Another year for the record books?

I filed this piece, a combined review of 2023 and preview of 2024 on the climate and wider environmental front for the Irish Examiner just before the holidays and it ran in early January. And if I sound like a broken record, it’s just that records keep getting broken, and 2024 looks like yet another year of living dangerously.

THEY SAY THAT every disaster movie begins with a scientist being ignored. While it was supposed to be virtually impossible, there is now a better than evens chance that global temperatures this year will — for the first time in millennia — rise by 1.5C over the pre-industrial average.

Already, 2023 is understood to have been the hottest year on Earth in the last 125,000 years — with temperatures averaging around 1.4C above pre-industrial.

To try to grasp the magnitude of this heating, scientists calculated that in July 2023 — the hottest month in Earth history — the planet absorbed the equivalent energy from human actions as released by 800,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs every single day.

This colossal additional energy has provided fuel for epic weather disasters on all continents.

Record-smashing extreme heatwaves were recorded repeatedly across Europe, North America and much of Asia, and as the southern hemisphere swung into spring and summer later in the year, temperatures above 35C were recorded in South America — in its midwinter.

To understand just how extraordinary these heatwaves are, the temperatures being experienced from northern Argentina to Chile were 22-25C above normal for the time of year. In parts of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia, temperatures breached 40C — in the depths of winter.

A study by the scientific group World Weather Attribution found that these freakishly hot conditions, that led to multiple deaths, were made 100 times more likely as a result of human-induced climate change.

While the developing El Niño played a minor role in spiking 2023 temperatures, its impact is expected to be much more pronounced in 2024. El Niño is a naturally occurring climate pattern of sea surface warming, originating in the Pacific Ocean.

Typically — in an El Niño year — global temperatures increase slightly, as more heat energy from the oceans enters the atmosphere. The strengthening El Niño effect into 2024 has the power to turbocharge the global atmosphere, which is already heating quickly as a result of the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from human activity.

At the Cop21 conference in Paris in 2015, nations of the world agreed to limit the rise in global temperatures to “well below 2C” — aiming to hold the line at 1.5C. In the years since then, scientific evidence has underlined the extreme sensitivity of Earth systems to increased levels of GHGs.

At that time, it was still being projected that the world would not experience its first 1.5C year until into the 2030s. This has turned out to be entirely optimistic. While temperatures race forward, the political response to the crisis still moves at a glacial pace.

The recently-concluded Cop28 conference in Dubai managed to mention the phrase “fossil fuels” for the first time in its history. Beyond that, little concrete progress was made. Emissions reductions remain largely voluntary and left up to individual states to implement — or ignore.

While most politicians headed home from the conference largely satisfied with the non-binding nature of the process, how many of them will have read the State of the Cryosphere 2023 report?

This was produced recently by 60 top experts in the field and began with the stark statement: “We cannot negotiate with the melting point of ice”. We are, the study warned, on the cusp of catastrophic sea level rises.

The cryosphere refers to the world’s frozen landscapes — from the poles to Greenland — and massive glaciers such as in the Himalayas, as well as permafrost. “From the cryosphere point of view, 1.5C is not simply preferable to 2C or higher, it is the only option”, the report noted.

Failure to drastically cut global carbon emissions locks in humanity to centuries of catastrophic sea level rise, of a scale and at a rate that will be impossible for societies to adapt to.

The central conclusion of the cryosphere report is that if temperatures are allowed to reach 2C, it will trigger an irreversible collapse of the world’s major ice shelves — leading to the inundation and loss of much of the world’s coastal settlements and infrastructure.

For Ireland, this would mean the gradual abandonment of much of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Wexford and Galway. Put simply, this cannot be allowed to happen.

Yet politicians, lobbyists, and corporations are carrying on with the delusional conceit that we can cobble together some kind of last-minute compromise with the laws of physics.

After the blistering European summer heatwaves of 2022, deadly heat returned to the continent in 2023 — with the mercury hitting 45C in areas of Spain and across the Mediterranean in mid-July last. Many Irish tourists found themselves in “unbearable” temperatures in traditional European holiday spots.

The flip side of high temperatures are extreme flooding events. The most severe of these occurred when Storm Daniel ripped into Libya in September 2023, killing an estimated 20,000 people — with many deaths attributed to the collapse of a poorly maintained dam.

Analysis by World Weather Attribution found that the devastation in Libya was made far more likely and worse by climate change. Reconstruction costs are expected to run into billions of dollars.

There was much fanfare at Cop28 at agreement having been reached on a Loss and Damage Fund to help compensate countries being impacted by climate change, yet the total (voluntary) commitments to this fund run to around $700m.

As Libya illustrates, this is a drop in the bucket for a single country — let alone as a global fund. Ireland received a taste of extreme weather when Midleton, Co Cork, was hit by a severe flooding event in October.

Storm Babet dumped over a month’s rainfall on the area in a 24-hour period, leading to millions in damage. For every 1C rise in global temperatures, the atmosphere can hold an additional 7% of water vapour, and Ireland’s rainfall has increased by this amount in just the last 30 years — in line with rising temperatures.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that, while engineering solutions can work in limited instances, the only longer-term way to safely manage increased precipitation in Ireland is to employ nature-based solutions — such as restoring uplands and paying farmers to allow their fields in floodplains to flood, as nature intended.

In some cases — however — it will be simply impossible to defend properties and infrastructure, and a planned retreat from high-risk areas is inevitable. We may have already breached tipping points

It is astonishing to consider that all 10 of the hottest years ever recorded on the instrumental record, stretching back to the late 1800s, have all occurred since 2012. The chance of this sequence being a coincidence is less than one in a billion.

The problem with tipping points is that, because of system inertia, you can have breached one or more without the true impacts being immediately apparent. All we know for sure is that we are already in a parlous situation.

And 2024 promises to be yet another year of living dangerously. While we should be tip-toeing carefully along, humanity continues instead to blunder forward more quickly than ever — wandering deeper and deeper into a veritable minefield of climate impacts.

Will our luck finally run out in 2024 or, like in the movies, will we engineer an unlikely last-minute escape? Time will tell.

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Winning slowly still means we’re losing

I filed my final Irish Examiner report on the Cop28 conference as it came to an end in Dubai. Next stop: Cop28 in Azerbaijan in November 2024 – another petro-state, and yes, this event will also be presided over by a senior oil company executive. It is sorely tempting to just denounce the entire Cop process as a rolling farce, yet in the final analysis, it’s all we’ve got.

SEEING THE outcome of the Cop28 conference in Dubai unfold is reminiscent of watching a dog riding a bicycle. It may not be elegant, it may not be making much progress, but the real wonder is that it is happening at all.

Considering how difficult it can be to achieve political consensus even within a single country, it is bordering on miraculous that a global mechanism exists where around 200 sovereign states sit down together every year to try to thrash out an agreement on the climate crisis.

This strength is also the key weakness of the process. The Cop conferences require unanimity, and this allows vested interests to hobble proceedings and force them to move at the speed of the most reluctant participants.

It is mind-boggling to consider that it has taken almost 30 years for fossil fuels, the principal cause of global warming, to even be formally mentioned by name

That this has at last happened in Dubai is significant, but can hardly be considered a seismic event. When it comes to climate change, winning slowly is ultimately the same as losing.

Tipping points in the climate system, from ice shelf collapse to permafrost thaw, AMOC shutdown (collapse of the Gulf Stream), or die-back of the Amazon rainforest respond not to politics, but to physics.

We either stay within critical planetary limits or we face near-term catastrophe, and there is simply no way of negotiating or wishing away these limits.

While an aspiration to “transition away” from fossil fuel usage makes its long-overdue first appearance in a Cop decision text this year, even that lukewarm phrase is further diluted by stating that this transition is to happen “in energy systems” only.

In practice, this completely ignores transport, which accounts for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Critically, there are no mechanisms in place globally to in any way limit countries or corporations from continuing to explore for or burn fossil fuels.

In fact, the International Monetary Fund estimates that in 2022, fossil fuels received $7trn in subsidies, or $13m every minute, despite earlier calls to begin to phase these out.

Even within the EU, last year, fossil fuel subsidies doubled to around €300bn, as governments kept energy prices artificially low.

For hosts, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), presenting some kind of win was crucial as a face-saving exercise, having been humiliated by the revelation that it was using the Cop conference to conduct oil deals.

Their discomfort was increased by leaked comments from conference president Sultan Al Jaber which were dismissive of the need to ever limit fossil fuel emissions and disrespectful towards the Chair of the Elders, Mary Robinson.

When Al Jaber claimed “we have helped restore faith and trust in multilateralism, and we have shown that humanity can come together”, he may have been stretching the meaning of language to breaking point.

And lest we forget, Adnoc, the UAE state oil company that Al Jaber heads, is planning to massively increase oil production.

The oil-producing bloc, Opec, led by Saudi Arabia, accounts for over three-quarters of the world’s known oil reserves. It had fiercely resisted any meaningful or binding steps to put limits on fossil fuels.

The Saudi delegation expressed approval for the final Cop28 document, which includes a Swiss cheese of loopholes and opt-outs, secure in the knowledge that it means business as usual for its energy sector.

While Climate Minister Eamon Ryan fought the good fight to salvage a better deal as the EU’s climate finance negotiator, his description of the outcome in Dubai as “historic” but “not perfect” oddly summed up the conference’s many contradictions quite well.

Failure to reach any form of agreement would have been a body blow to the whole intergovernmental climate process, which is based on incremental baby steps nudging towards consensus.

For me, the most puzzling Irish contribution to Cop28 came from Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) chairwoman Marie Donnelly, where she claimed that Ireland is not a climate laggard and is “keeping pace with other countries”.

A Central Bank report last month showed that Ireland’s per capita emissions are now a whopping 23% higher than the EU average, because of our high emissions agriculture sector, adding that “by global standards, Ireland is an emission-intensive economy”.

It is more than a little surprising that the chair of the CCAC, the very agency charged with leading Ireland on a low-emissions pathway, does not appear to even accept that we have a problem to begin with.

Globally, what ultimately matters is whether tangible progress has been made at Cop28 on the pathway towards keeping global average temperatures increases to below 1.5C and well below 2C.

The short answer is ‘no’, but in a world riven by conflict and divided by the rise of populism and authoritarianism, it remains more vital than ever that we persist with the only mechanism in existence that allows humanity to take a truly global approach to address our ultimate global challenge.

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Seriously, why not just use a rake?

Have to admit that this one has long been a personal bugbear: the petrol leaf-blower. These are the proverbial solution to which there is no known problem, yet they are now so commonplace as to be unremarkable. I filed this piece for the ‘Outdoors’ page of the Irish Examiner in December.

IF YOU HAD TO come up with an invention that is as pointless as it is harmful, you would be hard-pressed to do better than the petrol-powered leaf blower. First of all, there’s the racket. Producing around 100 decibels of noise, a leaf blower is similar to the level of sound produced by a jet aircraft taking off.

Even at a distance of 250 metres, people are exposed to noise levels well above the World Health Organisation’s maximum safe level of 55 decibels. A single leaf blower can disturb an entire neighbourhood, and there are thousands in use across Ireland, by contractors, local authorities and individuals, with little or no oversight on their harmful impacts.

Next year sees the state of California institute a complete ban on petrol leaf blowers; this follows a similar move by Washington DC early last year. Bans are also being considered in cities and municipalities across Europe.

Apart from noise, what makes leaf blowers especially dangerous is that they are powered by small two-stroke engines, that burn a combination of petrol and oil, and in the process produce prodigious levels of air pollution. A study in California found that these two-stroke engines actually produce more smog-producing emissions than all 14 million cars in the state.

Thanks to strict regulations, tailpipe emissions from cars have been sharply reduced in recent decades. However, two-stroke engines are exempted from such regulation. The effects are stark.

In the US, these so-called small off-road engines (SOREs), which include leaf blowers, lawn mowers and chain saws, account for a quarter of all emissions of benzene, a carcinogen, 12% of all nitrogen oxide and 17% of volatile organic compounds.

Research conducted by the California Air Resources Board reached the astonishing finding that just one hour’s use of a petrol leaf-blower creates as much smog-forming pollution as driving a modern mid-sized car about 1,600 kilometres, the equivalent of around 15 hours continuous driving.

In 2019, the German environment ministry issued guidance on the use of leaf blowers, stating they should be only used if “indispensable”. Research in recent years has shown alarming drops in insect populations in Germany, and the ministry added that leaf blowers “can be fatal to insects in the foliage”.

Insects, along with many invertebrates and smaller creatures, use fallen leaves both as a source of shelter and nutrition to help them survive the winter. The jet of air produced by a leaf blower reaches speeds of around 300 km/hr, the equivalent of a lethal hurricane for any small creatures caught in its blast.

Another, less obvious hazard produced by these machines is the dust they stir up and release back into the air a toxic cloud of mould, pollen, animal faeces, fungal spores, heavy metals and residues from pesticides.

The people most at risk from petrol leaf blowers are the operators, especially those employed by contractors, as they are exposed to extremely high noise levels as well as toxic fumes. And while many wear ear protection, it is extremely rare to see an operator in Ireland also wearing breathing apparatus.

Ironically, the recent backlash against leaf blowers dates back to 2020 and the covid lockdown. Many people all over the world were forced to work from home, and came to deeply resent the near-constant noise intrusion of these machines in otherwise quiet neighbourhoods.

With the advent of battery-powered leaf blowers, there are now vastly quieter, cleaner alternatives available to the current two-stroke engines. Washington DC has introduced a rebate programme for small landscaping firms aiming to trade up to electric equipment, while California has set aside a €25 million fund to help contractors buy electric power tools.

While battery-powered leaf blowers greatly reduce both the noise and pollution hazards produced by their two-stroke petrol counterparts, they nonetheless remain environmentally unfriendly in operation, damaging habitats, harming wildlife and stirring up toxic dust clouds.

However they are powered, leaf blowers remain the solution to which there is no known problem. Garden rakes do just as good a job, but without the drama and damage to wildlife. Will it take a little longer to clear a lawn of leaves by rake instead of blower? Yes, but frankly, how many times a year does the average gardener need to do this?

There is of course also an excellent case for leaving leaves exactly where they fall, to slowly decompose and fertilise the soil and provide nutrients and shelter for a plethora of wild critters, just as nature intended, in fact.

The oh-so-human compulsion to tidy up and see everything in neat piles and straight lines is completely at odds with the organised chaos of the natural world. So, forget about that leaf blower…  nature — as well as your neighbours — will thank you for it.

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Do as I say, just not as I do

While it’s easy to finger-wag and point to the failures of others on achieving climate targets, how does Ireland stack up in terms of delivering on its own legally-binging commitments? In short, not very well, as I explained in this Cop28 update piece for the Irish Examiner in December.

IT IS QUITE incredible to consider that, in all 27 of the UN’s Cop climate change conferences held since 1995, never once did they conclude with a recommendation that fossil fuels be phased out, or even a proposed future timeline for this to happen.

It would be akin to hosting an annual international conference on the dangers of smoking that somehow never mentioned cigarettes or the tobacco industry, and had no plans to tax, phase out, or even mildly rein in their use.

Given that fossil fuel burning is far and away the main driver of the climate emergency, this underlines the iron grip this powerful sector has retained over politics. Former Irish president and chair of the Elders, Mary Robinson arrived in Dubai on Friday and wasted no time in demanding that Cop28adopt “clear, unambiguous language to urgently phase out all fossil fuels”.

Robinson’s pre-conference spat with Cop28 president, Sultan Al Jaber, made headlines around the world, and put the hosts, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the back foot, having been publicly embarrassed over Al Jaber’s antediluvian comments that were dismissive both of the science of climate change and Robinson herself.

In plain terms, unless there is international agreement on an urgent roadmap to phase out the use of fossil fuels, including an immediate ban on new exploration, it will be impossible to avoid climate catastrophe.

It really is as simple as that. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of rapid destabilisation of the global climate system happening right now, political system inertia and vested interests keep us locked on a collective course for disaster.

The presence of around 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists at Cop28, quadruple the number who attended last year’s conference, underlines that the industry, with over $5 trillion (€4.6tn) in revenues last year, is gearing up to fight to the bitter end.

Last month was the hottest November ever recorded globally, one of six months this year that broke all-time records. For two days in November, global average temperatures actually breached 2C above pre-industrial, a scenario many scientists thought impossible for at least another decade.

Overall, 2023 is already confirmed to be the hottest year on the global instrumental record, and likely the hottest in millennia. The feet of the world’s climate negotiators are, in a very real sense, to the fire in Dubai. Nothing less than radical action to shift direction will suffice. As climate activist Greta Thunberg memorably put it: “We are out of excuses, and we are out of time”.

While it can seem reassuring for many Irish people to point the finger at the fossil fuel giants as the chief climate villains, the reality is that we too are international laggards. This point was driven home forcefully with the release at Cop28 on Friday of a new report which independently monitors the climate performance of around 90 countries.

Ireland’s rankings tumbled six places to 43rd in the Climate Change Performance Index. Ireland received a ‘medium’ rating for renewable energy and energy use, but was ranked ‘low’ on both climate policy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

It noted that, despite the Government introducing legally-binding carbon budgets in 2022, it lacked a long-term strategy for phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure.

The report also singled out economic growth in emissions-intensive sectors — specifically agriculture and land use — as causing Ireland’s absolute GHG emissions to remain high.

Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue arrived in Dubai on Friday to take part in a series of events. According to a Government statement, “Ireland is a world leader in sustainable foods systems from farm to fork and the minister is using the opportunity to showcase our story as a model for other food producing countries”.

According to a 2017 study published by the European Commission, Ireland produces the largest amount of GHGs per euro of agricultural output of any country in the EU27, while a 2019 study from Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that Irish GHG emissions per kilogramme of milk are the fourth highest in the EU.

