Best of times, worst of times

The annual ritual of seeing whether the famous Doomsday Clock moves closer to or further from midnight took a worrying turn this year, as it inched to its closest point to the witching hour in the last 75 years, in response to a confluence of events and escalating risks, as I described in the Irish Examiner in early February.

“IT WAS THE best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens wrote in 1859. “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”.

Today, a century and a half later, his opening lines from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ still ring true. There are more people alive now than at any other time in history, and more are living free from the shackles of abject poverty, hunger, disease and early death than ever before.

By many objective measures, especially for those of us in prosperous, stable countries like Ireland, these are indeed the very best of times. We enjoy levels of personal freedom, material wealth, comfort and physical well-being almost unimaginable even to our grandparents’ generation.

Paradoxically, we also live in an age of foolishness and incredulity, that threatens to propel humanity into an endless winter of despair. Last week, a panel of international scientists who maintain the so-called Doomsday Clock, moved its hands ominously forward, to 90 seconds to midnight.

The clock was first established by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, just two years after the devastating killing power of nuclear weapons was first unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For the first time in history, humanity was now a planetary force, capable of triggering a global catastrophe on a par with an asteroid strike. Such god-like power should come with commensurate responsibility, and the Doomsday Clock was set up as a stark visual reminder of the limits of our power.

In the three-quarters of a century since then, the clock has ticked back and forth in synch with the ebb and flow of world events. In 1953, it moved to two minutes to midnight following the test detonation of the devastatingly powerful hydrogen bomb. That had, in the assessment of the scientific panel, been our most dangerous moment — until now.

Nuclear concerns

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is the principal reason for the unprecedented pessimism in 2023. Vladimir Putin’s bellicose rhetoric since then has included repeated thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons. This was repeated in recent days by former Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, who warned darkly that his country’s defeat in Ukraine could lead to a nuclear strike by Russia.

The Russian invasion has also severely damaged international efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. Ukraine handed over its entire Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to the Russian Federation under a 1994 treaty signed in Budapest in which Russia, the US and Britain solemnly agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”.

Many in Ukraine and beyond are wondering if the only true deterrent to an aggressive neighbour is to have your own nuclear weapons. Russia’s recklessness extends to what the scientists call its “violation of international protocols and risking of the widespread release of radioactive materials” in its capture of the nuclear reactor sites at Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl.

With the heightened risk of an intentional or accidental nuclear incident, “the possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high”, the report warned.

Climate crisis

While the nuclear risk remains binary – it may or may not happen – the Doomsday Clock has in recent years also been tracking the climate crisis with growing alarm.

The war in Ukraine has occurred at the worst possible moment as it “undermines global efforts to combat climate change…and has led to expanded investment in natural gas exactly when such investment should have been shrinking”, the report warned.

As a uniquely global crisis, effective efforts to tackle the climate emergency “require faith in multilateral governance”, which the scientists say has been weakened by the “geopolitical fissure opened by the invasion of Ukraine”.

Having stumbled in the past into dangerous nuclear stand-offs, the hope is that once again sense will prevail and a nuclear disaster will be avoided. However, the climate crisis is an altogether different threat. Here, for a cataclysm to unfold simply requires that the international community fails to act in line with the science.

Division, disinformation, social media-fuelled polarisation and the resurgence of political extremism all undermine our faith in science and reason at the very moment in human history when we need to come together like never before.

Posted in Global Warming, Nuclear | Leave a comment

Spreading a deadly smokescreen of disinformation

Long before the fossil fuel industry began using its money and influence to spread doubt and disinformation about the climate crisis, the book on how to dupe and deceive the public by peddling doubt had been practically written by the tobacco industry and its PR advisers, as I discussed in this Irish Examiner piece in January.

AS RECENTLY as two or three decades ago, cigarette smoking was part and parcel of life. People lit up indoors, in cars, pubs and on public transport, even aircraft. In fact, the GAA All-Stars awards were sponsored by PJ Carroll until 1978.

Posters, billboards and media sponsorship normalised a product whose manufacturers had known for decades kills one in two smokers. Slowly at first, then quickly, the smoke cleared and cigarettes were pushed almost completely out of the public domain.

All advertising and sponsorship is now banned, as is smoking indoors. Even in retail outlets, the packaging has to be hidden from public view. This dangerous substance, while not illegal, has lost its social licence.

The efforts by the industry to sow doubt and confusion in the public mind regarding overwhelming medical evidence of the dangers of smoking is known as the ‘tobacco strategy’, and it helped delay regulation by decades.

This campaign of systematic deceit came to a crashing halt in 1998, when the industry was ordered to pay a whopping $368bn in compensation to the US government over the following 20 years, and was forced to disband its elaborate pro-tobacco PR and lobbying operations.

Similarly, the global fossil fuel industry has known since at least the 1970s that continued wide-scale use of their products would lead to dangerous and potentially catastrophic climate change.

