Drafting a roadmap for a climate-altered world

I was delighted back in May to receive an email from Andy Revkin letting me know he was coming to Ireland in early June and offering to meet up for a chat when he was in Dublin.  We spent a very pleasant couple of hours in a city centre café one Sunday morning, where we were joined by environmental broadcaster, Duncan Stewart for an animated conversation. Afterwards, myself and Andy headed across to Stephen’s Green and found a quiet spot where I recorded an interview with him on his thoughts and insights after more than three decades in the front line of climate and environmental reportage. Below, is the interview, as carried on the Life Science page of the Irish Times in early July (since this was recorded, Andy has taken on a new role as head of a new communications initiative at Columbia University)

ANDREW Revkin is an acclaimed US science and environment writer who has reported on the climate crisis since the late 1980s for the New York Times, Discover magazine and ProPublica. Author of several award-winning books, in 2018 Revkin joined the National Geographic Society as strategic adviser for environmental and science journalism. He is also a musician and song writer.

Revkin was in Wexford recently to speak at a symposium on clean cooking in the developing world, and sat down to discuss climate science, communicating global heating and how best to have the conversation about building a sustainable world.

JG: You’ve been on the science and climate reporting beat for over 30 years. What has and what hasn’t changed in that time?

AR: So, half of my life has been exploring this question of how we build a sustainable relationship with the planet around us and with each other, mostly on climate, and the situation seems pretty screwed up. The story has been the same, essentially, since I was writing on it in the 1980s. We’re adding gases to the atmosphere that don’t dissipate quickly.

We’re warming the planet, and there’s lots of consequences. It’s very hard to turn that back. The gas is cumulative. I tell my friends in America it’s like thinking that if you slow your spending on your credit card, and you have a big debt, that your debt goes away. It’s a building problem. The thing that’s been the hardest for me to realise is that the issue is bigger than a pollution problem.

JG: Like the ozone hole in the 1980s?

AR: Well, ozone was this hopeful example. I think that lulled some of us into thinking, well CO2, CFCs, what’s the difference? But there’s a huge difference. The CO2 problem is so firmly linked to economies because, essentially, fossil fuels still underpin about 85 per cent of the global energy menu, even now 30 years after where we were in the 1980s. And that means the story is different. It’s just profoundly bigger. And that’s what has made it hard for me to figure out new paths to conveying that.

JG: You’ve looked at science communications, rather than just the science, moving from science reporting to looking at how we as humans work. Can you discuss that?

AR: It took me 18 years of climate reporting, in which I was just describing the thing, CO2, warming, sea level, blah, blah, blah, treaty law, end of story. And it wasn’t until 2006 that I started talking to behavioural and social scientists. And that was my OMG moment as a journalist. Because what do we do as journalists? We convey information with the assumption that doing that will make the world change. And the social and behavioural scientists were saying: well it’s more complicated than that. Information many times doesn’t matter. What is more horrifying to journalists than that? And I started digging in on that [behavioural] science and it feels like that can lead you into paralysis too. But it actually leads to lots of opportunities for progress.

JG: Did that insight lead to you setting up the Dot Earth blog with the New York Times?

AR: Yes, and the blog ran for nine years (2006-2015) and 2,800 posts, and 100,000 comments that I had to mediate. To me what was valuable about the blog was that it’s an engaged conversation heading in a direction. It’s not about telling the world that I as a journalist know anything.

And it’s also different than a journalist doing a story where you quote person X, and you quote person Y, and then you’re done. On an issue like how do we develop a sustainable relationship with the planet as we head toward nine billion people by 2050? That’s not a single-story question. It’s not even a series. It has to be a conversation.

JG: Politics in the US has changed quite dramatically since Trump’s election in 2016. As a long-time reporter, how do you feel about that?

AR: Well, like so many aspects of this challenge, it can lead you to want to drink a lot of Guinness and just hang out, like I do sometimes, and strum your guitar. But it leads to these two words jangling around in my head: urgency and patience. So how do you combine urgency and patience? How do you get up in the morning, and do it over again, and try to be a little better?

It’s a discipline to understand the big picture. But just because Trump has co-opted social media that doesn’t mean you abandon social media. It means you figure out how quickly we can use this amazing tool and global connectivity to foster progress, even with all the noise and polarisation that it can also cause.

JG: Would you feel this sense of an interconnected world also mirrors a world that turned out to be a lot smaller than maybe we grew up thinking?

AR:There are so many aspects of the climate challenge that are interdependent and interlinked. Our greenhouse gases are driving change in parts of the world that have never yet really produced any emissions of note. And they’re the most vulnerable or most exposed, but how do you actualise that, how do you get American or European consumers to consciously integrate future risk to Bangladeshi kids and their prospects into daily life here?

This is a huge challenge – our brains are not set up for this very well. There’s a whole body of science there too that hasn’t really been applied to the sustainability and climate questions. I’m thinking about all the things we can do to test drive at least some of these possibilities, to link scientists together who aren’t talking to each other, even social and physical scientists.

JG: What are your thoughts on the role of research?

AR: One of the hard realities in facing global warming that most campaigners are loath to accept, let alone embrace, is the need for vastly more science. I first wrote about the research gap in the New York Times in 2006 and not much has changed.

Just about every component of a Tesla was the result of basic R&D investments by the US government, mostly during the Cold War and space race. Elon Musksimply put them together in a novel way. You see hints of this gap out there.

The Green New Deal vision includes the word “research”. But the issue is usually swamped by a tide of rhetoric like “all we lack is political will”. That’s simply not the case on a planet heading toward nine billion people seeking decent lives – two billion of whom right now have utterly indecent lives.

JG: Has journalism failed in terms of communicating not just the climate crisis but the wider existential crisis that we’re approaching?

AR: Yeah, I think journalism is a terrible model. The things that get a story on the front page or on the nightly news are the antithesis of the dimensions of the climate problem that would be best for people to think about.

Because what do we gravitate to as journalists: conflict, debate, politics and something that had happened today, and climate change, despite many headlines, is still the biggest, and the most profound changes to the planet have still yet to come.

JG: How might journalism do better?

AR: For example, there’s Solutionsjournalism.org. That is trying to chart new paths in which journalism serves as a discussion zone. You can have a community workshop and where you’re not going to (cover) the town council meeting, you’re holding the meeting, you’re providing guidance – I’d rather have room for agreement than room for debate. Just debating doesn’t really get you anywhere.

JG: Looking ahead, are you broadly optimistic or broadly pessimistic?

I kind of have a diurnal rhythm – I wake up in the morning optimistic and I usually go to bed sapped and a little discouraged by something I’ve learned. But I wake up the next morning and go at it again.

I find it’s a mixed feeling of loss. The world I grew up with in the 20th century, at the height of the baby boom, when everything was science and progress – it’s a much tougher world now. But every day, especially exploring this communications ecosystem, I see ways to accelerate at the personal or community level, some little upside progress, and that leaves me energised – as does going to the pub and singing.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Rout of global biodiversity comes with a heavy price tag

Below, my article as it appeared in the summer edition of ‘Irish Wildlife’, the magazine of the  Irish Wildlife Trust, an organisation well worth supporting. I gave a one-hour presentation followed by a Q&A at an IWT ‘Green Drinks’ event in Dublin in early March, and was really taken by the level of interest and engagement among the audience that evening, and so was delighted when asked to chip in an article for their magazine.

VETERAN Harvard biologist, Prof E.O. Wilson first achieved fame through his study of the complex social and communal lives of ants – myrmecology, to give it its proper title. Wilson, who turns 90 this summer, is also known as ‘the father of biodiversity’.

Apart from his stellar career as a scientist, he is also a gifted writer and commentator. In his 2002 book, ‘The Future of Life’, he wrote presciently: “An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. It is not the fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.” It’s a phrase that has stayed with me since I first encountered it.

In the five decades or so since 1970, the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in the wild has plummeted. Two thirds of the land-based wild creatures alive on Earth when I was in primary school have vanished, swept away before the profligate ingenuity of one apex predator of unparalleled ferocity.

It is truly breath-taking to consider that in less than half a century the havoc we have wreaked on the natural world is fast approaching the devastation wrought by the asteroid impact in the Yucatán peninsula just under 66 million years ago. The global mass extinction event that followed this catastrophic impact caused around 75% of plant and animal species on Earth (including, most famously, all non-avian dinosaurs) at that time to go extinct.

“This global trend suggests we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history”, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which crunches the numbers annually in its Living Planet Index reports.

Wilson identified the rapid destruction of natural habitats, spread of invasive species, pollution, continuous population growth and over-harvesting as the principal threats to the living planet upon which all life, including human life, depends. Wilson examined the complex interactions that make up the web of life that supports us, and why it would be an act of enlightened self-interest for humanity to learn the limits of its power and the existential dangers entailed in inadvertently crippling the biosphere.

This realisation animated Wilson’s 2016 book, ‘Half-Earth’, in which he put forward the radical idea that half the land on Earth (and much of its oceans) would have to be designated as human-free natural reserves in order to preserve biodiversity and to allow natural systems upon which we depend to continue to function.

This idea is as sensible as it is impossible to implement. Human incursions are instead penetrating further into the ever-diminishing remaining sanctuaries where wildlife cling on to existence. Consider these statistics: today, some 60% of all mammals on Earth, by weight, are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals. So, humans and our farmed animals and pets comprise 96% of all vertebrate life on Earth.

By far the most common bird in the world today is the farmed chicken; in fact, chickens now comprise 70% of all the world’s birds. The picture for invertebrates is not much better. Insects are among nature’s great survivors, but even this kingdom is beginning to crumble under the sustained assault of intensive farming and its toxic haze of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

A 2016 study in Germany identified a stunning 76% collapse in the total number of flying insects compared to a baseline study carried out just 25 years earlier, in 1991. Unsurprisingly, equally dramatic collapses in populations of farmland birds have been tracked right across Europe, including in Ireland.

Our fellow species have thus far borne the brunt of this dramatic reshaping of the surface of the planet to provide for the needs and wants of a single species. It is difficult to imagine that, having sown the storm, human health and welfare can expect to escape the gathering whirlwind of a destabilised global climatic system.

More than 90% of Ireland’s supposedly ‘protected’ habitats, which include native grasslands and peatlands, are in poor condition, according to the 2017 National Biodiversity Forum. It tracked major declines in already threatened bird species, while noting that one-third of Ireland’s wild bees face extinction.

The forces driving this collapse in Irish biodiversity include intensive agriculture, commercial forestry, peat cutting, invasive species, water and air pollution. The ongoing disruption to natural systems caused by climate change adds to the growing challenges for survival faced by wildlife all over the world.

A paper in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences last year introduced the term “biological annihilation” to describe the rate and scale of global biodiversity loss. “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language,” according to co-author Prof Gerardo Ceballos. The study concluded: “Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”

Of the many threats to biodiversity outlined above, you will note that climate change (or, more accurately, climate breakdown) is at this point still a relatively minor player. This is, unfortunately, unlikely to remain the case for much longer. A 2018 study published by the US National Academy of Sciences examined the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico. It has benefitted over the years from extensive protection and it appeared, at least to the untrained eye, to be in pristine condition. Yet, the study found a staggering 90-98% collapse in the number of arthropods in the forest, compared to the mid-1970s.

So, what happened? The rainforest’s temperature has increased by 2 degrees Centigrade in the past three decades as a result of global warming. This seemingly small temperature shift has been enough to disrupt and in many cases, destroy, the forest’s food web. Unexpectedly, the near-disappearance of arthropods from the rainforest has seen populations of lizards, frogs and birds decline sharply.

The battle to conserve what remains of our intact natural heritage has never been more important But, as the fate of the Luquillo rainforest clearly illustrates, nature conservation without climate stabilisation simply won’t work, and every hard-won gain that conservationists make will, sooner or later – quite possibly, sooner – be wiped out by climate breakdown.

Amid the gloom, 2019 has seen some green shoots in terms of the long-overdue public and political response to the unfolding crises that threaten the biosphere. The emergence of the children’s climate strike movement, inspired by the charismatic Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg has helped to wake the public from its slumber on ecological awareness, as well as propelling it well up the political and media agendas. The ‘Extinction Rebellion’ movement, modelled on historic campaigns using peaceful street-based civil disobedience, has galvanised the sense that a tipping point in attitudes to the climate crisis may be fast approaching.

However, seasoned campaigners are acutely aware that there have been many false dawns in recent years and remain sceptical that the likely government and corporate response to this crisis will be one of ever more sophisticated greenwashing.

The unpalatable fact remains that the seemingly unstoppable march of growth-based global consumerism is on a collision course with the immovable limits of a finite, battered biosphere. And, since physics doesn’t negotiate, humanity is either going to have to accept a radically limited future or face the very real prospect that this is indeed our final century.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Thirty years closer to the End of Nature

Below, my review of ‘Falter’, the new book by veteran environmental writer, Bill McKibben, as it appeared in the Irish Times in May.

UNLESS you’re an economics graduate or a billionaire, chances are you may have never heard of Ayn Rand. Although she died in 1982, her legacy as arguably the most important political philosopher of our time casts a lengthening shadow. Her influence is no reflection of the quality of her output.

“Rand might as well have written in crayon; her ideas about the world are simple-minded, one-dimensional and poisonous,” Bill McKibben writes. But, he adds, “you don’t have to be right to be influential”. Former Exxon chief executive and US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson calls one of Rand’s volumes “my favourite book”, as does his erstwhile boss, the US president Donald Trump.

It might seem incongruous that a celebrated environmental writer finds it necessary in his new book to undertake such an in-depth excursion into the neoliberal swamp watered by far-right thinkers like Rand, but McKibben feels it’s worth the detour.

Born in the US in 1960, “between the New Deal and the Great Society”, McKibben’s activism was nurtured by both the civil rights and women’s movement. In the year he was born, a typical chief executive earned less than 20 times the salary of his workers. Today, they rake in nearly 300 times as much.

Who paid the price for this massive wealth smash and grab is not hard to identify. In 2017 a UN special rapporteur stated: “for one of the world’s richest countries to have over 40 million people living in poverty, and over five million in ‘Third World’ conditions is cruel and inhuman”.

Another recent study found that one in three residents of Lowndes County in Alabama tested positive for signs of hookworm, a dangerous parasite that thrives in unhygienic conditions and burrows through the soles of bare feet.

McKibben points out that his book is not primarily about poverty or inequality, but these help to “diagnose the intellectual and spiritual hookworm” he argues has “attached itself to the brains” of his country’s billionaire class.

Take Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. He would need to spend $28 million a day just to stop his humongous wealth from growing. By unhappy coincidence, this is exactly 1,000 times the meagre $28,000 median annual salary of an Amazon employee. Another US family, the Waltons, control more wealth than 42 per cent of all American families combined.

The new golden era of bare-knuckle capitalism, freed from government or regulatory oversight began in the Reagan-Thatcher era in the early 1980s, a moment writer Jonathan Freedman called “the second age of Rand… when laissez-faire philosophy went from the crankish obsession of right-wing economists to the governing credo of Anglo-American capitalism”.

The billionaire bubble

The world’s wealthiest industry is energy, and among these, Exxon is a giant. In July 1977, one of its senior scientists warned of the growing dangers of fossil fuel combustion: “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical”, scientist James F Black told his senior Exxon colleagues.

Four years later, another internal memo from Exxon scientists warned of “potentially catastrophic events” if they kept burning fossil fuels. “Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible”, the 1982 document warned.

In a decision likely to reverberate into geological time, Exxon senior executives decided to fund doubt and denial of the hard evidence their own scientists, among many others, had produced. “Thus began the most consequential lie in history,” McKibben observed.

The massive and ongoing fossil fuel-funded conspiracy to undermine public confidence in climate science was not simply about greed for the 100 or so energy companies who funded the conspiracy. “Self-interest mixed perfectly with ideology,” McKibben observes. “These billionaires thought they had cracked the code of history. Climate change was for them inconceivable because it would get in the way of profits… but also because it marred the purity of their belief system.”

They “believed more strongly in their particular economic fantasia than they did in physics or chemistry, and so they churned out an endless series of deceptions”. That these energy tycoons also chose to deceive themselves into claiming that climate science is one giant scam, McKibben posits, can be explained “only as a reflection of life in the billionaire bubble. If greed warps your life, you assume it warps everyone’s”.

The Great Dying

Where Falter is most compelling is where it details the unfolding ecological and climate apocalypse, including evidence from paleoclimatology. Some 252 million years ago, during the End Permian extinction event, massive volcanic eruptions ignited vast deposits of coal, oil and gas (sound familiar?), sending global carbon dioxide levels spiralling. In total, 96 per cent of all marine species and 70 per cent of terrestrial vertebrates went extinct.

The triggers for what is known as the Great Dying are eerily similar to today, but differ in one crucial detail: now, annual human-induced carbon emissions are 10 times greater than at any time during the End Permian disaster.

The publication of Falter comes 30 years after McKibben’s seminal 1989 book, The End of Nature. “This volume is bleak as well,” he warns us, “in some ways bleaker, because more time has passed and we are deeper in the hole.” In 1989, he never entertained near-term human extinction as a serious possibility. Now, he is far less certain.

McKibben also dedicates space to considering the fast-emerging technologies of artificial intelligence and gene editing. Given these tools are largely in the hands of the hyper-rich, he paints them with a distinctly dystopian hue, but I am not convinced the author believes electromagnetic civilisation will survive long enough for these dark angels to be unleashed.

Bill McKibben is an accomplished storyteller and Falter does not disappoint. It peels back the flimsy pseudo-intellectual fig leaf the wealthy – and their acolytes in economics departments and right-wing media outlets – used to paper over their ecocidal greed and veniality.

Whether you’re new to environmental science or are a grizzled veteran, there is much to recommend in McKibben’s masterful new volume.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

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

Eerie media silence as climate breakdown gathers pace

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on April 26th last.

BY ANY objective standards, the global climate and biodiversity crisis should be front page news almost every day. Rationally, you would expect updates on the battle to maintain a habitable biosphere to also be leading most TV and radio news bulletins. We do not, it seems, live in a world governed by reason.

Some years ago, a former editor of Fortune magazine ran a thought experiment: imagine that the world’s scientists had confirmed, with 90 per cent confidence, that a huge meteor would collide with the Earth within a decade. “The media would throw teams of reporters at it and give them the resources needed to follow it in extraordinary depth and detail”, argued Eric Pooley. “After all, the race to stop the meteor would be the story of the century.”

The meteor is indeed heading our way, in the shape of rapidly unfolding ecological collapse, yet, with the exception of a handful of communicators and a growing grassroots movement, almost nobody in positions of power wants to even talk about it.

For decades, David Attenborough has revealed the wonders of the natural world to millions. In recent years, his tone has grown dramatically darker. His Blue Planet II series brought the devastating impacts of plastic pollution on the once-pristine oceans forcefully to a global audience, and in so doing, triggered a genuine sea change in public attitudes.

Carbon emissions

The plastics crisis pales into almost insignificance compared with how carbon dioxide emissions from human actions are drastically altering the very chemistry of the biosphere. Attenborough this week swung his editorial gaze to the wider carbon crunch, with a hard-hitting documentary on BBC titled: Climate change – the facts (you can watch the whole show here).

This is the first time in 12 years the station has tackled this topic head-on. Considering the scale and urgency of the crisis, this is, to put it mildly, astonishing.

“Right now, we’re facing our gravest threat in thousands of years”, is how Attenborough began. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider the major study published by the US National Academy of Sciences in 2017. It described the ongoing collapse of global biodiversity as “biological annihilation”, adding that it paints “a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life”. This bleak assessment is broadly supported by every major scientific institution and research journal in the world.

Climate breakdown has been labelled the “problem from hell”. Sphinx-like, it appears both remote and abstract, yet simultaneously overwhelming and complex. If ever a crisis seemed designed to stymie humanity’s ability or will to confront it, this is it.

While Ireland’s collective response to the climate crisis has been woeful, the 2017 report by the Citizens Assembly revealed a previously untapped public appetite for radical action. This in turn gave the political impetus for the creation of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action (JCCA).

Chaired by Hildegarde Naughton TD, it has just published a surprisingly good report. While a spat with dissenting left-wing parties over carbon taxes has dominated much of the coverage of the report, its excellent chapter on education and communication deserves wider attention.

Here, the committee recommended a complete overhaul of the primary and secondary school curriculum to “ensure the next generation is fully literate on the issues”. The present self-regulated system means some Irish school textbooks contain egregiously inaccurate information on basic climate science.

The 15,000 students who took to the streets of Dublin last month as part of the global school climate strike served as a reminder that the young are waking up to climate chaos even as their parents’ generation slumber. The Extinction Rebellion protests on the streets of Dublin and Cork over the weekend are further evidence of the growing alarm at the prospect of widespread ecological collapse.

People get most of their information via the media, and the prominence it gives to a story shapes how seriously the public regard it. Since the climate crisis is covered only fitfully, and often simply framed as a dispute between opposing factions, it’s hardly a surprise that so many people have no idea just how dire the situation already is.

The JCCA report recommends: ‘the imposition of climate change content quotas on all licensed broadcasters’ as is now the case for news and current affairs. This is a bold, potentially transformative proposal, as it would require broadcasters to develop expertise and real depth in this crucial field.

It notes that the state has done almost nothing in terms of public information campaigns to alert or inform the public on climate issues. In contrast, the Road Safety Authority spends over €4 million a year on public information campaigns.

For every person killed on our roads, more than 10 die as a direct result of air pollution from fossil fuel burning, yet not one cent is spent informing the public of this deadly yet avoidable threat. Climate breakdown will kill many, many more, so why aren’t we having an urgent national conversation about it?

When queried on the station’s poor performance, RTÉ director-general, Dee Forbes cleverly flipped the question, stating that the station’s coverage simply mirrored government inaction. RTÉ’s first climate documentary in years, fronted by Philip Boucher-Hayes, is due on air in November. It needs to be the first of many.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 6 Comments

A society of altruists, governed by psychopaths

Below, the article I filed for Village magazine’s first edition of 2019, which appeared in the middle of March. The Guardian’s George Monbiot has long been the gold standard for excellence in environment and climate reporting, analysis and campaigning.

Like many others, I’ve been an avid reader of his works for many years, but hadn’t had the opportunity to meet with him until his visit in March to Queen’s University, Belfast, in March. They say beware of meeting your heroes, as they usually disappoint. Happily, this was anything but the case.

Monbiot remained polite, engaged, cordial and good humoured throughout, even though clearly fatigued by the end of what turned out to be a long evening (he has also had to contend with serious ill health in recent months).

After delivering a cracking lecture, ‘Out Of The Wreckage – A New Politics For An Age Of Crisis’ to a packed and eager audience (you can watch it here in full) he then invited anyone interested to join him in a more informal conversation, with no chair and a round-robin format, and this continued for another 90 minutes or so.

I headed back for Dublin very late that night with renewed vigour, inspired both by Monbiot’s fighting words, but also his extraordinary grit and fortitude in the face of personal adversity. 

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GEORGE MONBIOT is one of the world’s most articulate and compelling voices arguing against environmental destruction, ecological overreach and the crimes of the very rich against the living planet and their fellow humans.

