievement with the media caricature of science being a disconnected series of random events and ever-changing ‘evidence’ and scientists a bunch of self-serving chancers who make stuff up to get research grants.

This incident also brought it forcefully home that, apart from being uninterested in science, just how entirely provincial the outlook of Ireland’s national media really is, whatever its pretentions to the contrary might be.

This point was hammered home the following morning, when our Newspaper of Record relegated the comet landing to the inside pages. If on the other hand Roy Keane is spotted out walking his dog, well hold the front pages! George Bernard Shaw once mockingly described a newspaper as being an institution unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation. It doesn’t seem quite so far fetched a put-down now.

Cast your mind back a couple of weeks, to Sunday, November 2nd and the launch of the IPCC’s AR5 Synthesis Report. This was the Big One, pulling together the main threads of its findings, while weeding out some climate policy trolls (most notably the pseudo-scientific Panglossian hokum pedalled by one Prof Richard Tol) along the way.

To its credit, RTE did a fine job that day, leading its 6pm and 9pm bulletins, with environment correspondent George Lee leaving viewers in no doubt that as to the gravity of this report (I was interviewed by Lee for the bulletin wearing my An Taisce climate change committee hat).

Within 24 hours, the story was a dead letter as far as the Irish media was concerned. It didn’t make a line on the front page of the next day’s Irish Independent, with the Irish Times managing a meagre 2” single column front page piece. By Tuesday, it was business-as-usual, as the Independent’s knuckle-dragger-in-chief penned his latest piece of bilious anti-science twaddle.

In what I can only assume is a desperate search for attention, the author (who confuses being able to type with being able to write) plumbs the sewers of journalism every time he mentions climate change. The irony here is that the Indo’s actual environment corr, Paul Melia, seems to really know his stuff, but get precious little editorial space, while the poo-flinging Ian O’Doherty is promoted, presumably to serve as Daily Mail style click-bait.

When it isn’t conducting intricate manoeuvres with probes half a billion kilometres away, the European Space Agency is, along with its US counterpart, Nasa, at the bleeding edge of research into climate change. Both agencies deploy satellites to take a range of ultra-precise ongoing measurements of ‘the home planet’, from assaying atmospheric CO2 to sea level and ice thickness measurements.

Measuring and understanding the vital functions of a dynamic living biosphere and its ever-changing weather systems involves as phenomenally complex collaborative science as guiding Rosetta across the Solar System to rendezvous with comet 67P/C-G. Curious how as soon as the same scientists who deliver mind-boggling breakthroughs such as the Rosetta mission apply their expertise to measure the degree to which Earth systems are being impacted by climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, glacial ice loss, sea level rise, extreme weather events and widespread pollution, they are suddenly cast as cranks, alarmists and venial grant-seekers who’ll say anything for a couple of hundred euros. Like a certain kind of hack, come to think of it.

Well, that’s what the poo-flingers would have us believe anyhow. Personally, if forced to choose between believing the semi-literate babbling of neoliberal fantasists and the collective expertise and data sets of the world’s scientific institutions, frankly, it’s really not such a tough call.

I was interviewed on Monday’s RTE Drivetime (clip starts around 00.49) about the report. The interviewer asked me straight off the bat whether the IPCC’s findings could in fact be trusted. Seriously. Had he been tuning in, George Lee would probably have been pulling his remaining hair out in tufts. In the movie Groundhog Day, it’s always February 2nd, and nobody ever remembers anything about the day, no matter how many times the hapless weatherman, Phil Connors has to endure it.

As far as the media coverage of climate change is concerned, it’s always February 2nd, and the story is inevitably handled with the same eyebrow-lifted surprise and scepticism. Perish the thought that somebody might open their eyes wide enough and stay focused for long enough to realise: ‘holy crap, this is real, it’s happening, we’re stuffed, and absolutely everything I know, everything I’ve learned and pretty much everything I care about is either irrelevant or dead wrong’.

Not many people, especially media people, are queuing up for a cold shower epiphany like that. But, as the IPCC has laboured to warn us, the “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” of climate change are coming our way, ready or not, and, it appears, sooner than we feared.

*Hat-tip to Prof Brian Cox for inspiring the title of this post.