A newly published review of internal research produced by oil giant Exxon from 1977-2003 found that the firm’s own scientists had accurately calculated that global temperatures would rise by 0.2C per decade, a rate of change unprecedented in thousands of years.

Exxon and other fossil fuel industry leaders suppressed the data and instead invested heavily in spreading disinformation and funding attacks on legitimate climate science, with the aim of stymieing the transition to clean energy.

The results of this massive deception are becoming ever more apparent, as average global surface temperatures have already climbed by 1.2C above pre-industrial, fuelling deadly heatwaves, droughts, unprecedented flooding events and rising sea levels.

Last August, France became the first country in Europe to ban adverts for fossil fuels, with natural gas ads being outlawed later this year. The Dutch capital Amsterdam went a step further last year, banning all advertising from fossil fuel firms, including cars and aviation.

Irish regulations

Attitudes as well as regulations in Ireland are lagging far behind. Not only are there no restrictions on conventional advertising, national broadcaster RTÉ allows a company selling oil-fired boilers to sponsor, of all things, its weather forecast while NewsTalk’s weather bulletins are sponsored by an airline.

Texaco, owned by Valero Energy, sponsors a long-running children’s art competition, which delivers a bonanza of soft-focus coverage for the company every year. Texaco also runs a competition where sports clubs compete for funding. Such clubs are “the heart and soul of the community”, according to Valero Energy. Well-known former rugby player Donncha O’Callaghan is the “ambassador” of this sponsorship.

Independent think tank ‘Lobby Map’ gave Valero Energy a dire E-minus rating on climate, noting that it “appears to be lobbying negatively on US climate change policy … it demonstrates limited top-line communication on climate policy and has engaged in opposition to specific policies”.

This view was shared by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which rated Valero among the top firms with an “obstructionist” policy on climate action.

Back in 2007, my then four-year-old was a prizewinner in the Texaco children’s art competition. In hindsight, this is something we both regret today. I have long felt slightly guilty about having my family co-opted into Texaco’s greenwashing activities.

In the intervening decade and a half, the evidence of the devastating impacts of fossil fuel emissions, and the revelations about the ongoing role of the industry in deceiving the public and evading responsibility for the havoc their business model is creating is simply overwhelming.

Last July, the Irish Museum for Modern Art took the principled decision to end all involvement with the Texaco children’s art competition.

 What is needed next is for local and national media, as well as schools, to boycott the event, which is simply a PR vehicle for an industry that endangers the lives and future well-being of these same young people.

At Davos this week, UN secretary general, António Guterres slammed an industry that knows “full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival … like the tobacco industry, those responsible must be held to account.”

 This is only the beginning. Student activists in New Zealand and the UK have petitioned the International Criminal Court in the Hague, under Article 15 of the Rome Statute, asking the court to open an investigation into British Petroleum, seeking prosecutions and reparations. The charge: climate crimes against humanity.

While it may seem far-fetched to portray the entire fossil fuel sector as a vast conspiratorial enterprise, consider the industry-supported backlash. In the UK, the Tories have railroaded through a vile Public Order Bill that criminalises climate and trade union protests, and aims to label peaceful climate activists as “terrorists” — a draconian move straight from the playbook of Putin’s Russia.

Don’t be fooled by the touchy-feely spin: this industry is not your friend.

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Bracing for the coming climate refugee crisis

The millions of people displaced by wars and conflict in the 20th century and in the early part of this century are likely to be eclipsed by a vast waves of forced migration in the decades ahead, as rising temperatures, droughts, desertification and coastal inundation render more and more places virtually uninhabitable. Yet little real thought has gone into how societies around the world will cope with this coming human tsunami, as I explored in the Business Post in January.

ALTHOUGH World War II ended in 1945, tens of millions of refugees displaced by the conflict continued to seek safety and shelter for years after the fighting stopped. This humanitarian disaster, which affected well over 50 million people in Europe alone, spurred the creation of the UN Refugee Convention in 1951.

The convention established the fundamental rights of refugees for the first time, and was a key element in resolving the crisis. The convention was designed to protect those fleeing violence or persecution, and today it covers the more than 60,000 Ukrainian refugees now in Ireland to escape the Russian invasion.

As the Ukrainian, Syrian and other conflicts illustrate, the spectre of war remains an ever-present threat. However, this issue is already being rapidly eclipsed by the ever-increasing flow of climate refugees.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, at least 55 million people were forced from their homes in 2020 – with extreme weather events accounting for three times more displacement than violent conflicts.

Roderic O’Gorman, the Minister for Integration, provoked controversy recently when he backed the extension of the asylum process here to include those fleeing their homes as a result of climate and ecological breakdown. Ivana Bacik, the Labour leader, supported O’Gorman’s call and said that, internationally, the grounds for granting asylum need to be extended to include climate-related forced migration.