He recently visited Queen’s University, Belfast to speak at its ‘Imagine’ conference and we went along to hear him set out the state of the world as it is, as well as looking at how futures other than the dystopian neoliberal vision of ever greater inequality, xenophobia, extremism and ecological wreckage might be even contemplated.
While opening with an overview of the environmental and climate crises, Monbiot quickly pivoted to “the radical transformation of both land and sea by the food industry, and the full spectrum, ecological destruction it involves”. This is happening at breakneck speed.

This economic crisis is characterised by Monbiot as “the ever-accelerating spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation. Those who are rich already are able to buy wealth, often in the form of property, and the greatest source of inequality is the ownership of property”. They then leverage this to acquire more wealth, and in doing so, “gradually shift an enterprise economy towards a rentier economy, where you become spectacularly rich by owning resources and other people have to use, such as land and housing”.

Indeed, anyone who has ever played the board game ‘Monopoly’ will quickly recognise that, once key assets fall into one player’s hands, all the others are pauperised, slowly at first, but every more quickly as the game progresses. As a recent Oxfam report pointed out, the world’s 26 richest billionaires now control as much assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the global population.

In what amounts to a zero-sum game, the castles, yachts, priceless art collections and private jets of the global elite are financed directly by the growing poverty of billions. The great financial crisis of 2008 was created almost entirely by the corruption, greed and chicanery of a tiny elite of bankers, traders, investors and speculators, and brought the global economy to within a hair’s breadth of collapse.

During the Great Depression which followed the crash of 1929, the US government brought in the ‘New Deal’, a reining in of power of the banking classes in particular, and placing them under the umbrella of federal regulation. This in turn ushered in five decades in which the lot of most ordinary Americans improved dramatically. The wealthiest were still rich, but paid hefty taxes and so were unable to purchase politicians to do their bidding.


Contrast this with the response to the 2008 crisis. This time, the ordinary public in Ireland and around the world was saddled with the newly ‘nationalised’ private gambling debts of the rich. Since then, the number of billionaires globally has nearly doubled.

As Monbiot pointed out, this accelerating inequality, based on the domination of key assets, including natural wealth, by a tiny handful of billionaires, “can only be counteracted through government actions, through taxes designed to break the spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation, to redistribute wealth, and to prevent anyone from becoming so economically powerful that they come to dominate our politics”.

Young US politician, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has attracted huge public interest recently for her proposal to tax the wealth of those earning more than $10 million a year at the rate of 70%. People who say there’s no point in this, “completely forget that one of the purposes of taxation is to change social outcomes, to prevent any one group from becoming so powerful that they become dominant”, Monbiot notes.

Failure of successive governments to rein in private wealth accumulation since the late 1970s (the era of Reagan and Thatcher) has allowed “extreme economic power to translate into political power”, and this in turn has helped fuel the political crisis that currently grips much of the world.

Public cynicism at the manifest corruption and corporate capture of the political process has, Monbiot argues powerfully, given rise to Trumpism in the US, Erdogan in Turkey, Orbán in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines and more recently, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. “This demagoguery, or the support for it, is a direct response or reaction to the closure of political choice that preceded it for the last 30 years or so.”
The apparently senseless decision by the British public to vote in favour of Brexit was also a manifestation of this sense of politically powerlessness. “This was your first chance to aim a flying kicking the system, so in a sense, why wouldn’t you take it?”

All these outcomes are, he argues, the bitter fruit of neoliberalism, an ideology developed over a number of decades to deify selfishness and acquisitiveness while denying the powerful human traits of cooperation, empathy and even the notion of society itself.

The cult of neoliberalism “claims is that human beings are primarily selfish, greedy, and competitive…we harness those traits to create a hyper-competitive transactional society, where our main interactions are buying and selling, and this provides the ‘natural order’ of the dominant and the subordinate”.

As the French poet and essayist, Charles Baudelaire wrote: ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’. And so it is with neoliberalism, a cult that was incubated in universities, think tanks and right wing newspapers, that came to present these radical ideas as though they were simply the revelation of the laws of nature itself.

An entirely intended consequence of the ideology of the all-powerful marketplace is to imply that politics itself is somehow an illegitimate sphere, and the only place where real decision-making should occur is the marketplace, which is of course heavily rigged in favour of the very people promoting this perspective.

From the point of view of the wealthy, a tiresome aspect of democracy is the idea that everyone’s vote counts for as much as everyone else’s. By displacing politics with ‘the market’, the rich now have far more votes than the ordinary people, and so can transmute that wealth directly into political power.

As Monbiot put it: “what the system of thought called neoliberalism does, is to shift power out of the hands of the democratic majority, and into the hands of the economic minority, replacing democracy with plutocracy”.

Political failure is, he argues, at root, a failure of imagination. At heart, we humans are creatures of narrative; when we try to make sense of the overwhelmingly complex world around us, we do so not in scientific or philosophical terms, but rather, in seeking an underlying narrative. “Those who tell the stories, rule the world”, Monbiot observed.

Intriguingly, he points out that both the Keynesian and neoliberal worldviews are essentially ‘restoration tales’. The narrative is roughly as follows: ‘the land has been thrown into disorder by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humankind. But the heroes stand up to these forces and, against the odds, overthrow them, and order is once again restored in the land’.

In the Keynesian narrative, the nefarious forces were unfettered plutocrats who had plunged the world into chaos and people into poverty. The heroic forces were the state, supported by the middle and working classes, and using the instrument of taxation, brought the plutocrats to heel and order was restored.

When deep economic crisis hit in the mid-1970s, the neoliberals had regrouped and were ready to once again seize power, this time with their own restoration story’ of how the nefarious forces of the overweening state had crushed free enterprise and individual liberty. The new hero was the wealthy entrepreneur, who reined in the state and restored the freedom (and primacy) of the marketplace and placed individual free will above the notion of society or the social contract.

Monbiot notes that the restoration story is as old as human society itself. “You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one”. This, he argues, is why, with the manifest failure of neoliberal ideology as evidenced in the financial collapse of 2008, no alternate narrative had been developed to give people a different vision for the future.

Even a reversion to Keynesianism is, for a variety of reasons, now impossible. Chief among these is that it too depended on the doctrine of constant economic growth to be maintained, and as we slam into multiple planetary boundaries as a direct result of over-production, over-consumption and our inability to handle the waste products of industrial civilisation, any model depending on growth is now doomed to failure.

The alternative narrative that Monbiot tentatively offered us in Belfast is that the heroes of the new story are the common people, who come together in collective action, not just political, but social, and start the process of rebuilding the social fabric of society that has been hollowed out by decades of neoliberalism.

A core human yearning is to have a sense of belonging. Fascists and populists have already been quick to exploit this with slogans and bogeymen. Monbiot yearns for the politics of belonging, which allows societies to begin to mend and recover, and rebuild their power and connectedness from the grassroots upwards.

Right now: “we are a society of altruists, governed by psychopaths”, he wryly concluded.

– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and is online @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Duck, dither, dodge, delay: the new, improved climate denial

Below, my report as it ran on DeSmog UK on the latest climate denier get-together, involving our old friends at the ICSF, in what is their 10th sort-of-public meeting. For an organisation with no known membership list and no apparent way of joining (or donating), it is doing a remarkable job in hosting so many meetings involving, in most cases, bringing in speakers from the international denier circuit.

For this latest meeting, they changed tactics and brought in some Irish speakers to answer the question: “Climate Action to 2030 – What is really Feasible?” Many eyebrows were raised at the decision by Teagasc, the state agriculture research agency, to allow one of its senior figures to attend. Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan was clearly unhappy at their presence. He feels ICSF’s talks are “designed to undermine climate science… [and that] is not being open to enquiry and listening to different views”.

My favourite slide from the mini-forum was by a mechanical engineer from UCD. It showed a Tesla in flames, and the chilling headline: ‘Tesla battery reignited twice after fatal crash in Florida’. They’re death traps, I tells ya! Among the shock conclusions: “CO2 benefits of Electric vehicles are highly questionable”; and “Current EV financial subsidies are unsustainable” and, of course, “Internal combustion engines have a long future”. So, business-as-usual, in other words.

We have, it appears, been well warned about these new fangled exploding EVs. Somebody must have forgot to tell those backward Norwegians. In March 2019, 58% of all new car sales in Norway were electric, with Tesla the number one brand. What a bunch of dummies, eh? Didn’t anyone tell them the internal combustion engine has a long future behind it?

Running a talking shop like the ICSF can’t be cheap. All those flights, transfers, speaking fees, hotel room rentals, website, agendas, flyers etc. etc, must be running at this stage to tens of thousands of euros, but, according to its chair, one Jim O’Brien, “ICSF operates to a very modest budget and is entirely self‐funded. It has no vested interests other than disseminating the latest climate science in the public interest”.

Someone should get these guys to build the National Children’s Hospital, given how far they’ve managed to stretch their ‘very modest budget’. The public interest is no doubt already in their debt for their selfless work.

Our plucky band of retired and semi-retired have-a-go iconoclasts have modestly debunked those know-nothings at the IPCC, which is great news all round as we can get back to business-as-usual, now that the most powerful international scientific consensus in history has been so brilliantly unpicked.

Or, in Jim’s own words: “the ICSF proposes that national climate policy should be based on ongoing energy innovation, efficiency and conservation measures compatible with continued economic growth (my emphasis) rather than imposing any economically and socially‐regressive measures”. Brilliant, truly brilliant, gents. A grateful world thanks you for your service.

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THE climate science denying Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) held another behind closed doors meeting, and this time a government agency accepted the invitation.

The group has previously invited infamous climate science deniers from around the world to speak at its events, casting aspersions on the veracity of mainstream climate science. It has also submitted arguments to the Irish Parliament, suggesting climate change isn’t as bad as scientists make out.

The ‘economic’ arguments on climate change are understood to be the topic of the ICSF’s latest event, with the ‘mini-seminar’ on 13 March 2019 titled ‘Climate action to 2030 – what is really feasible?’

Among the guest speakers were scheduled to be Trevor Donnellan, head of economics and farm surveys at Teagasc, Ireland’s national agriculture research agency, David Timoney, a mechanical engineer from University College, Dublin and Kevin O’Rourke, described as ‘an independent specialist in sustainable energy policies’.

Once again, the press, including DeSmog UK, was barred from attending this invitation-only meeting of the secretly funded ICSF, which has in recent months strengthened its ties to the London-based climate denial group, the GWPF, with whom it regularly shares speakers.

The Teagasc press office declined to comment on whether it was aware of the ICSF’s climate science denial. It also declined to comment on whether it considered it appropriate that a government agency official would be speaking at an event from which the public and press were barred, for an organisation which refuses to disclose its sources of funding.

A spokesperson for the Teagasc told DeSmog UK:

“Teagasc has presented results from its research to multiple organisations. This is another opportunity to outline which mitigation measures can contribute to reducing Ireland’s emissions from the land-use sectors”.

Leader of the Irish Green party, Eamon Ryan, criticised Teagasc’s decision to allow Donnellan to speak at the event. He questioned why a Teagasc representative was involved with a group whose events have been “clearly designed to call into question climate science”, GreenNews.ie reports.

Lagging Behind

This week, the Parliamentary All-Party Committee on Climate Action concluded that “Ireland cannot meet its international emissions targets without tackling agricultural sector emissions”, according to a draft report.

Various reports have ranked Ireland as the worst country in the EU on climate action, with much of this failure attributable to the work of powerful lobby groups such as the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and IBEC, the business lobby group.

In another reminder of the close personal ties between agricultural lobbyists and top politicians, the IFA president was photographed accompanying Ireland’s prime minister and foreign minister to the international rugby match in Dublin last weekend. The foreign minister’s brother, Patrick Coveney, is CEO of the agri-food giant, Greencore.