As Alan Matthews of Trinity College Dublin noted in 2019, analysis carried out by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that Irish emissions per kilogramme of protein in milk are 50% higher than the average for producers in western Europe as a whole.

Quite what lessons Ireland can share at Cop28 as a self-described “world leader in sustainable food systems” remains to be seen, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is crystal clear on the future of genuinely sustainable food production.

What is needed, according to the IPCC’s 2022 report on climate mitigation, is “a transition towards more plant-based consumption and reduced consumption of animal-based foods, particularly from ruminant animals, which could reduce pressure on forests and land used for feed, and support the preservation of biodiversity and planetary health”.

Major meat producers are heavily represented at Cop28, led by the Global Meat Alliance, an international group that includes an Irish representative.

Efforts are being developed to claim that livestock production can be ‘carbon neutral’ if small reductions in methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced by livestock, are achieved. However, these claims have been rebutted in a recent paper in the journal, Environmental Research Letters, that shows that any claimed ‘cooling’ effect is only temporary and in no way offsets the warming impacts of livestock agriculture.

These industry claims “distract us from the urgent challenge of reducing emissions of all greenhouse gases from all sectors, including agriculture”, according to the paper’s authors.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin announced €50m in support  for climate-related projects for highly vulnerable countries. The amount Ireland is spending on climate finance has doubled since 2015 and is on target to reach €225m by 2025, according to Martin. The Tánaiste also pointed to Ireland’s domestic progress on climate, including our legally-binding 51% emissions reductions target by 2030.

However, the Environmental Protection Agency has already confirmed that this target is dead in the water, with the very best outcome for 2030 now a 29% emissions cut. Martin also stressed Ireland’s commitment to being ‘climate-neutral’ by 2050. However, our failure to meet binding near-term targets puts a major question mark over the likelihood of such objectives being met.

On a positive note, few would doubt the sincerity or commitment of Climate Minister Eamon Ryan to see Ireland square up to the existential challenge of the climate emergency. And, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s contributions seem forced and scripted, the climate penny does seem to have dropped for Micheál Martin.

On the international climate stage, Ireland is fortunate in having the tigerish Mary Robinson as one of the leading players, while President Michael D Higgins has also been a consistent advocate for climate action.

What is less clear is who would pick up the baton for a future government at Cop29 or 30, one presumably led by Sinn Féin? So far, the party has been at best lukewarm, wary perhaps of a rural backlash, real or imaginary, against strong climate action and showing limited engagement with the science.

As we enter the final days of Cop28, the indications are that it is shaping up to be one of the more consequential in recent times, perhaps not yet on the level of Cop21 in Paris but nonetheless an important milestone on an increasingly rocky road to averting climate breakdown.

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Taking the man in charge down a peg or two

The Cop28 conference got off to an eventful start in Dubai, with our own former president grabbing international headlines in her forthright exchanges with the new president of Cop, as I reported in the Irish Examiner in early December.

IT WAS ALWAYS a high risk strategy to entrust the running of the crucial intergovernmental climate negotiations to a petro-state, and then to appoint the boss of its national oil company as president of Cop28. And so it has transpired.

Former Irish president and UN climate envoy, Mary Robinson pressed Al Jaber hard on the conference call, stating: “We’re in an absolute crisis that is hurting women and children more than anyone … and it’s because we have not yet committed to phasing out fossil fuel.”

When Al Jaber brushed off her comments as “alarmist”, Robinson, a lawyer by training, went in for the kill: “I read that your company is investing in a lot more fossil fuel in the future.”

The now-flailing Cop28 president retorted that her information was from “your own media, which is biased and wrong. I am telling you I am the man in charge and it is wrong. You need to listen to me, ma’am…you guys write a lie and you believe it … I’m sorry, get your facts straight, ma’am”

A flustered Al Jaber then fell back on the laziest of climate denier tropes of her “wanting to take the world back into caves.”

Al Jaber gave the distinct impression of not being remotely comfortable at being challenged, least of all by a woman. To say this was an inauspicious lead-in to the Cop28 climate negotiations would be quite the understatement.

At an unscheduled press conference, Al Jaber made a lacklustre attempt to walk back his own comments, while also stating that the “phase-out of fossil fuels is inevitable, in fact it is essential”. He once again inferred the real problem was how they were reported in the media.

His mood was unlikely to have been improved by the recent revelation that the United Arab Emirates was planning to use the Cop28 meeting to conduct negotiations for oil and gas. The line between tragedy and farce is being blurred on a daily basis.

The arrival of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dubai from the outset of the conference appeared to set the tone for Ireland’s engagement with the process at the highest level. However, Varadkar pointedly made his first engagement in Dubai a visit to a large dairy farm.

While not doing any media around the visit, a statement from the Taoiseach said the Al Ain farm is “keen to learn more from Ireland’s expertise in sustainability”. This appears to be an unsubtle political signal to Ireland’s high-emissions livestock sector that they have little to fear from the Cop28 process.

While the UAE hosts were clearly discombobulated by Mary Robinson’s line of questioning, they will have been relieved to hear Leo Varadkar fudge on the need to phase out fossil fuels. At the weekend, he said: “If it’s the case that there are technologies, like carbon capture and storage (CCS) that can be developed … then that achieves the objective”.

The techno-fixes that Varadkar (and climate minister Eamon Ryan) appears to be betting on simply do not exist anywhere on Earth, and for good reason. Adding CCS to any existing fossil fuel facility, such as a power station, is hugely expensive and would make it uneconomic to operate. Oil companies know this because they have already tried.

While CCS is at least possible in theory on a power station, it’s simply impossible to capture carbon from a car’s tailpipe or a central heating system. It may have a very limited role in the future, but betting the house on it today seems reckless in the extreme.

Also over the weekend, the fossil fuel industry pledged to cut methane leaks from their pipelines. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, now responsible for around a third of all global warming. UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the industry’s commitments as “clearly falling short of what is required”.

Ireland, meanwhile, is an oversized producer of methane through our expanded and intensified livestock herd, but is not expected to bring any significant proposals to the Cop conference on reducing methane emissions.

Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue issued a statement outlining what he called the “strong progress of agriculture in meeting climate targets”, yet nowhere in his statement could I find any actual data to support this claim of “strong progress”. Bizarrely, McConalogue refers to “whole-of-economy 51% reduction in emissions by 2030” that are, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, already completely off the table.

This underlines the radical disconnect between the reality of the climate emergency and the anodyne statements by politicians protecting their patch.

What is touted as the biggest win of Cop28 to date is the agreement on a ‘loss and damage’ fund to help poorer countries cope with climate impacts. Commitments to date amount to around €400 million, including €25 million from Ireland. This is barely 0.1% of the estimated annual climate losses topping €400 billion currently hammering the global south.

Little done, lots more to do at Cop28.

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No quick climate techno-fixes at Cop28

November each year sees the annual gathering of the Conference Of the Parties, or Cop, to discuss and agree steps at Intergovernmental level to address climate change. This year’s set piece conference, Cop28, took place in the oil-rich state of the United Arab Emirates. I filed the below piece as the first in a short series for the Irish Examiner just ahead of the opening of the Dubai meeting.

EARLIER THIS week, amid media fanfare, a jet aircraft left London’s Heathrow Airport for New York, a journey that would, according to the UK’s Department for Transport, “make guilt-free flying a reality”.

This is the first such flight, powered entirely by ‘sustainable aviation fuels’, a combination of technologies the industry hopes will help to clean up its image as a major polluter and allay growing public disquiet over sky-high aviation emissions.

The flight was fuelled by around 50 tonnes of substances including tallow and cooking oil, and its timing, just ahead of the opening of the Cop28 intergovernmental climate conference in Dubai on Thursday, was no coincidence.

With 2023 already almost certain to be the hottest year in recorded history—and quite probably the hottest in around 125,000 years—and devastating extreme weather events being witnessed all around the world, the heat is on corporations as well as governments to show that they are, finally, getting serious about tackling the unfolding climate emergency.

In that sense, the Heathrow flight is the perfect metaphor for where we now stand. All the ‘sustainable’ aviation fuel available worldwide would, in total, provide barely one tenth of 1% of the fuel needed for global aviation, and scaling this up dramatically is, experts believe, next to impossible.

But what really matters here are the optics. Images and articles about this supposed ‘breakthrough’ have been published all around the world, allowing the industry to claim that technology will solve the problem of ever-expanding aviation.

You will hear a lot of talk over the coming days from Dubai about techno-fixes for our most acute climate, ecological and biodiversity problems, yet how many sectors are prepared to address the central reality, which is that humanity is over-consuming finite resources and, in the process, heating up the planet dangerously while creating an epic global pollution crisis?

Confidence in this year’s Cop process has not been improved by the fact that the meeting is being hosted by a major oil exporter, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has appointed Sultan Al Jaber, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president of Cop28.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has mandated countries to agree measures leading to an overall 43% reduction in emissions by 2030 (Ireland remains an international laggard, on track for only 29% cuts at most) it has been revealed that the UAE intends to sharply ramp up its oil production in the coming years.

This is hardly the most promising of backdrops for the hosts of Cop28 to be guiding global climate talks. And in recent days, plans by the UAE to use its role as host of the conference to negotiate new oil and gas deals were leaked to the BBC, leaving the distinct impression that the climate fox is now in charge of the henhouse.

The extent to which the global fossil fuel industry is a massive obstacle to climate action is underlined by the recent revelation that just 1% of global investment in renewable energy comes from this sector, despite its vast wealth and energy expertise.

Last year, amid war in Ukraine and soaring energy prices, the fossil fuel industry reported record revenues of $5 trillion, while welching on previous ‘green’ promises. The irony for oil-rich countries such as the UAE is that, if climate action fails, much of the Middle East is projected to be too hot for human habitation later this century.

Despite these formidable setbacks, the Cop process, which has been running every year since 1995, is still critically important in the battle to tackle the climate emergency. This annual meeting is by far the largest intergovernmental gathering, and it serves to put climate change firmly on the political and media agenda at least once a year.

While some Cops produce little of substance, there are also breakthrough years. The last and most significant was in 2015, with the signing of the Paris Agreement. This saw the nations of the world commit to keeping global warming to “well below” the dangerous 2C level, and to work to limit the increase to 1.5C.

These new and much lower emissions limits reflect advances in scientific understanding around the sensitivity of the global climate system to even seemingly minor temperature increases.

One of the key instruments created in Paris was the ‘global stocktake’, a mechanism to assess each country’s progress towards meeting its emissions targets. The first formal evaluation takes place as part of Cop28, and will be used to shape new and more ambitious ‘nationally determined contributions’ from each country.

A United Nations report published in September confirmed that the world is still not on track to meet the Paris Agreement targets on limiting emissions. While this might suggest that the Cop process is a pointless annual jamboree on the scale of Electric Picnic, in reality it has made some concrete achievements.

A decade ago, the IPCC calculated that the world was on track for calamitous warming in the range of around 4C by 2100. This, in simple terms, would be apocalyptic for humans and most of nature. This warming estimate has since been reduced to around 2.5C as a result of actions and commitments made since Paris in 2015.

Without doubt, this remains an extremely dangerous level of global warming, but it is still much less severe than previously feared. Without the Cop process, it is almost inconceivable that progress on this scale could have been achieved.

However, the hellish extreme weather conditions experienced this year across multiple continents, with average global temperatures this year at just under 1.5C, underline how much risk lies ahead as temperatures ratchet to beyond 1.5C and towards 2C in the coming decade and more.

Rising temperatures combined with extreme weather are already pummelling global food production, with around one third of output at risk in the coming decades, according to recent research. For the first time, this year’s Cop will have a full day dedicated to food, water and agriculture.

Global food systems are also among the chief drivers of climate breakdown, with impacts accounting for at least a fifth of total global emissions. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is expected to call for significant cuts in meat and dairy production and consumption in wealthier countries such as Ireland.

No less than cutting fossil fuels, the massive hoofprint of the livestock sector, in terms of land use change, nitrogen pollution and methane emissions has to be significantly trimmed if crucial climate stabilisation and biodiversity goals are to be met. As with the global energy sector, a formidable agri-industrial lobby has to be faced down in the process.

While success can be difficult to gauge in international climate negotiations, what we know for sure is that we cannot afford Cop28 to fail.

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An ill wind that blows no good

Cast your mind forward two decades and into the 2040s, what might Ireland be like by then? Let’s just hope it’s nothing at all like the hellscape vividly painted in Irish author Daniel Mooney’s new novel, which I reviewed for the Business Post in November.

LAST WEEK saw the latest round of near-apocalyptic warnings from the United Nations on the trajectory of climate change, with a “hellish” 3°C average temperature rise later this century now on the cards.

The problem with warnings about future calamities is that we find it all too easy to slough them off as just more distant thunder. As long as this future remains out of sight, it’s also out of mind.

Limerick-based author Daniel J Mooney has been to hell to reconnoitre the terrain, and the bitter fruits of his odyssey are presented in The 14th Storm, a dystopian novel set in Ireland in 2043.

Our once-green and pleasant land is no more. The first of the devastating storm seasons rolled in over the winter of 2026, and laid waste to much of the west coast. The storms returned, year after year, crushing every attempt to rebuild.

Riots, starvation and political chaos quickly followed as Ireland, largely cut off from the world, descended into a brutish new medieval era where every day is first and foremost about finding a way to survive.

The old world of broadband, central heating, foreign holidays and commuting has been scrubbed from view and consigned to a corner of the collective memory known as the Before. Our long-abandoned, half-flooded motorway network is now an ambush zone for unwary travellers.

Government of a sort does still exist in Dublin, but its influence doesn’t extend far beyond the Pale. The remains of cities such as Limerick (with its power from the still-functioning Ardnacrusha generator) and Galway function more as local fiefdoms, complete with strongmen and militias.

The most feared people in the land are the agents employed by the Department of Environmental Justice, known as Doejays. They move swiftly and purposefully through the ruined landscape in search of their prey: climate deniers. Summary justice is dispatched with a knife through the chest.

Mooney’s novel follows the travels of two Doejays, Malley and Broderick. They wade through the blood of strangers to track down their targets. The simmering anger, rage even, propels them forward.

The world of plenty is gone forever. “But it didn’t magically evaporate. It didn’t vanish,” Malley muses. “We didn’t wake up from a dream. It was taken. It was torn from us. And the people who stole it are walking among us.”

Malley is the survivor of a vicious assault and carries deep scars. She is propelled by a sense of justice and has become a ninja-like master of violence. Her Doejay partner Broderick, son of climatologists who tried in vain to raise the alarm, lusts after bloody vengeance against everyone who lied about the climate crisis.

Is it far-fetched that people who denied climate change might be hunted down like war criminals for their collusion in bringing about our collective ruin? At first I found the premise tenuous in the extreme, but within the bleak, brutal landscape Mooney has painted, it did satisfy that most human of urges: to find a scapegoat, and to make them pay.

The setting is suffocatingly local, as if the world beyond our shores had ceased to exist, appearing only in brief allusions. “Stories about people’s blood boiling in their veins by the equator, and the hordes of refugees moving like vast seas of people, seeking colder climes, seeking something more than endless misery; these must surely be exaggerations.”

Mooney’s novel nods in the direction of The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s grim classic, but finds its distinctive voice. The fight scenes (there are many) are visceral and bruising, yet oddly compelling, amid swirling dervishes of fists, knees and blades. The storm itself is portrayed as another menacing character, taunting and howling like a vengeful banshee.

Yet, for most people inhabiting this future Ireland, “there was no more energy left to give life, save for that expended on not dying every day”.

While the storyline is clunky and somewhat disjointed in places, Mooney’s characterisation of his chief protagonist, Malley, in particular, is vivid and memorable. She stayed in my mind long after I’d finished reading, as did the vision Mooney had painted of once-familiar landscapes: our own paradise lost, never to be regained.

The 14th Storm, by Daniel J Mooney; Legend Press, €13.99

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What economists get wrong about climate

Whether or not you believe that the dangerously foolish advice issued by climate economists will in fact kill billions of people this century, there is little doubt that we have been poorly served and grievously misled on the true costs and risks associated with climate change by the economics profession, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in November.

WHILE NOT YET over, 2023 has already delivered some of the most extreme weather conditions in human history. This year is virtually certain to be the hottest since records began. In all probability, 2023 is the hottest year on Earth in about 125,000 years.

While the deterioration in global weather conditions is in line with scientific projections, what is now becoming apparent is that “our societies and ecosystems are  more vulnerable  to even small changes than expected previously, and so the damages are worse”.  That’s according to climate attribution specialist Dr Friederike Otto.

Given this unremitting torrent of bad news from the scientific community, you may be surprised to hear that, in fact, everything is fine, and that economic growth means humanity as a whole will be wealthier, healthier and no doubt happier by the end of the 21st century.

This news came via an article on the website of Chartered Accountants Ireland. Author Cormac Lucey, a finance lecturer and former political adviser to Progressive Democrats’ leader Michael McDowell, decrying the “public hysteria” surrounding the climate debate.

As Lucey recently explained, scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show human welfare “will likely increase to 450% of today’s welfare over the 21st century. Climate damages will reduce this to 434%.”

In other words, climate change is no more than a slight bump on the road towards our ever-improving golden era of human prosperity.

On the one hand, climate scientists warn we face a near-term future of deadly heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, extreme flooding, coastal inundation, mass migration, freshwater shortages, more dangerous storms and major threats to global food production.

Climate economics

On the other hand, climate economists insist there is essentially nothing to worry about, and economic growth will continue even as the world burns, ecosystems fail, the ice shelves collapse, and the global weather system goes haywire.

The fact politicians, media and corporations are far more likely to take their advice from economists than scientists means the dominant messaging being listened to is that yes, climate is an issue, but no, it’s absolutely not a crisis.