Cross-border migration is inevitably a politically sensitive issue, one that extremists are keen to exploit. Far-right activists last week orchestrated noisy protests outside an accommodation centre for refugees in Ballymun, and before that in East Wall.

The irony of Irish protesters demanding that non-nationals be thrown out belies the fact that at least one in six people born in Ireland now live abroad. The Department of Foreign Affairs estimates that over 1.4 million Irish citizens are resident outside the state, excluding people in Northern Ireland. By the warped logic of the far-right, they too should be ejected from their new homes and forced to return to Ireland.

While those fleeing war and persecution enjoy clear legal protections, the same does not apply to the ever-increasing number of climate refugees, and “there is no consensus on how to legally define them”, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). It notes that amending the 1951 convention would require adding a specific protocol aimed at defining the term ‘climate refugee’.

In 2018, the UN Human Rights Council described climate refugees as “the world’s forgotten victims”, as they are unable to access even basic human rights or legal protection against deportation. A more recent report issued by the White House added that current legal options for refugees “do not readily lend themselves to protect those individuals displaced by the impacts of climate change”.

Another option, according to the CFR, is to create an entirely new convention. We are, after all, in a radically new situation, facing a tsunami of refugees in the coming years and decades that will dwarf even the massive population dislocation caused by world war.

A recent scientific study projected that, by 2070, one in three humans would be living with temperatures as hot as the hottest part of the Sahara desert today. These are, the report stressed, “unliveable conditions”, not just for humans, but also for livestock and most crops.

For the last 6,000 years or so, humans have existed and thrived in a surprisingly narrow climatic window, mostly in areas with a mean average temperature in the range of 11°C to 15°C. Our food and agriculture systems have all been optimised for this niche.

A third of the global population now face unbearable mean average temperatures of around 29°C in the coming decades, assuming global warming is allowed to continue to escalate. This means the forced migration of perhaps one billion people by 2050, rising towards three billion within a decade or two, as almost one fifth of the world’s habitable land surface becomes simply too hot for human habitation. In stark contrast, today only around 1 per cent of land is unbearably hot.

“Global warming will affect ecosystems as well as human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply and economic growth”, the researchers noted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In these circumstances, much of Africa, Australasia and South and Central America will be largely abandoned as a result of extreme climatic conditions leading to intense droughts, heat waves, floods and famines and the rapid spread of communicable diseases.

Globally, 260 million people are living in coastal areas at risk from rising sea levels, the bulk of whom are in poorer countries. However, a rise in sea levels of two metres or more would have devastating impacts much closer to home, with densely populated parts of Dublin, Cork, Galway and many other coastal settlements facing abandonment.

This point was driven home by junior minister Patrick O’Donovan last November. “There will be people in this country that will become migrants because of changes to the coast, changes to inland areas, that just simply cannot be protected,” he said.

Experts note that while climate-fuelled weather disasters are ratcheting up, there is also a domino effect at play. For instance, rising temperatures can reduce access to safe water, which leads to the spread of disease and drought, which trigger crop failures and famine, leading to political instability and conflict.

This was seen most vividly with the drought that devastated Syria from 2006 to 2010. It led to 85 per cent of the country’s livestock dying, and caused an exodus from rural areas into already crowded cities. This was one of the key triggers in the ongoing Syrian civil war, a conflict that has created more than six million refugees and in turn arguably aided the rise of far-right Trumpism in the US and the Brexit movement in Britain.

As we approach the second quarter of the 21st century, the scene is set for a confluence of humanitarian, political and refugee crises on a scale never before witnessed. The United Nations projects that rising temperatures will lead to a catastrophic 30 per cent drop in global food production by 2050 while the population continues to climb.

Assuming the world continues to ignore the climate crisis underpinning this unfolding tragedy, we face a near-future of famine on an intercontinental scale, with billions forced to become refugees. This will hasten the likely collapse of the international political and economic order, and the resurgence of ultra-nationalism and fascism, as states vainly try to seal their borders against non-nationals.

However, if the global climate and biodiversity crises have any lesson for our species, it is that we are united by our shared humanity. In the final analysis, we either come together, or we will assuredly go down separately.

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Ozone recovery offers sliver of optimism on climate action

Good news stories on the climate beat are few and far between, and offer occasional relief from the quickening drumbeat of bad news on the climate and biodiversity front. I didn’t have to be asked twice to file this piece for the Irish Examiner on a newly published WMO report showing the slow but steady recovery of the global ozone layer. While it undoubtedly holds some lessons on tackling the wider climate emergency, there are also limits to the parallels, as I explore below. 

GLOBAL EFFORTS to tackle both climate change and biodiversity loss have been underway in earnest for at least the last three decades, yet our best efforts to date have been an unmitigated failure. Emissions continue to spiral, temperatures climb and ecosystems buckle under ever-expanding human impacts.

Ozone is a rare form of oxygen that exists in small but significant amounts in the region of the upper atmosphere known as the stratosphere. Even though it is measured in parts per billion, this molecule is the difference between life and death on the surface of our planet, as it screens out dangerous incoming solar ultraviolet (UV-B) radiation.

According to the WMO’s latest assessment report, published every four years, the phase-out of banned ozone-depleting chemicals has led to a marked recovery in the ozone layer. “If current policies remain in place, the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 values by around 2066 over the Antarctic and by 2040 for the rest of the world”.

Intergovernmental success in decisively tackling the ozone crisis in the 1980s “sets a precedent for climate action,” according to WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas.

He added: “Our success in phasing out ozone-eating chemicals shows us what can and must be done – as a matter of urgency – to transition away from fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gases and so limit temperature increase”.

Just how close the world came to catastrophe as a result of ozone depletion is worth recalling. Invented in the US in the 1930s, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were a technological breakthrough that quickly became used worldwide in refrigerators, air conditioning units and aerosol sprays, such as deodorants and hair sprays.

By the 1970s, over a million tonnes of CFC gases a year were slowly wafting into the upper atmosphere, but since the gas was considered to be extremely safe as it is inert, few were concerned.

In 1974, a paper was published by two scientists who speculated on what might happen to CFC gases in the stratosphere, where they would be directly exposed to solar UV radiation.

They projected that one of the elements in CFCs, chlorine, would be released at high altitude as a result of being bombarded by UV radiation. It was known that a single chlorine molecule can destroy up to 100,000 molecules of ozone. Even though there was at the time little direct evidence of ozone loss to support their theory, the US Environmental Protection Agency, acting on the precautionary principle, began banning CFCs as early as 1978.

When conservative Ronald Reagan took over as US president in 1981, his administration had little appetite for science, and the regulation of CFCs was largely dropped. However, reality was about to intervene.

Four years later, scientists working for the British Antarctic Survey shocked the world with the announcement that they had discovered a massive ‘hole’ in the ozone layer covering almost the entire continent of Antarctica. This was front page news globally in 1985.

The notion of being exposed to deadly solar rays was a simple, frightening concept that gripped the public and media imagination and politicians had little choice but to act in response to a sustained public outcry.

In stark contrast, the climate crisis has long felt complex, abstract and distant and as a result, has rarely been able to command the public or media’s undivided attention.

The Montreal Protocol

With the US leading the way, within two years, the Montreal Protocol had been signed, in which many countries committed to phasing out CFCs within a decade. Since then, almost 99% of banned ozone-depleting substances have been phased out, according to the United Nations.

In a quirk of history, the inventor of CFCs, Thomas Midgley, could have chosen bromide as the active ingredient instead of chlorine. Had he done so, the entire global ozone layer would by now have been destroyed. “More by luck than wisdom, this catastrophic situation did not develop”, the late Dr Paul Crutzen noted. He and his colleagues shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for their work on identifying the ozone hole.

The Montreal Protocol is widely regarded as the most successful environmental treaty in history, and reflects a time when scientific advice was broadly followed by conservative as well as progressive politicians.

A newer class of chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were developed to replace CFCs. While no threat to ozone, HFCs are extremely potent greenhouse gases, thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

An amendment to the Montreal Protocol agreed in 2016 targets HFCs for elimination, as they have the disastrous potential to add up to half a degree of additional global warming this century.

Failed climate change campaign

Given our success with ozone, why on the other hand has intergovernmental action on climate failed so spectacularly? The first crucial difference is that there were only a handful of companies involved in manufacturing CFCs, and while they initially lobbied against regulations, they eventually simply switched to less-damaging chemicals.

Carbon, on the other hand, is embedded into every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to building materials and the fuels that power our civilisation. While CFC manufacturers had limited clout, the fossil fuel industry is the most profitable and powerful enterprise in human history, with entire economies, known as petro-states, depending on the easy profits that come from extracting and burning coal, gas and oil.

The industry has known for decades that the widespread burning of fossil fuels would, in time, cause the global climate to destabilise dangerously. US-based oil giant, Exxon, had been informed by its own scientists as far back as 1977 of the dangers, but rather than act, the company joined with other industry players to fund climate denial and disinformation campaigns.

Their tactics included smearing climate scientists with personalised attacks, setting up and funding phony grassroots groups and using lavishly funded PR and media campaigns to spread the false message that the “science wasn’t settled” by promoting a handful of fringe contrarian scientists prepared to deceive the public on the industry’s behalf.

These campaigns were highly effective, largely perhaps because they told us what we wanted to hear – that we could continue our profligate lifestyles indefinitely. These energy behemoths could of course have invested their vast revenues into a profitable clean energy transition, but sheer greed combined with ‘free market’ ideology meant this golden opportunity was squandered.

A word of warning

While the ozone success story offers a tantalising glimpse into how we might engineer a safer future by following the science, there is also a sting in the ozone tale. A 2020 study on an ancient mass extinction event at the end-Devonian period some 359 million years ago argues that the event was preceded by a sudden warming spike that directly led to massive global ozone depletion.

Researchers identified this catastrophic ozone destruction as the “kill mechanism”, but the trigger was rapid global warming. If this hypothesis is correct, our recovering ozone shield could yet be wiped out by unmitigated global warming in the decades or centuries ahead unless radical action is taken to sharply cut emissions. We have been warned.

Posted in Arctic, Global Warming, Pollution, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Step by step towards a lower carbon future

Here’s a piece that ran in the Irish Daily Star in the first week of January, my 10-point guide for those dipping a toe in the water of climate action in 2023. It’s not intended to be either definitive or comprehensive, rather, a starting point for people considering getting involved but not quite sure where or how to begin.

AFTER YET another year of record-breaking extreme weather around the world, public concern about the climate emergency is now at an all-time high. More than four in five Irish people now say they are “alarmed” or “concerned” about the crisis, according to research from the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, while people are anxious and want to take personal action, many are unclear as to what are the most important steps to take to help tackle climate change. A study by the ESRI in early 2022 found that many people incorrectly thought recycling was more important than driving or eating meat in tackling climate change.

Here’s our list of the top 10 actions we as individuals can take that could make a real difference:

  1. Be political. Whatever party you support, question your TDs and local councillors about their position on the climate and biodiversity emergency, and let them know how important these issues are to you. Politicians often say they don’t prioritise climate change as “they don’t hear about it on the doorsteps”. Drop them a friendly email and remind them that you vote for politicians who support ambitious action. At the next election, why not consider volunteering to canvas for politicians who share your views about climate change? 
  2. Cut down on flying. Only one in five people in the world have ever been on an aircraft. Flying is very much a luxury for wealthier countries like Ireland, but its impact on the global climate is severe. A single return flight from Dublin to New York generates around a tonne of carbon dioxide, that’s more than the total annual average emissions for a person in the world’s 57 poorest countries. Frequent fliers do the most damage. If that’s you, time to think again, forget the airport queues and rediscover the joys of the staycation and slow travel.
  3. More plants, less meat. The global livestock industry is the biggest driver of biodiversity collapse and deforestation, and the second largest source of carbon emissions. Put simply, we eat too much meat and dairy products, and these seemingly innocuous choices are having devastating consequences on the natural world, as more and more land is cleared for livestock, or to produce fodder for the 100 billion farmed animals in the world. If we all became vegetarian, it would reduce emissions from our food systems by two thirds. Even cutting back on meat and dairy can make a big difference to your carbon footprint – and your health.
  4. Ditch the car. Motor companies spend millions trying to convince us that owning a car means freedom. The reality for most people is being trapped in their cars in traffic, and paying an average of €10,000 a year, or €200 every week, in the total cost of owning, insuring and running a car in Ireland. With a huge range of e-bikes, scooters, cargo bikes and improved public transport, there has never been a better time to break free of the car. Fewer cars on the roads also means cleaner air, less noise, safer public spaces and more room for buses and bikes.
  5. Put a plug on it. If you’re not yet in a position to go car-free, as is the case for many people in rural Ireland, then it’s time to go electric. Prices for electric vehicles (EVs) are coming down, but the real saving is on the running costs. If you can charge from home, they are far cheaper to run than a petrol or diesel. Around 40% of the electricity on the Irish grid is from clean, home-produced wind energy, and this is rising fast.
  6. Get involved. We know for sure that the environment is far too important to be left to only environmentalists to protect. That’s where you come in. There are dozens of brilliant organisations, from the Irish Wildlife Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, Friends of the Earth, An Taisce and many more besides fighting every day for a safer, greener, cleaner Ireland. Have you a few hours to help out as a volunteer? If you prefer just to be a member, annual fees are modest, but the money goes a long way towards the vital work of speaking up for nature and demanding strong climate action.
  7. Think before you spend. For many of us, shopping is a habit. We often buy things we don’t really need, from throwaway fast fashion to cheap electronic items, simply out of habit. We have been conditioned by marketing to be “consumers”, to spend our free time and spare cash mindlessly shopping, often spending more than we can really afford. Instead of drifting into the shopping centre every weekend or buying impulsively online, why not go for a walk or cycle instead? You’ll most likely feel better, and save money too.
  8. Time to upgrade? There are now a range of supports to help people to invest in upgrading their homes to be more energy-efficient. Some, such as attic insulation, is cheap and effective, saving you cash and giving you a cosier home. Full retrofits are expensive, but will pay off over the longer term. If you have the option of installing a heat pump and solar panels, these should pay for themselves within 5-7 years, and will make a big impact on the amount of carbon your home emits.
  9. Get informed. While there is a lot of disinformation about climate online, visit reliable sources like the NASA website to find out the facts. Another great place to start would be to buy The Climate Book, a compendium of essays from top experts created by climate activist Greta Thunberg.
  10. Talk about it. Surveys find that many people concerned about climate think that their friends, neighbours and work colleagues are not, and so are reluctant to bring it up in conversation. The more we speak up, the more others know they are not alone, and the better chance we have of driving the truly radical changes in how we live, what we eat and our relationship with the natural world. As Gandhi famously put it: “be the change you want to see in the world”.
Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Dialling up the global thermostat another notch in 2022