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

Another Fine (Gael) mess on climate change

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has in the last week or so taken political recklessness and cynicism to new lows. History may judge that he did more than any other politician of his generation to destroy the future of Irish agriculture. In attempting to dodge Ireland’s responsibility for dealing with climate change, An Taoiseach is also flying in the face of the scientific evidence that confirms that the greatest threat to Irish agriculture is not the regulations dealing with climate change, but climate change itself, to which agriculture is almost uniquely vulnerable.

A 2013 report, authored by Dr Stephen Flood of NUI Maynooth (‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’ – this report was formally launched by Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney) states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output”.

Enda Kenny over the last week expended valuable diplomatic capital in Europe attempting to argue why Ireland should be exempted from shouldering its fair share of the burden of the rapid and immediate decarbonisation that science says is now critical if the most severe impacts of climate destabilisation are to be avoided.

Barely four weeks ago, the same Mr Kenny, addressing the UN Climate Summit in New York, demanded that world leaders show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in responding to climate change. Given the extreme urgency of the crisis, Mr Kenny added solemnly: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste…Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response. We are all interdependent and interconnected … we share a common humanity… and each of us must play our part.”

In less than a month, Mr Kenny appears to have suffered the political equivalent of a lobotomy – in September, climate change is the world’s greatest crisis, and “courage and consistency” is needed in dealing with this “stark reality”. And in October, the same Mr Kenny warned that Ireland would be “screwed” if it attempted to comply with emissions reductions targets it has already signed up to.

It’s a surprisingly short journey from demanding conviction, clarity, courage and consistency to espousing cowardice, cynicism, cute hoorism and chicanery.

According to the October version of An Taoiseach: “It would not be feasible to have targets set that are completely impractical for a country like Ireland. Targets, indeed, that were set and that were agreed by the administration before this one, for 2020, were based on different variations of information that does not stand up…but I don’t want whatever administration or whatever government is in office in Ireland from 2020 to 2030 to be completely screwed by virtue of a wrong base upon which targets were set originally for 2020.”

Mr Kenny’s conversion to the IFA position on climate change appears to follow closely the path taken by his cabinet colleague, agriculture minister, Simon Coveney. When in opposition, Coveney spoke passionately in public about the need for binding, no-excuses climate legislation, stating publicly that what he had read about the science of climate change “sent shivers down my spine”. Back in 2008, Coveney described climate change as “Ireland’s challenge – and we need to meet it”. More recently, Minister Coveney said that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”.

It is easy to understand why public trust in politicians and the political process is now at such a low ebb. Given the scale and gravity of the global ecological and climate crisis, it has never been more vital that we our politicians break free from the lobbyists and spin doctors and exercise principled leadership guided by scientific evidence, not polling data. (for a quick recap on what FG, pre-election, said they would do on climate change, click here).

During his inauguration speech in 1961, as the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear conflagration, president John F. Kennedy said: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Hilariously, Enda Kenny had the temerity to quote JKF in his New York speech, when saying: “President Kennedy reminded us over 50 years ago that we all live on the same planet, we all breathe the same air, and we are all mortal. These words are still true.” If JFK were alive today, he might well wonder what planet Kenny et al do in fact inhabit.

Today, the stakes are every bit as high as in the darkest days of the Cold War, yet all Ireland’s political leaders can offer are weasel words in public while doing highly damaging deals with powerful vested interests like the IFA in private.

Politicians like Mr Kenny and Mr Coveney appear to be prepared to put the safety and security of every citizen of Ireland at grave risk while also jeopardising the future of Irish agriculture in pursuit of a quick buck from ‘Harvest 2020’ – gains that, as the NUIM study confirms, will be quickly reversed as climate destabilisation yields the bitterest of harvests.

Mr Kenny is right: the clock is ticking. He and his government are on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history and are engaged in a monumentally misguided and foolish policy. As the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) put it: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do. Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk”.

Dithering and further delaying action displays just how profoundly out of touch the Irish government is with the state of science on climate change, and calls into question the calibre of scientific advice it is receiving – or responding to. Kenny and Coveney appear to believe Ireland can free-load on the efforts of other countries to address runaway climate disruption, while we continue a policy of ratcheting up our emissions from agriculture and transport in particular in pursuit of growth-led prosperity.

