The publication of the first working group report (physical sciences) of the IPCC’s keenly awaited AR6 report in mid-August came against the backdrop months of genuinely alarming extreme weather events across multiple continents, from killer floods in Europe and China to deadly heatwaves, droughts and wildfires from Siberia to Africa, the US and beyond. Below is an explainer piece I filed for the Business Post to mark its publication.
THE SCIENTIFIC community has long understood that heating up the global atmosphere with greenhouse gases would, in time, lead to potentially dangerous consequences for the Earth’s climate system. This is uncontroversial. The real enigma that science is ill-equipped to address is that most elusive of variables: how humanity chooses to respond.
In the 30 years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was first established to manage this emerging crisis, global greenhouse gas emissions have roughly doubled. We have created as much carbon pollution since 1990 than in all of human history up to then.
Clearly, the message has not been getting through. Will anything shift with the publication this week of the IPCC’s sixth (AR6) and, by some distance, most apocalyptic assessment? The report, as described by Fortune magazine this week, involves “the world’s scientists screaming at the top of their lungs”.
This time, things may well have changed. The AR6 report uses plain language and unambiguous phrases describing climate breakdown as being “widespread, rapid and intensifying”. Deploying the term “code red for humanity” also helped cut through the staid, equivocal and sterile phraselogy these reports are usually cloaked in.
But perhaps the real reason this report seems to have broken through public consciousness in a way that its predecessors manifestly failed to do is that we can now finally see with our own eyes the reality of a rapidly escalating global climate emergency.
The launch of the AR6 report took place against a backdrop of wave after wave of terrifying weather extremes of such ferocity that, even just a few years ago would have seemed like something from the fevered imagination of science fiction. Worse, this is only the beginning.
Many are now experiencing what psychologists call cognitive consonance on the climate threat. This means the real experience of people impacted by or witnessing extreme weather reinforces and amplifies the warning messages from scientists, leading to a dramatically heightened state of public arousal and engagement.
As if on cue, barely two days after the AR6 report was released, the highest temperature ever recorded in European history occurred in Sicily, which hit 48.8C as the ‘Lucifer’ heat dome stalled. All-time temperature records have fallen like dominoes this summer, from Estonia to Canada, western USA, Finland, Turkey and Russia.
Last month, hundreds died as unprecedented floods hit western Germany, Belgium and Holland. Outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel described the devastation she witnessed in the Rhineland area as “surreal and terrifying”.
The cost of these latest flooding disasters will run into billions. While central Europe was hammered with extreme precipitation in July, so too was China’s Henan province, where an astonishing 20 centimetres of rain was dumped on the region in just one hour, the most intense rainfall event in the country’s history.
One of the most iconic images of the savage summer of 2021 was recorded by people fleeing on a car ferry from the fire-ravaged Greek island of Evia, where temperatures topped 45C. For Irish people, many of whom have holidayed on the once-idyllic Greek islands, this was likely a particularly visceral and disturbing image.
Meanwhile, the western US state of Oregon, racked by extreme heatwaves in June, is once again bracing for a new wave of extreme heatwaves, with “worst case” projections seeing temperatures approach 44C. According to the World Weather Attribution service, June’s deadly US heatwaves were “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change”.
Notwithstanding all these events, Ireland’s main political parties are far more accustomed to assuaging powerful interest groups than squaring up to something so ostensibly abstract as a global climate emergency.
Our Goldilocks climate (not too hot, not too cold) and island location has so far sheltered us not only from the worst of extreme weather, but also from a political reckoning to get real about our response.
Has the brutal summer of 2021 or the ominous projections of the latest IPCC report led to a sea-change in attitudes among our main governing parties? Hardly. There was an eerie silence from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail for a full 24 hours following last Monday’s IPCC report release, with no statements or tweets from either party’s official accounts, or from either party leader.
Stung into responding by public criticism of their silence surrounding the IPCC report, Fine Gael issued an anodyne 60-second video setting out all that it would do by 2050 – which cynics will note is still a full 29 years away, and well beyond the career span of even our youthful Tánaiste.
The video does also allude to a target of 51 per cent emissions cuts for Ireland by 2030. Separately, Micheál Martin promised that the upcoming Climate Action Plan will outline “sector by sector, the targets and steps necessary to achieve our overall objectives”.
This task may have already been fatally compromised by the government’s capitulation to the agri-industrial lobby. This sector contributes one third to total national emissions, mainly from livestock, yet the new government-backed ‘Food Vision 2030’ plan only commits to a paltry 10 per cent cut – at best – this decade, meaning in reality our national 2030 targets are already dead in the water.
To compensate for the special treatment for livestock agriculture, every other sector’s emissions would need to fall this decade by an impossible 73 per cent, but the game of political charades now being played glosses over this fact.
Ireland could help meet our 2030 targets and deliver real and immediate climate benefits by reversing the rapid recent expansion of our ruminant herd and diversifying, in line with IPCC advice, towards plant-based and organic food production systems. This would also reduce pollution pressures and boost national food security as well as biodiversity.
The missing ingredient? Yet again, the political will to face down sectoral lobbyists and their media enablers, from Nimby urban opponents of cycle infrastructure to climate-denying politicians in thrall to powerful agri-industrial interests, is notably absent.
The major new multi-agency report published this week on ‘The Status of Ireland’s Climate’ shows how our climate, unlike our politics, is also rapidly shifting. Will it take a catastrophic extreme weather event with massive loss of life to finally shock Ireland into taking the drastic changes necessary for a safer future? Let’s hope not.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator