Climate emergency ‘widespread, rapid and intensifying’

I was asked by TheJournal.ie to write a reaction piece to mark the release of the first part of the IPCC’s new climate report in early August. I also recorded an Explainer Podcast with TheJournal.ie later in August.

JUST HOW MANY more ‘wake-up calls’ on the climate emergency are we likely to receive before the message finally gets through? That question hungover this week’s release by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the first section of its mammoth Sixth Assessment Report (AR6).

The report confirmed many of the worst fears of scientists and activists when it stated that the effects of climate disruption are now: “widespread, rapid and intensifying”, with the window to avoiding extremely dangerous and irreversible climate system breakdown rapidly closing.

The launch of the 3,900-page synthesis report, the product of eight years’ work, takes place against an eerie backdrop of ferocious wildfires sweeping across much of continental Europe and the US. Turkey, Russia, Greece and Canada are among the countries battling major wildfires driven by intense heatwaves that in turn are being fuelled by climate change.

The apocalyptic summer of 2021 has also included a swathe of deadly flooding events, from Belgium and Germany to China, with rainfall records broken, hundreds killed and huge damage inflicted on property and infrastructure.

It is sobering to consider that 2021 is likely to be one of the coolest years of the rest of the 21st century – we will likely see far, far worse than this as the mercury continues to rise.

A separate scientific study published last week warned that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current (AMOC) has undergone an “almost complete loss of stability” and may be heading towards collapse as a result of climate change. Were this to occur, the consequences for Ireland and much of the northern hemisphere would be truly dire.

The IPCC report itself, covering the physical science of climate change, goes much further than ever before in terms of laying out the scale of the risks humanity now confronts. To break it down, the report outlines five possible future scenarios or pathways. Which one is closest to reality depends entirely on that most unpredictable of elements: how humanity reacts.

In the IPCC’s best-case scenario, the only one to meet the targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, warming temporarily breaches the 1.5C danger line but is gradually reeled back and stabilises at around 1.4C by the end of the century.

There will be a lot more extreme weather along the way, but humanity and much of nature can survive such a scenario. The problem is that for this to have any chance of happening, every country on Earth would have to work together, starting now, and quickly scrap the global fossil fuel industry, sharply reduce our overall energy consumption and also slash methane emissions via a planetary switch away from animal-based agriculture.

With all the politically powerful vested interest groups standing to lose billions in such a scenario, you can quickly see how nigh-on-impossible this would be to achieve, yet it is the only remotely “safe” scenario the IPCC can present.

On the other end of the scale, if we ignore the science and continue business-as-usual, this would see global CO2 levels double by 2050, triggering a doomsday scenario with surface temperatures rising by an average of 4.4C by 2100. This would lock in the collapse and eventual loss of the Greenland ice sheet and the disappearance of all Arctic sea ice.

Much of Antarctica would also be committed to collapse, though this could play out over two or three horrific centuries as continuing rapid global sea level rise destroyed the world’s major coastal cities and settlements, leading to tens, then hundreds, of millions of climate refugees.

Just as people are fleeing drowned coastal areas, vast swathes of heavily populated areas, including some of the Middle East, northern Australia, India, Africa and South America could, by 2070, be experiencing “near-unliveable” temperatures, according to recent research. “Roughly a billion people” will be displaced for every one degree Centigrade in global temperature rise, according to Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter.

Will these frightening projections, against the backdrop of climate disruption unfolding in real time, before our very eyes be enough to effect a dramatic and sustained shift in social and political response and behaviour worldwide large enough to avert disaster? The evidence is not encouraging.

I vividly recall the intense flurry of media and political coverage that surrounded the 2014 release of the IPCC’s AR5 report, and a similar brouhaha over its predecessor, the AR4 report, issued in 2007. Newscasters solemnly intoned the grave findings of the IPCC panels, with newspaper headlines and leader writers joining in to declare that this was, you’ve guessed it, a wake-up call for humanity. Each time, we simply rolled over and hit the ‘snooze’ button.

If history is our guide, what is likely to happen later this week is that, after a day or two of talking about the science, the media will then flooded with lobbyists and contrarians nit-picking over minor anomalies in the science to argue that there is too much uncertainty to justify taking strong action, and engaging in whataboutery involving China, Russia, etc.

Next, you will hear how Ireland is a tiny little country; what possible difference does it make what we do? And if that deeply cynical cover for inaction doesn’t work, the morally bankrupt argument will be deployed that Ireland should keep over-producing high-pollution products like dairy and beef, on the dubious grounds that otherwise they might just be produced somewhere even worse than us.

My fears were realised even sooner than expected, as RTÉ’s main evening TV news bulletin last night went straight to the agri pressure group, the IFA, for a comment attempting to deflect from Irish livestock agriculture’s hugely oversized contribution of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, looking instead for handouts to “support farmers on this journey”.

It was telling that RTÉ chose to feature the IFA spokesman’s remarks even before running Ireland’s Climate Minister, Eamon Ryan’s contribution. That this seems unremarkable underlines the vice-like grip of sectoral lobbyists on the news agenda in Ireland.

While lobbyists were out front-and-centre yesterday, the two most notable figures absent from our screens were Taoiseach, Micheál Martin and Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, neither of whom had anything to say about the publication of the largest climate report in the last seven years.

The political climate omerta also extended to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s official Twitter accounts, which made no mention of the report. The only flicker of acknowledgement was a statement from one FG backbencher calling for the government to be a “leading voice” on climate change.

Apart from the Green Party, the other government parties, it seems, are quietly distancing themselves from the IPCC report, either out of indifference or, more likely, the fear of political backlash from ‘rural Ireland’.

In contrast, the main opposition parties, Sinn Fein, Labour and the Social Democrats all issued press statements and were posting on their social media accounts around the IPCC report yesterday.

If Ireland, a wealthy, politically stable democracy, cannot even maintain all-party political consensus on the need for urgent action – and hard choices – commensurate with the deadly existential threat of climate breakdown, then this hardly bodes well globally.

Can the nations of the world really set aside their rivalries, suspicions, ambitions and self-interest to act collectively towards the shared goal of the survival of human civilisation beyond the 21st century? Right now, the only thing harder to contemplate than this outcome is the sure and certain price of failure.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator
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Feeling the heat, then seeing the light

The story of RTÉ’s Damascene conversion on climate coverage has continued to gather pace. Below is a piece I wrote for the Business Post in early August explaining the background and context.

AS THE STATE broadcaster, RTÉ occupies a special niche in Irish life. It can also function as a sort of national Rorschach test, onto which people from all walks of life project their grievances, desires and demands.

RTÉ is routinely under fire from individuals and groups pushing agendas, from pro-lifers to anti-vaxxers and many more besides. By and large, this animus is unwarranted. By international standards, RTÉ is well regarded, employing some of our most talented journalists and creatives, and is widely, if often grudgingly, respected.

Senior RTÉ staff are used to scrolling wearily through thickets of social media posts excoriating the broadcaster for its perceived bias, prejudice or alleged corruption. Such scrutiny, fair or not, goes with the territory.

In recent weeks, however, some cracks in RTÉ’s Teflon coating have begun to emerge, centering around its perceived ongoing chronic “problem” with climate change. RTÉ’s managing director of news, Jon Williams took to social media recently in a bid to scotch what he clearly saw as unwarranted attacks on the professionalism of his news team on this subject. It did not quite go to plan.

As reported in the Business Post two weeks ago, when I challenged Williams in May on why RTÉ had no one in the role of environment correspondent, his reply was: “if everyone paid their TV licence fee”, then RTÉ could afford to fill this post.

This comment provoked a furious online backlash. Nor was it a case of one badly worded tweet. Williams used essentially the same response in another tweet in April, where he argued that in order for RTÉ to emulate Sky News’ excellent Daily Climate Show, “all it needs is for everyone who is supposed to pay TV licence to do so”. To add some salt, he included the hashtag #JournalismMatters.

This summer, as the thermometers soared in Ireland and globally, the pressure continued to mount, with media articles as well as climate scientists joining in to criticise RTÉ’s patchy and incoherent approach to covering the unfolding climate emergency.

This is most notable in its tendency to ignore or underplay the links between the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the underlying climate signal. Defending this, Williams invoked a statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that it was “difficult, if not impossible” to determine whether specific, single extreme weather events are due to climate change.

Rather than damping down criticism, these remarks, drawn from a long-outdated 2007 report, further inflamed the situation. At this point, most observers expected RTÉ to simply pull up the drawbridge, hunker down and wait for the unruly mob to disperse.

The story took a dramatic turn last Tuesday night, when Williams tweeted an unambiguous apology. “We were wrong not to make clear connection between recent extreme weather events and climate change”, he wrote, adding that it was a “sin of omission and reported in good faith. But truth matters. So when we get it wrong, we should say so. Lesson learned. Work to do.”

The tweet accompanied an article by Williams on the RTÉ website which accepted that attribution science has made it clear that climate change is indeed making extreme weather events worse, a fact “we should regularly remind our audience of”.

While Williams has been the lightning rod for some sustained criticism, in fact this is a problem he inherited, rather than created. Indeed, his statement this week is the first time in over a decade that RTÉ has taken it on the chin and accepted they have got this entirely wrong. And, more importantly, set out a clear path to fix the problem.

Its commitment to create a team across its news and current affairs division “dedicated to reporting the climate crisis” is genuinely ground-breaking. A rolling story of this magnitude, gravity and complexity warrants such a holistic response, rather than expecting any one reporter to undertake the Sisyphean task of covering this vast subject alone.

It is astonishing to consider that, since Paul Cunningham stood down as the station’s environment correspondent in 2010, the network has effectively scrapped this post, at exactly the time the global climate crisis was heating up. In most organisations, failure on this scale would lead to hard questions being asked of the board as well as senior management.

The fruits of this week’s about-turn were surprisingly quick to ripen. Within 24 hours of Williams’ statement, RTÉ’s PrimeTime addressed the climate emergency for the first time in around two years – an astonishing lacuna which included the catastrophic heatwaves and record-smashing wildfires of 2020, none of which piqued the interest of the show’s editors.

What was notable about this week’s PrimeTime report was that it completed a seven-minute segment, including an interview with a climate scientist, without hauling in a lobbyist or contrarian to “balance” the piece. This is a standard template for political journalism that, when applied to science reporting, can leave viewers confused and disengaged (It followed this up a week or so later with another climate report, featuring yours truly explaining the acute flooding risks Ireland faces in the years ahead).

This format, known as bias-in-balance, has bedevilled the station’s already-sparse environmental reporting for years. If this shift in editorial tone is as a result of Williams’ intervention, then he has truly done the station some service.