Ireland’s agriculture sector is the number one producer of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for well over a third of total emissions. Greenhouse gases from this sector have begun to rise since 2015, following the removal of milk quotas and the rapid expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd.

Ireland’s has a 2020 EU target for to reduce emissions 20 percent on 2005 levels. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the country will “at best” manage a one percent reduction.

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

A harrowing but narrow vision of our climate-wrecked futures

Back in July 2017, I wrote a précis of an astonishing essay published earlier that year in the New York magazine. Titled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘, it set out an uncompromising picture of the rapid unravelling of the global climate system and the ensuing collapse of human civilisations.

While the article itself received massive public attention, the reception within the scientific community was markedly cooler, with criticisms mainly claiming that he had ‘gone too far’ in presenting scenarios on the apocalyptic end of the spectrum. His response to these charges was to pen an annotated version of his article, backing up, line by line, the statements and claims he made. It was an extremely impressive piece of work.

Though a relative neophyte to climate and environmental reporting in 2017, the author, David Wallace-Wells has since then switched to more or less full time work in this field. This culminated, perhaps inevitably, in a book of the same name, which was published in February. Having been so taken by the essay back in 2017, I was keen to get my hands on the book, and arranged to review it for the Irish Times.

I was, as you’ll read below, left a little underwhelmed. My main reason for feeling unmoved by The Uninhabitable Earth is that his harrowing vision of loss only ever covers one species. The rest of nature exists only in the shadows, a mere prop in the really important story, as he sees it: the fate of one species and one species alone.

I was pleased and in truth a little surprised when Wallace-Wells got in touch directly after publication of my review. I thought he would want to redden my ear, but instead, here’s what he had to say:

“Thanks for the review, John, I really appreciate your close reading, and all the space the paper gave to the book. And, who knows, maybe I’ll begin feeling more deeply for the plight of other animals the longer I sit with this harrowing material…”

Having followed him on social media since then, I’d like to think there’s a little more interest on his part with the wider picture of the intersection of biodiversity collapse and climate change, but then again, that may be just my seeing what I want to see.

Having sat for at least a decade longer than Wallace-Wells with this harrowing topic, I have found my initially strongly anthropocentric perspective begin to flicker and fade, replaced with a broader, perhaps humbler, sense of the tragedy unfolding all around us.

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IN JULY 2017, New York magazine ran a hefty 7,000-word cover story titled “The Uninhabitable Earth”. Within a week, it had become the most widely read article ever published by the magazine. Its dystopian vision of a near-future razed by runaway climate change sparked a huge public reaction.

Far from a mere sensationalist screed, the essay, by David Wallace-Wells, had been meticulously researched over many months, shaped around an extensive review of the scientific literature as well as in-depth interviews with mainstream climatologists. What made this article so exceptional was its visceral bluntness. Humanity, he concluded, is stumbling blindly towards the precipice of an unfathomably grave global ecological catastrophe. Oddly, much of the initial criticism of his article came from the scientific community, where professional reticence is the norm, and where the label of “alarmism” is studiously avoided.

Wallace-Wells demurred: “when it comes to the challenge of climate change, public complacency is a far, far bigger problem than widespread fatalism – that many, many more people are not scared enough than are already ‘too scared’. In fact, I don’t even understand what ‘too scared’ would mean . . . I don’t think it’s a slur to call an article, or its writer, alarmist. I’ll accept that characterisation. We should be alarmed.”

Some 18 months later, his essay has been expanded into a full-length book of the same title, complete with 65 pages of end notes. “It is worse, much worse, than you think” is how he begins. He notes that today there is more carbon dioxide (a key greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere than at any time in the last several million years.

Scientists have been warning governments about this for decades, but real global political action can be traced back to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. While humanity has been emitting copious amounts of greenhouse gases for the last two centuries, it is sobering to consider that more than half of all the carbon dioxide humans have ejected into the atmosphere has happened in just the last three decades.

“This means we have now done as much damage to the environment knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance,” Wallace-Wells notes drily. “The story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime – the planet brought from apparent stability to the brink of catastrophe in the years between a baptism or bar mitzvah and a funeral”.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Wallace-Wells is not and never has been an environmentalist. “I don’t even think of myself as a nature person, I’ve lived my whole life in cities, enjoying gadgets built by industrial supply chains.” He admits with some candour that he has always accepted the implicit trade-off between nature and economic growth, “and figured, in most cases, I’d go for growth”.

So, what has changed? “I am like every other American who has spent their life fatally complacent, and wilfully deluded, about climate change,” which he now grasps threatens the very survival, let alone welfare, of our species.

As a fellow non-environmentalist who stumbled journalistically into climate change as a “story” some 15 or so years ago, I have some sympathy for Wallace-Wells, who is clearly still personally reeling from the mind-numbing, sanity-bending implications of what he has uncovered.

What I found disappointing is that his grim journey of discovery does not yet appear to have widened his circle of empathy beyond the fate of humanity. Yet already, the unmistakable scent of death is all around us. Scientists estimate that between 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours as ecosystems unravel.

Yet the destruction of the natural world and collapse in global biodiversity only appears to concern Wallace-Wells insofar as it impacts on one species. One of his all-too-rare forays into looking at climate impacts on non-humans involves the shocking mass death of hundreds of thousands of an Asian dwarf antelope, the saiga, in a single incident in May 2015. Elevated temperatures had caused a usually benign bacteria to suddenly turn deadly. Once again, the author only filters this as a potentially cautionary tale for humans.

“I may be alone on the environmental left in feeling that the world could lose much of what we think of as ‘nature’ as far as I cared, so long as we could go on living as we have in the world left behind.” The problem, he laments, “is we can’t”.

It dawned on me that the meaning of the term Uninhabitable Earth in his title only relates to its fitness to support humans – an astonishingly reductive view of a planet teeming with countless millions of species, a vanishingly rare jewel of diversity, beauty and complexity in the cosmos.

Wallace-Wells is correct in noting that while much of the disruption that awaits us in the coming decades is already baked in, thanks to climate system inertia, he wonders aloud: “if humans are responsible for the problem, they must be capable of undoing it.”

This, unfortunately, is rarely how cascading failures in complex systems play out. The climate genie is already out of the bottle, yet just how much havoc lies ahead, and within what time scale, is very much up for grabs.

He quotes the novelist Richard Powers urging us to: “unblind ourselves to human exceptionalism”. Yet within a few pages, Wallace-Wells is back to hubristic musings about transcendent human exceptionalism: “We have an idiomatic name for those who hold the fate of the world in their hands, as we do: gods”.

Wallace-Wells is a skilled essayist, as evidenced in his 2017 New York magazine article. Rather than advancing and refining his original arguments, the book feels rushed, and might have benefitted from a good deal more editing to clarify and develop his arguments, while also freeing the narrative from an unhelpful tangle of statistics and extraneous details.

While it has its strengths, perhaps its greatest shortcoming is that his journey of discovery should have left the author so one-dimensional and oddly detached in his narrow gaze at the fate of one species among millions.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

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Incoherent, inconsistent – and not really funny at all

Below, my article as it appeared on DeSmog UK earlier this month. This is my 13th piece to appear on DeSmog since May 2017, when I reported on the inaugural ICSF meeting in Dublin, featuring big-name US denier, Richard Lindzen. While barred from attending that meeting (and every meeting since) I did drop by the Sandymount Hotel that first evening to snap a shot of the meeting in progress, and was struck by the uniformly ‘male, pale and stale’ profile of the attendees.

I also dropped by earlier this month to do some more light reconnaissance in and around the meeting, to the same venue, and took the opportunity to snap a new photo discreetly from the rear of the meeting room (see below). You will note, once again, the overwhelmingly elderly white male profile of the attendees (the only person who looked remotely under the age of 50 was one of the speakers, a young GWPF ‘researcher’).

Few if any of these ageing gentlemen will be around to find out whether their boundless optimism about the resilience of the global atmosphere and its unshakeable climate equilibrium turns out to be as absolutely misguided as the science suggests. Still, lucky for them they mostly won’t be around to face the wrath of the public (or, for that matter, their own families) when they finally come to realise how cruelly they have been misled and betrayed by these gung-ho ageing contrarians.

Under ordinary circumstances you might feel some pity for or even embarrassment on behalf of the author of the ridiculous but aptly titled GWPF ‘Deficiencies’ report, given how cruelly this latest ‘scholarship’ has been lampooned by actual practising climatologists, and his ever more risible attempts at defending it.

But these are not ordinary circumstances. The ICSF/GWPF science sabotage project has moved so far beyond the realm of fair comment or genuine skepticism that those who peddle it and those who support them deserve nothing less than contempt from anyone who cares about science or, for that matter, our collective future.

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THROUGH participation in events and media links, the connection between UK’s premier climate science denial campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) and its counterpart in Ireland, the Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF), has significantly strengthened in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, the ICSF hosted what it described as a ‘mini-seminar’ in a south Dublin hotel, involving three speakers, including Harry Wilkinson, a GPWF researcher whose published works to date constitute a series of climate-denying articles for ‘The Conservative Woman’ website. While the ICSF, which operates in secret, and refuses to divulge either its membership or income sources, has brought a series of well-known climate deniers over the last two years, this is the first time the GWPF has been officially represented.

Other speakers included Irish engineer, Gerry Duggan and French mathematician and climate science denier, Benoit Rittaud.

DeSmog learned that the invitations to the ICSF seminar were sent to all members of the Parliamentary Committee. Ireland’s Regulation of Lobbying Act requires individuals and groups engaged in lobbying to register and verify their details on the Lobbying.ie website and make written returns every four months. To date, the ICSF has not lodged any account of its ongoing lobbying activities.

The topic of the ICSF’s Dublin seminar was: ‘Climate Action – Too Taxing?’, yet none of its three speakers has expertise or qualifications in either climate science or economics. According to the ICSF, “the results of the presentation and discussion could form the basis for an ICSF submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action”.

While prohibited from attending this week’s ICSF meeting in Dublin, DeSmog did manage to photograph the meeting in progress from the back of the hotel room.

In mid-December, the GWPF also issued its latest briefing document, titled ‘Deficiencies in the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5 Degrees’, authored by ICSF founder and long-time climate contrarian, Ray Bates, who retired from University College Dublin’s meteorology department 15 years ago.  Despite not being peer-reviewed and containing numerous glaring deficiencies, Bates’ document achieved some largely uncritical media coverage in Ireland.

The GWPF document is “a cut-and-paste of long-debunked arguments from climate change deniers published by a highly questionable thinktank”, according to practising climatologist and IPCC lead author, Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University (Thorne’s full blog, responding in depth to the GWPF document, was posted on Maynooth University’s ICARUS website)

Dr Gavin Schmidt, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, went further, describing Bates’ work as a “silly pseudo-rebuttal to mainstream science … basically a dialled-in work-for-hire. It’s incoherent, inconsistent, a little bit funny and adds nothing to our understanding of the science behind the SR15 report, or indeed any aspect of the attribution issue”.

Bates also circulated copies of his discredited GPWF ‘Special Report’ to Ireland’s Parliamentary Committee on Climate Action, which he has repeatedly attempted to be allowed to present to, but has been rebuffed on each occasion to date.

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A very British coup: rise and fall of the climate contrarians

In recent months, I’ve been involved as one of a number of authors in an international project for a forthcoming academic publication looking at the state of environmental journalism around the world (my brief covered the UK and Ireland). One of the privileges of taking on this kind of work is that you get to meet and interview some extremely interesting people.

One of these was the former BBC environment correspondent, Richard Black (now director of the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit) In the course of the interview, it transpired that he had just completed a book on the phenomenon of organised climate denial, with a key focus on the UK. As soon as it was published, I got my copy and offered a review to the Irish Times (below), which was published yesterday.