Environment Minister, Alan Kelly is clearly fully on board with this policy. In a press release last week, he bragged: “Having met two weeks ago with outgoing climate change Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, I made it clear that Ireland would not be signing up to any future targets that would be unachievable”. And in a paragraph that reads like it was drafted in Farm Centre, Kelly added: “I am on record as stating that the 2020 targets were unrealistic and unachievable and that did not take into account Ireland’s dependence on agriculture or the fact that we have one of the most climate-friendly agricultural systems in the world.”

The Irish government’s disavowal of its sovereign responsibility to step up to the mark on addressing climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence that this is a vital strategic national interest, is a grossly immoral and inequitable position, and one that does untold damage to Ireland’s reputation as a good faith actor in international negotiations.

I honestly thought the electoral obliteration of Fianna Fail in 2011 must signal an end to the gombeen era in Irish politics, and would usher in a new phase of more responsible, accountable and transparent leadership, and a lowering of public tolerance for sleevenism. More fool me.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 18 Comments

Which to choose: bare-knuckle capitalism – or a habitable world?

I finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything just as a major study by the WWF confirmed that, in a mere four decades, more than half of the wild animals on Earth had been wiped out. From the time I was in primary school to today, life on Earth has been impoverished more rapidly than at any time in the last 65 million years.

The calculus used to measure this is known as the Living Planet Index. It might be more accurately called the Dying Planet Index.

Humanity’s relationship with almost all life on Earth can be defined as extractavist – a phrase used repeatedly by Klein, in her sweeping, angry polemic against the rapidly unfolding madness of one species run amok in the world, destroying everything in its ever-expanding path.

Klein made her name in 1999 with No Logo, a withering assault on the hidden underbelly of the global brand business – the sweatshops, the crooked trade deals and the structural violence of the rich against the poor. This time, however, it’s personal. A neophyte to climate change, Klein admits to only having really tuned into it as an issue as recently as 2009.

She is, however, a quick learner and in the last five years, it has gone from being fodder for her next book to the awful realisation contained in the book’s title: climate change does indeed change everything – and truly understanding this issue inevitably changes you. “I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure…but I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it”.

Having, like Klein, come from an entirely non-environmental background, and slowly, reluctantly, coming to realise the true import of climate change, I could personally relate to her initial desire to look the other way, and simply tune out this avalanche of ecological bad news. “Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right”

As a society, as a civilisation, our response thus far has been about as nuanced as curling, child-like, into a ball and hoping it will just go away. “All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes”.

We’ve become truly accomplished at both understanding and ignoring climate change. In the 24 years since international climate negotiations began in earnest, global CO2 emissions have risen by 61%. Crisis, what crisis? I vividly remember watching on in horror as the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit ended in bitter failure. The Irish Times was one of 55 major newspapers that, in December 2009, ran a joint editorial urging – demanding – that world leaders grasp this last ditch opportunity to avert calamity. One month later, the same paper ran an editorial complaining about the severe cold snap and wondering aloud if global warming wasn’t all just a big ol’ hoax after all.

From the ashes of disaster, sprung clarity. “I have come to think of that night (in Copenhagen) as the climate movement’s coming of age: it was the moment the realisation truly sank in that no one was coming to save us”, writes Klein. After all the guff and rhetoric, this emerged from the ruins of Copenhagen: “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life”.

Klein spares some of her harshest critique for Big Green, namely those multi-million dollar environmental organisations, specifically the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) and the Nature Conservancy. Hilariously, it turns out that the latter actually operates its own oil wells, while the EDF regularly partners with Big Energy and helps it sell the myth that shale gas can be a ‘bridge’ to a mythological renewables-powered future (Klein’s own rejection of nuclear energy as proven low-carbon technology is argued with little conviction and sounds to this observer more like a sop to her readership than a strongly held position).

Klein lambastes the various ingenious schemes, from emissions trading to carbon offsets, many backed by Big Green, that have given the illusion of action while achieving precisely nothing. In its early days, the unofficial slogan of the EDF was “sue the bastards”, and it and other groups enjoyed dramatic successes on a range of environmental issues. Latterly, the joke goes, the new EDF slogan is “creating markets for the bastards”.

Under the leadership of business-friendly Fred Krupp, the EDF ballooned 40-fold from an annual budget of $3 million to $120 million. With the cash rolling, the emphasis for Big Green was developing industry-friendly “solutions” to the obliteration of the planet and the wrecking of our climate system (‘green growth’ is a particular favourite). Anything, in other words, as long as it didn’t fundamentally challenge the neoliberal narrative.