It sounds almost a cliché to say that last year was a year of weather extremes. After all, which year out of the last 20 hasn’t been? After all, according to the WMO, the past eight years have been the eight hottest on the instrumental record. Yes, all eight. Hottest of all was 2016, the last El Niño year. Since then, around another 300 billion tons of heat-trapping gases have been released into the global atmosphere. The next El Niño may be as soon as later this year. Hold onto your hats. I filed the below for the Business Post as a review of global climate change in 2022.

IT IS LIKELY that 2022 will be remembered as another year of living dangerously, as climate destabilisation moved ever closer to home and, in the process, became impossible to ignore.

The summer of 2022 was the hottest in at least 500 years in Europe, the hottest on instrumental record in China, and the second hottest across both Asia and North America. Britain recorded its highest-ever temperatures, with the mercury touching 40.3°C in mid-July. This led to fires sweeping around the edges of London, and some rail lines buckling in the heat.

Scientists from the World Weather Attribution group calculated that such extreme European temperatures, which led to at least 20,000 excess deaths, would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.

None of this was unexpected. Earlier in the year, the synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that it was “now or never” on addressing the climate emergency. The IPCC report spelled out in the plainest language the risks of fast-rising global temperatures, yet the political and social response has been muted.

Pakistan and India are two populous countries already close to the limits of human heat tolerance. Last March, a heatwave swept the region, bringing the hottest conditions in at least a century, with temperatures frequently above 50°C.

This heatwave eventually abated, only to be followed by devastating flooding, killing over 1,700 people, leaving millions homeless and causing billions of euro in damage. Attribution studies confirmed that the extreme heat waves and flooding events had been made more likely and more severe as a result of global warming.

After global emissions fell slightly as a result of Covid lockdowns, by 2021 they had rebounded to their highest level in history, with every indication that 2022 will have seen emissions continue on an upward trajectory.

The hottest topic in Ireland this year was how to divvy up our ambitious 2030 target of cutting national emissions by 51 per cent. After intense political wrangling and lobbying by the industrial livestock sector, agriculture (Ireland’s largest polluting sector, with over a third of all emissions) was given special treatment in being set a 25 per cent goal, which is half of the national target.

An analysis by the Climate Change Advisory Council of the sectoral emissions budgets indicated that, assuming full implementation, they added up to just a 43 per cent cut at best – and even this excluded land use change, which is another major source of carbon.

The transport sector has been set a 50 per cent target, and despite government hype about electric cars, in reality such a dramatic reduction can come about only as a result of a decisive modal shift away from the private car and towards public and active transport. This is proving a tough nut to crack.

In 2021, more than half the funding provided by government to rural local authorities on cycling and pedestrian infrastructure went unspent, while one third of funding in the greater Dublin area was unused. The situation in 2022 was at least as bad – with Galway, for instance, drawing down just 6 per cent of its active travel budget. The Irish public remains wedded to the private car, and politicians are markedly reluctant to take actions seen to antagonise motorists.

Anxiety around climate spilled over into direct action in 2022, as Just Stop Oil activists garnered headlines around the world by throwing soup at a (protected) Van Gogh painting. The response of the British government has been to criminalise non-violent protests – a position disgracefully supported by Keir Starmer, the Labour leader – but there is little indication that this will deter activists.

This year’s big climate showcase event, COP 27, took place in Egypt. During his address, then taoiseach Micheál Martin warned that “our citizens will become increasingly cynical, weary and hopeless if words are not urgently matched by deeds”.

That sense of cynicism will have been sharpened by the revelation in this newspaper that commitments Martin signed up to at the 2021 COP conference on cutting methane by 30 per cent by 2030 have been quietly scrapped, while livestock emissions continue to spiral.

While the COP 27 conference once again fell far short of what is needed, the Irish delegation led by Eamon Ryan, the climate minister, scored a notable success in having the “loss and damage” provision strengthened. This commits high-emitting countries to compensate developing countries already suffering severe climate impacts.

With Leo Varadkar back as Taoiseach, his altogether more lukewarm approach to climate action is likely to dominate the coalition. Mary Lou McDonald underlined Sinn Féin’s ambivalence on climate when she offered her party’s unconditional support to the continued expansion of the dairy industry, despite its devastating impact in both emissions and water pollution. Ironically, the only farms Sinn Féin appear to have any issue with are wind farms.