Heretofore, RTÉ has been notably prickly and defensive when challenged, for instance, on its constant framing of climate change in terms of the economic costs of taking action, with little or no commensurate focus on the far greater costs of inaction.

RTÉ’s tendency to reach to the fringes for ‘contrarian’ viewpoints, including those of a cohort of mostly rural TDs openly hostile to climate action may be entertaining, but it hardly advances public understanding of the issues.

The apparent eagerness of editors to allow sectoral interest groups to crowd out news reports on proposed climate initiatives, combined with an often testy relationship with the environmental NGO sector (and a reflex journalistic suspicion of “activists”) have been further contributing factors to a deeply dysfunctional response.

RTÉ is by no means alone among Irish media in failing the public on the climate emergency, but its unique public service mandate and matching reach and resources have made this failure particularly hard to either fathom or excuse.

It is said that change comes not when people see the light, but rather, when they feel the heat. If so, RTÉs reckoning on climate may be one good thing to emerge from the cruel summer of 2021.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator
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Winds of (climate) change finally blow through Montrose

I filed the article below for DeSmog, the international website specialising in climate denial and disinformation, in late July, in the wake of the sudden about-turn within RTÉ’s senior management over its climate coverage.

IRELAND’S NATIONAL broadcaster has publicly apologised for failing to link recent extreme weather events to climate change, pledging to set up a dedicated climate reporting unit in the run-up to COP26.

In an unusual move, RTÉ’s Managing Director of News and Current Affairs Jon Williams tweeted that the broadcaster had been wrong not to make the connection clear, calling it a “sin of omission” and insisting that the “lesson” had been “learned”.

In an article on RTÉ’s website, the former BBC World News Editor announced that all RTÉ News journalists will be undergoing training in how to report climate science.

Williams also said a new team would be set up with the aim of reporting the “climate crisis”, beginning with “extensive coverage of COP26, the United Nations Climate Change conference in Glasgow in November”.

The broadcaster has been without an environment correspondent throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, owing to “financial challenges”.

Within 24 hours of the statement being issued, RTÉ’s flagship current affairs TV show, Prime Time, ran its first report on climate change in at least two years.

The segment focused on climate impacts as well as “attribution science”, which examines the link between specific weather events and a warming planet, and did not include the voices of lobby groups and politicians opposed to climate action, as has been its usual format.

Professor Peter Thorne, Director of Maynooth University’s Irish Climate Research and Analysis Unit (ICARUS) and a contributor to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was among those interviewed.

‘Join the Dots’

Thorne recently took to social media to rebuke the broadcaster for its failure to report the link between recent extreme weather around the world and climate change.

Referring to an RTÉ report earlier this month on the extreme heatwave experienced on the US west coast and Canada, Thorne said he was “bitterly disappointed” not to see any mention of climate change, telling the broadcaster to “do better at joining the dots”.

In response, RTÉ appears to have since edited the article to include reporting on the climate angle.

The broadcaster’s sole Science and Environment Correspondent was seconded over a year ago to focus exclusively on the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving the network with no journalist dedicated to climate or environmental coverage.

In response to questions in May, Williams said it was “sadly” too much to ask for RTÉ to have a specialist environment correspondent, claiming this would only be possible “if everyone paid their TV licence”.

RTÉ has since 2010 treated the post of environment correspondent as optional, citing resource constraints.

Williams provoked further criticism this week when he quoted an out-of-date IPCC report arguing that it was “difficult, if not impossible” to make links between extreme weather events and climate change.

Reaction to RTÉ’s climate statement has been largely positive, though Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan tweeted that she was “not satisfied with excuses”.

“RTÉ’s job and responsibility as a public service broadcaster is to report facts. Climate change is unequivocal, urgent and headline-worthy”, she said.

Prior to this week’s surprise announcement, pressure had been mounting on RTÉ to improve its climate reporting.

The charity Irish Doctors for the Environment (IDE) last week wrote to RTÉ criticising what it described as its “abject failure of journalism and public service broadcasting”.

Its statement said this was “particularly glaring when compared with global media sources, many of whom have been explicitly and correctly attributing these events to climate breakdown”.

The group noted the findings of a recent Yale University study indicating that 70 percent of Irish respondents were “alarmed or concerned” about climate change, with 77 percent saying they needed more information about it.

Padraic Fogarty, Campaigns Officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust, told DeSmog: “It’s been really disappointing to see how RTÉ are ignoring the climate and biodiversity crisis. Activists are constantly told that ‘we need to bring people with us’ but this is impossible so long as media refuse to engage with the issue.”

“It’s disgraceful at this stage that RTÉ – once again – is operating without any dedicated environment correspondent,” he added.

Until this week, RTÉ’s only apparent change had been to add a “Climate” section on its website, its content mostly consisting of news agency reports and articles from academics, with almost no original RTÉ content.

High-Carbon Sponsorship

Among the measures IDE urged RTÉ to adopt was a reconsideration of its “sponsorship arrangements with high-carbon industries such as aviation and dairy, to avoid conflicts of interest”.

Approximately €134 million of RTÉ’s €330 million total annual revenue comes from advertising and sponsorship.

Its television weather forecast is sponsored by dairy giant Glanbia, whose recent expansion plans have been bitterly opposed by Irish environmental organisations, while its radio weather forecast is currently sponsored by Grant, a company selling oil-fired boilers.

Unusually, RTÉ allows commercial sponsors for some of its current affairs programmes, with car manufacturer Opel Ireland sponsoring the Claire Byrne Show, a mid-morning current affairs slot.

RTÉ’s weekly radio programme “Countrywide” is controversially sponsored by the Irish Farmers Journal, the publication of Ireland’s main agricultural pressure group, the Irish Farmers’ Association, which has consistently lobbied against climate legislation. The show’s presenter is also a columnist with the journal.

In response to questions from DeSmog, RTÉ said it “does not measure the percentage or programming allocated to topics, such as climate change, nor, for commercial reasons, does RTÉ publish details of advertising according to specific categories, such as the motor industry.” It argued that doing so “could put RTÉ at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.”

Regarding the “Countrywide” sponsorship, it insisted that sponsorship arrangements “do not impact on the editorial independence of the programme concerned.”

RTÉ supplied a detailed analysis to DeSmog of the number of times the term “climate” was mentioned on its Drivetime early evening current affairs radio programme, showing that the word had occurred 20 times in 16 months. Of these, several related to interviews with rural MPs and agricultural lobby groups opposing climate action.

While RTÉ was unable to provide a percentage breakdown, DeSmog estimates that since March 2020, the show has likely broadcast around 5,000 segments, with 0.4 per cent relating to climate change.

“This programme has focused very extensively on the climate change bill, transport, the environment, wind energy, nuclear energy and biodiversity as well as speaking to Green Party politicians both here and abroad,” RTÉ said.

‘Cock-Up, not Conspiracy’

Commenting on the ongoing criticism of RTÉ, Dr David Robbins, Director of Dublin City University’s Centre for Climate & Society said he believed “the cock-up theory is far more likely than the conspiracy one”.

Journalists fail to make the link between extreme weather events and climate change, he said, “due to reasons bound up with the norms of their profession, their newsroom cultures, and how they have reported these events before”.

Earlier this month, RTÉ apparently sought to downplay the role of climate change in recent extreme weather when it republished a Reuters news report headlined “As floods hit western Europe, scientists say climate change hikes heavy rain”, which it changed to “Experts: too soon to link floods to climate change”.

RTÉ’s Director General Dee Forbes was questioned in 2019 by the all-party parliamentary Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (Jocca), before the channel put on a well-received “Climate Week” later in the year.

A report produced by Jocca recommended that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland should be empowered to impose climate-related quotas on all licensed broadcasters, as is the case for news, current affairs and the Irish language.

It further warned that advertising pressures “cannot undermine broadcasters’ obligations to climate content”. None of its recommendations have been adopted.

In response to questions from DeSmog before RTÉ’s statement this week, Media Minister and Green Party TD Catherine Martin said she was “considering all options for ensuring that public service broadcasting can better highlight climate issues”. She added that her “Statement of Strategy due to be published shortly will also highlight climate action and sustainability”.

A 2017 study published by Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that less than 3 percent of RTÉ’s output related to climate change or sustainability. It noted that “in Irish broadcasting, journalistic content is bundled with advertising content, giving the audience mixed messages on consumerism”.

It added that the broadcaster treats climate issues “episodically, and they are not given in-depth treatment of thematic coverage”. The study examined how RTÉ coverage around the release of all four parts of the 2014 IPCC AR5 report evolved, and noted that its flagship TV current affairs programme, Prime Time, provided no coverage of the landmark report.

The only time the programme covered climate change in this period was to host a debate involving Dr Benny Peiser of the UK climate science denial think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and Ray Bates, a long-retired Irish meteorologist and co-founder of the Irish Climate Science Forum who has consistently downplayed the impacts of climate change.

Broadcasts of this kind promote a “consensus gap”, the study added, “whereby the issue appears less settled than the scientific evidence has suggested”.

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Climate emergency still failing to capture sustained media focus

Here’s a piece I filed with the Business Post in July which took a look at how the alarming extreme weather events ramping up this summer are still failing to raise a red flag in the media, both here and internationally. Given the mountains of scientific data, backed up with the evidence on our TV screens, how can we be still sleepwalking towards disaster, with scant sign that we have even begun to fully grasp the extent of the crisis that threatens to engulf us.

ON APRIL 19th last, the World Meteorological Organisation’s flagship State of the Global Climate report was published. Launching it, United Nations secretary general, António Gutteres stated bluntly: “we are on the verge of the abyss”.

To some, that may have sounded somewhat melodramatic. Then June 2021 happened.

Though still early in the summer, large areas of the northern hemisphere, from Siberia to southern Europe, India and the United States have been racked by extreme heatwaves. In the US and into Canada, the Pacific northwest, a normally temperate region on a similar latitude to Ireland was hit by a deadly heat dome that killed hundreds and left over a billion animals dead.

Prior to June 2021, nowhere in Canada had ever experienced a temperature above 45ºC. This record was smashed when the town of Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.9ºC. “Words cannot describe this historic event”, was how Canada’s weather service put it.

Also in late June, a leaked copy of a 4,000 page report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted an unremittingly bleak picture of how life on Earth would be impacted by a rapidly destabilising climate system in the decades ahead.

This translates into mass species extinctions, more frequent and widespread disease outbreaks, unliveable heat, ecosystem collapse, mass forced migration and cities and coastal regions inundated by rising seas. “The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own”, the IPCC report noted.

Most chillingly, it added: “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.”

Exasperated at the ongoing inaction in response to the unfolding climate emergency, NASA climatologist, Dr Peter Kalmus tweeted last week: “The intensity and frequency of climate catastrophes has increased dramatically over the last five years. Imagine what the next five will be like. Please wake up, get those pitchforks out of the shed and storm the castle, do whatever it takes. Those in power do not get it.”

A study conducted by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) network on the heatwave in the Pacific northwest concluded it was “virtually impossible” in the absence of climate change.

More ominously, the WWA observed that “nonlinear interactions in the climate have substantially increased the probability of such extreme heat”. The key phrase here is “nonlinear”, which means the growing possibility that the Earth’s climate system is on the edge of a series of irreversible tipping points.

Due to its enormous size, there is a vast amount of inertia in the global climate system. Despite extensive human-driven disturbances, to date, it has maintained a broadly stable climate. However, beyond a certain point, it is projected to “flip” into a new, hotter state of equilibrium. This, scientists warn, would be incompatible with civilisation, and well beyond the ability of most mammals (including humans) to adapt. Have we already crossed this line? Nobody knows for sure, but if not, we are fast approaching it.

If by now you are wondering why the climate emergency isn’t routinely headline news, you are not alone. The only thing more astonishing than the gravity of the climate emergency is the eerie pall of media and political silence that still surrounds it.

In 2020, epic heatwaves and wildfires swept much of the world, including the western United States. Despite this, it received just 0.4 per cent of US network time. While comparable data doesn’t exist for Ireland, the situation here is likely similar.

Consider our national broadcaster, RTÉ. Its Science and Environment correspondent, George Lee, has been seconded for more than a year to cover the covid crisis, leaving the entire network without a single climate or environment specialist among its staff of over 1,800 and an annual budget in excess of €330 million.

I recently queried RTÉ’s managing director of news, Jon Williams online, wondering if it was “asking too much” to expect RTÉ to have such a specialist. “Sadly it is”, Williams replied. “If everyone paid their TV licence, RTÉ could have an environment correspondent”, was his astonishing response.

Despite all these licence fee dodgers, RTÉ has somehow found the money to retain correspondents covering GAA, golf, religion, education, crime, business, economics, politics and arts and media, among others. And to fund ‘Pulling with my parents’. This is manifestly about priorities, not resources.

Quantity is one issue; quality is another. RTÉ’s reports around the recent heatwaves are routinely  framed strictly as “weather” stories, with scant regard to the climate dimension. Its current affairs shows rarely and fitfully broach climate issues, and even then, are just as likely to give airtime to fringe contrarian voices such as certain media-savvy rural TDs decrying climate action.

The situation isn’t much better in the commercial broadcast sector or indeed print media generally, but these outlets have at least the fig leaf of not receiving major public funding with which to fulfil an explicit ‘public service’ remit.

NUIM climatologist, Prof Peter Thorne took the unusual recent step of complaining publicly about RTÉ’s climate coverage, saying he “should not be so bitterly disappointed” by how it performs. He urged RTÉ to “join the dots” on climate change.

It didn’t have to be like this. The all-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (Jocca) report in 2019 called for climate literacy to be embedded throughout our educational system.

It proposed “a significant awareness-raising programme by Government” to explain the key issues to the public and to spark wider debate and awareness. It also recommended that licensed broadcasters be given formal quotas of climate coverage.

The Jocca report noted that “false balance” in the media on climate is a serious impediment to progress. Despite a Green minister, Catherine Martin, having oversight of RTÉ, there has been no sign of a shift in policy.

Imagine if the government had tried to implement its often unpopular but crucial covid strategy without supporting it with a multi-million euro advertising and communications blitz? This is unthinkable, yet it’s exactly what is happening every day on climate action.

Meanwhile, some international media is mobilising. The Economist magazine now has a ‘climate risk correspondent’; the Financial Times has massively ramped up coverage of what it calls “the big story of our age”, and Sky News UK runs a ‘Daily Climate Show’ in prime time slots.

The Irish media needs to shake off its provincial mindset and give the public the coverage this existential crisis so desperately deserves.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator
Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Leave a comment

More power to our fledgling solar industry

The missing piece of the puzzle from Ireland’s transition to clean and renewable energy has long been solar power. While wind energy has grown in just a couple of decades from almost nothing to providing more than two fifths of total national electrical power (with much more in store once offshore wind kicks in), solar has been almost completely overlooked. This is now finally changing. I filed the report below for The Irish Times in early July, taking a closer look at this bright new sector:

SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1931, US electricity pioneer, Thomas Edison confided to his close friends: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that”.

Today, some 90 years later, the pressing global crisis is that we are producing greenhouse gas emissions far more quickly than the biosphere can absorb them. The dramatic rise of renewables in response to this crux mean Edison’s bet on solar may at last be borne out, albeit not for the reasons he expected.

All future pathways to maintaining global temperatures below the 1.5ºC and 2ºC thresholds of dangerous perturbation of the climate system require rapid society-wide decarbonisation, beginning with our energy systems.

Ireland has made impressive strides in this direction, with some 42 per cent of total electrical production last year from renewables, which in our case is overwhelmingly onshore wind energy. According to the Sustainable Energy Authority, renewables in Irish electricity production reduced CO2 emissions by 4.8 million tonnes in 2019, avoiding nearly €300 million in imported fossil fuels in the process.

Wind energy has come of age in Ireland over the last two decades, with total installed capacity of just over 4,350 MW at the end of 2020. In sharp contrast, solar energy has been the Cinderella sector, with a negligible 50-60 MW of installed capacity, the second lowest in the EU.

The United Kingdom, enjoying almost identical conditions for solar production as Ireland, has, in response to clear government policy and supports, already deployed some 13,500 MW of solar capacity, and it now provides some five per cent of the UK’s total year-round electrical requirements.

“It has been difficult to explain that solar panels work in Belfast, but somehow not in Dublin”, according to Dr Sarah McCormack, associate professor of environmental engineering at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

She admits that, up until very recently, it was nigh-on impossible to attract much interest – or funding – around solar projects in Ireland. “The general attitude we encountered is that renewable energy is all about wind and ocean power in Ireland, the mindset was that we’re not sunny enough for solar power”. This, as the UK experience has shown, is a significant misconception.

To date, funding for the TCD Solar Energy Applications Group, with which Dr McCormack is involved, has come from Europe, including a recent €1.5 million grant to work in diffuse solar energy, which involves maximising the energy that can be extracted from our frequently cloudy skies.

Regular silicon-based solar panels extract energy from sunlight in the visible spectrum. While direct sunshine is a relative rarity in Irish conditions, even on overcast days, there is quite a high level of incoming UV (ultraviolet) radiation. The TCD research group are developing methods of capturing UV light via specialised luminescent dyes and then re-emitting it into the visible range, where it can be converted into electricity.

Today’s silicon-based solar cells are typically 20 per cent efficient, while international research in what are known as tandem cells has seen efficiency of solar cells boosted to as high as 47 per cent. While in terms of raw solar energy production it would be hard for more complex solar panels to compete on cost with the cheap imported panels from China, the real advantage in high-performance panels is in locations where space is at a premium.

Ironically, our slow start in embracing solar technology may in fact give Ireland the benefit of ‘late mover advantage’ in installing brand new capacity in the 2020s. The cost per MW of solar panels has fallen precipitously over the last decade and more, and is now some 86 per cent lower than in 2009.

Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency’s 2020 World Energy Outlook, “for projects with low-cost financing that tap high-quality resources, solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in history.

The emergence of solar power as a literal sunrise industry in our energy landscape happened dramatically last August, when Ireland’s first renewable energy auction saw nearly 800MW of solar projects accepted. Not all of these projects will proceed, but at least five projects approved in this auction are currently being constructed. It is expected that around 600-700MW of new solar will come on-stream as a result of this Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS) auction.

Three in five of the 63 successful solar projects in this round are below 5MW. The main reason, according to analysis by IHS Markit, is that generators below 5MW connected to the distribution system in Ireland don’t have to pay system charges for transmission use. Around one in 10 new solar projects are large-scale utility projects above 20MW.

Two to four more RESS auctions are due to be held in the near future, with each expected to see similar levels of solar energy being rolled out. “By 2030, we think we can get solar to around 5GW of utility scale installations, and another 1GW of domestic and small scale commercial”, according to Conall Bolger, chief executive of the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA).

He points out that in 2020, Ireland produced some 12.6 terawatt-hours (TWh) of green energy, mostly from onshore wind. “By 2030, we need to be hitting 30-35 TWh, so we’re aiming to effectively triple current renewable output in just over eight years, and that means we have to go gangbusters”, Bolger adds.

Given its latecomer status to the grid, Irish system planners has, Bolger believes “consistently underestimated how much it could contribute to the grid”. Network connections in Ireland are, he adds, over-engineered. “We are speccing these connections for a windy, sunny night”, he jokes.

In sunnier Spain, auctions for solar can get it on the grid for around €24 per megawatt-hour; the equivalent cost in Ireland is three times higher, at €73. “The difference in sunshine between Ireland and Spain does not nearly account for this price differential”, Bolger adds.

While Ireland is blessed with excellent wind resources, our best locations for wind are remotest from major east coast population centres, and wind is also most effective at night. Solar produces its power in daytime, when demand is greatest, and the best solar sites are close to where electricity demand is highest.

And while onshore wind farms are often opposed by people who regard them as eyesores, a typical solar farm doesn’t involve major construction, operates silently and is all-but invisible, even from neighbouring fields.

Given that Ireland’s agriculture sector produces one third of total national emissions, there is some scope for mitigation of carbon via solar farms, but the challenge, according to a government source, is that on-farm demand for electricity is relatively low. “For farmers, the key is whether you are getting paid enough and can get a cheap enough grid connection”.

Another option for farmers is to enter long-term leases of land to commercial-scale solar operators, with up to 80 per cent of a given site still available for limited uses, such as grazing sheep. And, unlike other long term plays such as forestry, it is easily reversible and the land, having been left fallow, is more likely to improve than deteriorate. However, financial uncertainty, including worry over potential losses under the Basic Payments Scheme, means this potential has yet to be fully realised.

Ireland’s 2030 target for electricity production by renewable energy is 70 per cent, and both industry and government sources are confident this will not just be met but comfortably exceeded, with the prospect of even hitting the 100 per cent mark by then. This even allows for expanding electricity demand from electric vehicles, data centres and heat pumps for zero carbon home heating.

The sunlit uplands of an energy-independent zero carbon Ireland in the coming decades have never seemed more within reach.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and co-author of the Routledge International Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The heat is on: climate emergency deepens

After the savage heatwaves that swept the northern hemisphere in June and continuing into July, I was asked by TheJournal.ie to contribute a piece putting these ominous events into context. Here’s what I wrote:

“WORDS CANNOT DESCRIBE this historic event”. That’s how a statement from Canada’s official weather service began. It was referring to 28 June, a day in which 59 new daily record maximum temperatures were recorded across the province of British Columbia, as well as 43 all-time records.