As has been covered elsewhere on this blog, organised climate denial is a new phenomenon to wash up on Irish shores, having first broken cover with a sort-of public meeting by a group styling itself the ‘Irish Climate Science Forum’ in May 2017. While their activities are beyond the scope of Black’s book, it has much to teach us of the cynical tactics such anti-science ideologues employ to spread doubt and misinformation.

Climate deniers have little or no interest in persuading the general public. As Black observes: “I think the point has never been to sway public opinion, but to impact politics”. What groups like the GWPF and ICSF have in common is their ongoing efforts to disguise political points as scientific arguments, relying on the media’s generally poor grasp of the mechanisms and conventions of science to help pull off this deception.

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IN THE history of science, it is probable that no phenomenon has been as rigorously investigated over many decades by multiple scientific disciplines as climate change. And with good reason. After all, the science of climatology is now warning with ever greater urgency that we stand on the cusp of potentially cataclysmic changes in the conditions of life on Earth.

Yet, in the face of this overwhelming international scientific consensus, there remains widespread scepticism within parts of the media, in politics and among some public officials. Why? Richard Black’s intriguing new book, ‘Denied – the rise and fall of climate contrarianism’ attempts to explore this enigma, with a strong focus on the UK. It is, the author admits, “a book that, in a rational society, should not be needed”. But it assuredly is.

The role of the US energy industry in funding climate denial is already well documented. In our nearest neighbour, it took on a peculiarly British complexion, with at times as much outright farce as corruption at play. Black labels this motley band of egotists and eccentrics ‘conviction contrarians’.

While they initially had a value in raising some useful questions, these contrarians “now resemble nothing so much as a rhetorical version of Monty Python’s Black Knight, as it desperately tries to protect its intellectual hinterland”.

Although now looking decidedly ridiculous, these same figures have held a disproportionate degree of political sway. A big part of the reason, Black argues, is media collusion. From a career journalist and former BBC News environment correspondent, this is a serious charge against his colleagues, but he amply supports it in this forensic appraisal.

The best known of these is Nigel Lawson (86), former chancellor of the exchequer. Neither his age nor his lack of relevant training or expertise has in any way dimmed Lawson’s belief that he has outfoxed the entire global scientific community. His high media profile led to him being invited to ‘debate’ with actual scientists on flagship BBC programmes.

Earlier this year, largely in response to public and scientific anger at repeated false statements made on air by Lawson and other contrarians, the BBC introduced new training materials for producers, presenters and reporters on climate change. RTÉ, specifically PrimeTime, has had an ongoing problem with how to present climate change, and could sorely do with guidelines of its own.

Failing that, a copy of Black’s book on every Irish editor’s 2019 reading list might suffice, as it unpicks the full bag of tricks and tactics used by contrarians to promote carefully concocted false narratives regarding climate change and renewable energy. “For anyone who cares about journalism, it is troubling to see the absolute lack of scepticism that editors display towards this tiny elite clique of commentators”, Black notes. The three striking aspects of the UK contrarian commentariat are, he says, how small it is, how tightly knit and how effectively it has “penetrated some of the nation’s most important newspapers”.

Another clique member is Matt Ridley, best known as the first person to preside over the collapse of a British bank – Northern Rock – in a century and a half. Undeterred, today, he is an ‘advisor’ to Lawson’s secretly-funded denialist think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation and a high profile media columnist. No doubt his hostility to climate science is in no way influenced by the fact that he operates two coal mines on his 8,500 acre estate.

Black patiently unpicks Ridley’s faux analysis, showing how he systematically skews source material such as IPCC reports to produce lines like: ‘Nigel Lawson was right after all’. Pointing out how, despite the contrarians, the average British person is worried about climate change and supports renewable energy, Black confides: “I think the point has never been to sway public opinion, but to impact politics”.

Other high profile contrarians look and sound like they’ve walked off the set of an Ealing comedy. James Delingpole is to contrarianism what Jacob Rees-Mogg is to Brexit. In the Daily Telegraph in 2013, Delingpole wondered aloud whether a named climate scientist should be hanged or given the electric chair. This is all very droll until actual people start getting killed.

Black sees the concerted efforts of these well-connected contrarians as “an attempted coup – nothing less than the hijacking of the narrative by a tiny group of the political and media elite, using a set of arguments that increasingly diverged from reality”. Their tactics included “personal vilification and manufactured attacks…you may of course argue with the word ‘coup’ if you like. But I for one am stumped for a better term”.

While climate contrarianism has been grossly overrepresented in newspaper opinion columns, Black’s eminently readable account leaves the last word to David Aaronovitch from The Times in 2016: “When it comes to fear, prejudice, poor science, confirmation bias and conspiracism, few lobbies can match the anti-man-made-climate-change brigade”.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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A tale told by an idiot, full of sound & fury, signifying nothing

In many respects, 2018 has been another thoroughly dispiriting year on the climate and environment beat. The publication in October of the IPCC’s SR1.5 report extinguished any remote hope that the pace and severity of climate breakdown might be less than feared.

Paul Krugman in the NYT last month surveyed the horrific damage being done by climate deniers and contrarians in a column titled: ‘The depravity of climate change denial – Risking civilization for profit, ideology and ego’. And frankly, that’s exactly how I see it.

Domestically, the hope that the faucet of anti-science nonsense infecting the Irish media had been finally turned off were well and truly dashed just before Christmas, with the publication of a ‘report’ by retired meteorologist Ray Bates for the secretive London-based climate denier think tank, the GWPF.

As anyone with even a passing understanding of how science works will know, if a scientist has prepared a bona fide critique of mainstream science, the next step is to submit it for peer-review and publication in a relevant science journal. That way, the claims and underlying assumptions presented can be thoroughly fact-checked and challenged if necessary by qualified scientists before publication and certainly, before you go rushing to the Farmers Journal or a climate denial  think tank with secretive funding sources and a long record in spreading doubt and disinformation.

Unsurprisingly, the Farmers Journal chose to splash this in its columns. It has cynically enabled the peddling of anti-science dogma for at least the last 18 months, and shows no sign of letting up.

Bates’s column was grandly titled: ‘I do not see the current scientific evidence as indicating we are in a state of planetary emergency’. Had that been the end of it, I wouldn’t have even bothered mentioning it here, given the Journal has long since abandoned all pretence at journalism on environmental and climate matters.

However, worse, much worse, was to follow, the next day, when, quite inexplicably, the Irish Times chose to reheat some of Bates’s red herrings in a news report headed: ‘Irish scientist questions warnings on climate change’. This was catnip to deniers everywhere, and sure enough, this report was quickly lapped up by denier blogs and publications worldwide. What makes this even more unfortunate and difficult to fathom is that the Irish Times has significantly upped its game on climate coverage in the last year or two

Every action has, however, an equal and opposite reaction. First, Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University, an actual practising climatologist and IPCC Lead Author, issued a quite devastating take-down of Bates’s scholarship in a detailed posting on the ICARUS website. He explained Bates’s “wilful misinterpretation of AR5 attribution findings” and continues: “Ray Bates goes on to throw in a couple of red herrings on the Oceans for good measure”.

Thorne then went on to explain the painfully obvious: despite his protestations, Bates is simply not a climatologist. “Ray has had a long and distinguished career. But that career has been in atmospheric dynamics and not climate. Yes, both are to do with the atmosphere, but when your toilet is backing up you call the plumber and not the electrician. In the same way when looking for guidance on climate change it is advisable to listen to the climate scientists”, Thorne expanded.

Then, the most damming of all: “The analysis of Ray Bates is not a peer reviewed paper and finding substantive flaws in it is really not that hard. This has taken me all of an hour of an evening”. Worse, much worse, was to come for Bates. The coup de grace was delivered the following day, by no less an authority than Dr Gavin Schmidt, eminent climatologist, climate modeller and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“As dark nights draw in, the venerable contrarians at the GWPF are still up late commissioning silly pseudo-rebuttals to mainstream science”, Schmidt began, and it didn’t get any better from there. Bates’s attempt to claim the SR1.5 report was at odds with the IPCC’s core findings was dismissed as: “categorically, absolutely, and totally, untrue”. After tearing several more strips off Bates’s repeated misrepresentations of science, Schmidt concludes wearily: “Overall, this is basically a dialed-in work-for-hire. It’s incoherent, inconsistent, a little bit funny and adds nothing to our understanding of the science behind the SR15 report, or indeed any aspect of the attribution issue.”

For anyone with a shred of concern for their own standing among their ‘peers’ this is beyond devastating, but lest any of Bates’s fan-base at the ICSF and IFA/IFJ were still a little unclear as to how the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies regards their star climatologist, Schmidt sums it all up with a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing”.

=========================

Separately, earlier this month, taking a cue from the absolutely inspirational 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, I pitched a piece to the Irish Times, and was beyond chuffed when they commissioned an article in two parts, one section written by me, the other, by my 16-year-old daughter, Sophie (her very first venture into print). The link to the article I posted on my Twitter account has been viewed and shared over 60,000 times, so it clearly struck a chord. The full text is below.

Finally, to everyone who continues to fight the good fight on climate and environmental action and activism, I salute and applaud you. The odds have never looked worse, but to borrow a line from author Harper Lee: ‘Real courage is when you know you’re licked but you begin anyway, and see it through, no matter what’.

In 2019, let’s begin, once again. Happy new year.

===============

‘WHY SHOULD I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly means nothing to our society?”

It is hard to argue with the razor-sharp logic of 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, as she spelled out to the UN climate conference in Poland last week the reason why she has embarked on a “climate strike” in Sweden since September.

“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago,” Thunberg added.

She has a point. And if you doubt it, consider the recent statements made by Ireland’s most senior civil servants representing the “public interest” to the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action. Flanked by advisers, they trooped in, day after day, to explain why Ireland, a wealthy nation, cannot possibly be expected to meet even its minimum legal and ethical obligations on climate action.

Their positions both reflect and amplify the political lacuna that engulfs almost every effort at meaningful environmental stewardship in Ireland. These same officials and politicians doubtless have children they care deeply for and actively plan for their future. Yet their actions and inactions are in a very real sense helping to burn that same future to the ground.

Naturalist, David Attenborough (92) was a young teenager just as Europe exploded into the deadliest conflict in human history. Today, he is adamant the threats facing the world are immeasurably greater than even the second World War.

“Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change”, Attenborough told a stunned audience in Katowice, Poland. “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Last month, thousands of Australian students, inspired by Thunberg, walked out of their schools for a one-day strike. Some were threatened with disciplinary action. Australian resource minister Matt Canavan jeered that they should be in school learning about mining, and all they would learn on their protest would be “how to join the dole queues”.

It takes profound cognitive dissonance for otherwise intelligent adults to pretend not to grasp basic science. “Why should we go to school when you won’t listen to the educated?” read one of the posters at a rally in Sydney.

“Nothing could be more damaging for our democracy than for budding citizens to be told by the powerful to get back in their boxes and shut up,” ethicist Prof Clive Hamilton wrote last week. “Thank God the kids have decided they won’t be bullied.”

School protests have now spread to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland and Denmark. When will we see the first one in Ireland?

As a citizen and journalist, I am angry and frustrated at the appalling cynicism in Ireland’s collective non-response to this unfolding tragedy. But as a parent, I am simply terrified.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

=======================

Why I would like to see a strike in my school

When I think about the world around me today I can’t help but fear for my own future. Every single day, fossil fuels are being burned and more species are going extinct. The natural world has been so severely damaged, I honestly don’t see much hope for my adult life.

When people talk about climate change it is never described as a crisis or something that should be dealt with now. It is not something that many people think about going about their day to day lives but it is what will have the most effect on our lives in the coming years.