While yielding to lobbyists can seem the smart play politically, it may also be storing up electoral trouble. A survey published late last year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that an astonishing 84 per cent of people were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change.

The EPA report proves there is a huge groundswell of public support for strong climate action in Ireland, but it has yet to find its political voice – with special interest and Nimby groups continuing to have the ear of politicians, for now.

Ireland has so far escaped the very worst impacts of climate change, which may explain the widespread complacency among many in politics and public administration. In continental Europe, the rapid drying up of mighty rivers, from the Loire in France to the Po in Italy and the Rhine in Germany, as well as a major decline in food production after the worst drought in 500 years, has come as both an economic and psychological blow.

Better news came from Brazil with the ousting of the far-right administration led by Jair Bolsonaro, whose policies pushed the Amazon rainforest perilously close to the tipping point of ecological system collapse. Incoming president Lula da Silva has promised to reverse the destruction. In the US, unexpected mid-term successes for the Democrats have kept president Joe Biden’s relatively progressive climate agenda alive.

A turbulent year finished on an upbeat note with the COP 15 biodiversity conference in Montreal agreeing a landmark deal committing to the protection of 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030, along with a slew of other measures.

While 190 nations signed up to what has been described as the Paris Agreement for Biodiversity, the enduring challenge is in enforcement and the political will to face down vested interests. Whether actions match the fine words at Montreal will become clear in 2023.

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Cutting down on global deforestation

For as long as I can remember, we’ve been hearing about deforestation, usually expressed as an area of old-growth forest the size of x number of soccer pitches being lost per minute/hour. Globally, more than two billion hectares of forest have been lost to human actions – an area twice the size of the continental United States. However, a change of leadership in Brazil and a new EU initiative give rare pause for optimism on deforestation, as I explored in the Business Post in December.

EVERY YEAR, the world loses an area of natural forests the size of Italy in a global pulse of deforestation that has been ongoing for centuries, but has dramatically accelerated in recent times. Since 1900, more than one billion hectares of forests have been cleared – and with them, countless species and ecosystems that evolved over millions of years have been swept away. Continue reading

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Giving nature the legal right to exist

Mankind’s relationship with the rest of nature has been overwhelmingly predatory for centuries, with the natural world used as both a quarry from which to extract ‘resources’ and as a dump into which to eject our mountains of waste. The roots of this extractivist philosophy run deep, but it is now being challenged, as I explored in the Irish Times in December.

THIS SUMMER, in the English town of Ringwood, Bretton, the local council ordered the felling of an oak tree it claimed risked causing structural damage to nearby houses. The tree, which is listed on the UK Woodland Trust’s ancient tree register, is known to be well over 600 years old.

Having stood since the 14th century, long before the surrounding town and houses even existed, the mighty oak disappeared forever in little over an hour on June 29th last, despite determined efforts by locals to save it.

Campaigners had served the local council with an injunction in a last-gasp effort to save the tree, but a local district court judge dismissed it, claiming it was outside its jurisdiction. Continue reading

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Is a social tipping point on climate within sight?

It is often said that nothing seems to happen for decades, then decades can happen within a matter of months or even weeks. Despite the overall pessimism, there is growing evidence that we are approaching societal inflection points that may take us on an altogether different trajectory. Whether this happens soon enough to avert climate disaster remains to be seen, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in early December.

IN NATURE, tipping points occur when certain critical thresholds have been crossed and momentum into a new phase becomes unstoppable. Well-known examples of this include the vast ice sheets in Greenland or western Antarctica. While they can withstand some warming, rather like stepping off a cliff, full-scale collapse becomes irreversible beyond a critical point.

In the relatively recent past, drink-driving in Ireland was commonplace and widely regarded as more a misdemeanour than a crime. Attitudes to smoking have also altered radically in the last two decades, to the point where it is now almost unthinkable to light up indoors. Similarly, it is now taboo for parents or teachers to beat children, yet a generation ago, this was seen by many as essential and unremarkable. Continue reading

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Biosphere buckling under weight of human pressures

Rapid population growth has seen another billion humans added to world population in just the 11 years since 2011. In tandem with dramatic economic growth and accelerating climate change, these are placing unbearable pressures on the biosphere, foreshadowing a near future of famines, forced migration, economic collapse and endless conflict, as I outlined in the Business Post in late November.

FRITZ HABER is hardly a household name, yet the German chemist’s invention in the first decade of the 20th century arguably changed the course of human history.

His breakthrough was in creating ammonia, or chemical nitrogen. Initially, it allowed Germany to continue to produce explosives as well as fertilisers, after the British had imposed a naval blockade during World War I.

Haber also developed chlorine as a poison gas, which the German army deployed to deadly effect along the Western Front. Despite this, in 1918 he received the Nobel prize for chemistry for his invention, known as the Haber-Bosch ammonia process. Continue reading

Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

All easy options are now off the table

Irish political leaders have an unfortunate habit of showing up at international climate conferences and delivering eloquent, impassioned speeches that are clearly not meant to be taken in any way seriously. This time out Micheal Martin took the interesting tack of directly addressing public cynicism “if words are not urgently matched by deeds”, as I explored in the Irish Examiner during COP27.