From Canada to northern Siberia and across the Middle East, India, Pakistan and the entire western United States, June 2021 was a month of record-smashing extreme temperatures across vast swathes of the northern hemisphere.

Before last week, nowhere in Canada had ever recorded a temperature greater than 45C. That record was obliterated when the town of Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.6C in recent days. This is hotter than the highest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas, located in the Nevada desert, 1,600 kilometres further south.

Dozens of deaths have been reported across Canada, a country with little experience dealing with such extreme conditions, and where few homes have air conditioning. In Portland, Oregon, the streetcar service had to be suspended as the heat had melted cables, while citizens were advised to seek shelter in publicly run cooling centres.

Climate change is happening

“Without human-induced climate change, it would have been almost impossible to hit such record-breaking mean June temperatures in the Western United States, as the chances of natural occurrence is once every tens of thousands of years”, said Nikos Christidis, a climatologist with the UK Met Office. Human influence is estimated to have increased the likelihood of a new record several thousand times.

The remote village of Oymyakon in eastern Siberia is close to the Arctic Circle and is regarded as the coldest permanently inhabited location on Earth. On 29 June, Oymyakon recorded its hottest ever temperature, at 31.6C.

To put these and other extreme weather events so far in 2021 in context, NASA noted that last year was the hottest on the instrumental record, with the excess heating fuelling massive wildfires from Australia to Siberia and the western US.

Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the key heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, have risen by around 50% since the industrial revolution began, while levels of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, have more than doubled. Overall, the entire surface of the planet is now on average 1.1C warmer than a century ago, and this is rising quickly. Earth is running a dangerous fever.

Atmospheric CO2 levels today are higher than at any time in the last four million years, and human actions are dumping an additional 40 billion tons of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere every year. The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was during an era called the Pliocene, when sea levels were around 25 metres higher than today.

Unprecedented damage

We are the first humans in the history of our species to live through a period of such rapid heating. A leaked draft copy of a new 4,000-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that Earth was fast approaching a series of thresholds which, if crossed, will lead to irreversible climate breakdown.

“Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems – humans cannot”, the report stated bluntly. The IPCC report has identified around a dozen critical system tipping points, such as rapid polar ice melt or the sudden loss of the Amazon rainforest, as likely with even very modest additional warming.

“The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own”, the IPCC report added. The panel now accepts that it has been too cautious in the past in assessing just how much risk is posed by even limited global warming.

A decade ago, the international consensus was to keep temperature increases below 2C. Given the devastating present consequences of the 1.1C rise in global temperatures and the extreme danger of breaching a planetary tipping point, the latest scientific advice says we must aim to stay as close to +1.5C as possible.

However, if all the pledges made by every country on Earth, including Ireland, under the Paris Accord on climate change were honoured in full, we are still on track for a deadly 3C+ temperature shift.

While our climate is rapidly shifting into extremely dangerous territory, the political and media response to date has been, at best, muted. For instance, Senator Michael McDowell set out in his Irish Times column this week a litany of reasons in favour of inaction on climate, which he appears not realise is an emergency.

And the national broadcaster, RTÉ (which has no acting Environment Correspondent) continues to report on the extreme heat dome affecting the Pacific north-west purely as a weather event, with little attempt at explaining the role climate change plays in loading the dice for extreme weather events.

Who’s voice is being heard?

Both of Ireland’s main governing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have repeatedly fudged strong climate action, partly for fear of an electoral backlash, but also in a bid to mollify the powerful agri industry lobby, which routinely misrepresents climate action as somehow an attack on ‘rural Ireland’.

Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney broke ranks when tweeting this week: “This is remarkable! These are frightening temperatures in Canada – take note – increased ambition for climate action is not a policy debate, it’s survival!”

If this sounds like hyperbole, a major study published last year warned that due to the rapid spread of extreme heat, up to three billion people will be living in climatic conditions “deemed unsuitable for human life to flourish” by 2070.

The researchers warned that land surface temperatures are likely to shift more in the next 50 years than in the entire last 6,000 years, rendering up to one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface too hot to support humans or agriculture. This in turn risks triggering the greatest migration crisis in human history and is likely to lead to political instability, wars and socio-economic collapse on an epic scale.

Commenting on the Canadian heatwave, meteorologist Scott Duncan tweeted: “I didn’t think it was possible, not in my lifetime anyway. Not so, countered climatologist, Prof Robert Brulle, who wrote: “These (2021) records will fall as climate change accelerates! This is just a mild version of what we can expect in the future.”

John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Dangerous myth of infinite economic growth exposed

Regular ThinkOrSwim readers will know that your correspondent is not a noted fan of mainstream economics, or most of its practitioners, for that matter. They have, in my view, done untold damage in impeding societal and political understanding of and response to the unfolding ecological emergency. 

Nobody, in my book, has explained this more clearly than Australian economist and economics debunker, Steve Keen. His cracking paper, ‘The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change’ is required reading. 

What caught my eye in preparing the article below for the Business Post in June, was a research paper published by the European Environment Agency challenging the inevitability of, wait for it, economic growth.

ANYONE WHO believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world “is either a madman or an economist,” quipped US economist and author, Kenneth Boulding. Even the 19th century father of liberal economics, John Stuart Mill, wrote extensively of the desirability of a ‘stationary state’ as the ideal model for a stable, sustainable society, but his warnings went unheeded in the race for growth.

A rare glimpse into the everyday madness of globalised hyper-consumption emerged this week, with the revelation that Amazon, the giant online retailer, which last year reported €325 billion in sales, routinely destroys millions of unsold items. Such “losses” are a trivial part of its globalised business model.

Practices like this are symptoms of the wider global crisis of chronic overproduction and over-consumption and the rapidly escalating toll it is taking on the wider biosphere.

Global output has grown more than eight-fold since 1950, a period now termed the Great Acceleration. It is no coincidence that in just the last half-century, two thirds of all the wild mammals, fish, birds and reptiles on Earth, products of countless millions of years of evolution, have been lost, along with vast swathes of their natural habitats.

Scientists in recent years coined the term ‘biological annihilation’ to describe the devastating scale and consequences of the wholescale extirpation of the natural world that has marched in lock-step with humanity’s seemingly insatiable hunger for resources.

Notwithstanding its impacts on the natural world, had the fruits of this dramatic economic expansion been shared equitably, hunger and poverty would have been eliminated decades ago, and every person on Earth given access to affordable healthcare and education.

However, despite our vastly larger global economy, according to the World Bank, today more than half the world’s population live on less than €5 a day, while the world’s 2,000-plus billionaires now control more wealth than the 4.6 billion poorest people on the planet.

In tandem with the ongoing biodiversity collapse, the global climatic system is being destabilised by the rapid increase in the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases being ejected into the atmosphere. This is mainly as a result of the vast quantities of fossil fuels that have been burned to power this explosive increase in human economic footprint.

According to a newly published briefing paper from the European Environment Agency (EEA) titled ‘Growth without economic growth’, the ongoing loss of biodiversity, climate change, pollution and loss of natural capital “is tightly coupled to economic activities and economic growth…and full decoupling of economic growth and resource consumption may not be possible.”

Human civilisation is, it warns, “currently profoundly unsustainable,” and drastic changes are now essential. The EEA paper breaks with the usual incrementalist approach by noting that absolute reductions in environmental pressures and impacts “would require fundamental transformations to a different type of economy and society, instead of incremental efficiency gains within established production and consumption systems.”

The idea of ‘green growth’, while clearly better than its conventional alternative, still offers no panacea for problems associated with growth itself. The notion of a ‘circular economy’ is gaining traction internationally, but in the case of the EU, only around 12 per cent of the total material throughput in 2019 was being recycled.

The laws of thermodynamics explain why recycling can only ever reclaim a small amount of the primary energy that is used and degraded in extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal of resources. In fact, high throughput and low rates of recycling “appear to be conditions for high productivity”.

As anthropologist and author, Joseph A Tainter noted, advanced societies require huge flows of energy and materials to maintain their organisational complexity. We are now being confronted on an almost daily basis by the limits of our planet’s ability to maintain the optimal conditions for life while being polluted and degraded.

Despite this, there is still little sign that the dominant economic philosophy predicated on the assumption of infinite growth is preparing to yield one inch to biophysical reality. Growth, the EEA notes, “is culturally, politically and institutionally ingrained”, and the very legitimacy of most governments, including our own, is judged by their ability to deliver economic growth.

If the deepening impacts of untrammelled growth are taking us to the precipice, what are the realistic alternatives? Various schools, such as the degrowth and post-growth movements, involve efforts to break the apparent link between human well-being and economic growth and to realign humanity towards other, less destructive forms of self-actualisation.

Consumerism is itself an artifice, created by clever marketers to sell ever more products. In 1955, US retail economist, Victor Lebow laid out the template candidly: “our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

In repudiating this atavistic philosophy, the EEA briefing calls instead on our better angels: “while the planet is finite in its biophysical sense, infinite growth in human existential values, such as beauty, love, and kindness, as well as in ethics, may be possible.”

The European heritage, the agency argues, is not just about material consumption. “The fundamental values of the EU are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, and they cannot be reduced to or substituted by an increase in GDP.”

Critics might argue that the true European heritage must also acknowledge its roots in violent colonialism and its role today in consuming far more than its fair share of the world’s finite resources, while using its political and economic power to continue to exploit poorer countries in the Global South.

The enduring legacy of the covid pandemic in the era of climate change may yet be a decisive shift of human consciousness and an awareness both of our shared humanity and our acute vulnerability to environmental shocks. Whether this happens in time to avert disaster, or at all, remains in the balance.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam: our fragile world

Has there ever been a better science communicator that the late Carl Sagan? If you’ve watched the original version of the series ‘Cosmos’, you’ll have a good sense of his mastery of the medium. The BBC’s Brian Cox recalls watching, as a 13-year-old, the series, and deciding to dedicate his life to science and science communication.

His distinctive cadence can be heard and enjoyed here as he speaks of the pale blue dot back in 1994. The following year, his book ‘Demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark’ foretold with uncanny prescience a future America, its critical faculties in decline, ‘unable to distinguish between what feels good and what is true’, is sliding inexorably into a new Dark Ages, with its media engaged in ‘lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance’.

This flight from reality has brought humanity to the very edge of ruin. Whether we proceed, or somehow turn back in the nick of time, remains very much in the balance. Much will depend on how robust our planetary boundaries turn out to be. We may be lucky, or we may be very unlucky in that regard. The below piece ran in Village magazine in June.

ON FEBRUARY 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, then some 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth, turned its cameras backwards and captured a picture of our home planet. It was the tiniest of images, covering barely one tenth of a pixel on the digital frame, a faint speck suspended in the inky black infinity of space.

The idea for the photo came from famed scientist and science communicator, Carl Sagan. The following passage, from his 1994 book ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is perhaps one of the most poignant in all of modern literature:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Amidst the awe and beauty, his writings contained a dire warning. That mote of dust, our only home, “is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves”.

Despite the delusional dreams of interplanetary adventures and Mars colonies peddled by billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who believe their staggering monopoly on wealth and resources will allow them to shake off the very shackles of this planet, in reality, humanity will survive or it will perish right here on Earth.

Earlier this year, Musk’s SpaceX company unveiled his latest gadget, named with characteristic modesty ‘Starship’. This craft is capable of transporting up to 100 people the 350 million kilometres to Mars.

To put this voyage in context, the Red Planet is almost 1,000 times further from Earth than our moon. Its destination, Mars, is a barren rock, utterly bereft of the ingredients for life, infinitely more hostile to humans than the remotest point in Antarctica or the peak of Mount Everest.

The ethos behind the race for space is a creeping realisation among the hyper-rich that life on Earth is critically endangered. “History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event”, Musk said in 2016. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilisation and a multi-planet species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go”.

The “eventual extinction event” may well be much closer at hand. Our billionaire elite can clearly sense it, but rather than deploy their vast resources and access to the levers of political, economic and media power to effect the revolutionary scale of changes necessary for our collective survival and well-being on Earth, they instead engage in fantastical projects as monuments to their colossal egos and unbounded hubris.

The great 20th century economist, John Kenneth Galbraith clearly understood the corrosive influence of affluence. His book ‘A Short History of Financial Euphoria’ offered some sharp insights. “Individuals and institutions are captured by the wondrous satisfaction from accruing wealth. The associated illusion of insight is protected by the public impression that intelligence marches in close step with the possession of money.”

This is the best explanation I have encountered to account for the staggering myopia of extremely wealthy people who have unlimited access to expert advice and are in a position to quickly make the changes that could truly matter.

One of the enduring challenges of addressing the multiple ecological crises that confront us has been to find a way of seeing them as part of an integrated system, a ‘spaceship Earth’ floating in the void, with its crew entirely dependent on the on-board life support systems and the integrity of the hull, which on a planetary scale, means the thin atmospheric envelope that surrounds us.

In 2009, a group of Earth system scientists, led by Profs Johan Rockström and Will Steffen set about the interdisciplinary task of mapping out a “safe operating space for humanity”, to help advise governments and international organisations on how to identify and remain within this safe zone.

This led to the identification of the nine key ‘planetary boundaries’, within which Earth systems must operate, and beyond which lie thresholds or tipping points with dangerous or even catastrophic consequences when breached.

The boundaries include: climate change, novel entities, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification, biochemical flows of phosphorus and nitrogen, freshwater us, land-system change and biodiversity integrity, including functional and genetic diversity.

The pie-shaped visualisation developed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre is colour-coded green, orange and red, to demarcate the safe, uncertain and high risk zones. All nine of these should lie well within the green ‘safe’ zone, the region where Earth systems have remained throughout the unusually stable 11,700 year recent epoch known as the Holocene.

“There is increasing evidence that human activities are affecting Earth system functioning to a degree that threatens the resilience of the Earth system, its ability to persist in a Holocene-like state in the face of increasing human pressures and shocks”, according to a 2015 paper authored by Will Steffen which aimed to update and extend the original ‘planetary boundaries’ study from six years earlier.

While all nine boundaries are vital, two (climate change and biosphere integrity) are identified as “core”. If planet Earth were indeed a spaceship, right now its red warning lamps would be flashing and its alarm bells buzzing, warning that a hull breach was imminent unless drastic remedial action were taken.

Given the global focus on the climate crisis, you might expect its indicators to be the most alarming. At the moment, our climate system trajectory is clearly unstable, but it is rated as still being in the zone of uncertainty, meaning increasing risk.

The areas that have already smashed into the red zone of extreme danger are the global biodiversity crisis and nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans. Ecosystem damage resulting from human activities over the last half century in particular are “the most rapid in human history, and increase the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes”. So severe has the loss of biological diversity and accompanying pulse of species extinctions been that it has been characterised as the Sixth Mass Extinction event in Earth history.

To truly grasp the devastation that has already occurred, consider that 96 per cent – by weight – of mammals on Earth today consist of humans and their livestock, with the totality of the world’s remaining wild mammals a mere 4 per cent. At the start of the Holocene, humans and their livestock would have accounted for less than one per cent of Earth’s then teeming population of mammals.

Humanity’s race to increase food production has thrown global cycles of both nitrogen and phosphorus into chaos. Humans now create more artificial nitrogen (as a chemical fertilizer) than all Earth’s terrestrial processes combined. This is leading to serious and escalating pollution crises, both globally and as witnessed in Ireland in recent years as nitrogen-dependent industrial dairying expanded rapidly.

Thanks to decisive intergovernmental action in the 1980s, the ozone crisis has been largely averted, but other planetary boundaries are under growing pressure. These include ocean acidification (now occurring at its most rapid rate in 300 million years) and freshwater over-extraction and pollution to atmospheric aerosols and thousands of novel chemical entities that have been suddenly introduced into the biosphere.

There remain large areas of uncertainty, but our current trajectory of ever increasing resource extraction, consumption, pollution, land use change and spiralling emissions push us ever further beyond our planetary safe zone. With wry understatement, Steffen warned: “A continuing trajectory away from the Holocene could lead, with an uncomfortably high probability, to a very different state of the Earth system, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies”.

As Carl Sagan concluded: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
Posted in Global Warming | 3 Comments

Billionaires to the rescue? No thanks

With our billionaire overlords queueing up to be the first into space or to colonise some real estate on Mars, I thought it was an opportune moment to file a piece in the Business Post taking a cold look at the phenomenon that a diet of movies has prepared us all for: the benign hyper-rich swooping in to save the world. After all, what could possibly go wrong? If that sounds like the ultimate fiction, then grab your popcorn and read on…

HEROES WITH super powers have long been a staple of Hollywood movies. The actual super power some, such as Iron Man and Batman, possess is extreme wealth. These billionaire playboy vigilantes aim to save the world with ingenious, expensive gadgets.

Life now appears to be imitating art with the emergence of not one but three actual billionaire would-be superheroes, this time on the most exciting quest of all: to rescue Earth from the ravages of climate chaos.

The motley cast, comprising Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Mars-bound entrepreneur Elon Musk have all pitched in some cash and pinned their reputations on finding solutions to the global climate crisis.

Gates’ recently published book, ‘How to avoid a climate disaster’ attracted massive media attention, placing the author at the centre of the global debate on possible solutions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently added climate change as a priority to its nearly $50 billion fund.

Jeff Bezos has set up the eponymous Bezos Earth Fund, with a budget of $10 billion, which he plans to disburse on climate-related projects by 2030. He says it will support “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” This commitment sits a little uneasily with moves by Amazon last year to fire employees for speaking out on environmental issues.

Meanwhile, Tesla founder Elon Musk has pitched up a more modest $100 million to fund a competition to develop novel carbon-reduction technologies, and is a vocal supporter of a carbon tax to tackle what he calls an “unpriced externality”, i.e. the uncontrolled dumping of emissions into the atmosphere.

So, can the billionaire boys’ club really succeed on climate where even sovereign states have failed? One reason many states have struggled to respond is dwindling tax revenues due to widespread tax avoidance by the hyper-rich. Amazon filed record sales in Europe last year of €43.8 billion, but paid no corporation tax whatever on this income.

A 2019 investigation found that six Silicon Valley tech giants had collectively avoided over $100 billion in taxes, with Amazon top of the list. In the US, the share of corporate income tax as a percentage of GDP has plunged from around six per cent in 1950 to barely one per cent last year.

But surely billionaire philanthropy can at least to some extent offset their reluctance to contribute to the general tax funding that allows governments pay for schools, healthcare, public services, libraries, policing and infrastructure? The best advice here may be to beware of geeks bearing gifts.

In her book ‘No such thing as a free gift’, author Linsey McGoey uses the term ‘philanthrocapitalism’ to describe the core motivation at play. “The new philanthropists are increasingly proud, triumphant even, about the private economic fortunes to be made through embracing philanthrocapitalism. Not only is it no longer necessary to ‘disguise’ or minimise self-interest; self-interest is championed as the best rationale for helping others”, according to McGoey.

Aside from motivation, there is also the key issue of competence. Bill Gates admits he only twigged climate change as an issue in 2006. He is not a climate expert, in any sense of the word, and specialists have questioned many of the ‘solutions’ he promotes.

Gates places most of his hopes in gee-whizz future techno-fixes, including entirely untested and potentially cataclysmic global geoengineering projects, while being oddly dismissive both of renewable energy and of the impact of climate activists like Greta Thunberg in drawing attention to the crisis.

Gates admits to having no political solution to climate change, a stance ridiculed by prominent climatologist Prof Michael Mann. He wrote of Gates: “the politics are the problem, buddy. If you don’t have a prescription of how to solve that, then you don’t have a solution.”

Irrespective of their particular pet technologies, what all the new billionaire climate advocates have in common is their staunch defence of the status quo – a world of extremes, where the 26 richest people own as many assets as the 3.8 billion comprising the poorer half of the global population.

And over the last year, as the number living in poverty doubled to over 500 million worldwide due to the covid pandemic, the wealth of the world’s 2,365 billionaires ballooned by an astonishing $4 trillion, or 54 per cent.

The notion that billionaires can, without dismantling the rigged system that allows them to vacuum up an ever increasing share of the world’s wealth and resources, lead us towards climate salvation is further challenged by the fact that the richest one per cent of the world’s population produce more carbon emissions than the poorest 50 per cent.

Over the last quarter century, emissions from the wealthy elites have increased at three times the rate of the world’s poorest. As influential economist Thomas Piketty noted: “A drastic reduction in the purchasing power of the richest would in itself have a substantial impact on the reduction of emissions at global level.”

The philanthropic forays of the world’s super-rich have also proved useful in laundering their reputations. In the 1990s, Bill Gates was widely portrayed as an evil tech villain and monopolist. His Gates Foundation has since disbursed some $250 million in grants to a wide range of media outlets.

According to investigative reporter Tim Schwab, the Gates Foundation “has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture”. And, more recently, climate change.

“Insofar as journalists are supposed to scrutinize wealth and power, Gates should probably be one of the most investigated people on earth – not the most admired”, Schwab added.

The apparent philanthropic largesse of Bezos, Gates et al. may serve to discourage media and environmental NGO beneficiaries from asking awkward questions about gross inequality and its oversized role in fuelling the climate crisis.

As public trust in both politics and society itself falters, it is perhaps no surprise to see the rise of the cult of charismatic billionaires whose genius, pluck and benevolence will magically solve our greatest crises, as corrupt politicians bicker and dither. This beguilingly attractive idea is in reality the ultimate fiction.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Economics, Media | Leave a comment

A safer future for all means a better future for most

This article appeared in the Irish Times in early May, based around an intriguing paper published in the journal ‘Global Environmental Change’, titled “Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario”. As the abstract begins: “It is increasingly clear that averting ecological breakdown will require drastic changes to contemporary human society and the global economy embedded within it”, it qualifies this by noting that today, despite humanity gorging on stupendous amounts of energy, the basic material needs of billions of people are still not being met. This, as you might suspect, is leading the authors towards the inevitable conclusion that without addressing gross inequality, we are not going to make any real progress grappling with the climate and biodiversity crises either. 

MORE THAN any other single factor, the defining characteristic of the modern era has been humanity’s use of cheap, plentiful energy. In the 20th century alone, humans deployed more energy than in all 20 previous centuries – combined.

This trend has continued to accelerate into the first two decades of the 21st century, pandemic notwithstanding, and shows little sign of levelling off, let alone reversing. The dominant form of energy during this period has been via fossil fuel burning, and this is in turn is fuelling dangerous levels of disruption to the global climate system.

While today’s levels of global energy usage are already altering the fundamental chemistry of the atmosphere and placing extreme pressures on the biosphere, the International Energy Agency projects that by 2050, world energy consumption will have increased by around 50 per cent.

Some 17 per cent of total global energy use currently comes from renewables. Even allowing for rapid ongoing adaption of clean energy, it appears implausible that such ongoing increases in energy – and resource – consumption could occur without triggering catastrophic destabilisation of our planetary life support systems.

Yet, despite our staggeringly high energy usage, the fact remains that “the basic material needs of billions of people across the planet remain unmet”, according to a recently published research paper titled ‘Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario.’

The authors set out to see if the basic needs of a burgeoning global population could, at least in theory, be met by mid-century while averting widespread ecological breakdown. Their findings were unexpectedly upbeat.

Nor is this a purely academic exercise. After all, if there appears to be no possible alternative to the current growth-based system, it will almost certainly continue, despite the evident and escalating risks.

World population reached three billion in 1960; by 2050 it will likely have at least trebled, to around 9-10 billion. Despite this dramatic population growth, the paper argues that by 2050, “global energy use could be reduced to 1960 levels” while still providing a decent basic standard of living for every person on Earth.

This dramatic reduction would require a combination of advanced technologies and sharp reductions in energy demand to what it calls “sufficiency levels”, but the authors are adamant that “sufficiency” is far less austere than people assume. In fact, for the bulk of humanity, it would mean tangible improvements to their real living standards, such is the extreme level of global resource and income inequality today.

The research calculated the minimum energy needed to provide all basic needs, from adequate heating and cooling to nutrition, education, healthcare and access to information technology.

“Our intention is to imagine a world that is fundamentally transformed, where state-of-the-art technologies merge with drastic changes in demand to bring energy (and material) consumption as low as possible, while providing decent material conditions and basic services for all”, the authors state. Only through such a radical transformation, they add, can human needs be met within critical planetary boundaries.

At present, those daring to suggest alternatives to our current model of constant economic growth or promoting steady-state economics are likely to be dismissed as new age cultists or “degrowth fetishists” trying to make everyone poor.

The new study, according to lead author, Joel Millward-Hopkins of the University of Leeds, “offers a response to the clichéd populist objection that environmentalists are proposing that we return to living in caves.”

The paper points out that “inequality and especially affluence, are now widely recognised as core drivers of environmental damage.” Consider that in the year since the covid-19 pandemic began, the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires has ballooned by some $3.9 trillion, while hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people were plunged deeper into poverty and financial insecurity as a result of the pandemic.

This further debunks the concept known as trickle-down economics, the notion that tax breaks for the wealthy would somehow flow towards wider society. Resources are instead being rapidly siphoned upwards towards the already wealthy and economically powerful.

The paper points out that current levels of energy usage “underpin numerous existential crises, resource scarcity and the geopolitical instabilities these issues can catalyse, especially in a growth-dependent global economy”. While there have been significant improvements in energy efficiency, these have “largely served to boost productivity and enable further growth”.

Crucially, beyond a certain point, increases in energy use in a given society deliver little or no additional benefits to that society. The study envisages, with the aid of technologies, radical demand-side transformations that largely eliminate excessive consumption and focuses available resources instead on providing the conditions required for flourishing. These include basic physical health and safety, access to clean air and safe water, good quality (largely plant-based) nutrition, and the opportunity for social and political participation.

Resolving the paradox of how to satisfy the needs of all while using far less energy and fewer resources depends on sharp global reductions in meat-eating, down by some 85 per cent in rich countries. A massive expansion of public transport globally would greatly reduce energy and emissions while allowing people to meet their transport needs without the expense of owning and running resource-intensive private cars.

Globally, much of the existing housing stock needs to be replaced over time with modern buildings with very low heating and cooling energy requirements. This would be another vital step in achieving decent living conditions with far less energy than at present.

The paper is “a great contribution that offers a fresh perspective”, according to Brian Ó Gallachóir, professor of energy engineering at UCC. “Rather than emissions per se, it looks at primary energy; as a thought piece around energy justice and citizenship, it has an interesting focus on individuals as agents, not just consumers.”

Ó Gallachóir also finds the timing of the study propitious. “We have just come through a year where things have happened that just 12 months ago seemed totally unachievable. Through the pandemic, we have tended to listen to science, and find political consensus”, factors he feels will be equally necessary in facing the coming global climate and energy crunch.

The new study admits to having deliberately avoided what is likely the most problematic issue: how to we move from a world riven by vast inequalities, excessive and wasteful energy usage and prodigal overconsumption of finite resources to a utopian model where “decent living standards are provided universally and efficiently?”

The authors dismiss what they term incrementalism, as seen in concepts such as ‘green growth’ and ethical consumerism, which they see as little more than rebranding of the very economic system that is driving the ecological crisis.

The notions of sufficiency and economic equality underpinning their modelling are, they concede, incompatible with current economic norms, “where unemployment and vast inequalities are systemic requirements, waste is often considered economically efficient and the indefinite pursuit of economic growth is necessary for political and economic stability.”

Today’s 17 per cent share of renewable energy is around half of what the study estimates is needed to ensure universal ‘decent living standards’ by 2050, and the renewables sector will almost certainly have doubled by mid-century.

This means that, at least in theory, the total replacement of fossil fuels can be achieved without plunging the world into poverty and chaos. While this would entail heavily clipping the wings of the world’s most profligate economic high flyers, that may in time be seen as a small price to pay for a habitable future for all.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and co-author of the Routledge International Handbook of Environmental Journalism

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Do we care enough about nature to bother saving it?

This piece ran in the Business Post in early May, inspired at least in part by the devastating fires that swept many of Ireland’s uplands yet again this Spring, an annual ritual, it seems, that comes around with depressing regularity, and for whom no one is ever truly held to account.

YOU WON’T save what you don’t love. In the world of conservation, activists and scientists have long struggled to engage the public emotionally with efforts to prevent the destruction of the seemingly remote natural world. This is likely why, for instance, the World Wildlife Fund uses the cuddly Panda as its symbol.

Similarly, the plight of dolphins, polar bears and other so-called charismatic megafauna are often highlighted to try to tug on the public’s heart-strings. Who could forget the images of terrified koalas fleeing the Australian wildfires in 2020?

To most people in Ireland, our contact with wildlife is sporadic at best and restricted to the odd sighting of an urban fox or a buzzard overhead.

Notwithstanding this apparent disconnect, there was widespread shock in recent days as fires raged across uplands from Cork and Kerry to as far north as the Mourne mountains. In the case of the Killarney national park, up to 3,000 hectares have been affected, which is around half the entire area of the park.

Killarney national park generates around €400 million in tourism revenues for the region annually, and this has now been put in jeopardy by what appear to be deliberate fires started by landowners seeking an easy way of clearing scrubland for grazing – a recurring pattern of behaviour routinely defended by farm organisations as ‘best practice.’

According to nature and wildlife film-maker, Colin Stafford-Johnson, “we have wrecked this island – a lot of it is now an ecological desert.” He feels that while we as individuals love nature, “as a country, we don’t value it at all”, he told me.

He recalls recently driving past a spot in Mayo where this time last year, Yellowhammers were nesting. He was shocked to see the local authority had destroyed the hedgerow. “I’m sure this wasn’t malicious, it’s just they and so many other people have no sense of nature, no feel for it.”

As for Ireland’s ‘green’ reputation, he noted wryly: “It’s factory green; the reason Irish fields are so green is because we throw so much fertilizer on them…don’t sell me the idea that we’re working with nature.”

While Stafford-Johnson has produced nature documentaries for both the BBC and RTÉ focusing on the wild flora and fauna of Ireland, in reality such programmes are now vanishingly rare.

Agriculture and food journalist, Ella McSweeney believes Irish people do care deeply about nature, but feels the real issue is why it gets so little media space. “We need a massive increase in coverage of what is happening to the life around us and how we are managing the land”.

From the 1960s, RTÉ was producing and broadcasting regular high quality nature programming, most notably ‘Amuigh Faoin Spéir (Out Under the Sky) and ‘To the Waters and the Wild’ and their presenters, Éamon de Buitléar and Dutch-born Gerrit van Gelderen, were household names.

These programmes introduced many people, including this writer, to the wonders and mysteries of Ireland’s rich natural heritage. These shows had largely disappeared from RTÉ by the early 1990s, so a whole generation has grown up without any such window into our natural world. On RTÉ radio, the excellent ‘Mooney Goes Wild’ remains popular, but lacks the kind of society-wide impact that only television can deliver.

Speaking on the Late Late Show in 2001, the late de Buitléar said we Irish are “terribly careless about the environment.” He warned presciently of the ecological pressures of livestock agriculture, adding: “we’re having terrible problems with (live)stock on land, we have problems with spreading slurry on land, because at times, the land just cannot take it.” He added that as Ireland’s weather is projected to get wetter overall, this problem would only intensify.

Formal recognition of the crisis came when the Oireachtas declared a ‘Biodiversity Emergency’ in 2019. “There is no real appreciation of the scale of the problem, it’s still not coming home to people that it’s happening here, in their own locality,” according to Liam Lysaght, director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

He believes there is “a dearth of farm-gate advice on biodiversity,” adding that our agricultural colleges do not appear to mention it even in passing to students.

This situation has doubtless been worsened by the cynical framing by some politicians of even the mildest environmental protections as being somehow driven by an irrational urban elite and ‘anti-rural Ireland’.

The true urgency of the situation was driven home with the recent publication of a report by Birdwatch Ireland. It found one in four Irish bird species are now facing extinction, with nearly two thirds of all species rated as ‘threatened’. Ominously, the situation for bird populations has deteriorated since 2013, in parallel with rapid dairy intensification.

Pressures related to agricultural practices are growing. Over the last 50 years, pesticide use in Ireland has increased six-fold. A recent Environmental Protection Agency report noted that just 20 Irish rivers are now in “pristine” condition, compared with over 500 in the 1980s. “Ireland’s reputation as a food producer with a low environmental footprint is at risk of being irreversibly damaged”, the agency warned.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is charged with overall responsibility for managing Ireland’s national parks and for the protection of special areas of conservation, covering over 87,000 hectares.

Its Cinderella status was confirmed as its funding was slashed over the last decade, falling to just €11 million in 2017. This paltry budget meant management of our vast national parks has been woefully inadequate, with minimal detection and prosecution of arsonists.

Last October, Heritage minister, Malcolm Noonan reversed years of systemic neglect by increasing the annual budget for the NPWS to €29 million. It’s a small but significant step towards recovery.

Ironically, some of Ireland’s biggest environmental offenders are in fact state agencies, including the Office of Public Works, Coillte, the state forestry agency, and Bord Na Móna, which finally exited the peat-mining business last June, having razed much of our once biodiversity-rich peatlands.

Ecologist, Padraic Fogarty memorably described Ireland’s blighted natural environment as “a paradise waiting to happen.” That, surely, is something we can all agree on?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hard cheese for environment as Big Ag juggernaut steamrolls NGOs

This piece ran on Desmog.com in mid-April. This site has, since 2006, sought “to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science and solutions to climate change”. And in Ireland, nowhere is this pollution more pervasive than the smog of greenwash and disinformation that shrouds the livestock sector. All that has transpired even since this story was published in April would take another, much longer, post to even begin to cover. Suffice to say it has been eye-opening; both ugly and sinister in equal measure.

Consider for a moment that the chair of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee (and Glanbia shareholder) described An Taisce’s legal appeal as “a revolting act of treason” without even the slightest rebuke from his party colleagues or media backlash and you realise how fragile our democratic norms truly are and how easily they can be cast aside when greed and naked self-interest go unchecked. I will return to this in a future posting.

A NUMBER of senior Irish politicians and agri-industry interests are trying to block a legal challenge to a new cheese factory brought by environmentalists over concerns relating to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Politicians and industry figures are applying sustained public and political pressure to have the appeal dropped, despite the High Court having approved the legal challenge.

In response, a number of Irish and European NGOs are now speaking out at what they call a campaign of “intimidation of environmental defenders”.

“I see this campaign as undermining access to justice and a warning off to anyone who dares stand up and fight for the level of transformation needed in Irish agriculture,” Attracta Uí Bhroin, environmental law officer with the Irish Environmental Network told DeSmog.

“As vice president of the European Environmental Bureau I am deeply concerned when we see attacks on access to justice rights and environmental democracy, which are essential to the protection of the environment,” Uí Bhroin added. The EEB represents some 160 member organisations in more than 35 countries.

The controversy centres around an objection by An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, to a proposal to build a major new €140 million cheese-making facility at Belview, Co. Kilkenny, by Irish-based PLC, Glanbia, in a joint venture with Royal A-ware, a Dutch dairy processor. (Disclosure: This author, a journalist, is a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate committee).

An Taisce, which for decades has had a legally prescribed role in the Irish planning process, objected to the fact that this plant would lead to the production of an additional 450 million litres of milk to be used in cheese production, which it argued that the national planning appeals board, An Bord Pleanála (ABP), had failed to consider.

The impact of this additional milk production is an expected 2.5 percent increase in overall national ammonia pollution, an agricultural byproduct which, when released into the air, can impact human breathing. Increased milk production will also lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions from the expansion of ruminant agriculture. Environmentalists are also concerned about the impact of additional dairy output on water catchments in the south Leinster and Munster hinterland of the proposed new plant.

The High Court last November granted An Taisce leave to mount a legal challenge to the ABP decision to allow the construction of the Belview plant to proceed. An Taisce contends that building the gouda-making facility in Ireland, rather than the Netherlands, amounts to “pollution dumping” as it seeks to bypass stricter environmental regulations being imposed by Dutch authorities.

While Ireland has allowed its dairy herd to increase by around 500,000 cows in the last five to six years, in Holland, the opposite has happened in response to the EU imposing a cap on phosphate emissions (which can result from manure production). Between 2017-2018, its overall number of dairy cows fell by 190,000, or 11 per cent.

The ABP decision has since sparked a series of verbal attacks on the environmental NGO sector generally and An Taisce in particular. It is seen as highly unusual for groups of MPs to issue joint statements on a non-political issue, but in the case of Fine Gael, four MPs and former ministers issued a joint attack on what they called the “divisive” court action against “this new exciting cheese plant”.

Former justice minister and lawyer, Charlie Flanagan, and several Fine Gael colleagues claimed An Taisce was “acting against the interests of rural Ireland” and its appeal was “vexatious”. MEP Billy Kelleher called the challenge “spurious”.

Irish Farmers Association president, Tim Cullinan, described An Taisce’s proposed legal challenge as “a vindictive court action by An Taisce [that] has impacted Glanbia’s plans”.

In a brief recent statement, An Taisce said it would, out of respect for ongoing legal proceedings, “not make any further comment on the case until the matter is decided”.

Fianna Fáil TD and chair of the parliamentary agriculture committee, Jackie Cahill, described An Taisce’s legal action as an “extremely cynical move to delay the process as much as possible”.

Cahill is also a dairy farmer and a board member of Centenary Thurles Co-Op, which is a corporate member of Glanbia. His party leader, Irish prime minister Micheál Martin stated: “There is a growing sense that the judicial review is becoming a new mechanism to frustrate and delay projects hoping that they may not develop”.

On top of all this, during a recent online Dairy Forum, Glanbia Ireland CEO Jim Bergin reportedly slammed government funding of environmental NGOs, including An Taisce. According to the Farming Independent, Bergin “attacked the Greens and Minister Ryan on the €1.8m in funding that went to environmental NGOs this year.”

In context, total state support for environmental NGOs is around 0.1 percent of state and EU funding for Ireland’s agricultural sector. The EU’s CAP Basic Payment scheme pays Irish farmers some €1.2 billion a year, with additional EU and national payments, supports, and subsidies bringing the sector’s total annual subsidy support to around €2 billion.

Pádraic Fogarty, campaign officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, denounced the latest attack on Ireland’s environmental NGO sector. He described it as “a disgraceful pile-on, with politicians, including the Taoiseach, potentially trying to interfere with the planning process”.

This process, Fogarty added, is “to serve the wider public good, it’s not there to serve sectoral interests”.

Fogarty identified a “long-term strategy by the agri-industrial sector to dismiss and de-legitimise professionals, such as ecologists and planners; this is all part of the artillery of denial”.

Ireland’s agri-industrial sector has been in an ongoing conflict in recent years with environmentalists, as it has pushed ahead with expansion plans for ruminant-based agriculture that are completely at odds with Ireland’s international climate obligations. The sector has also sought to downplay the likely impacts of climate change, and to dismiss the role of ruminant methane emissions.

From 2000 to 2010, Irish agricultural emissions had reduced steadily. However, this reversed with the decision to rapidly expand the dairy sector as milk quotas were lifted.

Overall agriculture sector emissions rose by 10.4 percent between 2010-2019, and now account for more than one third of Ireland’s total emissions, with further expansion planned this decade.

This industry-driven commodity production policy makes it all-but-impossible for Ireland to achieve net emissions cuts of around 50 per cent by 2030, and exposes the general taxpayer to large EU fines for non-compliance. A 2017 EU study found Irish agriculture to be the least climate-efficient in the EU.

Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency told the Department of Agriculture last year that its “green” reputation is “not supported by evidence”, adding that the intensification of its agriculture industry is also the main pressure on Ireland’s declining national water quality.

Due to the serious climate implications involved, environmental groups argue that it’s critical for legal due process to be allowed to play out.

Judicial review “is a fundamental democratic right which must be respected and enforced by all for the benefit of all. If businesses can defend their own interests, the public and non-governmental organisations should also have a say to defend the general interest,” Anne Friel, lawyer and environmental democracy lead with European NGO ClientEarth, told DeSmog.

“This is not an option but an international obligation under the Aarhus Convention that Ireland and the EU have both ratified,” said Friel. “Unfortunately, we are still fighting for this right to defend the environment.”

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate committee. He is writing in a personal capacity and not on behalf of An Taisce.

Posted in Agriculture, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Beyond denial and grief and towards solidarity on climate

This piece ran in the Business Post in late March as my take on the revised – and considerably improved – Climate Bill. Since it was written, it has become clear that the absolute maximum ambition the agri sector is even considering is a 10% emissions cut by 2030, and even that depends on largely untested technologies rather than any constraint on the key source of sectoral emissions – ruminant agriculture. This being the case, all other sectors of Ireland’s economy and society must exceed 70% cuts in the next decade so the net 51% target can be reached. 

SWISS PSYCHIATRIST Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously developed a five-step model to describe the stages of grief. These are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While originally relating to the psychological processes around dying, her model has come to be applied to other areas where wrenching change is being contemplated.

We humans and our institutions are creatures of inertia. Change is generally resisted until the last possible moment. Ireland’s collective response to the need for drastic action to address climate change has been a textbook study in denial, anger, bargaining and at times, even depression.

This week, perhaps for the first time, we may have begun to move into the fifth and final stage of our faltering journey towards truly accepting the stark reality of a climate-altered future.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin described how Ireland would “begin the journey to net zero, by halving our emissions over the next 10 years.” Tánaiste Leo Varadkar put a positive spin on the new Climate Action Bill, talking up the economic advantages, adding that “the early movers with the most ambition will see the greatest opportunities.” The early movers have in fact long since powered ahead, while we dithered and delayed.

Take Denmark. In recent decades it has from scratch built a domestic industry in wind turbine manufacture and export that is already worth more than Ireland’s entire food and drinks sectors combined. Surging global demand for clean energy means it is future-proofed.

For Green Party leader and Climate minister, Eamon Ryan, this week’s Bill is the culmination of a tortuous 16-year journey since he first introduced a Climate Bill from the Opposition benches in November 2005.

It may have taken the shock to the political system in March 2019 of tens of thousands of climate protestors packing the streets around Leinster House for the message to finally break through. Almost exactly two years later, was the new Climate Action Bill worth the wait and, more importantly, is it fit for purpose?

For context, consider the abject failure of Ireland’s climate policies to date. The EU set us a modest target of reducing emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, versus a benchmark of 2005. What we actually achieved was, at best, around a 1 per cent cut. In a similar period, Scotland managed nearly a 50 per cent emissions reduction.

For two neighbouring countries of similar size, the difference between success and failure is down to political vision, ambition, and the courage to face down special interest groups. Powerful, well financed and media-savvy lobbyists have stymied Irish climate action at every turn, and doubtless are now sharpening their knives in a bid to neuter the new Bill.

An earlier draft of this Bill published last October resembled a colander, pitted with loopholes and fuzzy language. For instance, it stated that the State would “pursue” climate neutrality by mid-century. I may “pursue” fluency in Urdu or a desire to be a concert pianist, but am quite unlikely to achieve either.

This time, the language has been tightened. It now reads “pursue and achieve”. Of course, politicians love signing up to abstract targets set far into the future. That’s why, crucially, the Bill sets out the immediate stepping stones towards carbon neutrality in the form of two Carbon Budgets (2021-2025 and 2026-2030).

In this nine year window, Ireland is legally committing to the herculean task of cutting emissions across the board by an average of 51 per cent. “No country has ever set such an ambitious target,” according to Ryan. The task of setting these budgets is being given to the beefed up Climate Change Advisory Council, a group dominated by economists which has had little impact over the last five years. It is being reformed and expanded to include expertise in climate science and biodiversity.

While government departments will now have carbon budgets, it is less clear what happens if a given minister breaches or ignores these. “It will be politically horrible for a minister to have to say they’re failing,” according to a government source. But will that be enough?

The Bill sees Ireland transitioning to a “climate resilient, biodiversity-rich, environmentally sustainable and climate-neutral economy” by mid-century. This utopian aspiration faces some formidable hurdles, not least of which are Ireland’s dairy and beef sectors, which produce almost one third of total national emissions, while also being largely responsible for recent declines in biodiversity and water quality.

Tackling this means compelling the politically powerful agri-food sector to do their fair share on both climate mitigation and biodiversity protection. This also requires ensuring state agencies such as Teagasc and Coillte align their policies to support, not undermine, climate objectives.

While there are many technical solutions that can help us towards our near and medium-term objectives, we crucially need to inject the same level of urgency and appeal to national solidarity that has surrounded Ireland’s response to the covid crisis.

When, for instance, did you last hear or see a government advert on radio or TV explaining why climate change matters, and how we’re all in it together in the fight for a safer, more just future? Consider also that in the last 20 years, RTÉ the national broadcaster has dedicated one solitary week to the greatest crisis of the 21st century.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee report on climate change recommended that ‘climate quotas’ be imposed on all licensed broadcasters, as is the case for news and current affairs. While this is not on the table, a government source told me a proposal is being examined “to set up a long-term climate communications unit within the department”.

As with Brexit and covid communications, its task would be to drive consistent messaging and advertising to explain and support climate action, and so to help win the battle for the hearts and minds of the Irish public and to challenge misinformation.

Surveys have shown the Irish public now broadly accepts the reality of the climate crisis, yet there is little evidence of a phase-shift in our public communications. The issue is still framed as a political or ideological contest rather than our collective existential crisis.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Climate hoofprint of ruminant agriculture under spotlight

The Farming Independent sought two contrasting views on the merits or otherwise of continued expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd, so I contributed the below, wearing my hat as a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate committee. This article was published in late February.

AT LAST, the world seems to be getting serious about tackling the climate emergency. The EU has set the ambitious goal of cutting emissions by more than half by 2030, with the upward ratchet on targets to accelerate until net zero emissions are achieved.

Hitting these targets will be tough but essential, since the certain price of failure is global climate destabilisation and the horrific social and economic consequences that will ensue.

Agriculture is the industry most exposed to climate breakdown and extreme weather, for the obvious reason that it is almost entirely weather-dependent. You would think therefore that Ireland would be working hard to reduce total agricultural emissions, rather than just tinkering with efficiency tweaks. You would be mistaken.

Take Teagasc’s 2027 dairy road map. It envisages milk output rising by around 18 per cent to 9.5 billion litres a year. That’s an increase of in our most emissions- and pollution-intensive form of agriculture, at the very time these need to be falling sharply.

Agriculture accounts for a third of Ireland’s total emissions, so if it fails to act, all other sectors must hugely over-achieve to compensate. Should we take every car off the road, ban all flights and ration home heating so the dairy sector can continue to expand with impunity?

By far the most problematic agricultural emission is methane from ruminants, despite efforts in some quarters to pretend otherwise. Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue recently made it clear that herd expansion is incompatible with meeting our emissions targets, adding that the environmental costs of dairy expansion are being passed on to other farmers.

Teasgasc’s scientists know this too, but their organisation is directed by an 11-person Authority, of whom five, including the chairman, are dairy farmers. There are no tillage or beef farmers represented, nor anyone from the organics or environmental sectors. Does this strike you as balanced?

Today, Ireland produces the most greenhouse gas emissions per euro of food output in the entire EU. Thanks to major dairy expansion, by 2027, this is hardly going to improve.

In December, an Environmental Protection Agency report on water quality found an astonishing 33-fold increase in the number of river sites where nitrate levels have increased since 2015.

EPA director, Laura Burke last October stated that Ireland’s ‘green’ reputation is “largely not supported by evidence”, adding that livestock sector growth “is happening at the expense of the environment as witnessed by the trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction.”

In business, as in life, reputation is everything. Like it or not, the ecological and climate footprint of intensive livestock agriculture is now under close scrutiny.

One major farming organisation recently rejected calls for EPA pollution licensing for large dairy farms, while working to undermine essential CAP reforms aimed at funding eco schemes and boosting organic farming.

Refractory leadership like this leaves agriculture at real risk of losing public support and becoming viewed as a pariah sector. This is surely not the future most farmers want?

  • John Gibbons is volunteer PRO for An Taisce’s climate committee
Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Irish Focus, Pollution | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Investors running for cover as allure of fossil fuels fades

The below piece was published in the Business Post in late February. By my usual standards, this probably ranks as quite optimistic, in pitching the argument that fossil fuel, the world’s most dangerous industry, is in the process of losing its social licence. While it may be wounded, it is still massively wealthy and politically powerful, and will doubtless fight to the bitter end to maintain its hegemony in energy.

THE DECISION to rely on fossil fuels to power civilisation and expand our dominion over the planet means humanity has unwittingly struck a Faustian pact with nature. Surprisingly, we have in fact understood the broad terms of this bargain for well over a half a century. In 1965, US president Lyndon Johnson published a report that presciently examined the existential risks involved in uncontrolled fossil fuel burning.

“By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25 per cent,” it found. This “may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.”

Johnson’s science advisory committee recommended “economic incentives to discourage pollution”, with special taxes to be levied on major polluters. This is how clear the science was over 55 years ago.

Hopes that the trillion-dollar global energy industry would clean up its act, in line with the scientific evidence have proven groundless. For instance, in 2000, BP rebranded itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, in what turned out to be just a cynical PR stunt.

Climate emergency notwithstanding, the lure of easy profits has proved irresistible for the world’s fossil fuel giants, many of whom, like Saudi Aramco, are state-owned. However, after many false green dawns, revolutionary change is now finally in train, and the key driver is, improbably, the global investment community.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, controlling a staggering €8.7 trillion in investments recently described the “tectonic shift” now underway in the sector. “There is no company whose business model won’t be profoundly affected by the transition to a net zero economy”, Fink told investors.

BlackRock says it will dump companies that fail to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Further, Fink flagged any non-compliant companies for “potential exit in our discretionary active portfolios, because we believe they would present a risk to our clients’ returns”.

BlackRock is not acting alone. A consortium of 30 of the world’s largest asset managers, controlling a combined fund of over $9 trillion, have also warned companies seeking investment that they must clean up their act on emissions or face de-funding.

“Climate change poses one of, if not the most, significant risks to the long-term profitability and sustainability of companies, including our own,” according to Anne Richards, CEO of Fidelity International.

In December, New York’s city pension fund, valued at $226 billion, announced it was dropping all fossil fuel holdings. “Investing for the low-carbon future is essential to protect the fund’s long-term value”, according to state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli.

Partly as a result of the pandemic, 2020 was an annus horribilis for the oil giants. ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Conoco Phillips suffered combined losses totalling around $33 billion. The once mighty ExxonMobil suffered the further indignity of being removed last August from the Dow Jones Industrial Average basket of companies. Credit rating agency Standard & Poors last month put a list of oil giants on a “credit watch” list, meaning they face potential downgrade.

Political pressure is growing too. The new Biden administration broke decisively not just with Trump’s overt support for fossil fuels but also Obama’s “all of the above” approach to energy. “Unlike previous administrations, I don’t think the federal government should give handouts to big oil to the tune of $40 billion in fossil fuel subsidies”, Biden stated on signing an executive order on January 27th to accelerate climate action.

At EU level, foreign ministers met last month and agreed that “EU energy diplomacy will discourage all further investments into fossil fuel based energy infrastructure projects in third countries, unless fully consistent with an ambitious, clearly defined pathway towards climate neutrality.” However, critics argue that the vagueness of EU ministers’ wording leaves ample wiggle room.

Despite our very poor record on emissions reduction, Ireland is recognised as a world leader in fossil fuel divestment. In 2018, the Oireachtas passed legislation requiring the state to sell off its €8 billion in oil, coal, gas and peat investments. This year, the government has gone further, announcing a permanent ban on all new oil and gas exploration licensing, although existing licenses will be honoured, while all new petrol and diesel cars are to be banned by 2030.

Evidence that the internal combustion engine is running out of road can best be gleaned from radio ads for new cars. Despite EVs still only accounting for single digit sales, brands are scrambling to paint themselves as fully committed to clean motoring.

Globally, road transport is the single biggest market for oil, accounting for one third of all usage. Rapid electrification of both transport and home heating poses a major threat to future demand for liquid fuels, and this risk is being priced in by edgy investors.

Fossil fuels will continue for some time to be the world’s dominant energy source, helped in no small part by the estimated $5.2 trillion in annual government subsidies globally. But the world’s most dangerous industry is finally losing its social licence. Decades of oil wars, ecological disasters and funding of climate denial have left its credibility running on empty.

Now the slow shuffle of investors, insurers and politicians tip-toeing away from the crippled energy leviathans is threatening to become a stampede.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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