We are treating this earth like we have a second one to go to or a “plan B” but we don’t. This is where we live, this is the only planet we can live and thrive on and we are throwing it all away. Politicians and other adults who we children and teenagers look up to and who we are told to trust are just ignoring this crisis. I know that scientists have been trying to warn them that the world is in danger due to human actions.

More action needs to be taken, this is our future more than theirs. Many of today’s adults won’t have to worry about what’s happening in 40 or 50 years. It is us, the children of this generation who will be so greatly affected, we will have to pick up the broken pieces of our world once we become adults. Our children may never know what an elephant or a tiger is because they were all killed off before they were even born. Even the birds are disappearing.

I admire what the school strikers are doing and I would love to see it happen in Ireland – and in my own school.

Sophie Gibbons (16) is a transition-year student in Dublin

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Window on ecological annihilation closing fast

Below, my article that appeared in the Irish Times at the beginning of this month, inspired by the publication in October of the WWF’s ‘Living Planet Report‘. Even when generally inured to the drumbeat of ecological bad news, the Living Planet Report is a real punch in the face. Some comments arising were published in the Letters page a few days after publication.

Human history is littered with tales of once-mighty empires and civilisations that crumbled into the dust. While the causes of such collapses are many, ecological overreach and resource exhaustion almost invariably are contributory factors, and societies on the brink of disaster seldom appear to see it coming.

When, for instance, the Mayan civilisation in Central America fell apart in the ninth century, the survivors at least had space to move elsewhere and start again. At that time the world’s population totalled about 400 million. The figure today is almost 20 times larger. Some three-quarters of the Earth’s land surface is dominated by humans and our domestic animals and agricultural systems.

In just the last 50 years, human numbers have more than doubled, the global economy has grown by a factor of four and most indicators of human progress, such as life expectancy, education and access to healthcare have improved. This is known as the “paradox of progress”.

Our success has been at a fearsome cost to the millions of other species with whom we share the planet. In what amounts to a global zero-sum game, virtually all humanity’s gains have been as a result of the ransacking of the natural world.

Just how devastating our progress has been was laid bare with the publication by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of its 2018 Living Planet Report. The authors pinpointed “exploding human consumption” as the driving force behind the accelerating collapse of nature and biodiversity.

Sharply increased demand for energy, land and water have devastated natural systems. The WWF study measures global biodiversity by tracking population abundance across thousands of vertebrate species. These have shown a stunning overall 60 per cent collapse in numbers since 1970. The tropics have seen the worst devastation, with an 89 per cent crash in vertebrate numbers recorded in South and Central America.

Marine life has been similarly impacted. Freshwater fish species, for instance, globally have tumbled 83 per cent in numbers since 1970, while pollution, gross overfishing and acidification are unravelling the web of life in the world’s oceans.

Astonishingly, of all the mammals on Earth, 96 per cent when measured by weight are humans or livestock, while all wild animals now account for just 4 per cent. Today, seven in 10 of the world’s entire bird population are chickens and other poultry.

Other recent studies have confirmed that the situation is equally dire for non-vertebrates. German research found that 76 per cent of flying insects had disappeared in just the last 25 years. Chief among the culprits is intensive agriculture; copious amounts of cheap food are delivered at the price of a toxic cloud of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers that have rendered entire natural landscapes functionally dead.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which are the by-products of our epic surge in economic activity and profligate energy usage, are dangerously altering the chemical balance of the atmosphere and oceans, with global CO2 levels now at their highest level in some 15 million years.

The situation in Ireland, despite our clever “green” marketing slogans, is little better. More than 90 per cent of our “protected” habitats are, according to the 2017 National Biodiversity Forum, in poor condition, while a third of our wild bee populations are in danger of extinction. The persecution of our few remaining species of wild animals, from badgers and foxes to hares, is considered an unofficial national sport.

On the same day the WWF report was published, Minister of State for Natural Resources Seán Canney reaffirmed Ireland’s support for offshore oil and gas exploration. On Canney’s own website, he states his vision for Ireland as “a place where our children and grandchildren can build a decent life for themselves”.

This profound disconnect between politics and reality is widespread. The Government’s own chief scientific adviser, along with assorted department heads, trooped into the joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action day after day to justify and rationalise the business-as-usual policies, from airport expansion to fossil fuel exploration, that have led us to the edge of the abyss.

The same short-termism and wilful ignorance of our absolute dependence on the natural world for our survival pervades both public and private sectors and bedevils politics. We now have an ever-narrowing window within which to reshape human societies to live within our ecological means, without annihilating nature in the process.

Celebrated Harvard naturalist Prof EO Wilson boldly proposed that half of planet Earth be set aside as a human-free natural reserve. In allowing nature to recuperate, humanity would also be throwing itself a lifeline. Instead, Brazil’s newly-elected far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is threatening to let loose agribusiness interests to tear down much of the Amazon rainforest, which produces more than 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen.

In the words of WWF chief Marco Lambertini: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying the planet and the last one that can do anything about it.” If you’re not already freaking out about the perilous state of our world, and demanding that our politicians wake up to reality, now might be a good time to start.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Running Amoc – uncertain future for Atlantic current

Below, my first article to appear in Passive House Plus magazine:

IF YOU LOOK at Ireland on an atlas, one thing that is striking is just how far north the island is located. Follow the lines of latitude east across the Atlantic and we are parallel with the Labrador peninsula in northern Newfoundland. This bleak, chilly landscape, where average winter temperatures rarely rise above zero degrees centigrade was famously portrayed in The Shipping News, a novel by Annie Proulx.

Ireland’s coldest month, in contrast, is January, with average temperatures of 5ºC; relative to Newfoundland, this is positively balmy. The difference between Ireland and Newfoundland is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or Amoc. This is just one part of a complex global system of ocean currents that act like a conveyor belt for currents. The Amoc transfers vast amounts of heat from the Caribbean region and brings this warmth to north western Europe.

One obvious beneficiary of this bounty is Garnish island in Bantry Bay. It enjoys an almost sub-tropical climate, as the warm surface waters drawn from the equator lap its shores, allowing it to support exotic plant species that would not survive elsewhere in Ireland.
Earlier this year, two research papers published in the respected journal Nature reached the same disturbing conclusion: the Amoc has slowed down by some 15% in recent decades, and the trend appears to be accelerating . The impacts of global warming, including the rapid melting of hundreds of billions of tons of fresh water from Greenland and into the north Atlantic is disrupting this vast current.

The idea of the Amoc (also known as the Gulf Stream) closing down suddenly has been dramatised in the 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, which imagined a shutdown of the ocean currents triggering a series of epic superstorms which then plunged the northern hemisphere into a new Ice Age.

While scientists scoffed at the liberties Hollywood took with science, the basic premise that the Amoc could shut down in a relatively short time frame and that this in turn would have catastrophic consequences for the entire north Atlantic region is entirely factual.
Just how severe these impacts might be was explored in depth by Nasa’s former chief scientist, Dr James Hansen and colleagues in a 2016 paper. “If Greenland fresh water shuts down deep water formation and cools the North Atlantic several degrees, the increased horizontal temperature gradient will drive superstorms, stronger than any in modern times”, Hansen explained in a video to accompany the paper. “All hell will break loose in the North Atlantic and neighbouring lands.”

To get a glimpse into just how bad, Hansen’s research team identified a previous period of rapid global warming around 120,000 years ago, towards the end of the Eemian period. At that time, a collapse of polar ice, fast rising sea level and a shutdown of the Amoc led to superstorms of epic dimensions sweeping the region.

A number of rocks, weighing up to 1,000 tons each, have been located perched on a cliff 20 metres above the Atlantic on an island in the Bahamas. Hansen believes these giant boulders were scooped up from the sea floor and tossed inland during a period of mega-storms far beyond anything modern humans have ever endured.

The Amoc shutdown would lead to the temperature difference between the newly chilled northern hemisphere and the even hotter tropics increasing sharply, and this is the fuel for storms capable of levelling cities. Storms notwithstanding, the Amoc shutdown would likely cause land temperatures in Ireland to plummet by several degrees, effectively wiping out our agricultural sector – just look at the severe impacts seen on grass growth for fodder production as a result of this year’s prolonged cold snap.

And while climate change almost never receives serious or sustained media coverage in Ireland, the recent confluence of extreme weather events has left many people wondering aloud if this is a bitter foretaste of what the scientists have been warning about for decades. The summer of 2018 has seen Ireland bask in an extraordinary sustained heatwave, triggering the worst drought in almost a century.

As recently as March 2018, Storm Emma swept in a severe snow event. A few months earlier, in October 2017, the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia battered Ireland, leaving three dead and a swathe of destruction across the country. A hurricane has never before been recorded in this part of the north Atlantic. And just two months earlier, a so-called ‘once-in-a-century’ monster flooding event in August 2017 centred in Donegal triggered landslides, with bridges and roads swept away in the deluge.

Commenting on the Donegal downpour, UCC climatologist, Dr Kieran Hickey suggested to me that: “phrases like ‘once-in-a-hundred years’ to describe these extreme events really need to be retired”. Over the last decade or so, he estimates that Ireland has experienced an extreme weather event, on average, every 6-8 months. This represents a staggering four to five-fold increase in the frequency of such extreme events versus typical Irish weather in the 20th century.

While there is little doubt the deluge in Donegal was a freak weather event, “if we were to do an in-depth analysis, I suspect we would detect a climate change element in terms of its severity”, added Dr Hickey. An EPA-funded climate attribution project involving Dr Hickey and colleagues at UCC, as well as Prof Myles Allen of Oxford University will spend the next two years investigating the specific fingerprint of climate change on recent extreme weather events in Ireland.

This may help to answer that seemingly eternal question as to whether and to what degree any specific extreme weather event may be influenced by climate change. While it is standard practice among weather forecasters to be reluctant to attribute any single event to climate change (given the huge natural variability within the climate system), climate researchers have been able to establish with a high degree of confidence that man-made climate change ‘dramatically increased’ the likelihood of the extreme heatwave that swept much of Europe during June 2017.

The researchers who carried out this work are known as World Weather Attribution (WAA), an international coalition of scientists who examine and try to quantify the role of climate change in individual extreme weather events.

The extreme temperatures that scorched the European mainland (but missed Ireland) last summer and that have left Ireland sweltering this year will become commonplace by mid-century “unless action is taken to rapidly cut carbon emissions”, the WAA stated.
“Since 1900 we have seen the likelihood of a summer as hot as 1995 increase 50-fold”, according to NUI Maynooth climatologist, Dr Conor Murphy. “By the end of the century our warmest summer on record up to now could plausibly by then be a cool summer”, he added.

The pattern of extreme weather that has rocked Ireland and many other parts of the world in just the last year fits eerily well into the more pessimistic modelling scenarios of climate specialists, who warn of the impact of ‘supercharging’ the global climate by pumping more and more of the powerful heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) along with other gases such as methane, into the global atmosphere is already being felt strongly.

Rigorous instrumental measurement of atmospheric CO2 only began as recently as 1958, but we have quite accurate proxy records stretching back some 800,000 years. In 1958, thanks to the pioneering measuring work of Dr Charles Keeling, we know that global atmospheric CO2 levels stood at 316 parts per million (ppm). Since then, CO2 has increased by almost 40% to today’s level of around 410ppm.

In other words, we have in just the last 60 years drastically altered the basic chemistry of the global atmosphere. Today’s CO2 levels are likely the highest experienced on Earth for at least three to five million years. Since the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, humans have flourished, our numbers expanded exponentially and our impacts are now being felt in every corner of the biosphere, from the upper atmosphere to the ocean basins.
The current interglacial era, known as the Holocene, has been perfect for humans, gifting us a prolonged period of thousands of years of, by historical standards, stable, benign climate, which has made global agriculture possible. This era is now at an end. The Holocene has been officially replaced by a new era, the Anthropocene, the Era of Man.