IT WAS BY any standard a passionate, moving speech. The Taoiseach urged world leaders to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in dealing with the unfolding climate emergency.

“Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response… we share a common humanity and each of us must play our part.”

The Taoiseach in question was Enda Kenny, and these stirring words were delivered at a UN climate summit in New York — in September 2014. By unhappy coincidence, 2014 was also the last year in which Ireland’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were tracking downwards. Continue reading

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Bringing the climate emergency to book

When this blog first when live in late November 2007, the world was a quite different place.  That year, global CO2 levels, as recorded at Mauna Loa, had reached an all-time high of 384 parts per million (ppm). Since then, they have climbed relentlessly, reaching around 418ppm this year. And Greta Thunberg was approaching her fifth birthday. Few could then have realised the butterfly effect of the shy Swedish teenager and her now-famous Skolstrejk För Klimatet (school strike for climate). I filed a review of the quite remarkable new book she has conceived and co-ordinated for the Business Post in November. It brings together a crack squad of experts from across the spectrum in a readable, indeed engrossing volume. I was so taken by it that I decided to buy 25 copies and distribute them to a number of key figures in the media, and was fortunate to recently have the opportunity to present a copy of the book to President Michael D. Higgins at an event in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the record, this is the 450th posting on ThinkOrSwim, which this week marks 15 years and somewhere in excess of half a million words attempting to track and report on the rapidly unfolding climate and biodiversity emergencies. It’s sobering to consider just how quickly things have escalated since ThinkOrSwim first came into being. Consider that nine of the 10 hottest years on the global instrumental record have all occurred since 2010. This runaway climate train is quickly gathering speed, as global heating has now reached +1.2ºC over pre-industrial, which is already playing out in a dramatic ramping up in extreme weather events, such as the devastating summer of 2022 in the northern hemisphere; this takes us dangerously close to the 1.5ºC boundary into extremely dangerous climate change. Beyond this, “there be dragons”.

GIVEN ITS enormity, complexity and gravity, only the brave or foolhardy would try to capture the totality of the global climate and biodiversity emergency in a single volume. The Climate Book, the creation of the teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, is as brave as it is accomplished and succeeds well beyond any reasonable expectation. Continue reading

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Tackling stubborn climate myths & misinformation

Despite the mountains of scientific evidence, as well as what we can see with our own eyes, myths and misinformation about climate change are remarkably stubborn, so I take whatever opportunities on offer to debunk these in as many media outlets as possible. The below piece was commissioned by the Irish Daily Mirror, my first piece for this audience, and ran over two pages in early November.

THOUGH IT’S not yet over, 2022 will be remembered as a year of dramatic weather extremes and disasters. The extended heatwave that racked China this summer has been described as the most severe in human history, while Europe just endured its hottest summer ever recorded.

Meanwhile, from Africa and Asia to north America, many countries have experienced record-smashing heat, drought and flooding events this year.

It’s no mystery as to why this is happening. The Earth is heating up, rapidly and dangerously. The clearest evidence for this is that the five hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 2017. Continue reading

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

Risky business for insurers as climate crunch bites

As extreme weather ratchets ever upwards, it seems inevitable that more and more locations will become uninsurable over time, whether as a result of coastal inundation, sea level rise or supercharged storms and flooding events. I took a look this this climatic ‘Achilles heel’ of the global economy in a piece for the Business Post in late October.

SO FAR THIS year, the world has been riven with war and economic uncertainty in Europe, famine and drought in Africa and record-breaking extreme weather right across the northern hemisphere.

Yet for the global energy sector, 2022 has been another annus mirabilis. While consumers and many businesses have been severely squeezed by soaring energy prices, fossil fuel energy corporations have raked in massive windfall profits in recent months.

A study published earlier this year based on World Bank data found that petro-states and fossil fuel companies have made $2.8 billion in pure profits every day – or more than $1 trillion a year – in the decades since 1970, when adjusted to 2020 prices. Continue reading

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Turning climate protest into an art form

An ingenious protest involving soup and a famous painting threw the global spotlight on the climate emergency in a way that a thousand scientific articles, petitions and marches seemed to have failed to do. I was asked by for my take on the protest in mid-October. This website has done some of Ireland’s best climate-related journalism in recent times, but its Comments section is famously a cess pit of unmoderated trolling, and it certainly didn’t disappoint this time either.

WHAT DO YOU think of the two young climate activists who threw some cold tomato soup over the famous Sunflowers painting by Vincent Van Gogh at the National Gallery in London? Maybe, like many people, you have some sympathy for their cause, but feel they went too far or picked the wrong target this time? Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Just Stop Oil, Media, Protest | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment