Time for a Department of Food Security

Food, glorious food. It has been so abundant and relatively cheap in the developed world for so long that it has become largely invisible to us. Where it comes from, what its ecological and carbon impacts and whether we are truly food secure are, I believe, among the big questions every society needs to urgently address in the 2020s, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in July.

CIVILISATION, it has been said, is only three meals deep. The threat of hunger has long stalked humanity. In recent decades, at least in the developed world, it looked like we had finally consigned the spectre of famine to the history books.

Reality, however, has a way of laying waste to our best-laid plans. Research published this month in the scientific journal Nature Communications warns the risks to global agricultural production and food security have been seriously underestimated.

The study warns of what it calls synchronised harvest failure across major crop-producing regions during summers in the northern hemisphere as a result of the jet stream becoming increasingly unstable as global warming accelerates.

The jet stream is a vast current of fast-moving air in the upper atmosphere, and changes to its flow pattern are already having dramatic impacts. The study found strong “meandering” of the jet stream is already impacting major crop-producing regions, including North America, East Asia and Eastern Europe, leading to significant harvest reductions.

The reason the jet stream is becoming more unstable is because the polar regions are warming faster than the mid-latitudes, and the decrease in temperature difference is causing the jet stream to ‘wobble’, sometimes dragging up hot air from the tropics deep into the northern hemisphere, and also occasionally plunging Arctic air down into Europe and North America.

Risks to food production from the jet stream are only part of the picture. Already, Europe is warming twice as fast as the global average, and the summer of 2022 was the hottest in over 500 years of records, with drought conditions and water shortages across much of Europe.

These were expected to be eased with the arrival of winter, but there has been little recovery in water levels, with drought conditions and loss of groundwater continuing right through spring and into this summer.

According to the European Drought Observatory, more than one third of continental Europe is now under a drought warning, with 10% of Europe already experiencing “severe drought”.

This is being felt most acutely in Spain. Even for a country well used to dealing with high temperatures, what is now happening is unprecedented.

Acute water shortages

The acute water shortage has led many Spanish farmers to abandon spring planting of cereals and oilseeds, as well as hitting vegetable and fruit production, much of which traditionally ends up on supermarket shelves in northern Europe, including Ireland.

It is astonishing that for a country with such a large agriculture sector, Ireland imports about 85% of all the fruit and vegetables we eat. Last year, we imported nearly a million tonnes of fruit and vegetables. Incredibly, this included 75,000 tonnes of potatoes.

As climate destabilisation bites, the question arises as to how food-secure Ireland, an island nation cut off by geography from our neighbours, really is? Senior politicians, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have claimed Ireland “feeds 50 million people”.

This statement was echoed by Professor Gerry Boyle, then director of Teagasc, the State agriculture research agency, who said Ireland “produced enough food for 35 million people”.

These statements would suggest Ireland is highly food secure, but they are flatly refuted by data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Agency (UN-FAO), which notes the value of Ireland’s food energy net imports in calories is the  equivalent of the entire calorie intake of 2.5 million people.

We are not, in other words, currently even providing for our own domestic food needs, let alone “feeding the world”.

While Ireland exports about 90% of the beef and dairy it produces, these exports contain less food energy than our imports of cereals, sugar and vegetable oils. Ireland also imports between 3-5 million tonnes of feed for livestock, as well as about 1.5 million tonnes of chemical fertilisers a year.

Agriculture industry’s influence

It’s our worst-kept secret that farm lobbyists and agri-industrial players have undue influence on how agricultural policy in Ireland is developed. Typically, agriculture ministers and senior Department of Agriculture officials are reduced to being glorified messengers who ferry lobbyists’ demands to government while trying to placate the most vociferous pressure groups.

This iron grip also extends to Teagasc and Bord Bia, the State agriculture marketing agency. Vital parts of a balanced agriculture mix, such as organic farming and horticulture, are the poor relations to the mega-beef and dairy producers, which explains why we have among the very lowest levels of organic farming and horticulture in the entire EU27.

The capture of our State agencies responsible for food production is best understood in the disastrous 19% increase in emissions from the agriculture sector over the last decade, accompanied by sharp increases in water pollution. Teagasc promised this would not happen, but its pronouncements were driven more by wishful thinking than scientific evidence.

While this is all ostensibly Government policy, in fact the plans are effectively written by agri-industrial players, then rubber-stamped by the minister of the day. This was confirmed by former Bord Bia chief executive Tara McCarthy when she described the Government’s Food Wise 2025 programme as “industry-owned”.

Extreme weather

Ireland and the world faces into a near future of ever-worsening extreme weather, with major question marks over our ability to feed ourselves — or our livestock. Twice in the last decade, Ireland experienced weather-related fodder crises due to inadequate grass growth to feed vast herds of cattle numbering more than seven million.

Were it not for our ability to import fodder by ship, many animals would have starved to death. What if in a future emergency, the countries we might turn to for fodder are themselves in crisis and unable to supply? In this scenario, the economic and animal welfare consequences would be horrific.

I believe the time is right to create a new department of food security, which would merge and replace the Department of Agriculture and Teagasc. Its remit would be to begin urgent planning for medium- and long-term scenarios, with an immediate focus on reviving and dramatically expanding our horticulture sector, as well as supporting a rapid expansion of organic farming.

It would also oversee Coillte phasing out its industrial clear-fell timber plantations and switching to biodiversity-rich native woodlands.

The reason we are fundamentally food-insecure is that the bulk of our farmland is given over to feeding livestock. For every 100 units of food energy in feedstuff to produce beef cattle, just 1.9 units of food energy for human consumption are produced. Huge amounts of land are therefore given over to producing remarkably few edible calories.

Horticulture, on the other hand, is by far the most efficient way to produce lots of food on very little land. The Dutch, with just 40% of our farmland, produce seven times more food. The key? Advanced plant-based horticulture carried out in nearly 10,000 hectares of greenhouses that are protected from weather extremes, while using fewer fertilisers, water and pesticides.

The likelihood of such a radical transition being led by the very people who masterminded our current livestock-led model is almost zero. Radical new thinking is needed. We’re not going to solve our food security crunch with the same thinking that created it.

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If they work hard, if they behave

Here’s a piece I chipped in to Village magazine during the summer on the hopes and fears that prospective new parents must navigate when considering taking on the awesome responsibility of bringing a new life into our climate-wracked, overheating world.

IN THE 2020s, as the darkening penumbra of climate collapse draws ever closer, it takes a remarkable leap of faith to decide to bring a new life into the world. After all, a child born this year or next will still be in their 20s by 2050, and, all other things being equal, expect to be alive to see in the 22nd century.

A new study of 5,000 parents in India, Mexico, Singapore, the United States and the UK found that more than half report that concerns about climate change are affecting their decision as to whether to have more children.

The research found surprisingly high levels of concern among these parents about climate change, with 91% reporting at least some degree of concern. Unsurprisingly, the single aspect causing most alarm is rising temperatures, while water shortages, extreme weather events and sea level rise were also cited as sources of concern.

In a letter to investors in 2021, investment giant Morgan Stanley described how the “movement to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.” People are, you might say, voting with their foetuses.

“Every child had a pretty good shot, to get at least as far as their old man got”, went the lyrics to Billy Joel’s ‘Allentown’, a dirge to the US rust belt and the despair of the abandoned working classes.

Choosing to become a parent is an act of faith in the future, broadly underpinned by the universal myth of progress, the belief that, despite setbacks and difficulties along the way, the future remains bright, and there for our children to inherit, “if they work hard, if they behave”, as Joel wrote.

In many respects, the promise of the future has indeed delivered. Who in 1980 could ever have imagined that one day we’d all have mobile phones, let alone the internet, on-demand video or digital music libraries that put millions of songs, all on an advanced computer that fits in your pocket.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, as the author and futurologist Arthur C. Clarke memorably put it. I am just about old enough to remember the absolute magic of seeing colour television for the first time. For other generations, the arrival of radio, the phonograph, the telephone, telegraph and the automobile were all in their own way miraculous.

A century and more of breath-taking technological progress has delivered the glittering baubles of modernity, but it has turned out to be the ultimate Faustian bargain, and now the devil, in the form of incipient climate and ecological collapse, is at our doorstep to demand his pound of flesh.

It’s a little over 20 years since I first became a parent. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of the dire condition of the biosphere. It was quite possible in the Ireland of the 1990s and into the early 2000s to not encounter anything on TV or in the papers around climate change, unless you were already aware of it and actively looking out for it.

Once my first child was born, I was now in a very real sense connected to the mid-to-late 21st century, an unknown country that previously had never cost me a thought. The future had arrived, and that rudimentary awareness in turn set me on the path that has come to dominate my life in ways that the 2002 version of me would have scarcely imagined.

As I write, there is a massive sea surface temperature anomaly covering the 40 million square kilometres of the North Atlantic, with temperatures to a depth of 20 metres a mind-boggling 1.3C above the 1982-2011 mean. Off the west and north-west coast of Ireland for much of June, what has been described as one of the most severe marine heatwaves anywhere on Earth has been occurring.

NOAA’s Marine Heatwave Watch has categorized this event as a Category 4 (extreme) marine heatwave. This provides the fuel for devastating storm systems and extreme flooding events, as witnessed in parts of Ireland with torrential downpours and so-called once-in-500-year flooding events.

The amount of energy required to heat a molecule of water is 10,000 times greater than the energy required to heat the same amount of air. To put this in context, last year, the world’s oceans heated up an amount equal to the energy of five of Hiroshima-sized bombs detonating underwater every second for 24 hours a day, every day. That’s the energy equivalent of around 160 million Hiroshimas accumulating in the oceans last year. The climate bomb is primed.

The bubble of climate complacency that has existed for many in the ‘developed’ world was popped with recent confirmation from the World Meteorological Organisation that Europe is now the fastest-warming continent. Yes, that’s where we live.

The summer of 2022 was Europe’s hottest in at least 500 years, and worse, much worse is to come. This is, quite literally, one hell of a world we are leaving for our children and theirs to inherit.

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To hold on, sometimes you have to simply let go

When facing seemingly impossible odds, we are sometimes capable of rising to the challenge, no matter how unpromising the situation, as I explored in this piece in the Irish Examiner at the end of June. On the other hand, value rigidity and an unwillingness to adapt can lead us to disaster – a quirk we appear to share with some of our fellow primates.

CLIMBER ARON RALSTON faced an agonising choice. The then 27-year-old was exploring a narrow canyon in a remote part of Utah in 2002 when a boulder broke loose, crushing and pinning his right arm.

Trapped, low on water, and with no mobile phone or prospect of rescue, a slow death seemed inevitable. The only hope of saving himself was to do the unthinkable: hack off his own arm with a small knife.

Ralston’s story of survival against the odds was dramatised in the 2010 film 127 Hours. Wolves, coyotes, and other animals have also been known to chew off their own legs to escape from a trap.

The urge to survive is supremely powerful and is common across the animal kingdom. This instinct does, however, have some significant glitches.

Among humans and some other primates, there is evidence of flaws in our reasoning known as value traps. Author Robert Pirsig famously explored these, using the example of the ‘South Indian Monkey Trap’ which indigenous hunters have devised to catch the otherwise elusive forest monkeys.

The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut tied to a stake, with a narrow hole and a bait of rice or fruit inside.

“The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped — by nothing more than his own value rigidity”, Pirsig wrote.

Even when the hunters return to check their traps, the hapless monkey remains stationary, clinging on desperately to its “prize”, caught in an invisible trap of its own construction and unable to comprehend that sometimes, to avoid losing everything, you simply have to let go.

Climate crisis

Despite our superior intelligence and reasoning power, we humans are also prone to value rigidity, and there is no more egregious example of this than in our collective response to the rapidly deepening global climate and biodiversity emergency.

Yet how have we reacted to this stark reality? With angry denial and indignation, demanding instead that “someone else” take the hit, while we cling ever tighter to our prize, whether it is cheap aviation, steaks, giant SUVs, or rampant throwaway consumerism.

Yet all the while, the trap is closing ever tighter.  A recent study in the journal Nature Sustainability found that widespread ecological collapse is likely to get underway much sooner than had been thought.

One in five of Earth’s critical ecosystems is now expected to collapse within a human lifetime.

The authors of the study explained how climate extremes could hit already stressed ecosystems, “which in turn transfer new or heightened stresses to some other ecosystem, and so on”.  They label this likely cascading domino effect as “an ecological ‘doom-loop’ scenario, with catastrophic consequences.”

Using advanced computer modelling, the new research identifies how, once the interaction of the multiple stresses that are being simultaneously applied is calculated, the tipping points in ecosystems (the point at which they commit to failing irreversibly) occur much sooner than conventional climate models have indicated.

As an example, they cite a specific ecosystem currently predicted to collapse by the 2090s due to rising temperatures; it could in fact fail in the 2030s once other stresses such as extreme rainfall, pollution, or resource depletion are also factored in.

April and May saw the highest ocean surface temperatures for this period since records began in 1850.

The current Atlantic heatwave is “way beyond the worst-case predictions for the changing climate of the region. It’s truly frightening how fast this ocean basin is changing”, Prof Richard Unsworth of Swansea University told CNN. Nor is this an isolated incident.

Last year, the world’s oceans heated up by an amount equal to the energy of five Hiroshima-sized bombs detonating underwater every second, 24 hours a day, every day. That’s the energy equivalent of 160 million Hiroshimas accumulating in the oceans last year.

Global response

Make no mistake, the climate bomb is primed. The trap is set. The only question that remains is whether Homo sapiens, the ‘wise ape’ is capable of living up to that description and limiting our ecological footprint and so perhaps escape our fate.

Thirty, even 20 years ago, the options for an ecological ‘soft landing’ were still very much available, but during that period global emissions have effectively doubled.

What has to change now, so that our children and grandchildren have at least some hope for the future? In a word: everything. We now need to rapidly decarbonise every part of our societies and economies.

And yes, this means sacrifice and austerity. First and foremost, we have to break our lethal addition to fossil fuels. Conspicuous consumption, cheap aviation, and most meat need to be consigned to history.

Nature urgently needs the breathing space to allow ecosystems, on land and in the oceans, to begin to recover.

As in wartime, we must now ration carbon as a key resource, which means learning to live within harsh planetary boundaries. If all that really is asking too much, then you already know how this story ends.

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Rationing our way to a rational aviation policy

To see the enthusiasm with which politicians have been co-opted to help Dublin Airport Authority to overturn the planning permissions that govern its operation in order to facilitate ever more flying is indicative of just how much of a vote-getter cheap aviation is, and the massive headwinds anyone attempting to clip the sector’s wings is likely to face. Though it may not be popular, only sensible longer term approach involves rationing, as I argued in the Irish Examiner.

AVIATION IS ONE  of the true wonders of the modern world. To be able to step on a plane in Dublin and step off in New York, Paris or Istanbul just a few hours later is an everyday miracle few of our ancestors could ever have even imagined possible.

You can, however, have too much of a good thing, and in the case of aviation, there are some serious downsides. More than most, we Irish love to fly. In 2019 for instance, there were 35 million passenger movements through Dublin Airport alone. With our population of just five million, this is an astonishingly high number.

The rise and rise of aviation, mostly for leisure, is driven by the simple fact that the sector is heavily cosseted. For example, airlines across the EU pay around €800 million a year in pollution fees. However, due to the exemption of jet kerosene from taxies and duties, it is estimated that this industry gets the equivalent of €27 billion a year in subsidies.

The reasons for this are historical, dating back to a 1944 agreement to exempt international flights from taxes. No one at that time could have possibly imagined that billions of people would be one day taking flights. Ireland alone foregoes almost €1 billion a year in VAT and fuel taxes not charged to the aviation industry or its customers.

That’s why you have the ridiculous situation that it can be cheaper to fly from Dublin to Malaga than to get the train from Dublin to Cork.

If aviation were a country, it would be in the top 10 polluters in the world, yet almost nine in 10 people globally will never set foot on an aircraft. Flying is very much a luxury enjoyed by those of us in wealthy countries, yet its impacts, in terms of climate destabilisation and weather extremes, are felt most directly by people who have never flown.

As recently as 1980, there were in total around 800 million flights taken worldwide. By 2019, that had risen almost six-fold, to 4.6 billion flights. This explosion in air travel was facilitated by the rise of the low cost airlines like Ryanair. Today, the Irish-based carrier has the dubious distinction of being officially listed in the top 10 carbon-polluting companies in the EU.

While billions of people in the developing world have no access whatever to aviation, even among those of us who do, there is huge inequity. A recent study found that just 1% of the population in wealthy countries take around 50% of all flights. This group are known as “super-emitters” given the inordinate amount of pollution they are responsible for.

However, rather than being penalised or even charged for this, frequent flyers instead are lavished with bonuses, such as free flights and upgrades by airlines.

While emissions from aviation continue to climb, the industry has turned to ‘silver bullet’ technologies to address its emissions problem. These include so-called sustainable aviation fuels, including biofuels, as well as newer aircraft that are more fuel-efficient.

However, growing crops to feed to aircraft as biofuels is a disastrous policy as food prices rise and climate change impacts crop productivity. Modest improvements in aircraft efficiency are overwhelmed by the growing number of flights, so overall, emissions continue to spiral upwards.

A first and obvious step would be to tax aviation on the same basis as all other transport fuels, as well as applying carbon taxes to reflect the true costs of flying. This is problematic, as the public has grown accustomed to cheap flying and governments are reluctant to take politically unpopular steps.

The other issue is of equity. A blanket increase in the cost of flying would dampen overall demand, yes, but would be much less effective in deterring the wealthy, who can afford to pay more, and who are already the biggest problem due to the dozens of flights they are each already taking every year.

The solution, in my view, is to introduce a system of rationing. Each person is allocated a given distance, say 1,500 kilometres, annually, with this non-transferrable allocation tied to your PPS or passport number. This is enough to cover a typical return flight to Europe. If you don’t take any flights in a given year, your allowance can be carried forward to the next year.

Take another flight and your next 1,500 kilometres attracts a €200 climate levy. From there, the levy doubles with every additional round trip – €400, €800, €1,600 and so on. Eventually, even the wealthy will start to get the message.

A system like this would of course need flexibility around, for instance, compassionate grounds in the event of a bereavement, but could still be hugely effective in eliminating many flights that happen today simply because they are so cheap.

In the 1940s, during the Emergency, everyone in Ireland had a ration card. This ensured fair and equal access to the limited resources then available, and boosted social solidarity. Today, we are in a full-blown Climate Emergency. Action is needed that is both drastic yet fair. Once again, rationing could be the key.

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Laying waste to Europe in pursuit of short-term profits

The bitter ongoing battle this summer to get the crucial Nature Restoration Law enacted and the dirty tricks campaign orchestrated by the EPP on behalf of agri-industrial lobbyists is not yet over, but below, I reported for the Irish Examiner in late June on how the whole process came within a hairs-breadth of being scuppered.

EFRORTS BY THE centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) to torpedo the EU’s new Nature Restoration Law came up short earlier on Thursday, but by the narrowest of margins.

Loud cheers broke out at the European Parliament’s environment committee as the EPP motion to have the law simply thrown out ended up in deadlock, with the vote split 44-44 among the 88 members of the committee.

This means the restoration law survives and will now go to a full vote of the European Parliament. Committee member Grace O’Sullivan described the outcome as “a disappointing end to a frantic morning”, adding there was still time to pressure MEPs to support nature restoration.

Voting in the ENVI on nature restoration has now been postponed until the next committee meeting, which takes place on June 27. Various amendments were also voted on on Thursday, including one in which the EPP spearheaded the defeat of efforts to ‘green’ European cities.


This decision was met with incredulity by Ariel Brunner, director of Birdlife Europe. “The ideological crusade [of the right-wing] is so extreme that playing the ‘farmers party’ means literally killing people in the cities. Just wow”, he tweeted.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, a row erupted involving allegations that German MEP Manfred Weber, chair of the EPP had “blackmailed” members of his own EPP voting bloc, with threats of political retaliation, including being thrown out of the EPP, if they voted to support nature restoration.

Earlier this week, Czech MEP Stanislav Polčák said he would vote for the law, but the following day he said he had asked to be substituted at Thursday’s vote in the environment committee.

“I do not consider the EPP’s overall rejection of the proposal to be a good decision, but I decided to respect it,” the  EU Observer reported. Despite evidence of coercion of its own members to vote against their conscience, the EPP continues to deny it has engaged in blackmail.

Another MEP, Fréderique Ries from Belgium, decided to be replaced during Thursday’s vote “so as not to betray my party, my group and my conscience”.

The EPP, of which Fine Gael is a member, is a centre-right grouping within the EU, but has drifted towards the far-right position in its blanket opposition to the EU’s efforts to throw a lifeline to its beleaguered ecosystems, many of which are now buckling under the pressures of intensive agriculture and climate change.

Last summer was the hottest ever across Europe in over 500 years of instrumental records, with major rivers such as the Rhine in Germany and the Po in Italy running at record lows.

With an El Niño global weather system developing this year, there is every likelihood the summer of 2023 with be even hotter, with potentially devastating consequences for food production as well as natural ecosystems.

Anti-nature lobbyists

The anti-nature lobbyists were hard at work from early morning in Brussels. The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) tweeted pictures with Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher and Sean Kelly.

IFA environment committee chair Paul O’Brien described Thursday morning’s deadlock as “a wake-up call for the EU Commission”, which he claims “has blundered on and refused to heed the warnings about what they were proposing to do. It’s been an example of how not to bring people with you”.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, more than 3,300 scientists from across Europe, including dozens from Ireland, jointly issued an open letter in support of the EU’s Green Deal. The letter pointed out that claims being made by opponents of nature restoration argued it would negatively impact farmers and the fishing industry as well as threatening food security and killing jobs.

“These claims not only lack scientific evidence, but even contradict it. We urge policymakers to continue the legislative process for the nature restoration lay as a cornerstone of food security and human health”.

The open letter addressed six key arguments being made by opponents of nature restoration. The first involves claims that it will impact food security. The biggest risks to food security stem from climate change and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as pollination and pest control.”

And, rather than marine protected areas hurting the fishing industry, the scientific evidence shows these areas in fact boost marine life by allowing it to recover and regenerate, and so actually benefit the industry.

On food industry claims that nature restoration will “prevent Europe from feeding the world”, the scientists noted Europe can contribute to global food security “by reducing the drivers of global food scarcity, such as high meat consumption and the use of biofuels”.

Nature protection, they added, improves resilience and enhances biodiversity, which in turn offers our food systems better protection against the intensifying impacts of climate change.

A nature-depleted Europe is far more vulnerable to extreme droughts and desertification, wildfires and crises arising from the reduction in the availability of fresh water for agriculture as well as human consumption.

Voting against nature restoration is voting against our own common good and in favour of powerful vested interests that are quite prepared to lay waste to Europe in pursuit of short-term profits.

According to Birdlife Europe’s Ariel Brunner, the EPP under Manfred Weber “has now fully brought to the EU the US crazy politics. Science doesn’t matter. Facts don’t matter. People’s lives don’t matter. All that matters is playing us vs them and using hatred and division to get to power.”

This, remember, is what Fine Gael, among others, is wholeheartedly supporting in the EU. This may be worth keeping in mind for when people come knocking on your door looking for votes.

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To cut or to cull, that is the question

It’s amazing the power of a single word or phrase. A headline writer in one of the Irish dailies deployed the word ‘cull’ to describe proposals to modestly reduce the total number of Irish cattle in line with our climate targets, and it became the phrase that rang around the world. At a stroke, it mis-framed this issue as being all about animal welfare, and defending our cattle from being ‘culled’ by greenies. As a cynical inversion of reality, it’s about as perfect an example as you could get, but as I explained in the Irish Examiner in June, this conspiratorial nonsense gained serious traction, especially when boosted by Elon Musk.

HAVE YOU HEARD the one about the poor defenceless Irish cows that callous, bloodthirsty environmentalists want to kill?

You will not believe the insanity now happening in Ireland”, Fox News host Dagen McDowell told her US audience last week (clip below).

“Farmers there are revolting against a proposal by the Government to kill 200,000 cows, all to meet the EU’s climate goals … this is the kind of insanity going on in the name of fighting climate change.”

She then quoted a tweet from billionaire Elon Musk, which read: “This really needs to stop. Killing some cows doesn’t matter for climate change.”

Musk’s comments were in response to a tweet from conservative author Ashley St Clair which stated: “The push to end life, of both animals and humans, in the name of ‘climate activism’ is fundamentally evil”.

This deranged narrative which, among other things, conflates abortion with “killing cows”, has gained traction globally.

It has been said that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has time to pull its boots on, and this is a case in point.

There is a certain Orwellian genius at pitching a sector, whose business model involves commercially exploiting livestock from the moment of birth until they are slaughtered, into the defenders of these same animals (for the record, all dairy cows also end their lives in an abattoir).

But in a post-truth world, such deception, enthusiastically abetted by right-wing media, is as unremarkable as it is rife.

Nature Restoration Law

This gusher of disinformation is all part of a concerted drive to derail the EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law, with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), of which Fine Gael is a member,  leading the charge.

The EPP has produced a torrent of dubious data and dodgy claims to support its efforts. Among the more egregious was that villages would have to be demolished to make way for nature restoration. When asked to name one village anywhere in Europe actually facing demolition, the EPP admitted the claim was baseless.

Despite the dishonesty, its efforts appeared to have been successful, having persuaded the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture to vote for an outright rejection of the entire nature restoration law.

However popular these attempts to sabotage nature restoration are with the agri-industrial PLCs and the farm groups who support them, the EPP’s plans may now be unravelling.

‘Core economics’

It turns out, in the words of the European Central Bank (ECB), that “humanity needs nature to survive, and so do the economy and banks — destroy nature, and you destroy the economy”.

The ongoing war on nature being waged by unsustainable intensive farming “presents a growing financial risk that cannot be ignored”, according to Frank Elderson, vice-chairman of the ECB’s supervisory board.

These threats, Elderson expanded, are measurable. The ECB assessed that the decline of so-called ecosystem services (things provided by nature for free) threatens up to 75% of all bank loans in the Euro area, as many of the millions of companies operating in the EU area “depend on ecosystem services to continue producing their goods or providing their services”.

In short, it turns out that thrashing nature for a quick profit is not quite the bargain that many, especially in the EPP and Fine Gael, appear to think. Responding to criticism of his comments, Elderson added: “This is not some kind of flower power, tree-hugging exercise — this is core economics”.

Arguments rebuffed

Another powerful economic argument was advanced in an explanatory paper issued by the European Commission. It noted that nature restoration offers a spectacular return on investment of €8 for every €1 spent. In wetlands, the ratio is even higher.

There was more bad news in store in recent days for the agri-industrial lobby and its political supporters. Among the various arguments mounted in opposition to nature restoration have included Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s claim that this would impede renewable energy projects.

This was thoroughly debunked by the lobby group Wind Europe, which noted that biodiversity protection and the expansion of renewable energy “go hand in hand, the two are completely compatible”.

Varadkar’s claims regarding nature protection being a threat to food security have also been roundly refuted. A clear example of this is the collapse in insect populations across Europe. Some 84% of crop species cultivated in Europe depend on insect pollinators, providing “free” services valued at over €150bn a year.

It beggars belief that ecologically illiterate politicians, and indeed farm lobbies, would be vying to allow the very basis of our food systems to be destroyed, principally, it appears, at the behest of the giant agri-chemical industry, whose profits depend on the sales of millions of tonnes of the very pesticides that are devastating the insect kingdom.

Efforts at EU level on nature and climate protection usually degenerate into a David-and-Goliath tussle, as NGOs with shoestring budgets are outgunned, out-schmoozed, and outspent by industry players. This time, however, there are some genuine heavyweights in their corner.

A coalition of more than 60 corporations, including Patagonia, Unilever, Nestlé, Ikea, Decathlon, and even Coca Cola, have lobbied EU legislators, urging them to hold their nerve and implement strong nature restoration laws. Their argument can be boiled down to the simple fact that it’s hard to run a thriving business in a dying biosphere.

In a moment of unintended levity, the EPP accused the European Commission of urging firms to lobby in favour of nature restoration. As Politico reported this week, the response of César Luena, the Socialists & Democrats MEP to their complaint was to dismiss it as “only theatre”.

Luena added mockingly: “Oh poor people of the EPP, now they are afraid of the lobbies, do you believe this?”


Having initially opposed the nature restoration law, Sinn Féin now says it will support it, stating that it received additional assurances. Fianna Fáil remains split, with Billy Kelleher opposed.

However, his party colleague, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue, spoke at the weekend at the “fearmongering” surrounding this issue and called on the EPP to rejoin negotiations, adding that “nature restoration is absolutely essential”.

As today’s crucial vote in the European Parliament’s environment committee takes place, ahead of a Council of Ministers meeting on June 22, the mixed messaging in Ireland will likely leave the public bewildered.

It should be a source of great concern that only 15% of Irish natural habitats are rated as being in good condition. Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency reported on the continuing decline in Irish water quality, mainly as a result of the over-use of nitrogen and phosphorus in agriculture.

Meanwhile, another State agency, Bord Bia, describes Irish dairy as “more sustainable, more natural…farmers working in harmony with nature” while simply greenwashing away the growing tide of negative consequences. This, bear in mind, is in a country with the second-lowest amount of land farmed organically in the entire EU27.

It’s hard to begin an honest conversation about striking a balance between the needs of nature and our agricultural systems when so many still remain mired in denial about even the most rudimentary facts.

Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We’ll miss them when they’re gone

The insect kingdom, sometimes described as the “tiny empires that rule the world” is now facing its gravest threat in its 400 million-year reign, with human impacts taking a devastating toll, as I explored in this piece for TheJournal.ie in mid-June.

NOT SO LONG ago, a spell of glorious summer weather like this would have brought out countless millions of flying insects into the warm night skies.

If you left a window open with a light on, you’d likely return to find the room swarming with insects, while on a night-time drive you would have to use the wipers to clear off the dense ‘bug splat’ that festooned your windscreen. Not any more.

If all of the above sounds unfamiliar, even fanciful, chances are that you are under the age of 30-40 and you may be largely unaware of the truly shocking rate of change that has swept through the natural world in just the last few decades.


This was all brought back to me forcefully the other evening, on completing a 150km drive back to Dublin in the late evening. My route was a combination of national roads and motorway, and on parking up, I noticed that my windscreen was almost completely clear of insect splat marks.

And no, it’s not just my imagination. The term ‘Insectageddon’ has been coined to capture the epic ongoing global collapse of insect life. A major scientific review of insect population decline studies published in 2019 found that two in five insect species worldwide are declining. According to the authors, “we are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods”.

It is estimated that the number of flying insects across Europe has declined by around 80%, triggering a collapse in the number of bird species that depend on insects.

European farmland birds are in sharp decline, with 57% disappearing largely as a result of a combination of mechanisation, pesticides and land clearance for intensive crop production. In Ireland, the situation is even more dire, with 63% of our bird species in decline and one in four seriously threatened, according to research carried out by Bird Life International.

Overall, around a quarter of the world’s insect population has disappeared since 1990. Declines in insect biomass are occurring at the rate of around 9% per decade, a situation without precedent in tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of years.

Tipping point

In his 2022 book titled ‘The Insect Crisis’, journalist Oliver Milman set out the grim scenario in stark terms: “our Pyrrhic victory at the very last gasp of Earth’s history means for the first time that a single species is the primary cause of an extinction episode to impact the only known life in the universe”.

Milman describes the insect kingdom as “the tiny empires that run the world”, and this is hardly an overstatement. Were insects to disappear, virtually all species of birds and amphibians would vanish in a year or less, and entire ecosystems would crumble.

The trillions of insects that occupy every ecological niche on Earth collectively outweigh all of humanity 17-fold, and are the critical components in every land-based ecosystem on the planet.

“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” wrote Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney in a scientific review that identified intensive agriculture as the main driver of insect decline, specifically the heavy use of pesticides, while urbanisation, climate change and light pollution are also implicated.

At over 400 million years old, the insect kingdom is truly ancient, pre-dating the rise and outlasting the demise of the dinosaurs, yet the severity and global nature of the crisis it now faces is without precedent in Earth’s history.

According to entomologist Josef Settele, the current agricultural system, with its heavy dependence on pesticides, is ultimately “putting the food security of the entire human race at risk.”

Political posturing

Efforts at EU level to ease the severe pressures on the natural worldresulting from intensive agriculture have met a wall of organised resistance and lobbying from multinational chemical PLCs (global agri-chemical sales amount to over €230 billion a year) who stand to lose if the EU is successful in its goal of achieving a 50% cut in pesticide usage this decade.

The success of these interest groups in influencing many farmers’ organisations, as well as politicians to support their commercial agenda, has been one of the most disheartening aspects of the recent debate around the European Commission’s modest, measured Nature Restoration Law, with Irish Fine Gael MEPs leading the charge, broadly supported by Sinn Féin and some in Fianna Fáil.

As the recent recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss have shown clearly, the Irish public strongly support robust action to protect nature and restore biodiversity, but for politicians like Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, even these modest but essential measures “go too far”.

The insect kingdom represents the critical strands that hold the web of life together. “Insects are the food that make all the birds and make all the fish,” said Dr David Wagner of the University of Connecticut. “They’re the fabric tethering together every freshwater and terrestrial ecosystem across the planet.” Three-quarters of the world’s food crops are pollinated by insects, a ‘free’ service to agriculture valued at more than $500 billion a year.

Some 80% of wild plants depend on insect pollination, so the consequences of rapid declines in insect populations cascade throughout the entire tree of life.

Intensive farming

Land use change, mostly the conversion of forests and wetlands for food production, had been the number one driver of insect decline. However, climate change is now adding to extinction pressures by disrupting habitats and drying out ecosystems.

Ironically, rising global temperatures have been a major boon to ‘pest’ species including mosquitos and pine bark beetles; the latter have wreaked havoc on temperate forests, having destroyed over a quarter of a million square kilometres of North American forests in the last two decades.

The form of agriculture least harmful to wildlife, including insects, is when organic systems are used. Across the EU, on average around 9% of land is farmed organically. This area has grown rapidly, increasing by 41% in just the last five years as awareness of the biodiversity crisis has spread.

Ireland, however, is the second worst in the EU27 for organic farming, with barely 2% of our land farmed without chemicals. This low uptake may well reflect the resistance in some quarters in Ireland to the reality of the climate and biodiversity emergency, and the influence of populist politicians who stoke urban-rural tensions for electoral advantage by using inflammatory rhetoric to ridicule even the bare-minimum actions to protect nature.

In one of the most surreal moments in Dáil Eireann in recent years, deputy Michael Collins demanded an apology from junior minister, Pippa Hackett for describing him as an “organic farmer”, even though Collins had previously described himself as “proud to be organic”.

It is strange to consider that, in some quarters, ‘nature’ is almost a dirty word, yet without healthy, functioning ecosystems, there is no future for farming or, come to think of it, for any of us.

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Good ancestors demand a Ministry for The Future

While the title for this piece was borrowed from the Kim Stanley Robinson cli-fi classic novel, I wanted to explore our paradoxical relationship with the future and how we struggle to engage in intergenerational stewardship to take into account the needs of our successors when decisions that are being made today that have long term implications, as I discussed in the Business Post in June.

OF COURSE, WE all claim to care about the future. After all, that’s where our children and theirs will have to live. Yet whose job exactly is it to really think about posterity? Or, as Groucho Marx quipped: “What have future generations ever done for us?”

Corporations operate in quarterly timeframes. Politics, too, is bedevilled by short-termism, dominated by the horse race of three- to five-year electoral cycles. Amid the constant clamour of competing demands, the quiet voice of the future is barely heard – and easy to ignore.

Meanwhile, the digital age has plunged society into an era of what philosopher Roman Krznaric describes as “pathological short-termism”. Never has it been more critical that we focus on the severe threats and challenges ahead, yet never have we as individuals and societies seemed more dazed, distracted and disconnected.

Nearly four decades ago, the United Nations Brundtland Commission famously defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

This 1987 definition has never been bettered – yet with every year that passes, the ecological debt we are inadvertently piling on to our children’s shoulders grows ever more crushing. This intergenerational injustice was brilliantly captured by Californian author Paul Hawken when he wrote: “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP.”

Fifty years ago, Sweden appointed its first junior minister with specific responsibility for what it called future studies. This was followed up in 2011 by a Commission on the Future of Sweden, which was tasked with taking the long-term view, up to 2020 and then beyond to 2050.

In 2014, Sweden went a step further, setting up its so-called Ministry of the Future. In reality, this functions as a think tank within government, where interdisciplinary teams work together to future-proof decisions and policies being developed today.

For most policies, the acid test is how they will hold up over five- to 15-year timeframes, but on climate change the time horizon expands to 50 years. As a result of this approach, which aims to overcome the traditional rivalries between government departments, its head Kristian Persson was able to announce in late 2015 Sweden’s ambition to be “a fossil-free country” by 2030.

In an interview in 2016, Persson argued that “every country should have a Ministry for the Future. Politicians tend to be reacting to things that are happening, but then it’s too late. You should look ahead”.

Having ambitions on climate action are, she added, worthless unless you implement them boldly and rapidly. “I can see social catastrophes coming as a result of climate warming, and also from the increasing division and inequality in the world,” she warned.

While a number of other countries including Canada, Israel and Hungary have tried out various mechanisms to give a voice to future generations, arguably the one to make the most concrete progress is our nearest neighbour, Wales, which in 2015 passed the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. This created the role of Future Generations Commissioner, with statutory powers.

Sophie Howe, whose term as Future Generations Commissioner ended earlier this year, explained that her job was to ensure that political decisions being taken now did not compromise the interests of citizens in the future.

As an example of this role in action, her office opposed a £1 billion relief road project being planned for around Newport, arguing that the immediate economic benefits were offset by the likely long-term damage to biodiversity in the region.

Naturally, politicians are loath to cede power, so the commissioner’s role is limited to requiring policymakers to justify their decisions, without the power to overturn them if the answers come up short.

Political dysfunction and capture by special interest groups often mean that not alone are future generations not represented, the will of people today is also routinely ignored. For me, this is best illustrated by the outstanding success of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, an ongoing experiment in what is known as deliberative democracy.

This involves a randomly selected group of ordinary citizens engaging in an in-depth review of a given issue, guided by independent experts and without lobbyists being able to shape or distort their deliberations.

In 2016 the assembly was far ahead of the Oireachtas in accurately identifying the public’s wish to scrap the Eighth Amendment and overturn Ireland’s blanket abortion ban. In 2018 the assembly’s recommendations on climate action were light years beyond what politicians, fearful of pressure groups, were prepared to even countenance.

And earlier this year, the assembly’s recommendations on addressing biodiversity loss were far-reaching and ambitious – yet within weeks, both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin had caved in to agri-industrial lobbyists working to torpedo the EU’s proposed new Nature Restoration Law.

This clearly flouts the will of the great majority of Irish people, but the iron grip of self-interested lobbyists on politicians is not easily broken. This begs the question: if politicians can’t even work in the best interests of people alive today and with a vote, realistically what hope is there for a voice for those yet to be born?

Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly has won praise internationally for breathing life back into our democracy by allowing direct, meaningful civic engagement. I believe that to consolidate this success, our political parties should commit to establishing a Ministry for the Future based on a combination of the Swedish and Welsh models to form part of the next Coalition government.

While it may seem novel, this concept has long existed in indigenous communities. For example, the native American Iroquois and Onondaga nations invoked the concept of seven-generation stewardship. Every major decision taken by the tribe had to weigh its impact deep into the future.

The eyes of posterity are on this generation, right now, silently urging us to act strongly on the biodiversity and climate emergency, to save them from an immiserated future in a collapsed biosphere. Will we ignore their pleas, or will we instead rise to the moment of our greatest crisis and earn the right to one day be regarded as ‘good ancestors’?

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Airline industry’s sky-high emissions crash climate targets

All the clever plans the aviation industry is developing to reduce emissions have one thing in common: the one sure-fire way to truly reduce emissions, ie. by flying less, is absolutely off the table. Just like in so many other heavily polluting (and highly subsidised) sectors, the only game in town is endless growth, garnished with some ‘green’ tweaks around the edges, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner.

AS MORE AND more countries come to terms with the climate emergency, including the oversized role played by the aviation industry, a range of measures aimed at clipping the sector’s wings are now being considered.

In May, France introduced a limited ban on short-haul aviation. This is a heavily watered down version of the original French proposal, which would have essentially outlawed internal aviation across one of Europe’s largest countries.

However, intense industry lobbying has turned it into a largely symbolic measure. Despite its deficiencies, it does flag the direction of future transport policy and sends a clear signal to those considering longer term trends: in simple terms, we need to fly less, much less.

One person who clearly hasn’t got the memo is Kenny Jacobs, new chief executive of DAA, the airport management group that claims to be “delivering excellence in a sustainable future.”

It’s unclear how exactly Jacobs squares this ‘sustainable future’ with his interview in this newspaper earlier this week in which he spoke of the 
possible reinstatement of the Cork-Dublin air route.
 This was scrapped in 2011 with the completion of the M8 motorway linking Ireland’s two major cities.

Industry spokespeople have long defended the expansion of aviation in Ireland as being inevitable given our location as an island on the edge of Europe. Even this shaky argument can hardly be deployed to defend not just maintaining but actually expanding internal air routes, where ample road and rail alternatives already exist.

In response to moves elsewhere in Europe to curtail flying, Jacobs retorted: “You cannot get a train from Cork to the south of France”. You can of course get a ferry from Cork to France, or indeed from Rosslare to northern Spain.

From a climate point of view, the difference is enormous. A typical foot passenger on a ferry accounts for around 19 grams per kilometre. If you instead fly, it varies from 156-244 grams per kilometre, or between eight to 13 times more emissions.

One of the unexpected dividends of Brexit has been a resurgence in ferry links direct from Ireland to Europe. At the moment, many of these, such as Cork to Zeebrugge in Belgium and Waterford Port to Rotterdam, are for cargo only, but as public awareness of the massive negative impacts of aviation grows, then demand for climate-friendly travel options is likely to expand in the coming years.

It’s ironic that rather than penalising our most polluting sectors, the Irish State instead lavishes them with massive subsidies. In 2020, the cost paid by motorists per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) from petrol burning was more than €260, with road diesel costing just under €200. The equivalent levy per tonne of CO2 from jet kerosene was: zero.

Jet kerosene for commercial aviation is exempt from both excise and carbon taxes. In 2019, the State lost around €634m in revenues foregone on aviation fuel. These lavish subsidies are separate from the money the Irish State pours into supporting aviation, which included €36m in regional airport funding in Budget 2023.

A further fillip to regional airports is the availability of public service obligation (PSO) funding for certain routes. The Kerry-Dublin air route had been supported by PSO funds but when Ryanair won the route in 2021, they did so without such support. However, earlier this year Kerry Airport warned that the route might once again need taxpayers’ direct support should Ryanair pull out.

In the second quarter of last year, there were over 87,000 passengers on the Kerry-Dublin route. At least some of these routes directly compete with the vastly more sustainable options of taking the train or bus, or even driving. And Kerry airport is the third busiest destination for that most intensely polluting form of aviation – private jets.

Looking at a map of Ireland, the seaboard is dotted with airports offering international connectivity, from Cork and Kerry to Shannon, Knock and Donegal. And of course, Dublin.

In the throes of a worsening climate emergency, can we really justify the maintenance of six airports? Kerry airport is close to Shannon, while Donegal airport is barely 100km from Derry airport.

While flying is a fantastic resource, bear in mind that more than 80% of the world’s population will never set foot on an aircraft, so those of us who enjoy the privilege of flying are among the fortunate few. You can of course have too much of a good thing. Last year, there were over 28m passenger movements through Dublin airport alone – for a country with a population of 5m.

Despite industry hype about efficiency, ‘sustainable’ fuels etc, in simple terms, if global aviation were a country, it would be in the world’s top 10 carbon polluters. On tackling climate change, sometimes, to do more actually means doing less. And this is certainly the case with aviation.

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When nature is the enemy, whose side are you really on?

The iron grip of agri PLCs and the farm lobbyists who work on their behalf on the EU’s agriculture policy was seen yet again in the outright rejection of modest proposals to give nature restoration a chance amid an ever-deepening biodiversity crisis, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in late May.

WHILE EFFORTS at EU level to push through a Nature Restoration Law are being stymied at every turn, is it instead our dysfunctional political process that’s in need of restoration?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil this week that aspects of the proposed law “go too far”. They say that in politics, timing is everything. Just as Varadkar mounted his stout defence of the do-nothing status quo, a study from the University of Exeter confirmed that business-as-usual would leave around 2bn people exposed to potentially deadly heat later this century and involving what scientists describe as “phenomenal” human suffering.

A separate study released this month confirmed that the global collapse in wildlife populations is more acute than previously understood, with almost half the species on Earth undergoing rapid declines.

This accelerating extinction pulse — the most severe since the mass die-off event following an asteroid strike around 66m years ago — is ripping apart the web of life. Amphibian populations have been devastated globally, with insect, bird, and mammal populations also in sharp decline.

However, according to the Taoiseach — who heads a government whose own Climate Action Plan commits Ireland to stronger nature restoration actions than being mooted at EU level — doing our bit to arrest this devastating crisis is just too much, too soon.

After all, he explained, it doesn’t “fully recognise how we use land in Ireland in particular”. His position was echoed by the entire group of Fine Gael MEPs, all of whom on the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture voted for a flat rejection of the nature restoration law.

The only senior Fine Gael figure to show any backbone on this issue has been EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, who pointed out these proposals would help, not harm, farmers.

“Without the actions set out in our proposal for nature restoration and the sustainable use of pesticides, farmers’ livelihoods and, indeed, food security will be put at risk,” McGuinness said. “This is what the science is telling us.”

As a former agricultural journalist, McGuinness knows well this is not a popular position with the big-money lobbyists, but it remains the truth nonetheless.

Some Fianna Fáil MEPs have similarly rejected the proposed law, while Sinn Féin has adopted its now customary sphinx-like position, with electoral advantage rather than environmental protection in mind, and ever wary of drawing the ire of agri activists.

Predictably, the very rural TDs who claim to represent the “custodians of the landscape” are invariably the most shrill in shooting down any reforms, however modest, that might in any way discommode the agri-industrial lobby whose talking points they echo.

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nothing ‘natural’ or safe about gas hobs

Was there ever a cleverer sleight of hand than the labelling of the fossil fuel methane as ‘natural gas’? Oil and coal are also natural, but have you ever heard of ‘natural coal’ as a marketing slogan? Mercifully not, yet the global gas industry continues to operate with relative impunity. In the case of gas, this extends right into our homes, where many of us have hobs that burn ‘clean’ fossil gas which has been skilfully sold as harmless. This is absolutely not the case, as I explored in this piece for the Irish Examiner in May.

AS PART OF our journey to a lower-carbon household, we replaced our gas boiler with a heat pump some months ago. Along with an electric car, this means our transport and home heating, two of the major fossil fuel users, are now fully electrified.

There is, however, one remaining piece of the puzzle. Our cooker is a combination of electric oven with a gas hob, hence we have yet to fully disconnect from the gas network. So, in common with hundreds of thousands of other Irish households, we continue to cook using gas.

From a health point of view, burning an open flame indoors is always problematic, but the one that is most commonly done actually attracts the least scrutiny — and that is the gas cooker.

Though cleverly branded by the industry as ‘natural gas’, the fact remains that this is a fossil fuel that produces emissions that are damaging to the global climate. Compelling evidence is emerging that the gas cooker in your kitchen is also a potent and potentially dangerous source of indoor air pollution.

A study published last December found that one in eight cases of childhood asthma in the United Stated are linked to gas cooking. It turns out that the “clean” blue flame on your cooker hob is in fact nothing of the sort.

When burned, gas emits a toxic cocktail of compounds, including nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, collectively described as NOx. Other emissions from gas cooking include low doses of carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and toluene. These chemicals have been linked to a range of respiratory issues, as well as some cancers.

While few of us would tolerate allowing anyone smoking in our homes, the health effect of having a gas stove is calculated to be similar to breathing in secondhand smoke indoors.

Even when switched off, a typical gas cooker leaks a small amount of methane into the air. A US study published last year calculated that the amount of methane leaked from all of America’s gas cookers each year was equivalent to the carbon dioxide pollution from half a million cars.

The same study found that NOx emissions when a gas cooker is in use can exceed US federal safety standards for outdoor pollution within just a few minutes. One of the researchers, Seth Shonkoff of the University of California at Berkeley described gas cookers as “stationary air pollution machines inside people’s homes”.

Across the US, cities and states are gearing up for either partial or total bans on new gas infrastructure, with New York city drafting legislation that would prohibit gas cookers from being used in new buildings, including new family homes and commercial properties. California and Washington state have updated their building codes to similar effect.

European research published in January estimated that around 700,000 cases of childhood asthma in the last year could be attributed to homes that cook using gas. In total, around 100 million households in the EU use gas for cooking.

The organisations behind the EU research are urging the total phasing out of gas cookers in the EU.

“Gas cooking appliances need health warning labels like cigarette packets,” said Christine Egan, CEO of Clasp, an NGO lobbying for improvements to appliances and equipment to boost human health and reduce climate impacts.

If you are currently using a gas cooker, the best way of reducing the health risks is to always use your ventilated hood when cooking, and when possible, leave a window open to improve ventilation in your kitchen when preparing food.

Gas cookers are popular because they provide instant heat and are easier to control than traditional electric hobs, which can be sluggish to respond. However, induction stoves are becoming increasingly popular. These run electricity through a coil that creates a magnetic field.

One major advantage is that the surface of the stove remains cool, and induction stoves heat instantly and are extremely efficient. In tests, an induction stove was able to bring a pot of water to the boil in half the time taken by a gas flame.

Induction hobs are not cheap, costing typically 50% more than a standard electric or gas hob, and they also require special pots and pans. However, on the positive side, induction hobs use significantly less electricity, and with today’s high energy prices, this will make a useful dent in the monthly household electricity bill, so helping to offset the higher purchase price.

Despite its improved efficiency, cooking with an induction hob is still a little more expensive than with gas, but in the scheme of things, this is surely a small price to pay for a cooker that doesn’t pollute the air in your home, worsen climate change or expose you and your children to increased risk of respiratory disease.

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The Late Late no-show on climate emergency

WHISPER IT: there’s something missing from our national conversation. Over the 24 years since Gay Byrne stepped down from RTÉ’s flagship TV programme, The Late Late Show in 1999, climate change as a topic has, by my count, featured precisely twice.

Incredibly, in both cases, the floor was given to deniers to spread disinformation. Sadly, that is symptomatic of how the biggest unfolding story of the 21st century has been handled by our national broadcaster.

The first incident of note occurred in January 2009, when presenter Pat Kenny platformed botanist and former TV personality David Bellamy’s contrarian views on climate change. A red flag for the show should have been that Bellamy had no expertise whatever in climate science.

The real cause of whatever warming was occurring was sun spots, Bellamy stated incorrectly, adding that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would be nigh-on-impossible. Even if we succeeded, “that would put the temperature up by at most two degrees centigrade”, he added. This too is manifestly false, but Bellamy’s bluster went entirely unchallenged.

Whatever about the host, it’s not as if Bellamy was unaware that he was spreading misinformation. Some years earlier, when still a working scientist, he had spoken publicly and at length on the “dramatic and devastating climate change” that would arise from CO2 emissions, adding that those trying to block action were “criminals”. That’s quite a spectacular U-turn.

Later in 2009, there was a generational shift as Ryan Tubridy took over the Late Late chair aged just 36. Hopes that this might bring a fresh perspective to climate coverage were dashed when, in January 2011, Tubridy hosted Viscount Christopher Monckton, UKIP deputy leader, and long-standing climate denier.

Monckton duly used this huge public platform to spread disinformation and long-debunked bogus science, with the host once again unable to even fact-check him. The only push-back was a solitary voice from the audience, a Green Party member trying vainly try to get a word in sideways to stem the tide.

In the 12 years and over 350 episodes since then, the global climate crisis has dramatically worsened, yet to the best of my knowledge, not once did the Late Late team consider this vast subject worth examining in depth.

It wasn’t as if nobody was asking. Numerous environmental NGOs would have approached the show over the last decade trying to interest them in covering the climate crisis. It’s not just about science. After all, it touches every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to how we travel, shop, design our cities, heat our homes, and perhaps most critically, it challenges us to reimagine the kind of world we are bequeathing to our children.

In 2015, I interviewed UK climate scientist Prof Kevin Anderson on his visit to Dublin and I also approached a senior producer on the show to ask if they might consider him as a guest.

I also sent them some video clips of Anderson in action — he’s a forceful, serious science communicator. The reply: sorry, a bit dull, not really what we’re looking for on the show. (Here’s one from 2015, where he was interviewed by Duncan Stewart at COP15 in Paris for EcoEye, and didn’t pull his punches on the Irish media platforming of ‘skeptics’).

Fair enough, you might say, the Late Late is really about light entertainment, not current affairs. Yet oddly, anti-science cranks and contrarians, perhaps by dint of being more ‘colourful’, are to be welcomed on as guests. Controversy sells, as the saying goes.

Now, 61 years after the famous “To whom it concerns” catchphrase was first aired, the show is to get just its fourth permanent host. As the mass street climate protests in Dublin and across Ireland in 2019 showed so clearly, there is a new generation desperate to see real, substantive action on the climate emergency. For its part, RTÉ is equally desperate to make a connection with a younger generation that is turning its back on traditional TV.

In his heyday, Gay Byrne’s genius as a broadcaster was his uncanny knack of sensing the zeitgeist of the age and his ability to push the boundaries of the national conversation into some very uncomfortable terrain.

A new science-literate host prepared to truly connect with the legitimate existential concerns of Generation Z may yet breathe life back into the Late Late’s venerable but jaded formula.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Beware the radical climate inactivists

It has long puzzled me that those promoting ecocidal policies that in the short term impoverish and kill millions and that in the longer term may well kill us all have somehow managed to maintain the illusion that they are ‘centrist’, ‘reasonable’ people, unlike the riff raff of climate crusties out blocking traffic and making unreasonable demands that we stop destroying the basis of life on Earth. The media has also been a great enabler of this dangerous fiction, as I explored in the Business Post in late April.

IF YOU CAN keep your head about the climate emergency when all the experts around you are losing theirs, then frankly, you really haven’t been paying attention.

Last year, thousands of long-standing temperature records fell around the world. The summer of 2022 saw China’s most intense heatwave, an event scientists described as the most extreme in recorded history, while Europe experienced its worst drought in at least 500 years.

The same pattern was repeated across the United States, and much of Africa and Asia, and these dangerous conditions have persisted right into 2023. Scorching April heatwaves in Asia have this year shattered records from Thailand to India and Japan, with multiple deaths and hospitalisations.

Spain is already in the grip of a heatwave. Exceptional drought conditions are affecting 60 per cent of the country, with severe implications for food production and exports. The Italian government has been forced to introduce a new drought decree to tackle its deepening water crisis, with little sign of recovery after the “state of calamity” declared as a result of the 2022 drought, the worst in 70 years.

Meanwhile, marine scientists are reporting a sudden spike in global sea temperatures. Off the east coast of the US, sea surface temperatures in March were 13.8C higher than average, an increase that almost beggars belief. This portends ever more ferocious weather conditions as energy builds up across the entire climate system.

There is nothing “natural” about these disasters. Such rolling extreme weather events are a direct result of the uncontrolled release of billions of tonnes of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere every year. Worse, much worse, is in the pipeline.

A major scientific study published in 2020 projected that over the coming 50 years, areas of the world where between one and three billion people live today will become too hot for human habitation or agriculture, with entire ecosystems breaking down as a result of intolerable heat.

This is an existential crisis for human civilisation on a par with the very darkest moments in our history. Quite simply, we as a species have never faced a moment of such acute collective jeopardy.

Unsurprisingly, some people who have grasped the situation have begun to take to the streets to engage in direct action to draw attention to a crisis that governments, major corporations and most of the media seem determined to pretend isn’t really happening.

Every action begets a reaction. On the right, there are now concerted attempts to tar peaceful climate protesters as dangerous radicals wielding a sinister anti-democratic agenda.

In the Business Post last weekend, former politician Lucinda Creighton deployed the term “extreme/extremist” 14 times in a single article in an unsubtle attempt to portray climate protesters as irrational terrorists. The movement has, in fact, been highly disciplined in eschewing violent protest.

Creighton insinuated that climate protesters were getting special treatment before the law. The opposite is usually the case, with peaceful protest now being criminalised. For instance, a London judge last month jailed environmentalists for defying his bizarre direction that they not tell a jury that the reason they joined a roadblock was to draw attention to the climate crisis.

While caricatured on the right as anarchists and crusty anti-establishment layabouts, today’s climate protesters are as likely to be medical doctors or scientists. For instance, climatologist Dr Peter Kalmus of Nasa was arrested last year for chaining himself to the doors of a bank that lends to fossil fuel interests.

“We scientists have been trying to warn you guys for decades that we’re heading towards a fucking catastrophe, and we’ve been ignored,” Kalmus said. “We’re not joking. We’re not lying. We’re not exaggerating.”

A survey of senior climate experts found that four in five believed they would witness the “catastrophic impacts” of climate change in their own lifetimes, and two thirds of respondents report feelings of grief, anxiety and related distress. Do these really sound like radical anarchist bums to you?

As António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, observed: “Climate activists are depicted as dangerous radicals, yet the truly dangerous radicals are the countries and firms continuing to burn fossil fuels.”

These radical ‘inactivists’ include many from the political right, whose phobia about taxes and regulations tragically blinds them to the rapidly unfolding climate emergency. It’s almost quaint to recall that not that long ago, people who identified as politically conservative used to pride themselves on being guided by science and evidence.

While environmental defenders are today far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent actions, it’s impossible to say what may happen in the future, as ecological breakdown frays the very fabric of our civilisation.

A horrifying mass fatality heatwave event in India is explored vividly in the climate-fiction novel The Ministry of the Future, set in the mid-2020s. This disaster leads to over 20 million deaths and is the trigger for wrenching changes to societies around the world.

A shadowy revenge terror group arises from the catastrophe and sabotages the globalised economic system it blames for the climate-fuelled disaster. From the ensuing chaos a leaner, greener and intensely frugal new world order arises.

Such an imagined egalitarian eco-socialist future might be the worst nightmare for the ultra-rich and their many acolytes. But for the rest of us, it’s an infinitely better prospect than crawling from the wreckage of our collapsed civilisation into a parched, dying biosphere.

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Between the AMOC and the deep blue sea

The Environmental Protection Agency hosted a public meeting as part of their ongoing series on climate change in the Round Room at Dublin’s Mansion House in late April, chaired by Ella McSweeney. I met the guest speaker, Prof Stefan Rahmstorf for an interview an hour or so before his presentation and filed the below piece for the Examiner. There are so many parts of our global climate system in dire straits, it can be hard to keep track sometimes, but there’s no doubt that should the AMOC shut down, in the words of another well known scientist, “all hell would break loose in the North Atlantic”.

WE ARE FAST approaching one or more tippings point that will drastically reshape the climate of the Northern hemisphere, but exactly where these points lies is “the billion dollar question”, according to leading oceanographer, Prof Stefan Rahmstorf.

With global warming already having pushed up the Earth’s average surface temperature by over 1.1C, Prof Rahmstorf of Potsdam University, Germany, warned that multiple climate tipping points could be crossed once temperatures have risen by 1.5-2C. This will likely lead to a “domino effect” with catastrophic consequences.

The critical systems most vulnerable to collapse in the relatively near term include the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the loss of which would add three metres to global sea levels, as well as the Amazon rainforest, the world’s coral reefs, and the Greenland ice sheet.

The massive system of ocean currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current, or AMOC, is the reason why Ireland, Britain, and most of northwestern Europe enjoy a relatively mild climate and are ice-free all year round.

This enormous submarine system of currents up to 100 times greater than the flow of all the world’s rivers combined, transfers around one petawatt of heat energy from the tropics into the northern hemisphere. This is equivalent to the total energy produced by one million nuclear power stations.

Gulf Stream

Research studies published by Prof Rahmstorf and colleagues, including Dr Levke Caesar of Maynooth University, have established that the AMOC, sometimes referred to as the Gulf Stream, has weakened by around 15% since the 1950s and is now at its weakest in at least 1,000 years. This is already having impacts on weather systems, including fuelling an increase in European heatwaves.

“New studies on the stability of the AMOC are really quite worrying”, he added. “I’m now a lot more concerned than I was 10 or 20 years ago”, he told the Irish Examiner.

In the southern hemisphere, new research has revealed that the deep ocean current around Antarctica which is part of the same global system and which has been stable for thousands of years is now expected to collapse in the coming decades as a result of carbon emissions, with unfathomable implications for the global climate system.

While a complete shutdown of the AMOC, which is part of a global overturning system of deep ocean currents, would likely take decades to play out, its implications are profound. Ireland and our neighbours in northwestern Europe would experience a sharp drop in temperatures as well as rainfall, and an increase in powerful storms, although the temperature drop would be partly offset by the overall global warming effect.

Such rapid changes in climatic conditions have no precedent in at least 10,000 years and would be devastating for agriculture and food production

“We’ve had decades of very clear warnings from the scientific community on climate change, yet the world is really only starting to wake up to the danger now”, Prof Rahmstorf added. “What’s important to bear in mind is that once it shuts down, the AMOC is, in human timescales, gone forever”.

His message to politicians and policymakers was blunt: “The key is they simply have to start putting climate at the top of their agendas; they cannot allow it to be pushed off the agenda by other short-term priorities. This is an extremely urgent situation”.

Cutting emissions

Since there is no possible way of mitigating the devastating consequences of a full-scale collapse in our weather systems, Prof Rahmstorf was adamant that the only way to avoid the worst outcomes is to take the science seriously and cut emissions from every sector in half by 2030.

“That means we really only have seven years to turn this around. We have to stop making excuses and do whatever is necessary, no matter how difficult, to preserve the climate system we all depend on”, he added. “We need really fast and decisive action”.

Apart from his extensive published research, Prof Rahmstorf is also a committed science communicator. “I have a duty, if you see a danger, you have to let people know. If a house is on fire, you have to call the fire brigade. For me, this is a moral duty. Also, my research is funded by the taxpayer; they pay my wages and they are entitled to be told of our findings.”

Prof Rahmstorf called for an all-of-society response to the unfolding climate emergency. “As a scientist, I have learned that simply informing the public of the facts is not enough to shake people out of their inertia. We need everyone on board — artists, media, communicators. This is too big a task just to be left to the climate scientists”.

At the moment, politicians are fearful of being voted out if they propose climate action that is seen as unpopular, such as banning oil or gas boilers. As the climate emergency begins to really bite, “what they should be afraid of is that they’re going to be voted out if they don’t make climate their top priority”, Prof Rahmstorf added.

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A defining moment for humanity

A number of people active in the area of climate science and activism were asked by the Irish Times in April to contribute a fairly short vignette on where we saw the current situation. My contribution, titled ‘Few options available to avert catastrophe’ is below:

IT IS ALMOST impossible to overstate the urgency and gravity of the climate emergency. Quite simply, this is the defining moment for humanity. The choices this generation make will, one way or another, shape the kind of world our descendants inherit.

While the science of climate change has long been clear, rather than this translating into concerted action we have instead witnessed decades of dithering, denial and political buck-passing. All easy options for a “soft landing” in terms of slowly cutting emissions have now been squandered.

Today, the few options still available to avert complete catastrophe are as unpalatable as they are unpopular. This was made clear with the recent publication of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesis report. Humanity’s pathway to keeping global temperatures below the 1.5 degree danger line has all but disappeared.

We are now facing into an era of unprecedented turmoil, as extreme weather events intensify, stressing the global food system and forcing hundreds of millions to abandon their homelands due to unbearably high temperatures and lethal droughts.

But, like with the persistent ringing of an alarm bell on a neighbour’s house, the public and much of the media seem to have become inured to the warnings and have managed to tune out the sirens and dismiss them as background noise.

It’s a scary time to be alive, yet also one of unique opportunities. No future generation is ever likely to have the chances open to us to still make a difference. Now is the time to prove ourselves to be good ancestors.

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