We have known for decades that loading vast amounts of CO2 into the global atmosphere would lead to a sharp increase in global average temperatures. Already, the world has warmed by over 1C versus pre-industrial. Worse, this heating will, as emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes such as deforestation continue unabated, spike by 2,3, 4C or even more this century.

This may not at first sound catastrophic, but it represents the most rapid rate of change in atmospheric conditions on Earth since a large asteroid slammed into the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico some 66 million years ago. It triggered a devastating global extinction event that famously ended the 230-million year reign of the dinosaurs.

In 2012, the World Bank commissioned a report to better understand what a world 4C hotter than today might look like. Its president, Jim Yong Kim described this level of temperature increase as a “doomsday scenario” that would trigger widespread crop failures and malnutrition and dislocate tens of millions of people from land inundated by rising seas and regions of the Earth, such as much of the Middle East, that become too hot for human habitation or agriculture.

Consider the political impacts on Europe of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing failed states in Africa and the Middle East in recent years. Multiply these numbers by 100 or even 1,000 and you begin to grasp the existential nature of the climate crisis.

Ireland’s island status will offer only the briefest of respites from the wrenching climate-fuelled upheavals that will drastically reshape our world in the decades ahead.

– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

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

Long day’s journey into 1.5º

Let’s get this out of the way first. On climate change, things are worse, a lot worse, than most people have been led to believe. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities”, according to the IPCC’s ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released in Korea earlier today.

From where we are today, 1.5°C is desperately close. Human actions have already driven up global average surface temperatures by at least 1°C, so we are already two thirds of the way to the 1.5°C ‘guard rail’ of what could in any terms be regarded as ‘safe’ temperature increases. (‘Stop Climate Chaos’ put out a good summary document early today, while GreenNews.ie also had excellent coverage).

As is becoming ever more apparent, even the amount of temperature increase already in the system is wielding dangerous outcomes in an ever more restive, supercharged global climate system. As the mercury rises, things can only get worse, and not necessarily in a linear fashion.

The IPCC report explains how net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” in the words of Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. He’s probably right, but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the emissions objectives needed to make this ‘unprecedented’ situation a reality.

For starters, globally, emissions have not fallen at all since 2010, so with 2019 just around the corner, than means we have precisely 11 years to hit the IPCC’s 2030 objective of a 45% cut in CO2e emissions. In simple terms, that means every nation on Earth, starting on January 1st next, manages to cut its carbon emissions by around 4% per annum, every year until 2030.

If you think that doesn’t sound too onerous, consider that Ireland was given the (binding) EU target of achieving a 20% cut in non-traded emissions in the 15 years from 2005 to 2020; so, a much longer time frame in which to achieve a much lower rate of emissions reductions. According to the EPA, we’re on target instead to achieve “at most” a solitary 1% cut versus 2005 levels. Take the impacts of the tail end of the last recession out and the figures would have been even worse.

In an economy like ours where success is only measured in terms of expansion of economic activity, rising emissions move in lock-step with this growth, given how highly dependent our energy, transport and (in Ireland especially) agriculture sector are on highly carbon-intensive systems. Consider also the phalanx of well-funded lobbyists fighting tooth and nail to make sure the economic gravy keeps flowing in their direction.

From IBEC to the IFA, and their many international counterparts, war chests running into hundreds of millions of euros per annum are available to lobby in favour of special interests and against our shared common good. Much of this lobbying happens behind closed doors and is therefore even more pervasive and difficult to unpick.

There are nearly 2 million private cars on Ireland’s roads, powered in around 99% of cases by liquid fuels. EVs are now finally on the visible horizon, but that revolution is going to take quite some time. While renewables have made genuine inroads, our energy sector remains similarly heavily dependent on fossil fuels, from oil and gas to peat.

So, change is tough. Countries in the developing world lack the finance and in many cases are lumbered with antiquated and dirty infrastructure that make an energy transition extremely difficult to achieve quickly. Developed, prosperous countries like Ireland mainly lack political will.

Any TD, especially one operating outside of a major urban area, who dares mention carbon taxes is politically dead meat. In our multi-seat constituencies, picking TDs off, one by one, is relatively simple for lobbyists, as this amazing FG backbencher effort to thwart even the most ridiculously modest carbon taxes in the Budget shows yet again.

Fine Gael-led administrations over the last seven years have been almost comically inept on this issue. Installing a rural TD as our first ever ‘climate action’ minister showed they were not entirely lacking in a sense of humour. Denis Naughten has, as planned, floundered around ineffectually. Whatever his personal abilities or beliefs, he has been handed a no-win brief, and it shows. His toothless National Mitigation Plan has been scrapped and taken back to the drawing board.

“This Report paints in stark terms the reality of the impact of our current trajectory of global emissions and the world we will be living in later this century if our collective ambition for climate action does not increase”, Naughten said today in response to the IPCC report. He added some of his standard spiel about the billions that will flow in the coming years under the National Development Plan (NDP) towards “addressing the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society”.

I for one genuinely wish him well, but would be a lot more convinced if, while talking in terms of tens of billions mañana, Naughten could point in the here and now, to modest, concrete and tangible steps he and his government are taking to prepare Ireland for the greatest peacetime transition in its history. Where are the ad campaigns? Where are the billboards? Or the websites and social media campaigns explaining the stark reality of climate change and what we can do to rapidly transition our society towards a less dangerous future?

They don’t exist. What we get instead is deeply cynical glossy mega-buck ad campaigns from fully state-controlled agencies like Bord Bia (‘Origin Green’) and Bord Na Móna (‘Naturally Driven’) while other state-controlled agencies like the ESB – run by people who presumably love their kids as much as anyone – source coal from Colombia to fuel power stations that help burn down our collective future. Politicians cynically say that the reason they don’t act on climate is that they don’t hear about it on the doorsteps, yet they could, for relative peanuts, engage the public and interest groups in a national dialogue on change.

To date, Naughten’s parody of leadership has involved insisting it’s not the job of politicians to “tell people what to do”. And as Fine Gael’s recent woeful ‘Green Week’ efforts show, it’s clear that Naughten has precious little support around the Cabinet table for anything that ventures beyond facile window dressing and easy PR stunts.

The Citizens’ Assembly showed clearly that we are not simply the narrowly self-absorbed automatons the marketers and political spin doctors believe we are. Given the plain facts, guided by experts, the Irish public displayed a perhaps unexpected appetite for tough choices. This occurred once people understood that the status quo is unacceptably dangerous right now and criminally reckless when the next generation’s needs are taken into account.

Prof Peter Thorne of NUI Maynooth, a contributing author of the report, put it elegantly in the Irish Times today: “The true cost of carbon, if accounting for the warming impact, is likely somewhere in the range of €150-€200 per ton. It’s currently taxed at 10 per cent of that. The result is a huge IOU to future generations.”

The same report quoted Dr Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the IPCC working group on climate impacts. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency”.

Complacency is a very good word to describe the predominant mood in Ireland. How else could a 30-something Taoiseach, in the teeth of the greatest existential crisis in human history, suggest with a straight face that switching to a keep cup was his ‘big idea’ on climate change? Twenty, maybe 30 years ago, that kind of incrementalism was understandable if not exactly laudable. Today? Unforgivable.

RTÉ did a fairly good job on its coverage, with George Lee genuinely animated (it’s a real shame the agriculture part of his dual mandate sucks up so much of his considerable energy). I called out to Montrose around 11am today to do a pre-record for an earlier TV news bulletin (clip embedded in report linked here).

While the Irish Times carried reports throughout the day, I could find almost zero evidence of this story on Independent.ie. The sole story in its Environment section related instead to the issue of whether or not coal and petrol would get a hike in tomorrow’s Budget. This, bear in mind, is Ireland’s largest newspaper group, and not a sausage all day on the biggest IPCC announcement since the Paris Accord in December 2015.

The Examiner took a quirkier approach, linking the IPCC report with tips to reduce your carbon footprint when travelling. Its advice to pack lightly (“this will make your plane that little bit more fuel efficient, as it’s not weighed down with jumpers and swimming costumes you don’t actually end up wearing”) speaks for itself. To be fair, the article does later on actually suggest the need to reduce air travel, but still clings to the view that “Long-haul air travel is unavoidable”.

Actually, yes it is. Realistically, we’re going to need to drastically reduce the amount of non-essential aviation globally. A strict carbon rationing system would at least mean it could be done equitably, but imagine the kerfuffle if Prof Peter Thorne’s suggested €150-€200 per tonne carbon tax were applied to aviation? A return economy class flight from Dublin to Los Angeles generates around 2.3 tonnes of CO2e, which, at a median €175/tonne carbon tax, would slap an additional €402 on your ticket price. Now, I wonder how would an idea like that fly politically?

To bring a long day to a conclusion, BBC’s Flagship program, Newsnight, had a segment on the IPCC report. It made the idiotic editorial decision to give a platform to a flat-out denier, Myron Ebell, of the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute to “debate” the IPCC report, in the interests of balance, don’t you know. (I wrote about this individual in the IT back in Nov 2016)

In summary: we thought 2ºC represented the red line beyond which lay the dragons of climate chaos. Now we know it’s 1.5ºC, tops. This concept was first put on the public agenda in Paris in December 2015, and has now taken solid form in today’s report.

And there’s the rub. We already know that, if every country on Earth honoured each and every one of their (non-binding) Paris commitments in full (and they assuredly won’t, Ireland included) then the world is on a glide path for, not 1.5, not 2, but a calamitous 3.4ºC average temperature increase in the decades.

The real value of today I would suggest, is not to remind us of the near-impossibility of keeping global temperatures within the 1.5ºC guard-rail, but instead, as a timely, stinging final warning of the simply unconscionable consequences of not succeeding. Until we fully grasp the price of failure, the cost of striving to succeed will always seem too high.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Organised denial targets Dáil climate committee

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) has been in session over the last couple of weeks. It is tasked with reviewing the recommendations of last November’s Citizens’ Assembly section entitled: ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’ and bringing proposals to government.

Already, the lobbyists (who were barred from addressing or influencing the deliberations of the 99 ordinary Irish citizens who comprised the Citizens’ Assembly) are swarming over the JOCCA. One of the more, let’s say, interesting submissions it received was from our old friends, the Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF).

Regular readers will be familiar with this grouping of mainly long-retired engineers and weathermen which has set itself up, Canute-like, to try and hold back the ever rising tides of scientific and real-world evidence that climate change is real, it’s extremely dangerous, it’s here right now and it’s quickly getting worse.

Some people feel the ICSF are just a group of harmless science hobbyists with a lot of time on their hands engaged in the pleasant group delusion of having heroically unpicked a century and more of climate science and found it to be basically bunk. That the people who believe they have upscuttled the most powerful global consensus in any branch of the physical sciences are completely unqualified to do so (not a single atmospheric scientist/climatologist listed among the 10 signatories attached to their JOCCA submission) makes their plucky little band even more, well, remarkable.

I’m just not one of those people. This murky group includes some extremely well connected and no doubt influential individuals. The scope for this mischief-making to do real and lasting damage to climate action in Ireland is too real for them to be laughed off as harmless amateur science meddlers. Below, the report I filed for the investigative site, DeSmog.uk yesterday detailing their latest play:

CLIMATE DENIAL group the Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) has significantly escalated its lobbying campaign to prevent climate action.

The group’s main function until now has been to hold behind-closed-doors meetings with infamous climate science deniers as guest speakers. But it has now submitted a document to the Irish Parliament insisting climate change simply isn’t as bad as scientists make out, DeSmog UK has learned.

The group, which has no publicly accessible membership or officer list, has run a series of ‘invitation-only’ events in Dublin over the last 18 months allowing familiar faces from the world of climate denial, such as Richard Lindzen, William Happer, Henrik Svensmark and Nicola Scafetta to showcase their debunked arguments against taking action on climate change.

Its seventh talk, which once again bars media and NGOs, took place on Wednesday September 26 in Dublin, and featured William van Wijngaarden, who was expected to make his oft-repeated claim that the greenhouse gas influence of agricultural emissions are “significantly less than hitherto estimated by the IPCC”.

As a result of the strong recommendations arising from a Citizens’ Assembly report on climate change issued late last year, the Irish parliament recently convened a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) to examine the Assembly’s findings and make recommendations for action to government.

Ireland is one of the worst performing countries in the EU in terms of meeting its mandated obligations on emissions reduction, largely due to the lobbying power of key interest groups, including the agri-industrial and transport sectors. Instead of meeting its 2020 EU obligation to achieve a 20 percent cut in emissions versus a benchmark of 2005, Ireland is currently on track to achieve “at most” a one percent emissions cut, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Submission

The ICSF submission to the JOCCA, which has been seen by DeSmog UK, runs to 25 pages and includes almost 100 references. None of the people whose names accompany the ICSF submission have relevant qualifications or expertise in climate science. No scientific advisors are identified.

The document was submitted by the chairman of the ICSF, Jim O’Brien, a retired engineer. The submission was ‘supported’ by nine other named individuals, mainly retired engineers. They include Former Siemens and Science Foundation Ireland chairman Brian Sweeney and Dr Ed Walsh, former chair of the Irish Council for Science Technology and Innovation.

The submission, entitled ‘Latest Climate Science, Sept 2018’ is a mish mash of charts and graphics from a range of contrarian and denier sources, including the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) and its references section is a who’s who of climate science denial, including John Christsy, Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, William Happer, Matt Ridley and Willie Soon.

Among its claims are that current global temperature trends continue below IPCC model predictions and that ‘recent research’ shows lower climate sensitivity than estimated by the IPCC. The main source for the latter is retired meteorologist, Ray Bates, founder of the ICSF. It also quotes papers by Lindzen and Yong-Sang Choi which have been thoroughly debunked.

According to John Sweeney, Emeritus Professor at the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit, Maynooth University, the ICSF submission: “cannot be taken seriously by any responsible atmospheric scientist”.

He added that it: “perpetuates long-debunked science, such as the non-existent temperature hiatus, the myth of discrepancies in thermometer observations and the spurious explanation of urban heat islands as the cause of higher temperatures on land”.

Also commenting on the ICSF submission, Green Party senator, Grace O’Sullivan told DeSmog UK: “it puts forward cherry picked data that does not represent either the consensus or the lived reality on any of these issues. They claim to be a sceptical group, checking the science. Yet every single conclusion on every single issue comes out against mitigation measures. Surely this is a bizarre and unlikely coincidence?”

Senator O’Sullivan added that she could not “begin to fathom the group’s true aims and motives, but these materials need to be viewed with the deepest ‘skepticism’ themselves”. She added that the work of the committee “is too important to be set off course with distractions and misrepresentations such as these”.

DeSmog UK made numerous efforts to contact ICSF chair, Jim O’Brien, to ask him about the submission, as well as the funding and ongoing lobbying activities of the Forum, but he did not respond to an invitation to comment.

Ireland’s Regulation of Lobbying Act requires all individuals and groups engaged in lobbying to register and verify their details on the Lobbying.ie website and make written returns every four months. Environmental groups such as the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and An Taisce publish details of their lobbying returns as required, but nothing has been filed on behalf of the ICSF at the time of writing.

Under current regulations, groups engaged in lobbying must register if they have at least one paid employee. As it does not disclose any operational details publicly and has declined to answer questions from DeSmog, it is unclear whether or not the ICSF has any paid employees and if so, if it is required to register its lobbying activities.

The ICSF has recently launched its website, where it sets out its contrarian agenda plainly, attempting to claim the IPCC ‘got it wrong’ on key issues. From there, it revisits debunked denier talking points, such as: “there are solar-related and other natural influences on earth’s climate… the relative magnitudes of these influences may be comparable to or possibly even greater than those of GHG.”

“ICSF members do not foresee a planetary climate emergency”, it continues. The organisation claims that its members are “characterized by an open and enquiring mind on climate science, driven by the imperative of objectivity without any vested interests”.

This open-mindedness does not extend to answering media questions, however. Its events have hand-picked attendees lists, the group has a secret membership and officer list, and there is no visible process for applying to join.

It has also yet to explain how it has funded seven meetings involving international guest speakers. It claims to be “modestly self-funded through member contributions only”.

The ICSF’s ‘Useful Links’ page gives an insight into its approach, in which legitimate sites such as the AMA and Climate Home are interspersed with denier blogs such as Watts Up With That and SEPP plus pseudoscience from Bjorn Lomborg. Tellingly, the ICSF chooses not to provide a link to the UN’s official advisor on climate science, the IPCC.

Posted in Global Warming, Sceptics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Creed gets creamed over dodgy dairy data

Going right back to late last year, a concerted campaign has been led by folks in the Department of Agriculture to create ‘alternative facts’ about emissions emanating from our rapidly expanding dairy herd. A new phrase – decoupling – was rolled out to promote the idea that amazing technological breakthroughs had allowed the dairy sector to ramp up production without any commensurate increase in carbon (specifically, methane) emissions.

Were it true, this would be very good news indeed. But, of course, it’s not. An eagle eyed Dáil researcher first tipped off An Taisce to this newly minted ‘decoupling’ lingo, and it was duly investigated and found to be, well, complete nonsense. On June 25th, I drafted a release on behalf of An Taisce calling on Minister Creed to ‘retract misleading Dáil statements on rising dairy emissions’.

To be absolutely fair, we had given the minister two full months to deal with this before going public, and he had declined to take a step backwards. In his written response to An Taisce, Creed had stated: “The 8% increase in emissions I referred to is the growth in total agricultural emissions and reflects that while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, other sub sectors of agriculture are contracting. It is valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data”.

Briefly, Creed & Co. had tried a favourite statistical sleight of hand: talk on the one hand about dairy production rising by around 27%, then switch when describing emissions to talking about emissions for the entire agriculture sector, which in this case had risen by a still quite scandalous 8%. To the unwary, this could be sold as a massive increase in dairy output, with “only” an 8% increase in emission. Et Voila, decoupling!

No doubt some clever principal officer in the department, or perhaps in Teagasc, dreamed this one up, but it’s still just a simple three-card trick. Since Creed decided in his wisdom to double down, we took the story to the Farming Independent, and they did a reasonable job with it, albeit capping it with a desperately bland and somewhat misleading heading that framed this as a simple dispute between Creed and An Taisce, rather than pointing out where he had been deliberately misleading, and the fact that, when challenged, he had no answers.

I had also had a chat with the editor at the investigative website, DeSmog.uk and he had no difficulty in recognising the deception involved, so I filed a piece for them, which they labelled: ‘EXCLUSIVE: Ireland’s Government Using Fake Data to Pretend Dairy Emissions Aren’t Rising Fast‘. That was a lot closer to the truth.

From there, the wheels kept rolling. While it was probably easy enough to ignore a specialist website, next, the science editor of the UK Independent picked up the story, sourcing DeSmog, under the heading: ‘Irish government using wrong data to downplay greenhouse gas emissions from cows’. And, to add insult to ignominy, the Guardian’s environment editor, Damian Carrington tweeted out a link to my DeSmog piece, which he captioned: ‘Fake Moos’.

Nor did the fun end there. Nearly a month later, the Irish edition of the Sunday Times contacted me about the piece and filed their own report, headed: ‘Dairy row heats up – An Taisce calls on minister to correct ‘misleading’ GHG figures’. Maybe what still bothers me and others most about this story is that, even when caught red-handed telling whoppers on the Dáil record, Creed has, as of right now, still not retracted his statements.

On a positive note, they have at least got the message and ‘decoupling’ has been quietly excised from the lexicon of Agri Spin, so it was not in vain after all. Creed and his officials are quite entitled to have their own views on dairy expansion, and their critics are equally entitled to challenge these, but there is, I believe, absolutely no excuse for allowing our public representatives to manufacture their own ‘alternative facts’ to support these views. That’s a red line we must hold at all costs.

Below, for the record, is my piece as it appeared in DeSmog:

IRELAND’S AGRICULTURE Minister, Michael Creed and his officials are mounting a co-ordinated campaign to mislead the Irish parliament (Dáil) about the true state of spiralling dairy emissions, DeSmog.uk has learned.

Emissions from Ireland’s rapidly expanding dairy sector have shot up in recent years, in direct conflict with government policy. But the government continues to use bunk data to assert that this is not the case.

On 26 April 2018, Minister Creed told the Dáil: “in the five-year period 2012-2016, dairy cow numbers have increased by 22 percent and corresponding milk production by 27 percent while emissions increased just 8 percent, demonstrating a level of decoupling is occurring.”

This point was amplified by one of Creed’s senior officials, Jack Nolan, at a parliamentary joint committee hearing, when he claimed: “S​ince 2015 we have increased milk output by 13.5 percent, whereas emissions have only increased by 1.6 percent. Massive efficiency gains are happening at the moment”.

Junior Agriculture Minister, Andrew Doyle in December 2017 made the same point about apparent dramatic decoupling of dairy output from carbon emissions.

All these claims are refuted by data compiled by Ireland’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA). This indicates that carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from dairy rose by a massive 24 percent from 2012 to 2016,​ ​which closely tracks the 22 percent increase in national dairy cow numbers and a 27 percent milk production hike in the same period.

An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, became aware of the statements being made within the parliament and wrote to Creed on May 4th last, pointing out the erroneous data and requesting that he formally correct the Dáil record.

In response, Creed admitted to An Taisce that his claim of ‘only’ eight percent emissions increases arising from a 27 percent increase in dairy output “is the growth in total agricultural emissions and reflects that while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, other sub-sectors of agriculture are contracting”. It is, the minister added, “valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data”.

However, An Taisce told DeSmog UK that the minister’s response was “simply indefensible”. ​By not correcting his statement, “it seems the minister is now willing to mislead the Dáil and the public, even when called out. This is unacceptable. We now publicly call on the minister to correct the Dáil record as a matter of urgency”.

The reason officials like Creed are prepared to go to such lengths to present a rosy picture of agricultural emissions is that rapid expansion of the national dairy herd is de facto  government policy, even though it flatly contradicts the Irish state’s EU and Paris Agreement obligations to slash carbon emissions.

Recent EPA projections showed that, instead of meeting its EU obligations to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, Ireland would “at best” achieve a negligible one percent cut versus 2005 levels. Agricultural emissions, meanwhile, continue to spiral, hence the pressure on ministers to massage the figures to present a ‘good news story’ on dairy emissions.

More pressure was ratcheted on Irish government inaction with the publication earlier this month by Climate Action Network Europe of its ranking of EU countriesin terms of their ambition and progress in tackling climate change. Ireland was ranked 2nd worst in the EU, only ahead of coal-dependent Poland in the rankings.

Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar is clearly uneasy at the growing reputational damage arising from what he admits is its status as a climate “laggard”. He told the European Parliament earlier this year that he was “not proud of Ireland’s performance” on climate, but domestically, the grip of the powerful agri-industrial lobby on government policy remains unshaken.

Having failed to manage emissions, it appears at least some in the Irish government have switched focus to concentrate on managing climate change messaging instead.

Disclosure: John Gibbons is a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate change committee.

Posted in Agriculture, Irish Focus, Media, Pollution, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 3 Comments