Either the scientists or the economists have got this horribly wrong, and no less than the fate of human civilisation is at stake.

The field of climate economics has long been dominated by Prof William Nordhaus — his integrated assessment models have been largely incorporated into the IPCC’s reports, and his influence reaches into universities, financial institutions and boardrooms around the world. His glittering career was capped off with the Nobel prize in economic sciences in 2018.

Yet, in a nutshell, Nordhaus is dead wrong. About almost everything, in fact. According to the IPCC, the world should aim to keep global warming to well below 2C, ideally close to 1.5C, to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change, including multiple irreversible tipping points.

Ignoring the physical sciences, Nordhaus argues the global economy reaches what he calls “optimal adaptation” at between 2.7C and 3.5C — his argument is that it does not make economic sense to try to prevent climate change until it has reached these near-apocalyptic levels.

Any first-year science undergrad will understand that if Nordhaus’s “optimal” world of temperatures rising 3C and more versus pre-industrial comes to pass, it would mean global immiseration, with dying oceans and runaway sea level rise, while famines, conflict and disease sweep away countless millions.

If this is so plainly obvious, how can an eminent climate economist and his many professional acolytes not see it too? As far back as over 30 years ago, a report on graduate education in economics in the US warned the system was turning out “too many idiot savants economists, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues”.

Put simply, they are mathematically gifted but know — or care — almost nothing about how the world beyond their spreadsheets actually functions.

Bizarre assumptions

The model that Nordhaus developed is known as DICE, and it makes some truly bizarre assumptions. It completely excludes climate impacts from 87% of all economic activity on the grounds that it takes place in “carefully controlled environments”, ie indoors.

Vast sectors of economic activity, from manufacturing to transport, real estate, communications and services are therefore assumed to be completely untouched by climate impacts.

To illustrate how grossly mistaken this is, consider that the Panama Canal, one of the world’s most important trade routes, is sharply cutting down the number of ships it can carry, due to record low water levels in Gatun Lake, which is vital for its operation.

While acknowledging that agriculture is highly vulnerable to climate change, Nordhaus argues that since it “only” accounts for 3% of US economic output, a collapse in food production would not be a major crisis. The fact that without adequate food supplies, societies quickly degenerate into economic and social collapse and political chaos did not seem to have occurred to him.

Another key error involves calculating the GDP of a particular location based on its temperature — this fundamentally confuses weather with climate. This is, according to journalist Christopher Ketcham, in The Intercept, “foolishness on a grand scale, and yet it’s central to the Nordhaus model”.

There are other, equally egregious failings in this DICE model, leading Nordhaus’s feted climate projections to be “wildly wrong”, according to former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz.

He co-authored a recent paper with Nicholas Stern, author of the famous Stern Report for the UK government, which concluded that the models Nordhaus uses are “inadequate to capture deep uncertainty and extreme risk”.

Bizarrely, the way Nordhaus calculates the relationship between rising temperatures and GDP is calculated using a quadratic, which means the relationship is smooth, whereas in reality, at certain temperature thresholds, tipping points can be crossed with devastating non-linear consequences.

Pollyanna future

These risks are nowhere to be found in the modelling that economists, financial journalists, pension fund managers and actuaries depend on to calculate the likely costs of climate change. This explains how commentators are able to confidently project a Pollyanna future of endless economic growth and prosperity, and dismiss “climate hysteria” even as the conditions for life on Earth are rapidly unravelling.

Prof Steve Keen of University College London has long been a critic of neoclassical climate economics. The gross negligence of economic modelling by influential figures like Nordhaus “will end up killing billions of people”, he told The Intercept.

Meanwhile, there were renewed warnings from scientists this week that the Amoc, the vast marine current that gives Ireland and north-west Europe its mild climate, may be approaching collapse. Such a scenario would be unimaginably disruptive and dangerous.

Yet, unbelievably, as recently as 2016, a study by three economists pitched the positive benefits of such a catastrophe for the European economy. One of the authors, Richard Tol, was formerly an ESRI economist and is a protégé of Nordhaus. Tol argued in a 2009 paper still available on the ESRI website that “Ireland has little to fear from climate change”.

There are some climate economists who truly grasp the gravity of our situation, but their voices have been largely drowned out by the Panglossian chorus of experts who, as Oscar Wilde once put it, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

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Mitigation, adaptation – or suffering

Years and decades of dithering, denial and inaction mean that the remaining options open to humanity grow more limited and more unpalatable by the day. I explained in this Irish Examiner piece in late October the crucial differences between climate mitigation and adaptation.

“WE BASICALLY have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering”. This is how Barack Obama’s energy advisor, Dr John Holdren, in 2007 memorably set out the stark choices ahead.

However, rather than acting to mitigate the impacts of climate change by urgently reducing emissions, in the 16 years since Holdren’s comments, global levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the powerful heat-trapping gas, have risen by one-tenth. In little more than half a century, one species has fundamentally altered the chemistry of an entire planet.

Atmospheric levels of CO2 are now at their highest in at least three million years. At that time, during the Pliocene Epoch, global sea levels were more than 15 metres higher than today. Earth system inertia has shielded us from the impacts — for now. Nor has humanity any serious intention to slow down or reverse course any time soon.

If you needed any further confirmation that the vague promises being made by governments and corporations about being ‘net zero by 2050’ are meaningless, consider that oil giant Chevron has just paid $50bn to buy out a rival.

This, according to the Financial Times, means Chevron is “doubling down on its bet that demand for fossil fuels will remain robust for decades to come”.

The direct impact on our weather systems of the oil, gas, and coal being burned to power global civilisation is no longer mysterious or abstract. A new branch of science called climate attribution allows experts to calculate in almost real-time the degree to which a specific extreme weather event has been influenced by climate change.

Take, for instance, last month’s deadly flooding event in Libya which claimed at least 11,000 lives. The explosive rainfall that drove this disaster was found to be 50 times more likely to occur than would have been the case in a world without human greenhouse gas emissions, according to analysis by World Weather Attribution experts.

Mitigating climate change is politically unpopular, as it means carbon taxes on fuels, restrictions on flying, and heavy taxes on SUVs, red meat and other energy-intensive but non-essential sectors protected by powerful lobby groups.

As research released this week by the Environmental Protection Agency underlines, most Irish people still think that “others”, including people living in other countries, as well as future generations, will suffer the most.

In short, while we tell pollsters that we support climate action, in reality, we are not yet prepared to trade our present comfort and convenience for the safety or even survival of others, even if it seems that those others are in reality our own children or grandchildren

However, as the recent extreme flooding in the Cork area has reminded us, there are no free lunches when it comes to climate mitigation. If we collectively choose not to limit our high-emissions lifestyles for the common good and our government actively promotes major polluters like the livestock and transport sectors, then the price to be paid is in devastating climate-fuelled events.

While climate mitigation can be thought of as turning down the spigot to limit future damage, adaptation means investing in coping with the dangers we can no longer avoid. For Ireland, flooding is the number one climate risk we face, whether as a result of coastal inundation from rising sea levels or severe flooding events as a result of a supercharged atmosphere.

The impact of extreme precipitation is made worse by land use changes, such as drained bogs and degraded uplands. For Ireland, effective adaptation has to start at source. Overgrazing by sheep and deer of our uplands as well as bog cutting and burning of vegetation leads to rainfall cascading rapidly off mountains and overwhelming lowland settlements.

Similarly, many of our rivers have lost their floodplains to “improvement”, either for poorly located housing developments or drained land for farming. Decades of arterial drainage schemes overseen by the OPW may have been well-intended, but many of these modifications now make us far more prone to flooding disasters as water no longer has the space to harmlessly disperse.

In our warmer, wetter future, this problem will only get worse. While it may be tempting for Irish authorities to look inwards and put all our focus on local solutions such as adapting to manage flooding events, this is only at best a stop-gap approach.

Research published this week states that the giant west Antarctic ice shelf is undergoing accelerated melt. Its complete loss would raise global sea levels by five metres, leading to the abandonment of many of the world’s major coastal settlements and river basins.

Only concerted intergovernmental action on climate mitigation, including a decisive shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewables as well as mainly plant-based diets and more modest lifestyles for those of us in wealthy countries like Ireland, gives us any chance of altering this devastating trajectory.

The choice that now confronts us all is how much climate mitigation we are prepared to support, even if it means some pain in higher costs in the short term. We will also be forced to spend ever more of our available budgets on adaptation and cleaning up the mess when it fails.

Make no mistake: the alternative to strong climate action now is endless suffering later.

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Climate impacts hitting home

The below piece ran as full pages in the Irish Mirror and Irish Daily Star in late October, to mark the UN’s International Day Against Climate Change.

IT IS ALMOST certain that 2023 will be the hottest year globally since records began. In fact, scientists believe this is very likely the hottest year on Earth in the last 125,000 years.

The planet has been racked in a seemingly never-ending sequence of devastating extreme weather events, from record-smashing wildfires in Canada to deadly heatwaves and flooding events.

Up until just last week, many people in Ireland may have believed that extreme weather was not really our problem. Then came Storm Babet, and in its wake, torrential downpours in the Cork area that left the centre of Midleton under water, with over 100 properties damaged.

This all happened because a month’s worth of rainfall fell in less than 24 hours. There is simply no time for the deluges of water to drain away harmlessly. Thankfully, there has been no loss of life. Many other areas have not been so lucky.

Torrential flooding last month killed at least 11,000 people in Libya, while flooding events this year in dozens of countries, including Greece, Turkey, Italy, Serbia, Brazil, Slovenia and Mexico saw multiple fatalities.

Last year was almost as bad. For instance, floods in Germany and Belgium in July 2022 killed more than 220 people and destroyed entire villages.

Scientists have long warned that unless greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning of fossil fuels, were not sharply reduced, the global climate system would begin to become dangerously unstable.

Despite all the political promises, emissions continue to rise, and so too do the incidence of wild weather events. For every one degree rise in global temperatures, the atmosphere can hold an extra 7% of moisture.

This year is set to be 1.5C over pre-industrial temperatures, meaning it’s likely there is around one tenth more rainfall in the skies than half a century ago – and what goes up, must surely come down.

Tomorrow (Oct 24) is International Day Against Climate Change, an event organised by the United Nations (UN), and never has it felt more urgent than this year. As July 2023 was confirmed as the hottest year ever recorded, UN secretary general, António Guterres declared that the era of global warming has ended and “the era of global boiling has arrived”.

“Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning”, Guterres added. Heatwaves have not been confined to land. This year saw a massive marine heatwave covering more than 40 million square kilometres in the North Atlantic, with many of the world’s oceans also experiencing heatwave conditions.

Apart from the threat to marine life, these ocean heatwaves also provide the energy to fuel dangerous storms. Given Ireland’s location, we are potentially in the eye of ever more powerful Atlantic storms making landfall.

The situation is dire, but not yet hopeless. The only way we can avoid seeing ever more intense heatwaves, droughts, storms and flooding events is for wealthy countries like Ireland to take strong action to reduce our high level of emissions.

Ireland now has a higher share of SUVs in its fleet than any other European country; we also fly more than almost any other country on Earth. Many of our homes are poorly insulated and are heated by oil, gas or solid fuels.

Our livestock-based food system is among the most polluting and emissions-intensive forms of agriculture. Most of what our farmers produce is for export markets, while much of what Irish people eat has to be imported, along with huge amounts of fertilizer and millions of tons of animal feed.

As global food production is hit by weather extremes, more and more countries are restricting food exports to ensure they can feed their own populations.

Were Ireland unable to import millions of tons of food, we would have a major crisis, as our current farming system is simply unable to feed our own population.

Ireland has fantastic resources in renewable energy, especially offshore wind, yet many people still don’t seem to understand the urgent need to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to renewables.

Bafflingly, numerous planning applications for solar farms have been rejected by county councils this year, despite their offering a good income to landowners and clean energy for the community.

Maybe this year’s International Day Against Climate Change marks the day you decided to join in the fight for a greener, cleaner and safer future for all?

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Nature holds key to tackling flood risks

Flooding remains Ireland’s top climate vulnerability, and it once again came home to bite in county Cork in October 2023 when the town of Midleton and some surrounding areas were inundated, with millions of euros in damages, but thankfully, no loss of life – this time. I filed the below comment piece for TheJournal.ie in the wake of this event.

NATURE, TO BE commanded, must first be obeyed. This is a lesson that the citizens of a once-notorious flooding blackspot in North Yorkshire took to heart, and it has paid off dramatic dividends.

Between 1999 and 2007, the town of Pickering was flooded four times, with the damage running in to many millions of pounds. The town was refused a £20 million flood defence scheme on the grounds of the cost being too high to protect a limited number of people.

In any event, the large concrete works being proposed would have been an eyesore in a town that depends on tourism income. Instead, they brought in academics and environmentalists as well as experts from the UK Environmental Agency and Forestry Commission to study the root cause of the repeated flooding – water rushing off the nearby hills and dales.

A series of nature-based solutions were developed, including hand-built leaky dams made of logs and branches, as well as planting woodlands and other measures, such as preventing uplands being burned, to slow down and trap rainfall.

Residents of Pickering in North Yorkshire moved living room furniture into the river which runs through the town in 2008 to recreate the scenes they faced in the devastating floods. Alamy Stock Photo

The total cost was £2 million, or one tenth of the cost of the proposed concrete wall for the town centre and the project has been a roaring success. Pickering has remained dry as other towns in the region have been repeatedly inundated by increasingly severe rainfall, fuelled by climate change.

The success of this intervention has since been replicated in other communities in England and Scotland. A project to restore natural Culm grasslands in Devon has for instance seen the land’s ability to retain water increase five-fold.

‘If your town is flooding, it’s too late’

The initial reaction to the flooding disaster in country Cork in recent days has been to focus on ‘hard’ engineering solutions, including demands by some politicians to ‘reform’ the planning system, ostensibly to prevent objections to flood relief schemes.

It is noteworthy that many of the local politicians blaming the planning system for failing to deal with the kind of flooding that has devastated their local areas can often be found to ignore the advice of their own engineers and vote in favour of rezoning land in flood plains for housing.

While there is undoubtedly a role for flood relief schemes in specific areas where high value infrastructure needs to be protected, the political and media clamour to “do something” after the latest flooding disaster sees nature-based solutions being ignored or even blamed as mega-engineering projects are instead rushed through.

As the examples of Pickering and elsewhere have clearly shown, the only truly sustainable long term solution to flooding is to tackle it at source. By the time tens of millions of litres of flood waters are rushing into your town or village, it’s usually too late.

Nature provides the answer

Climate minister Eamon Ryan at the weekend stated that a critical part of how Ireland responds to the worsening threat of extreme rainfall and flooding is to change how we manage our land, including paying farmers to develop new practices that will reduce the amount of excess rainfall sweeping off farmlands and uplands and swamping local towns and communities.

Some of the methods he proposed included planting different species of grasses with deeper root systems that are better able to absorb flooding, as well as developing native forestry and allowing some rewilding.

“It is going to be a case of paying and making sure we have the right incentives so that in the upper catchments particularly you slow the water down, and in that way, reduce the problem in our towns and villages and cities”, Ryan told the Green Party conference at the weekend.

Ireland’s peatlands form excellent natural ‘sponges’ to absorb torrential downpours, especially in the flood-prone midlands. However, decades of industrial peat extraction have damaged and degraded much of this natural bulwark against flooding.

The government’s Climate Action Plan 2023 identifies peatland rehabilitation as offering “increased natural capital, enriched biodiversity and improved water quality and flood attenuation”.

The overall target is to rehabilitate 77,600 hectares of boglands by 2030. The absolute value of this work in terms of reducing the likelihood of devastating flooding events should become clearer over time.

For many decades, the Office of Public Works (OPW) has implemented arterial drainage schemes, which have included dredging and straightening rivers and tributaries and ‘protecting’ farmlands in flood plains from being routinely inundated.

While this may at one time have seemed like a good idea, the simple fact is that water has to go somewhere. If we prevent rivers from spreading into their natural floodplains during times of flooding, and if land management practices are degrading the ability of our uplands to retain rainfall, the water is instead being pushed downstream, with entirely predictable consequences.

The drainage of bogs and wetlands and the ‘improvement’ of lands, as well as allowing housing to be built on floodplains is picking a fight with nature, and it’s a fight that we will lose, every time.

Farmers whose lands are likely to be flooded as a result should of course be compensated via agri-environmental schemes, but it is infinitely cheaper to allow water to spread into its natural floodplains than have it canalised and then smash into our towns and cities, with devastating consequences.

This is not a drill

In 2023, the planet has warmed by around 1.5C versus pre-industrial. This temperature shift means the atmosphere is now capable of holding around 10% more water than a century ago. This is the largest shift in the global hydrological cycle since the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago.

Warming oceans are providing the fuels for powerful storms and the warmer atmosphere is now delivering more intense deluges, both in Ireland and across Europe and much of the world, than have been witnessed in centuries.

According to climate scientists at the Irish Centre for High End Computing, more flooding is probably the “biggest change” Ireland will experience by the 2050s.

Basing your entire flood defence strategy around building concrete barriers assumes you know exactly how much flooding you are trying to defend against.

If for instance tens of millions of euros are invested in building, say a town’s defences to cope with 2-3 metres of peak flooding, the scope for a tragedy should this town be hit by a 4-metre event that breaches these defences and places the people behind them at real risk of drowning.

As global temperatures continue to rise, these scenarios are already playing out, in real time, right across the world. The smart move is to work with nature, not against it, but are our politicians and engineers open-minded enough to listen?

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Planetary lines we shouldn’t cross

I filed this piece with Village magazine in October, charting the growing number of critical planetary boundaries that have now been breached, and why this matters.

ON ANCIENT mariners’ maps, areas of uncharted waters were often marked with illustrations of dragons and other mythological creatures to signal to the unwary that dangers lay ahead.

The modern equivalent of ‘Here be dragons’ is a project which began in the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009, with the aim of graphically mapping the nine key ‘planetary boundaries’ beyond which the dragons of ecological disaster lay in wait.

There have been two major updates on the original 2009 report, the latest of which was published this summer. The multidisciplinary team that carried out the research underpinning the report looked at climate change, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, changes in the use of land and fresh water and the presence of the elements nitrogen and phosphorus.

Nothing was viewed in isolation; in dynamic Earth systems, every element interacts in complex and sometimes unexpected ways with every other element. “It’s pretty alarming: We’re living on a planet unlike anything any humans have seen before”, according to Jonathan Foley, director of Project Drawdown, who was involved in the original research.

Briefly, this year’s update established that six of these critical boundaries for the maintenance of a stable climate system and overall integrity of the biosphere have now been breached, with two others approaching the red zone.

Only one of the nine boundaries is currently considered to be in stable and satisfactory condition, and ironically, this is global ozone. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, damage to the stratospheric ozone layer was first of all established theoretically, then by observations, leading to a huge public reaction and strong and concerted intergovernmental action.

This was spearheaded by the US, culminating in the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987 and the rapid phasing out of CFCs, the seemingly inert man-made chemicals that were wreaking havoc in the upper atmosphere.

Make no mistake, we had a narrow escape. Had that action not been taken then, much of the southern hemisphere in particular would by now be bathed in deadly levels of ultraviolet radiation.

Among the most severely critical boundary breaches now occurring are as a result of the overuse of nitrogen and phosphorus, primarily as fertilizers. These chemicals are devastating many of the world’s waterways, leading to algal blooms and oxygen-free dead zones.

In Ireland, the toxic effects of nutrient overload into our waterways are becoming ever more apparent. Lough Neagh, the vast lake in Northern Ireland, is severely damaged as a result mainly of runoff from agriculture, as well as raw sewage and other contaminants.

Similar blooms are being reported across Irish lakes and estuaries, a situation that has notably worsened since the abolition of dairy quotas in 2015 and the subsequent rush to intensify industrial-scale dairying operations, using our political leverage at EU level to allow thousands of Irish farmers a derogation to exceed the EU’s scientifically established maximum safe limits for nitrates.

The overloading of the global atmosphere with powerful heat-trapping gases, mainly carbon dioxide and methane, means we have fundamentally altered the chemistry of the atmosphere of an entire planet, and this is playing out, as predicted, in ever more extreme weather events, from droughts, heatwaves and flooding events to more powerful storm systems.

The ferocious summer of 2023, which has seen devastating impacts across much of the northern hemisphere, is a harbinger of a far more dangerous future, with rising sea levels, coastal inundation and killer heatwaves and flooding disasters that force the permanent abandonment of entire regions.

While life is about to become much more precarious and difficult for many millions of people, human impacts have already laid waste to much of the natural world, pushing tens of thousands of species into extinction and drastically reducing both the numbers and range of millions more.

This is the planetary boundary known as ‘biosphere integrity’ and the world’s genetic diversity has been severely depleted as a result of human actions. The current extinction rate is thousands of times higher than the natural or ‘background’ extinction rate. A key driver of extinction has been the destruction of ecosystems and their sequestration for agriculture, fishing, mining, fossil fuel extraction and commercial forestry.

Another boundary that has been smashed is termed ‘novel entities’. This innocuous phrase describes the witches’ brew of tens of thousands of toxic artificial chemicals, from plastics and pesticides to PFAs, the so-called “forever chemicals” that have been casually unleashed into the biosphere.

Even in the relatively well regulated European Union, around 80% of man-made chemicals are brought into use with little or no testing or true understanding of their long-term impacts.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, breaching one critical planetary boundary is unfortunate; to breach six is beginning to look like carelessness.

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When it gets too hot, things die

Heat is a silent, stealthy killer. As climate change accelerates, the regions in the world becoming too hot for human habitation or even survival are set to expand rapidly. US journalist Jeff Goodell has been on the climate beat for decades and I filed this review of his book for the Business Post in October.

THE HARSHEST truth about life on a rapidly heating planet is this: “as temperatures rise, a lot of living things will die, and that may include people you know and love”. This is how environmental journalist Jeff Goodell sets out his stall.

Heat is a stealthy but relentless killer. As temperatures rise, “the sun feels like the barrel of a gun pointed at you. Plants look like they’re crying. Birds vanish from the sky…the air smells burned.”

Extreme heat, Goodell writes, is an entirely human artifact, “a legacy of human civilisation as real as the Great Wall of China”. In publishing, timing is everything. His book, ’The heat will kill you first’ has been propelled to the top of the US bestseller list as its release coincided with scorching temperatures worldwide. 2023 is on target to be the hottest year ever recorded globally.

There is a paradox at the heart of our relationship with heat. For those of us living in cooler climes like Ireland, the arrival of a heatwave is treated like an unofficial national holiday. News media persist in illustrating stories about dangerous heatwaves with images of people sunning themselves on the beach.

“The way we communicate about extreme heat is often distorted by nostalgia for a climate that no longer exists”, Goodell’s eminently readable book argues. “Part of this distortion has to do with the simple fact that people love warm weather”.

For the last several thousand years, Earth has enjoyed a remarkably stable climate, which scientists describe as ‘Goldilocks’ conditions – not too hot, not too cold. This era is now at an abrupt end.

The benign conditions that allowed agriculture to flourish are also disappearing. As global temperatures rise, yields of food staples such as wheat and rice decline. Livestock are vulnerable too. In the summer of 2022, thousands of cattle in feed lots in Kansas died as a result of extreme heat.

The spectre of hunger is returning. In 2019, around 145 million people worldwide faced acute food insecurity. By last year, that number had almost trebled, to 345 million.

In the US, some 30 million acres of land is given over to growing crops to fuel cars and trucks, while globally, aquifers are being pumped dry, often to grow water-intensive crops such as alfalfa to feed to cattle.

Until relatively recently, it was considered impossible to establish whether any specific extreme weather event could be definitively linked to climate change. That is no longer the case. The new science of extreme event attribution allows almost real-time assessments to be made.

“Extreme event attribution is the first science ever developed with the court in mind”, according to climatologist, Dr Friederike Otto, a pioneer in this field. Asked if she thought companies like ExxonMobil could ever be held liable in a court for deaths in an extreme heat wave, Otto replied: “Not only can I imagine it, I believe it will happen sooner than you think”.

Higher global temperatures are a boon for many species humans regard as dangerous pests, such as mosquitoes, and with them, tropical diseases like malaria and dengue are sweeping northwards.

Pine beetles are thriving in warming climates. For them, “the heat was like guzzling Red Bull. Their metabolism revved up and they moved like a marauding army through thousand-acre stands of Jeffrey pines”.

For Goodell, who has spent decades covering the environmental beat and is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, global warming “is the great story of our time, one that I feel privileged to tell. Yes, it gets dark sometimes, but it is also endlessly inspiring”.

Goodell’s taut, accessible journalistic style infuses the narrative with urgency, sweeping the reader from crisis to crisis while also relating the human stories of the marginalised, such as migrants and farm labourers, who are bearing the brunt of the suffering as the mercury ratchets up relentlessly.

Various adaptations are being explored in a bid to cope with rising temperatures, from air conditioning to moving food production under glass, but Goodell cautions that unless we drastically cut the fossil fuel emissions driving this crisis, all will ultimately be in vain.

“In the end, there’s no getting around the laws of physics and biology. When it gets too hot, things die. That’s just how it works”.

The Heat Will Kill You First
By Jeff Goodell
Little, Brown, $29

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Green shoots of climate progress appear

Budget 2024 was announced in mid-October and was, by any stretch, a very good day for the Greens in government. Despite being the perennial butt of political and media jokes, they have by and large kept their heads down and beavered away quietly on delivering an ambitious change agenda. I filed this comment piece for the Irish Examiner.

THE TRUE significance of Budget 2024 from an environmental point of view may be best understood by looking at our recent past. Over the last two decades, Ireland’s collective response to the emerging climate and biodiversity crises has been, at best, piecemeal and at worst, recklessly negligent.

This can be most clearly illustrated by considering the fate of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the agency charged with managing all the State’s extensive natural amenities, as well as policing crimes against wildlife. In 2008, its budget was €46.6 million, but the Fine Gael-led coalition gutted the organisation as part of its post-crash austerity programme, with funding falling by 70% to just €14 million by 2011.

While the NPWS was by no means the only State agency to see its funding slashed, the severity of the cuts were indicative of an indifference bordering on hostility to nature protection that seemed to have been the zeitgeist of the time.

This was best captured by then agriculture minister, Simon Coveney’s declaration in April 2015 that aggressive expansion plans for the Irish dairy sector should not be constrained by petty concerns over emissions or pollution. “Nobody in the Irish administration ever suggested that agriculture was going to reduce emissions long term”, was Coveney’s remarkably candid assessment at the time.

Elections matter. The arrival of a cohort of 12 Green Party TDs into government in 2020 was on the back of the huge climate marches of the previous year and indicated that public anxiety about environmental issues had nudged from the fringes and was moving slowly towards the heart of political decision-making.

The centrepiece of Budget 2024 from an ecological standpoint is undoubtedly the Infrastructure, Climate and Nature Fund, which is due to reach €14 billion by 2030, rising in annual increments of €2 billion, using a portion of our windfall in corporate taxes.

Within this fund, according to finance minister, Michael McGrath, there is a climate and nature component worth over €3 billion, which will be available for projects between 2026-2030. The funds will be invested and managed by the National Treasury Management Agency and subject to State audit.

By any standards, this is a massive win for the Greens, who had watched much of the progressive environmental agenda developed during their first stint in government from 2007 to 2011 being quickly eviscerated. Recession-proofing this fund and placing it beyond the whims of the next minister or administration is seen as a way of firewalling major climate investment projects well into the next decade.

“This could be the turning point we’ve waited for,” commented ecologist Pádraic Fogarty. “This is serious money, over the longer term, to deliver real changes, for farmers and for communities”.

In introducing the government’s climate measures, it was heartening to see Minister McGrath frame them in their wider context. “In recent weeks and months, we have again seen the devastating impact of climate change on communities across the globe. Extreme heatwaves, droughts and wildfires have swept many parts of the world, and 2023 is now virtually certain to be the warmest year since records began in the mid-1800s.”

It is doubtful that many of the TDs who gathered to listen to the budget speech can have remembered heading into the Dáil in their shirt sleeves in mid-October as temperatures remained eerily high in recent days, well above 20ºC in a month where the average high temperature is just 13ºC. However pleasant, an October heatwave in Ireland is as ominous as it is unexpected.

Despite what the naysayers would have us believe, the green transition is in fact gathering pace in Ireland. Last month, fully electric cars were the single biggest seller in Ireland, with over 26% of sales, outselling either diesel or petrol models for the first time. This trend is only going in one direction, and the budget extended VRT relief on EVs up to the value of €50,000 until the end of 2025.

A few years ago, the idea of solar panels being commonplace on Irish homes would have sounded fanciful. However, a combination of high electricity prices and the recent removal of VAT on solar panels has seen their uptake more than double in 2023.

The budget also doubled to €400 the amount of tax-free income a homeowner can earn by selling surplus electricity back to the grid, as well as sensibly removing VAT on solar panels for schools. Apart from producing free electricity, school solar installations could present a valuable practical learning opportunity for children on the clean energy transition.

The government’s budget for energy transformation, including retrofitting, is now approaching half a billion euros, including €380 million for residential and community schemes operated by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).

This cost is fully funded by carbon tax revenues. Like them or not, carbon taxes really do work. By gradually raising the price on highly polluting products and using the revenues to make cleaner, greener alternatives affordable, they ease the pain of the energy transition while sending a clear longer term signal to the market that clean energy is the only game in town.

Environment and climate minister, Eamon Ryan describes Ireland’s home retrofitting plan as “one of the most ambitious in Europe”, with around 40,000 home energy upgrades due to be completed this year. Assuming the momentum is maintained and even modestly increased, this could see half a million Irish homes receive a significant energy upgrade in the next 10 years or so.

Ireland’s big opportunity over the next decade is in rapidly scaling up our renewable energy production, including onshore and offshore wind as well as solar power.

Fossil fuel interests are fighting an intense rear-guard action to try to scupper this transition. They are dangling such nebulous prospects as ‘clean gas’ and HVO (hydrogenated vegetable oil) as alternatives to oil and gas.

In reality, these create more problems than solutions, and are little more than a distraction from the serious business of electrifying transport, home heating and much of our industrial sectors.

While it tends to grab fewer headlines, the scale of changes being rolled out mean that key bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the SEAI, NWPS and the Department of Environment and Climate need not just funding but also the skilled staff to ensure that political plans get implemented.

And, after years of chronic underfunding and political neglect, nature and heritage protection has come roaring back. Junior minister Malcolm Noonan secured €166 million for built and natural heritage, which included a €67.5 million budget for the NWPS, up 28% on last year, and more than quadrupled since the dark days of a decade ago.

For a country that trades internationally on its ‘green’ reputation, the political hostility to nature and biodiversity protection and willingness to coddle vested interests has long been a source of national shame. We can and must do better, much better.

Long after Budget 2024 is a footnote in the history books, it’s likely that the visionary and potentially game-changing Infrastructure, Climate and Nature Fund will be what it’s best remembered for.

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The hazards of homicidal pragmatism

Whatever you may think of the Catholic Church (I’m certainly not a fan), it’s hard to dispute the fact that the current pope is unlike any of his predecessors. As I explained in the Irish Examiner in October, he has once again emerged as a genuine global leader on demanding action on the climate emergency, and, this time out, has even socked it to climate deniers, so what’s not to like? 

IN HIS YOUTH, Pope Francis was an accomplished amateur boxer. And, with a master’s degree in chemistry, the science-literate pontiff has brains as well as brawn.

The first-ever pope from the global south, Francis also brings the perspective of the colonised and the dispossessed to the job, something that had been notably missing from the corridors of power.

Eight years ago, he published a 200-page encyclical, titled Laudato Si. It was a hard-hitting appeal for urgent action to address the global climate and biodiversity crisis, to arrest what he called the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem”.

He also roundly rejected bare-knuckle capitalism and trickle-down economics as a “failed theory”. His ecological plea came wrapped in a warning: “Destroy creation and creation will destroy us”.

While it can be difficult to gauge the precise effect of such an intervention, it was timed to influence the COP15 climate conference in Paris.

Whether or not it was a coincidence, the Paris Agreement in late 2015 was the biggest breakthrough in climate diplomacy in the last two decades.

Now, Francis is back in the ring. His new encyclical, titled Laudate Deum (Praise God) pulls no punches in setting out the scale of the existential crisis we now face, while ripping into those who have stymied decisive action on the climate emergency, putting humanity in grave danger in the process.

“The world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point,” he stated, deploying a clarity of language rare among world leaders, but striking a similarly strident tone as that being adopted by UN secretary-general, António Guterres.

The timing of his latest intervention is an unapologetic attempt to influence the COP28 climate negotiations being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a petro-state.

“Despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue, the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident.”

He singled out the corrosive role of climate denial: “In recent years, some have chosen to deride these facts. They bring up allegedly solid scientific data, like the fact that the planet has always had, and will have, periods of cooling and warming” to misrepresent the science.

“In order to ridicule those who speak of global warming, it is pointed out that intermittent periods of extreme cold regularly occur,” Francis noted.

The 86-year-old pontiff’s grasp of scientific nuance and understanding of detail around the climate emergency would put many a newspaper editor, political correspondent or senior broadcaster to shame.

Striking to the nub of the issue, he stated: “Regrettably, the climate crisis is not exactly a matter that interests the great economic powers, whose concern is with the greatest profit possible at minimal cost and in the shortest amount of time”.

The pope’s timing is serendipitous. The release of his encyclical coincided with news that September 2023 has been confirmed as the hottest September ever recorded, a record it now shares with June, July, and August of this year.

Worse, the sudden spike in September temperatures, rising an unprecedented 0.5C over the previous record, has stunned even climate scientists.

University of Reading climatologist, Ed Hawkins summed up the general reaction among experts as follows: “Surprising. Astounding. Staggering. Unnerving. Bewildering. Flabbergasting. Disquieting. Gobsmacking. Shocking. Mind boggling.”

We appear to be perilously close to a drastic shift in the Earth’s climate system or, as the pope put it, there is “the real possibility that we are approaching a critical point”, adding that while we are now unable to halt the “enormous damage we have caused, we barely have time to prevent even more tragic damage”.

While addressing climate and biodiversity issues is often framed in technocratic terms, in reality it is in essence a moral question.

Humans have unleashed god-like power with which to lay waste to much of the natural world, but the carnage is often hidden.

“The ethical decadence of real power is disguised thanks to marketing and false information, useful tools of those with greater resources to employ them to shape public opinion,” Francis says.

Without a revolution in thought that re-frames humanity as a part of nature and operating within its boundaries, there is little hope of avoiding an epic global tragedy. The current dependence on techno-fixes is, he added, “a form of homicidal pragmatism”.

He noted that those who speak up for nature are derided by the powerful and “subject to ridicule by economic interests”, but they are nonetheless on the right side of history. He faces “dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions, even within the Catholic Church”.

This is certainly borne out in Ireland, where some of the most strident attacks on environmental defenders and climate activists comes from commentators and politicians who make great play of their Catholic faith, while feeling free to discard the Pope’s teachings when it conflicts with their own ideology.

The ecological crisis is an existential emergency, challenging everything it means to be human, and profoundly questioning our place in the world.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, if any, what Francis has to say has never felt more urgent.

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