“The refusal of so many environmentalists to consider responses to the climate crisis that would upend the economic status quo forces them to place their hopes in solutions… that are either so weak or so high-risk that entrusting them with our collective safety constitutes what can only be described as magical thinking”, Klein opines.

There should be a special place in hell reserved for cuddly, lovable Virgin chief Richard Branson, who, to huge acclaim, announced in 2006 his commitment to invest $3 billion to develop ‘greener’ fuels for his gas-guzzling airline fleet. His epiphany was Al Gore’s Powerpoint presentation: “As I sat there and listened to Gore, I saw that we were looking at Armageddon.”

Behind the crocodile tears for the future, Branson’s real message was: forget regulations, leave it to industry to innovate and solve climate change! And sure enough, the $3 billion evaporated as the new airline routes expanded. Waiting for telegenic messiahs like Branson or techno-optimists like Bill Gates to lead us out of the ecological wasteland their fortunes are helping create is delusional in the extreme.

Geoengineering is starting to surface in polite circles as our best hope for dealing with the symptoms of climate change, without of course troubling ourselves to actually address the causes. “The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves”, says Klein. Fiddling with untestable global ‘climate management’ schemes is simply an extension of the hubris that brought us to this dire predicament.

In the words of environmental author Kenneth Brower: “The notion that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behaviour”.

Neither Big Green, nor Big Energy (or the political process it has captured) can save us from the unfolding cataclysm that is the Sixth Extinction, which daily gathers pace and steadily builds towards its furious denouement. Change, Klein observes, is coming, ready or not. Whether this begets more barbarism and profiteering or a wider social change that recognises neoliberal growth-obsessed capitalism as a tragic aberration depends on how we react now, in the time that remains.

Klein offers the example of the abolition of slavery as perhaps the best recent analogue for the rapid dismantling of an entire economic system. The slave-driven economic model didn’t end because it wasn’t successful; it ended when it lost its social sanction to operate.

If there is to be hope in challenging a system that seems bent on destroying the living world and everything in it, it must be along similar ground. “We will win by asserting that such (economic) calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation”, Klein concludes.

– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
This article was published in ‘Village‘ magazine 

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Clowns to left, jokers to the Right, stuck in middle with George

This may not be a news flash to most people, but science is hard. Really, really hard. Just how tough was brought home when I recently attended an international congress on multiple sclerosis (MS). The event brought together some 8,000 senior researchers academics and medical specialists from all over the world to spend several frenetic days attending symposia, reviewing poster presentations and debating controversies and advances in our understanding of the disease.

MS is a progressive inflammatory neurological disease. Much is known about the condition, but nature yields its secrets grudgingly, and lots remain unresolved. However, as science advances, more and more incorrect ideas are tested and then discarded, leaving medics and researchers with the least wrong version of reality. That’s how science advances, be it in medicine, technology or, for that matter, climate science.

The conference took place in Boston, home of the original 18th century Tea Party, but it occurred to me that what was missing were the counter-protests by the ‘MS is a hoax’ brigade, those who insist that the scientific research is purely driven by personal greed and ego, or is entirely manipulated by pharma companies and is fundamentally corrupt and its output is junk science.

In the view of the anti-MS folks, someone who develops this crippling disease would be far better off at home with a couple of jars of homeopathic remedies and a nice vapour rub than all these new-fangled intravenous corticosteroids and assorted interferons.

Yes, some scientists are egotists, and some doctors are arrogant asses. Yes, Big Pharma is profit-driven, yet only an utter fool facing a diagnosis of MS would turn his back on the immense strides in disease understanding and treatment in recent years and decades in favour of quack remedies, no matter how ‘natural’ they may claim to be. By and large we trust medical scientists, for no better reason than we simply do not have enough expertise ourselves to either confirm or refute the ‘consensus’ conclusions.

That doesn’t mean slavish obedience. There is still plenty of room for questions, just not the really, really stupid questions that just waste everyone’s time. It may sound offensive to suggest we have no choice but to trust experts, but it’s true nonetheless. Every time you use the internet, a smartphone, get onto an aircraft, swallow a pill or drive across a bridge, you are putting your trust – or even your life – completely in the hands of countless thousands of anonymous experts.

Modern society is far too complex for any one person to develop hyperspecialism in more than a tiny handful of areas. Even within such a seemingly narrow field as MS, there is a vast spectrum of sub-divided expertise, with teams focusing separately on fields from disease biomarkers and MRI imaging to PET scanning and autoimmune disorders. High science is also highly competitive – new ideas are rigorously challenged and ruthlessly dispatched if they fail to withstand repeated scrutiny. Does pharma money influence this process? Undoubtedly, but while the medical profession and industry may have quite different motives, they are bound by a shared objective of delivering better patient outcomes, and so the painstaking process of medical discovery and innovation rumbles along relatively well.

What if, on the other hand, the streets of Boston had been clogged with angry protesters decrying medical corruption, what if Fox News and the Wall Street Journal were demonising the medics who attended the conference and endless MS denier blogs were restating a set of well-rehearsed talking points to bring the science of neurology into disrepute, while harassing and making legal and personal threats against the researchers?

Yet, despite all the uncertainties, despite the many research cul de sacs encountered, despite the various areas of disagreement between leading experts in the field, this branch of science and its practitioners isn’t dragged through the mud on a daily basis. Why? Quite simply, it’s because it doesn’t threaten, by dint of its findings, to upscuttle the world’s political and economic status quo.

In contrast with the relatively narrow field of neurology, climate science is a behemoth, drawing on scores of specialist fields across the physical sciences with physicists, biologists, chemists, meteorologists, computer modellers, systems specialists and many more besides. The work is unfathomably complex, even to most insiders.

For all its well-advertised shortcomings, the IPCC has managed the near-impossible task of synthesising and unifying the most relevant findings from across this vast spectrum of scientific endeavour and drawing conclusions in its Summary for Policymakers that even you and I can, if we are so minded, clearly grasp with no more than an hour or two of close attention. That is no mean achievement.

The five massive IPCC Assessment Reports published over the last 22 years build up into an ominous catalogue of a rapidly evolving global crisis. With every report, the margins of uncertainty diminish as the full scale of our climate imbroglio becomes ever clearer. It’s worth repeating that the basic science of climate change, and the fact that it poses a unique threat to life on Earth, has been well understood for at least half a century. In 1965, president, Lyndon Johnson told the US Congress: “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Since these scary scenarios were still, at that time, safely in the distant future, politicians and industry joined hands in making soothing noises about being ready and determined to act…at some indefinite future point, long after they were safely retired, of course.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the UN Climate Summit in New York earlier this week. His attendance among 130 or so world leaders was of course welcome. The flatulent ooze that emanated from his speech, less so. The world needs to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in its response to climate change, according to a Taoiseach who has displayed precisely none of the above on this issue in his first three years in office. The blather continued: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste.” Back in 2009, then Taoiseach Brian Cowen told a UN conference in the same building in New York that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. He then flew home and did… nothing, just like Enda assuredly will this time.

While our Taoiseach was sounding off in downtown Manhattan, closer to home NewsTalk thought the Climate Summit an opportunity to re-run that hoary old chestnut called: ‘is climate change for real?’ Their vehicle to channel this nonsense is motormouth US radio presenter and Tea Bagger Michael Graham, who has a weekly teapot-stirring slot on The Right Hook. (Shortly before becoming president, Michael D. Higgins engaged in a public debate with Graham, and famously lambasted him as “a wanker” – the audio clip has been accessed over 2 million times on YouTube).

Screenshot 2014-09-28 20.39.58

 

NewsTalk asked me to ‘debate’ the issue with Graham and I decided it was better to engage than to cede the floor. It’s a tactic many on the environmental side of the argument would strongly disagree with, but we must each make our own decisions, depending on the circumstances.

As Graham began rolling out some standard denier speaking points and straw man arguments, the slightly wicked thought occurred to me that, rather than trying to battle each talking point to a confused standstill, might it not be more revealing to find out what Graham actually understood about the science he was noisily dissing.

When I stated that global average surface temperatures could rise by a catastrophic 4C this century, Graham audibly and repeatedly scoffed at this preposterous notion (the not-so-Leftist World Bank’s own report, here, says we’re bang on track for +4C this century) so, I asked him instead if he knew what the global average surface temperature actually currently is? Long pause, followed by no, he was forced to admit, he had no idea.

Once knocked off his script, Graham’s complete lack of even the most basic understanding of the science shone through. And, as the guy used to dishing it out, he was not taking this very well at all. Graham then rolled out the latest denier meme about there being no global warming since the early 1990s, something, apparently, that all those IPCC reports and models ‘failed to predict’.

The global warming ‘pause’ myth has been debunked countless times. But rather than try to explain the mechanics of how heat is transferred from the earth’s surface and atmosphere to the deeper oceans (“when you’re explaining, you’re losing”) I reversed the question and asked Graham if he could tell me how many of the hottest years on the instrumental record (i.e. since 1850) have occurred since 2000? (um, no he couldn’t).

Obviously, if ‘warming has stopped’, you would reasonably expect there wouldn’t be a cluster of record-breakingly hot years to be found since 2000.  The folks over at the US NOAA keep global instrumental records, and their Top 10 hottest years ever globally are, in descending order: 2010, 2005, 1998, 2013, 2003, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2007, 2004 and 2012. That’s quite some ‘pause’ alright.

Graham got his foot stuck firmly in his mouth when I challenged him, repeatedly, to defend this ‘warming pause’ line in the face of irrefutable instrumental evidence, so he switched instead to wondering aloud how come, given the colossal amounts of CO2 being ejected into the atmosphere annually, temperatures aren’t rising even faster? (a reasonable question, as it happens; the IPCC have it covered).

I then asked Graham if he had any idea how long a typical molecule of CO2 persists in the atmosphere as a heat-trapping agent? (see further down for the detailed answer) “Uh, ah, I don’t know, and you don’t know”, was his reply. When pressed further, he added: “what I know are the thermometers, that’s what I know, and the thermometers aren’t reading the way the IPCC said they would read….” Et ecetera, et cetera. I’ll put this one down to genuine ignorance on Graham’s part.

The problem with carbon emissions is their persistence, at least as much as their volume. “Carbon dioxide emissions and their associated warming could linger for millennia”, according to a report in Nature Climate Change, in an article headlined ‘Carbon is Forever’. For every 100 molecules of CO2 released into the atmosphere today, it takes between 20-200 years for 65-80% of them to be drawn down, principally into the oceans. The remaining 20-45% will persist in the atmosphere, trapping heat for many thousands of years into the future.

Anyone familiar with the exponential function will be aware that cumulative problems (like atmospheric CO2) tend, well, to accumulate. And they get very big, very quickly. This year’s 35-40 billion tonnes joins last year’s, and the last 50 years’ emissions in ratcheting up temperatures (and acidifying the world’s oceans in the process – this WMO report confirms ocean acidification now at its fastest rate in 300 million years). (please note my sources here: peer-reviewed papers from top specialist journals and an official report from an international science agency, not links to fact-free ‘news’ reports in the Daily Mail).

The debate ran on for a full 20 minutes. I don’t know Michael Graham personally, but he sounded mightily unhappy by the time George Hook brought proceedings to a close. It may even have been keeping him from his sleep. And sure enough, at 5.15am the following morning, he posted this 1,280-word riposte, complete with my mug shot, with the catchy heading: ‘Shouldn’t an “environmental journalist” know more about science than a dopey talk show host?”.

Screenshot 2014-09-28 21.29.41

Here, Graham engages in faux humility, with his aw schucks folks, why did he have to beat up on poor ol’ me line. He adds to the guy-next-door effect with: “But I’m sure that in the heat of an ad libbed radio debate I got some stuff wrong too.” That is putting it mildly.

By paragraph 3, I’ve been lumped in, inevitably, with “climate zealots”. Para 4 sees a long-since corrected typo in a supporting document to the 2007 AR4 report (Himalayan melt by 2350, not 2035) being wheeled out. Again.

Blogging in the middle of the night is never a great idea. Graham opens strongly, by accusing me of being “wrong during our debate on specific, glaring facts, like the warmest year on record…” Now that’s a zinger – if he’s right. According to Graham, 1934 was the warmest year on record. If you check the NOAA list above, you’ll note 1934 does not appear anywhere in the global top 10. 1934 was the warmest year in the US, alright, but the US accounts for 2% of the surface of the Earth. The source Graham links to for this, Bloomberg, is accurate. It says: ‘NASA has revised climate data to show 1934 as the hottest year on record in the US, ousting 1998…’. Graham was so busy copy-n-pasting he failed to notice the phrase “in the US”. Oh dear, this is what happens when you double down on dumb.

A caller to The Right Hook asked if Al Gore hadn’t said the Antarctic would be melted by 2013 (this, of course, is nonsensical). In 2008, after the record-breaking drop in Arctic sea ice extent in 2007, Al Gore did indeed suggest that, if that rate of decline were to continue, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer within 10 years. He may or may not be right about the precise timing, but he’s on the money about the clear trajectory of Arctic collapse.

For the record, Al Gore is not a climate scientist, but he is entirely correct to be raising alarm about the ongoing disastrous retreat of Arctic sea ice (2014 is the 6th lowest summer extent on record) so quite what point Graham was trying to make in his midnight ramblings, I’m still unclear. Graham’s blog is full of hyperlinks, but when you follow them, it’s t o the usual denier factory sources, including the Daily Mail, Wattsupwiththat and Murdoch’s business rag, the once-respected Wall Street Journal.

Graham name-checked the IPCC numerous times in his radio interview. I searched in vain on his blog post to find a single reference that links to a primary scientific source, such as NASA, the IPCC itself, NOAA, NSIDC etc. Not one. Instead, he quotes serial liars like the disgraced ex-bank chief Matt Ridley to prop up his piece. And of course, everyone’s favourite eco-spoofer, Bjorn Lomborg gets a link too.

Graham explains: “Notice the embedded links for my information. Notice they aren’t “IHateLiberals.com”  I’m reporting what organizations like the New York Times, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal have reported.  Mr. Gibbons will point you to other sources. Who’s right? What’s really going on? Don’t take my word, or the word of the oddly uniformed “journalist.” Just think for yourself”.

That is excellent advice, and a pity Mr Graham couldn’t take it on board himself. I checked back over his blog to find the New York Times and BBC links he described above. They’re not there (I did warn earlier about the hazards of blogging in the middle of the night). The “other sources” I will point you to are, whenever possible, primary scientific sources. Graham will never point you to a primary source, mainly, I imagine, because he doesn’t use them, preferring instead to re-heat myths cooked up by serial dissemblers like David Rose .

Having already given an on-air masterclass in how poorly he understands climate science, Graham took to his blog to drive this point home: “Greenhouse gases (including water vapor) make up less than 2 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Humans emit less than 4 percent of that 2 percent. So for us to get GHG levels down in any meaningful way, we have to drastically cut our little slice of the GHG pie”.

The link for this waffle is to a right wing ‘think tank’ called the Manhattan Institute. And it’s a favourite sleight of hand by deniers. The global carbon cycle is huge, but it’s a cycle, i.e. it’s in balance. Atmospheric CO2 levels have remained in the narrow range of 180-280 ppm (parts per million) for at least the last 800,000 years, and probably as far back as 3-4 million years.

Anthropogenic interference in this cycle over the last 150 years has thrown it wildly out of balance. Today, there is 40% more CO2 in the global atmosphere (400ppm, and rising) than at the highest level ever recorded prior to 1850. What Graham calls “our little slice of the GHG pie” is again simply putting his science ignorance up in lights. We’ve known since the mid-19th century that the trace gas CO2 is the critical greenhouse gas. More CO2 also begets more water vapour, hence still more warming.

While CO2 is indeed a trace gas (0.04% of total atmosphere), without it, average surface temperatures would plummet from their current c.15C to minus 18C. Nitrogen (77%) and oxygen (21%) have no atmospheric heat-trapping characteristics whatever. When you fiddle with CO2 (and related trace GHGs, like methane and nitrous oxide) you are literally fiddling with the thermostat for all life on Earth.

So, while the radio debate didn’t go so well for him, and his follow-up blog is risible, Graham did at least manage towards the end to inject some of that trademark Tea Party anti-libberul, um, humour: “they’re not going to agree to keep cooking on cow patty fires so EU liberals can feel good about themselves. Which means even there’s even less “magic unicorn wind” to distribute per person”.

I opened this post by pointing out just how hard science is. Attacking science, on the other hand, is so easy that any idiot with access to a microphone can do it. Effective science communication is hard too. Given the desperate gravity and urgency of the climate crisis, making it as hard as possible for climate deniers to flood the airwaves with misinformation, and calling them (and the media outlets who facilitate them) out at every turn seems to me like genuinely useful – and occasionally, enjoyable – work.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | 5 Comments