Bringing the climate emergency to book

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

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

Then again, the young Swedish activist is no ordinary author. In her four short years in the public domain, Thunberg has done the near impossible in almost single-handedly reshaping the entire narrative around climate change. In 2019, aged just 16, she became Time magazine’s youngest ever Person of the Year.

While the Covid lockdown derailed the global school strike movement she inspired, three years later Thunberg’s influence is undiminished – as seen in her ability to recruit over 100 of the finest minds in climate science, activism, literature, psychology, economics, journalism and beyond to contribute to her book, which forms a comprehensive compendium of the climate emergency.

Running to almost 450 pages, including extensive illustrations and photography, it is a dense, beautifully produced volume. High-profile contributors include Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot, but the input of dozens of senior scientists – including Michael Mann, Johan Rockström, Friederike Otto, Kate Marvel and Kevin Anderson – is what gives The Climate Book its real clout.

Interspersed between the contributors is Thunberg’s own distinctive voice, in the form of a series of essays threading the whole project together and injecting a palpable sense of urgency into a work that somehow feels more than the sum of its many elements.

“This is the biggest story in the world, and it must be spoken as far and wide as our voices can carry,” she writes. “This is why the contents of this book – science, knowledge and stories – are literally a matter of life and death.” She’s not exaggerating.

One of the mysteries of our age is how so many otherwise informed, intelligent people remain firmly in denial of the threats we face. Science historian Naomi Oreskes suggests this may be because “the climate crisis breaks the promise of progress”.

This leads even people who are not outright deniers to “refuse to acknowledge just how broken our economic systems are”. After all, Oreskes adds, “no one wants to admit to being duped by disinformation or blinded by a myth, and people in positions of privilege rarely examine that privilege”.

Former Swedish crime journalist Alexandra Urisman Otto describes her climate epiphany – one I can personally relate to. Having stumbled into it, in 2019 she “passed a tipping point and went from ignorance and unconcern – straight down into the abyss of despair”. Journalism, she says, is “decades behind on the climate story” and only a minority of journalists see the climate and ecological crisis as “their area”.

To understand what is at stake, contributor Eugene Linden explains how, if Earth warms by 3ºC over pre-industrial temperatures, “the risk is, simply, the collapse of civilisation itself, a global calamity marked by financial collapse, mass starvation, migration and the descent of many nations into civil disorder”.

Having read scores of books and papers on climate and ecological emergencies over the years, I still found this handbook enormously informative and persuasive, yet fresh. Some vignettes are especially revealing; for instance, more than three billion people have access to less energy annually than is used by an average US fridge.

What could easily have been a mere smorgasbord of random essays has been skilfully edited and feels cohesive; indeed, you can almost sense Thunberg’s hyper-vigilant presence on every page. The striking cover features the “warming stripes” image developed by scientist Ed Hawkins to visualise the rapid advance of global warming.

The Climate Book won’t be read in a single sitting; the essay format lends itself to grazing. With Christmas approaching, there are a number of people in public life who need to read this book. If you approach it with an open mind, you can expect to be shocked.

“We have the unfathomably great opportunity to be alive at the most decisive time in history,” Thunberg concludes. “Make no mistake – no one else is going to do it for us. This is up to us, here and now. You and me.”

The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg, Penguin Random House, €29.99 (hardback)

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Tackling stubborn climate myths & misinformation

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

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

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

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

Our planet is running a fever, fuelled by the dumping of over 40 billion tonnes of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, largely as a result of fossil fuel burning and land clearance for agriculture.

Yet, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes and threats posed by climate change, many people still choose not to accept the evidence, preferring instead to believe either that it’s not happening or that it has nothing to do with human actions.

Here are seven of the most common climate myths, and how to debunk them:

  1. The sun controls the climate; it has nothing to do with us

Scientists carefully track the amount of energy the Earth receives from the sun. This varies very slightly in 11-year cycles. However, over the last 30-40 years, solar output has been lower than normal, yet temperatures on Earth have risen relentlessly during this period. If variations in the amount of the sun’s energy reaching us were driving the climate, we should now be in a cooling period, but the opposite is the case.

  1. Surely warming by a couple of degrees can’t be bad? The temperature changes every day

The Earth’s average surface temperature is around 14C. Despite huge variation in location and seasons, as well as from night to day, this global average temperature hasn’t changed by more than 1C in over 10,000 years. This stable climate system is what has allowed humans to thrive and our agriculture systems to flourish. However, this era has come to a sudden end as a result of global warming. If your own body temperature rises by more than a couple of degrees, you will become ill, or worse. The same is true for our planet as a whole. Seemingly small changes make a huge difference when they are happening on a global scale.

  1. Carbon dioxide (CO2) only exists in tiny amounts. It can’t be changing the world’s climate

Even though CO2 is only a trace gas in the atmosphere, its unique ability to trap and hold heat energy is the reason Earth is not frozen solid. However, CO2 levels have increased by around 50% in recent decades, to the highest levels in millions of years. Like pulling on an extra duvet on your bed, more heat is now being trapped, causing the atmosphere and oceans to heat up dangerously.

  1. The climate has changed before. It’s all just a natural cycle

Over long periods, Earth’s climate system goes through cooling and warming periods. It does so in response to whatever is applying the most pressure. For example, slight wobbles in the Earth’s tilt and orbit around the sun can, over time, trigger an ice age. This shows how, despite its vast size, our planet is quite sensitive to even subtle changes. Today, man-made emissions, mostly from burning fossil fuels, are by far the strongest influence on the global climate, causing it to heat more quickly than at any other time in human history. This extra heat energy is making our weather more extreme and scientists warn that it poses a huge threat to all life on Earth, including humans.

  1. Ireland is too small to have any impact on the global climate so why should we bother cutting emissions?

The top 1% of the world’s most wealthy people account for almost half of all global emissions. Overall, emissions produced by five million Irish people are equivalent to the total emissions produced by over 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. If for instance you fly regularly, your personal emissions will be among the highest in the world. Another reason why Ireland’s per capita emissions are among the highest in the world is our huge herd of over 7 million beef and dairy cattle, which produce large amounts of methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas.

  1. Scientists disagree about whether global warming is happening. There is no consensus

Fifty years ago, this was probably true. Given the size and complexity of the global weather and climate systems, there was a lot of uncertainty as to what was really going on. This is no longer the case. When working climate scientists were recently surveyed, more than 99% agreed that climate change was real and caused by human actions. Very few areas of science have such a powerful consensus. This is based on decades of research and on evidence gathered by  scientists. You will sometimes hear of surveys claiming that scientists “reject” global warming, but these are invariably suspect, usually involving retired non-specialists making mischief for political or ideological purposes.

  1. I’ve heard it’s far too late to stop global warming, so there’s no point in even trying

It is true that some of the damage already done will take thousands of years to reverse, but even at this late stage, every action we take to reduce emissions matters. What we do now can mean the difference between a difficult future and outright catastrophe. The future is not yet set. We can still avoid the very worst outcomes for ourselves and our children, but only if we listen to the science and demand that our politicians, media and business leaders tell us the truth about the climate emergency and what we have to do to save ourselves.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator
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Risky business for insurers as climate crunch bites

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

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

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

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

The true cost to the planet of releasing tens of billions of tons in carbon emissions, largely from fossil fuel burning, is becoming ever more abundantly clear. But while the energy titans appear indifferent to the human suffering and hardship resulting from the dramatic recent increase in climate-fuelled extreme weather events, there is one major player proving altogether more difficult to ignore.

The global insurance and reinsurance industry is a colossal sector with an estimated $25 trillion in investments under management, and annual revenues in the region of $2 trillion to $3 trillion. But the industry is now in crisis, as it faces spiralling claims from ever more expensive weather-related disasters.

Earlier this month, Munich RE, the world’s largest reinsurance firm, announced that from April 2023 it would no longer invest in, or offer insurance for, the financing, construction or operation of new oil or gas fields or related infrastructure. In tandem, Munich RE will also cease all new investments in firms where oil or gas exploration is the core business. Allianz and some other major insurers have made similar commitments.

The world’s insurers find themselves in the paradoxical position of coming to understand that one of their largest revenue sources – the energy industry – is also in the process of destroying the broadly stable climatic conditions upon which these same insurers depend in order to be able to both quantify and cover risks from extreme weather.

“Insurance is the Achilles heel of the fossil fuel industry and has the power to accelerate the transition to clean energy,” according to Insure Our Future, a global coalition of environmental non-governmental organisations. It published a report this month which noted that 62 per cent of reinsurance businesses globally are planning to phase out coverage for coal firms, with two in five now excluding at least some oil and gas projects.

Part of the pressure to divest from the fossil fuel sector comes from corporate investors, but the penny is slowly dropping that the biggest existential threat facing the entire insurance industry is the rapid destabilisation of the global climate system as a result of fast-rising carbon dioxide levels.

In August, the Central Bank of Ireland launched a consultation on climate risk guidance for the insurance sector. “Climate change is no longer an emerging risk – the stakes are high, not just for the future viability of the insurance sector, but also for society as a whole,” Gabriel Makhlouf, its governor, said.

A survey published by the bank in May found that only 20 per cent of insurers and reinsurers fully integrate climate change risk in their risk management frameworks. This is an egregious, baffling and increasingly expensive oversight.

To grasp just how overwhelming the risks involved are, this month the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Germany published a study that found the increasing strength of hurricanes alone is capable of destroying the US economy.

“Increasing hurricane damages will exceed the coping capacities of this economic super-power,” Robin Middelanis of the institute said.

Those calculations related only to hurricanes – impacts from drought, desertification, flooding, wildfires and extreme heat waves form what insurers describe as compounding effects. While an insurer can largely ignore a ‘once-in-a-millennium’ risk of mega-disaster, what happens once that risk becomes ‘once in 30 years’ due to global warming?

Insurance companies are acutely conscious of the risks from catastrophic single events and in many cases will simply not offer cover to at-risk communities for events such as flooding and wildfires, which can devastate entire regions.

In some countries, such as France, Spain and New Zealand, governments require insurance companies to offer homeowners cover for all forms of natural disasters, but then provide a financial cushion in the form of reinsurance to these firms to ensure a large single disaster doesn’t bankrupt them.

In Britain, one in six homes is regarded as being at risk from flooding. The British government, working with the insurance industry, set up an initiative known as Flood RE to make flood cover affordable to the estimated 350,000 households located in flood plains for whom the risk is too high for commercial insurers to offer cover.

No equivalent scheme exists in Ireland, where insurance companies have developed blacklists of areas where they will no longer provide flooding insurance cover – lists that can even include areas where flood relief works have been carried out. While efforts have been made at government level to compel insurers to offer cover, this is still a matter for individual companies – and it is standard practice to withdraw such cover for future claims once one claim has been made.

Despite the evidence worldwide, large numbers of people continue to move into at-risk areas such as the coastal regions of Florida as these are still considered highly desirable places to live.

Similarly, areas of the southern US such as Charlestown in South Carolina are seeing strong inward migration despite its location within a known hurricane zone. In this case, people are attracted by affordable housing; many poorer people feel they have no choice but to hope for the best when it comes to risks.

Ultimately, the only insurance against ever-escalating losses from extreme weather events is the Herculean global effort required to follow the science and turn off the tap of climate-destroying fossil fuels while we still have that option.

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Turning climate protest into an art form

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

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

Seemingly in direct response to the Van Gogh incident, which made headlines across the world despite the painting being undamaged, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman flagged even more sweeping new powers for the police to “proactively” target actions being planned by protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil.

Some of the measures being proposed by a government whose public support has almost completely collapsed would not seem out of place in Putin’s Russia. It plans to introduce Serious Disruption Prevention Orders designed to criminalise members of the public who have not been convicted of any offence by banning them from attending protests or associating with named individuals and potentially even monitoring their use of the internet.

Who has brought us here?

These draconian measures are, bear in mind, to be deployed against entirely peaceful people who have not broken any law, and to be implemented by a police force which has in the past engaged in criminal attempts at infiltrating protest groups, including undercover policemen fathering children with activists under false pretences.

That such a rag-tag group of climate protesters could elicit such a violent response from the UK establishment is better understood when you realise that embattled (then) prime minister Liz Truss is a former employee of the energy giant, Shell.

To underpin her extreme ideological credentials, Truss recently floated the ludicrous proposal of banning solar projects on most UK farms, despite them being popular with farmers, while also signing off on dozens of highly destructive fracking projects.

It is no coincidence that fossil fuel firms poured around €1.5 million into the UK Conservative Party as gifts and donations since 2019, cash used to oil the wheels of power to turn in their favour.

While there has been much media pearl-clutching, including predictable indignation on RTÉ’s Liveline over actions taken by young climate activists last week, there is far less anger directed at the energy industry executives and politicians, and their media enablers who are colluding to burn down the biosphere.

Perhaps the real question we need to be asking is: who exactly are the conservatives and who are the radicals?

‘Dangerous radicals’

According to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, climate activists “are depicted as dangerous radicals, yet the truly dangerous radicals are the countries and firms that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

While the typical climate protestor is often young and idealistic, they have now been joined by thousands from the ranks of science. Earlier this week, scientists disrupted the opening of the World Health Summit in Berlin, with research papers plastered to the doors of the conference centre while they engaged in a sit-in.

The group called Scientist Rebellion described the climate crisis as “the biggest health crisis humanity has ever faced”. Scientists have been carrying out research, writing reports and briefing politicians about the unfolding climate emergency for decades, but many have come to realise that no one is listening and nothing is being done, despite the situation becoming ever more desperate.

A survey of publishing climate scientists contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year found that two in three respondents were suffering “anxiety, grief or other distress” as a result of what they knew about climate change.

Asked whether they think they would see “catastrophic impacts of climate impact in your lifetime”, an astonishing 82% said yes. An almost identical number agreed that climate scientists “should engage in advocacy” on the issue. These, bear in mind, are the experts, the very people trained to be analytical and dispassionate.

It’s worth recalling what exactly has the world’s scientists so absolutely spooked, and the climate crisis is only part of the deepening global emergency. The latest Living Planet Report, published in recent days, confirmed that the population of all wildlife on Earth has declined by an average of 69% in just the last 50 years, a disaster on an almost unimaginable scale, representing the fastest rate of die-off in tens of millions of years.

A 2020 study projected that within the next 50 years, areas of the world where up to three billion people currently live will become too hot for human habitation, with more dramatic changes in temperature in the coming decades than at any time in the last 6,000 years.

Sleepwalking into catastrophe

This paints an apocalyptic scenario of global famines, mass forced migration, wars over dwindling water and food resources and the total collapse of modern civilisation and the global economy. And, tragically, this is precisely the future that ‘business-as-usual’ is on track to deliver.

Now, remind me again how offended you are about annoying climate activists throwing soup over paintings or blocking traffic in a desperate bid to get our attention before everything we know and care about is destroyed forever?

As we tut tut about such minor inconveniences, the defenders of the status quo have murdered around 1,700 environmental defenders worldwide in the last decade. The billionaire class are prepared to go to war to defend their privilege, yet we are expected to meekly accept our fate and shrug as climate activists are demonised and criminalised for simply acting to defend us all.

Assuming those in power continue to ignore the climate emergency, Swedish academic and author, Andreas Malm asked rhetorically: “Do we say that we’ve done what we could, tried the means at our disposal and failed? Do we consider that the only thing left is learning to die, and slide down the side of the crater into three, four or eight degrees of warming?”

As a long-time campaigning climate journalist and parent, I find myself increasingly ashamed and embarrassed.

Knowing what I do about the dire climate emergency and the ongoing destruction of the living world and the evisceration of our collective future, why have I too not yet had the courage to break the law, disturb the peace and perhaps end up behind bars?

I really don’t fancy getting arrested and had never imagined I might someday choose to be jailed, but now I’m really not so sure. At this crucial moment in human history, the only true crime seems to be to sit back and do nothing as the perpetual darkness of global ecological collapse threatens to engulf us all.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator and is on Twitter @think_or_swim.

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

Silent killers of the biosphere revealed

I ran this article in the Irish Examiner in early October to mark and honour the 60th anniversary of the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson, the book that was arguably the foundation event for the modern environmental movement. Vilified and condemned by vested interests in her lifetime, Carson’s legacy of courageous, rigorous reporting endures.

IT IS A LITTLE known but alarming fact that every year, some 44 per cent of farmers and farm workers worldwide experience poisoning by pesticides. That means 385 million people are affected, 11,000 of whom die annually, while tens of millions live with the long term health impacts of this exposure.

“Acute pesticide poisoning is an ongoing major global public health challenge”,  according to a scientific study published in December 2020. Among its recommendations was the phasing out of “highly hazardous” pesticides.

Scientists at University College Cork are currently seeking volunteers from the farming community for a study into a possible link between exposure to pesticides and Parkinson’s disease.

In laboratory tests, rodents exposed to these chemicals developed the symptoms of Parkinson’s, while research in France has linked high incidences of the disease with agricultural fungicides. Apart from farmers, people living in rural areas can be at risk of air-borne agricultural pesticides, or contaminated well water.

In Ireland, typically around 3,000 tonnes of pesticides are used annually, the vast majority for agriculture and by local authorities, while 450 tonnes are sold in a completely unregulated way to the public via garden centres and even supermarkets.

Globally, some three million tonnes of often highly toxic pesticides are released into the environment every year, with many of these known as “forever chemicals” that remain harmful for years, even decades.

Sixty years ago this week saw the publication of one of the most important books of the 20th century, ‘Silent Spring’ by US biologist and science writer, Rachel Carson. She described pesticides as the “elixirs of death” and argued they should instead be labelled as “biocides” as they constitute a deadly and indiscriminate assault on life itself.

Her book provoked a firestorm of controversy. Carson was denounced by the agri-chemical industry as a communist, a fanatic and, most memorably, as a “hysterical spinster”.

While threatened with multiple lawsuits by chemical firms, none made it to court. Carson’s meticulous research withstood hostile scrutiny and her book is now regarded as a seminal event in the evolution of the modern environmental movement.

Then US president John F. Kennedy set up a scientific panel to investigate the claims in ‘Silent Spring’, which focused in particular on the devastating impacts of DDT on wildlife, especially birds.

The panel’s report in 1963 vindicated her findings. By 1972, DDT had been banned in the US by the newly created Environmental Protection Agency. Carson’s writings had “altered the course of history”, in the words of one US senator.

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world”, Carson warned. She battled to complete ‘Silent Spring’ while suffering from cancer from which she died less than two years after its publication.

Despite her efforts, over the intervening six decades, a tidal wave of ever more toxic chemicals have been unleashed by an industry that now sells over €230 billion in agri-chemicals every year.

Consider the insecticide imidacloprid, which is 7,000 times more toxic than the now-banned DDT. A single teaspoon of imidacloprid contains enough poison to kill one billion honeybees, were they directly exposed.

While overall volumes of pesticide usage have declined in recent decades, their increasing potency and toxicity has offset these reductions. It is no coincidence that around a quarter of the entire global insect population has disappeared since 1990.

A recent study in Germany identified a calamitous 75 per cent drop in the number of flying insects in just a 25-year period. “We are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods”, according to the authors of a major paper published in 2019.

To put that in context, the end-Permian event, known as the Great Dying, saw more than 90 per cent of all life on Earth wiped out 252 million years ago.

UK insect expert Prof Dave Goulson titled his 2021 book ‘Silent Earth’ in tribute to Carson, who he said “would weep to see how much worse it has become” since her clarion call in 1962. “Some of the new pesticides are thousands of times more toxic to insect than any that existed in Carson’s day”, he wrote.

The recently published ‘State of the World’s Birds’ report by BirdLife International presented a profoundly grim assessment, with 49 per cent of all bird species in decline and one in eight facing extinction. The expansion and intensification of agriculture globally is the leading cause of decline.

European farmland birds have been particularly hard hit, with 57 per cent disappearing as a result of mechanisation, chemicals and land clearance for crop production. In Ireland, the picture is equally bleak, with 63 per cent of our bird populations in decline and one in four seriously threatened.

Farmland species such as the curlew, lapwing, snipe, kestrel and skylark have been most impacted by changes in Irish farming practices. Despite this, no new funding was made available in the recent budget for wildlife conservation.

The BirdLife report also noted the growing impact of wildfires and droughts on bird populations, as a result of global warming, with these pressures set to ratchet up as global temperatures continue to increase.

A recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), warned that the ongoing human assault on the biosphere means “we are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”.

While modern agriculture is almost totally dependent on chemicals to control pests, new research is calling this rationale into question. A study on US soybean crops in 2019 found that the use of neonicotinoid pesticides delivered “negligible” benefits compared with their cost.

The widespread use of chemical pesticides also wipes out pollinators as well as predatory insects such as ladybugs who might otherwise help control the crop-eating “pests” like aphids. As in Carson’s day, the agri-chemical giants wield huge influence over both politicians and farmers, and they work hard to water down regulations that might in any way impact their business model.

Nature-friendly organic agriculture, which avoids all pesticides and chemical fertilizers, is rapidly growing in popularity, with new EU targets of a quarter of all land farmed organically by 2030. However, barely 1.7 per cent of Irish land is organic, the second lowest in the EU27.

The EU’s ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy aims for a legally binding 50 per cent reduction in pesticide usage this decade, in a bid to avert biodiversity collapse, but is being strongly resisted by agri-chemical interests.

The human race, Carson reminded us, “is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Carbon offsetting a cynical cop-out on climate action

In the late Middle Ages, there was a roaring trade within the Catholic Church in the sale of indulgences, as handy way for the sinful to wipe the slate clean by purchasing redemption. The abuse of this system is often cited as one of the key drivers for the Reformation. In recent years, a secular version of indulgences has made a comeback, this time in the form of carbon offsetting, as I explored in the Business Post in mid-September.

WHEN IS A measure that looks like it will protect the environment not actually a measure that will protect the environment? Sometimes, it’s when it involves carbon offsetting.

Put simply, a carbon offset is the promise of the removal or neutralising of a given amount of carbon dioxide (CO2). This is particularly appealing for sectors such as aviation, where there are few realistic alternatives to burning fossil fuels.

It could involve a company funding tree planting or clean water initiatives, both of which are very laudable. But is offsetting actually leading to measurable reductions in overall carbon pollution globally? Or is it, as many have claimed, a PR stunt that allows major polluters to continue to pollute while telling the public about ineffectual offsetting initiatives?

The US-based Nature Conservancy is the world’s largest environmental charity. It is also a major vendor of carbon offsets to corporations such as Disney and JP Morgan. In 2020, an investigation by Bloomberg revealed that it had sold offsets to companies by promising to save a 3,800-acre forest called Pennsylvania Ridges from being clear-felled.

It transpired that the forest was owned by the Conservancy itself, and that it was essentially being paid not to cut down the very forests it had already raised funds to preserve 20 years earlier. “This means it’s effectively protecting the forest from itself,” the Bloomberg investigation stated.

Other bodies have also been criticised over their carbon offsetting schemes. A 2017 study by the European Commission found that in 85 per cent of projects used by the EU under the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), carbon offsets failed to reduce emissions.

In 2020, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ordered Ryanair to drop claims in its advertising that it was a “low CO2 emissions airline”. Two years earlier, the airline had introduced a scheme allowing passengers to voluntarily pay a small fee to offset their emissions. Only 3 per cent of customers took part, and offsets amounted to just 0.01 per cent of the airline’s total emissions.

The most popular corporate carbon offset is the commitment to plant trees, but this too has serious drawbacks. As global temperatures rise, more and more forests are being destroyed by fires, droughts, diseases and invasive pests.

Huge swathes of forests in California that had been “protected” via carbon offsets purchased by companies like Microsoft have been wiped out in the last two to three years by climate-fuelled wildfires, with all the supposed carbon offsets going up in smoke.

If forests do survive, it takes years, even decades, for a tree to pull even just a tonne of CO2 out of the atmosphere, and many saplings never reach maturity. And even where trees thrive, globally there is nowhere near enough available land to plant sufficient forests to sequester much more than a fraction of the 36 billion tonnes of emissions being dumped into the atmosphere each year.

Worse, experts argue that carbon offsetting is a figleaf that gives licence to some of the world’s major polluters to maintain and even expand their climate-destroying business practices while greenwashing their reputation with dubious offsets.

There are almost no binding international rules to govern this chaotic arena. The market “operates in the shadows”, with some good “but lots of bad in the system . . . that does actual harm”, Mark Carney, the UN special envoy on climate and finance, told the Financial Times last year.

Done ethically, carbon offsetting can have a useful, if limited, role. Stripe, the online payments giant founded by Patrick and John Collison, hired a Swiss company to capture CO2 from the air and store it in underground rock formations. While expensive at more than €750 per tonne, this is genuinely taking carbon permanently out of the atmosphere, albeit in very small amounts to date. But the initiative is very much the exception.

A study published last November by the London School of Economics found that half of offset funding went to projects such as renewable energy, that would have been built anyway. Shockingly, the study concluded that the sale of offsets to regulated polluters “has substantially increased global CO2 emissions”.

If you suspect that paying a few euro to erase the damage caused by taking a long-haul flight seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

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

Sorting scientific fact from fiction on climate

Seeking out and clinging to reassuring myths as an antidote to the often frightening realities around the climate emergency is a surprisingly common reaction among the public, and even persists amid the all-too-obvious signs of climate breakdown happening in real time, all around us. I filed this piece for the Irish Examiner in mid-September which looked at a number of the more common myths and how they might be addressed.

THE PUBLICATION this week of the multi-agency ‘United in Science’ report on the climate crisis led by the World Meteorological Organisation underlines the overwhelming scientific evidence that the Earth is warming quickly as a result of human actions, and that this poses grave dangers to humanity.

However, a minority of people still cling to the belief that it’s not happening or that it has nothing to do with us. Here are five of the most common climate myths, and how to unpick them.

1. The climate has changed before and is always changing, therefore it’s all just part of a natural cycle.

This is true, to an extent. Earth has warmed and cooled previously as a result of climatic shifts. For instance, subtle changes in the planet’s tilt and orbit around the sun, known as Milankovitch cycles, can trigger ice ages over thousands of years. However, for the 12,000 years or so since the end of the last ice age, Earth’s temperature has been remarkably stable. This has allowed humans and agriculture to flourish. However, due to man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a key heat-trapping gas, global temperatures are now rising rapidly.

The climate system responds to whatever is putting the greatest pressure on it, and in recent times, humanity has become a planetary-level force. Global CO2 levels are now at their highest in several million years and, as the extreme heatwaves, droughts, and flooding events around the world are now showing, this additional heat energy poses a massive threat. Unless radical action is taken to cut emissions, climate breakdown threatens to bring the recent era of human flourishing to an abrupt end.

2. There is no ‘consensus’ around global warming. Scientists are divided and nobody really knows what’s going on.

This myth has been largely promoted by the fossil fuel industry, which has invested heavily in creating uncertainty around climate science, including funding efforts to spread doubt about the science while smearing and discrediting scientists. The energy industry has known for decades that continuing to burn its products could lead to a global catastrophe, but the lure of easy money overcame any scruples about telling the truth. There is no “debate” whatsoever among practising climate scientists that global warming is real, man-made, and dangerous.

Recent surveys of publishing scientists estimate that more than 99% agree on the human causes of global warming. There are few areas in science with such robust agreement among experts.

Despite this, you will still encounter occasional claims such as: “1,000 scientists reject global warming”. On closer inspection these sceptical “scientists” usually turn out to be retired professionals from unrelated fields, such as engineering, many with close ties to the energy industry. Their unqualified opinions carry no weight whatsoever within the community of expert climatologists.

3. CO2 is plant food, it makes crops and trees grow, so it can’t be responsible for climate change.

Yes, CO2 is absorbed by plants as part of a natural cycle. In fact, without trace amounts of CO2 in our atmosphere to trap solar energy, the Earth would freeze over from pole to pole.

However, you can have too much of a good thing. Fossil fuel burning has seen atmospheric CO2 levels increase by 50%, and this is causing the Earth to quickly heat up.

The world’s oceans are becoming increasingly acidic as a result of CO2 and this is interfering with the chemistry of the seas, with serious consequences for marine life.

And while increased CO2 levels do have a fertilising effect, it is of limited value to plants as other limits quickly neutralise the benefits. Earth has been described as the ‘Goldilocks planet’ — not too hot, not too cold. The key gas in maintaining this balance is CO2, so its sharp recent increase is deeply worrying.

4. Yes, climate change is real and serious, but it really won’t affect me personally.

‘Optimism bias’ is what psychologists describe as an innate human tendency to assume that good things will mostly happen to us, while underestimating the risks of bad thing affecting us.

Many smokers, for instance, are aware of the health risks, but optimistically assume that someone else, not them, will develop cancer. When it comes to climate risk, surveys have repeatedly shown very high levels of concern among the Irish public. However, when asked if they themselves would be affected, far fewer people agree. For instance, a RedC poll last year found that 9 in 10 people in Ireland regard global warming as “a serious threat for humankind”.

Despite this clear awareness of the risks, most respondents admit that they have personally made few if any changes to be more sustainable.

This underlines that most people in Ireland still feel psychologically disconnected from the threat of climate change.

In reality, as a small, open economy, our fate is closely connected to what happens elsewhere. No country is immune from the risks of economic collapse, mass migration, droughts, famine and deadly flooding events, despite what many people still believe.

5. It’s too late to stop climate collapse, so why even bother trying?

This is a surprisingly widespread belief. While some people may earnestly feel this is the case, for others, it is simply a convenient excuse to continue doing nothing inconvenient. It mirrors climate denial, which also advocates inaction, but for entirely different reasons.

Again, there is some truth in this view. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year warned that some of the negative changes to the global climate system are already “irreversible”. However, the situation is far too serious for the luxury of fatalism.

Every fraction of a degree of warming that can be avoided will ease the suffering of countless millions of people around the world, and reduce pressure on the natural world, which has suffered grievously as a result of human impacts.

It is certainly too late for a “soft landing” from the climate crisis, but by acting strongly now to cut emissions, protect nature and restore ecosystems, we are buying vital time in a last-gasp effort to avoid truly apocalyptic outcomes.

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A walk on the wild side in the Beara peninsula

Ever wonder what Ireland might look like in its primordial condition? One man set about not just finding out, but recreating this, in a remote corner of south-west Ireland. I filed this review of the book he has just written about his adventures in rewinding for the Business Post in early September. 

YOU MIGHT not expect a book about restoring a rainforest to be a romance, but Eoghan Daltun’s tale of how he came to find his passion and purpose in the rugged wilderness of the Beara Peninsula is essentially a love story.

“Within seconds, I knew with absolute clarity that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, if at all possible,” is Daltun’s description of his initial encounter with the wild woodlands at Bofickil. “I said out loud the words, ‘This is it.’ That might sound a bit of a stretch, but for me it really was love at first sight.”

If much ecology writing in Ireland is about paradise lost, then Daltun’s odyssey, which at times takes on an almost dreamlike quality, is about paradise regained. He offers readers a tantalising glimpse into the mysterious, mystical, even spiritual wild world that lies waiting to be rediscovered. Continue reading

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Coming up short on fanciful sectoral emissions goals

As the controversial sectoral budgets for Ireland were published, the Irish Examiner asked for my take on how they measured up, particularly the ultra-low 25% target assigned to Ireland’s largest polluting industry. This piece ran at the start of August.

IT IS SAID that if you’ve managed to annoy and infuriate all sides, then clearly you are doing something right. This being the case, the government should be fairly happy with the  compromise on sectoral emissions budgets it has cobbled together after weeks and months of wrangling and arm-twisting.

The headline-grabbing number is of course the 25% emissions cut agreed for agriculture, the sector contributing by far the largest single share of the national carbon pollution pie, at over one third of all emissions.

While this is undoubtedly an unfairly low percentage of the overall burden, for agriculture to come within the proverbial country mile of this target will require the dramatic reversal of an aggressive expansionist policy in the dairy sector that has seen around half a million cows added to the herd, pushing overall sectoral emissions up by almost 20% in the last decade.

Further, the current ‘road map’ for the dairy sector published by Teagasc, the state agricultural research agency, sees continued expansion in dairy output until at least 2027. While often presented as being impenetrably complex, the basic equation here is actually surprisingly simple: more milk means more methane, more nitrogen and more water pollution. No amount of tech fixes or promises of ‘efficiency’ can overcome these basic facts.

If agriculture is to reduce it emissions by a quarter this decade, and those emissions are in lock-step with ruminant livestock agriculture, then something has to give. Minister Charlie McConalogue has rushed to stress that no farmer will be forced to reduce herd numbers, in other words, everything is voluntary.

Really? Are the carbon budgets for the energy and transport similarly voluntary, to be discarded if viewed as inconvenient in the years ahead? This is clearly not the case, hence McConalogue’s reassurances on this score should be interpreted with caution.

The government’s plan to have solar farms cover 6,000 hectares of land sound ambitious. A typical well located solar farm should generate one megawatt of electricity per four hectares at peak output, meaning the government plan would add around 1.5gw of solar, the equivalent of two typical gas or coal-fired power stations.

For farmers, leasing land for solar farms should be a financial no-brainer, as installation is generally fairly quick and easily reversible in the future. Solar farms are also far less visually intrusive than wind turbines, and is thus less likely to provoke local Nimby resistance.

Eamon Ryan’s plan to go big on anaerobic digesters (AD) sounds at first glance to be a winner. It makes perfect sense to harness slurry and food waste for methane production, but scaling up will require feeding lots of grass into the AD units. This means using some of our grass to produce energy instead of meat and milk, thus allowing farmers to reduce their stocking density and cut emissions with little or no loss of income.

But the science on AD is far from simple. First, the grass being fed into a digester cannot be grown using (imported) artificial nitrogen, otherwise you are simply turning one fossil fuel into another form of fuel, which makes no sense from an energy standpoint. Second, ADs have to be extremely well run and maintained, as any leakage of methane over around 2% wipes out the climate benefits of the entire unit.

As Marie Donnelly, chair of the state’s Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) pointed out, there remains “considerable uncertainly around how the carbon budgets will be delivered”. While the CCAC acknowledges that the government targets are a “useful starting point”, this needs to be thought of as a ratchet. Targets, ambition – and pain – are all going to have to be ratcheted up significantly later this decade to make up for missing our targets in the shorter term.

Donnelly also noted that when taken together, the targets theoretically achieve 43%, which is well shy of the government’s headline 51% goal, and even at that, the Land Use sector is omitted. In Ireland, land use is in fact a major net source of carbon emissions, particularly from drained peaty soils and peat bogs.

The transport sector has been given a 50% target, which would require radical changes on a scale not seen in the last half century and more. Consider how long the idea of building a Dublin Metro has been kicking around without an inch of actual rail line being laid, or look at the resistance at local level to even the mildest efforts at taking road space from private motorists and the scale of the challenge of transport decarbonisation becomes clearer.

A shift to electric vehicles is now inevitable given that the motor industry is quickly switching away from petrol and diesel-powered vehicles, but simply replacing a million regular cars with a million EVs will do nothing to ease congestion and our car-dependent culture.

The electricity production sector has been handed the monumental target of 75% decarbonisation by 2030, partly to compensate for others negotiating far lower ambitions. This will present formidable technical challenges but, with strong ambition on offshore wind in particular, it may well be achieved.

A big imponderable in all of this is what happens when the coalition falls and, in all likelihood is replaced by a Sinn Féin-led administration. The party has remained uncharacteristically mute throughout the entire emissions budget process, seemingly determined to not risk any political capital whatever on taking a position, especially regarding agri emissions. Avoiding tough decisions of course will no longer be so easy once Sinn Féin is itself in power.

As the negotiations dragged on this summer, Europe burned and wildfires and deadly floods circled the globe. As temperatures in the UK breached 40C earlier this month, the highest ever recorded, the spectre of devastating climate breakdown drew ever closer to our own shores.

It used to be seen as politically courageous or naive to advocate for strong action on climate. Now, anything else frankly looks suicidal.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator
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The future is green, Soylent Green

Back in the early 1970s, even the year 2000 seemed an infinity away; for many, it conjured images of a glittering high-tech future. For others, a grim dystopia. The latter view definitely inspired the only film of that era to be set in, yes, 2022. And here we all are. The piece below ran in Village magazine in early August.

THE WORLD is dangerously overheated and overpopulated, the oceans are dying due to global warming and food shortages are becoming ever more acute. Vast corporations and the super-rich control most of the world’s assets and operate a virtual surveillance state to keep their populations in order while billions live and die in abject poverty.

This might sound like a fair summary of the state of the planet today, but the above scenario is in fact the storyline from half a century ago, for the 1973 film, ‘Soylent Green’, which I re-watched recently. And that far-distant year in which it was set? 2022.

One of the main protagonists, an elderly man called Sol, old enough to remember days of plenty, describes the vanished world: “You know. When I was a kid, food was food. Before our scientific magicians poisoned the water, polluted the soil. Decimated plant and animal life. Why, in my day you could buy meat anywhere. Eggs, they had. Real butter. Fresh lettuce in the stores”.

His younger counterpart, Detective Thorn replies wearily: “I know. Sol. You told me before. A heat wave all year long. A greenhouse effect. Everything is burning up”.

The amazing new foodstuff, Soylent Green is supposedly made from plankton, but the detective unearths the grim truth, and the film ends with him uttering the famous line (spoiler alert): “Soylent Green is people!”.

Whether or not you buy into the slightly cheesy premise of human remains being key part of the food chain, the film did tap into the very real ecological anxieties of the early 1970s. These came to a head in Earth Day in the US in April 1970. This seminal event prompted president Nixon to establish the US Environmental Protection Agency, and with it, a raft of important environmental and anti-pollution legislation.

Viewed through the political prism of today’s deeply dysfunctional and hyper-partisan US politics, it seems almost quaint to recall a time when people, irrespective of their politics, religion or skin colour, broadly agreed that eliminating deadly toxins from the air that they breathed and the water that their children drank was a good idea.

For all the subsequent failures, the original Earth Day was the foundation event for the modern environmental movement, and ushered in enduring changes in public and political attitudes towards pollution in particular, especially where the evidence of its effects were impossible to conceal.

Air and water quality in the developed world improved markedly from the 1970s onwards, partially due to new regulations, but also thanks to the offshoring of much of the West’s highly polluting heavy industries, which had triggered the crisis.

So, wealthy countries began to de-industrialise, not by consuming less and living more modestly, but by shifting the axis of production – and pollution – over the horizon, to poorer countries where environmental standards were mostly non-existent and where desperate workers could be more easily exploited.

Missing entirely from the environmental movement of the early 1970s was any consideration of global warming. While the concept was understood within the scientific community by then, it had zero traction in the wider public, and much of the scientific establishment treated it more as an academic conundrum about what could possibly happen at some point in the 21st century.

The trace gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) is the atmosphere’s key chemical thermostat. Dial it up, and temperatures rise, almost in lock-step. In the 50 years since Soylent Green was released, global CO2 levels have climbed inexorably, and now approach 420 parts per million, a rise of 50% versus pre-industrial.

This may well be the most rapid shift in atmospheric chemistry in Earth history. The last time CO2 levels were this high was in the Pliocene, an era several million years ago. Then, sea levels were 20 metres higher than today and global average temperatures were 3-4ºC higher than today.

This unprecedented spike in atmospheric CO2 levels since 1970 will continue to impact temperatures on this planet for centuries into the future. Already, it has led to a rise in global surface temperature of nearly 1.2ºC versus pre-industrial.

The red line for dangerous and irreversible changes to the Earth’s climate system lies at around 1.5ºC, which is already perilously close to today’s levels.

Based on current emissions, the global ‘carbon budget’ for +1.5ºC will have been exhausted by 2030. To avoid breaching this danger line, global emissions will need to have fallen by a staggering 60% by then.

Nothing short of a highly improbable global political, economic, social and cultural revolution could deliver such a profound transition in time. In reality, our current economic model sees emissions actually accelerating at the time we need to be hitting the brakes and bracing for impact.

However dramatic the rise in global emissions and temperatures have been in the last five decades, this almost pales into insignificance when measured against the toll humanity has taken on the natural world over this period. We have eradicated almost two thirds of all the wild mammals, birds, fish and reptiles in just 50 years.

The last time a global mass die-off on this scale occurred was some 66 million years ago, in the wake of the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs.

Researchers used the term ‘biological annihilation’ to describe the nature and extent of what they term the ‘frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation’. While this carnage ultimately threatens humanity, it has already laid waste to hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary progress and, in the process, brutally simplified countless once-complex ecosystems.

Today, over three quarters of the entire world’s land surface has been ‘significantly altered’ by human actions, with tens of millions of hectares of forests razed and cleared for agriculture. The hunting of wildlife for food is another force accelerating extinctions, with at least 300 species of mammals facing near-term extinctions as a direct result of the bushmeat trade.

At sea, the anarchy is even worse. Over 90% of the world’s large predatory fish, from sharks to tuna, marlin and swordfish, are already gone, with many species now on the brink of extinction.

The vast fishing fleets that scour the oceans have the capacity to catch-and-destroy fish far more quickly than species can recover. Further, ocean acidification as a result of global warming is accelerating, while surface water temperatures are rising quickly, adding to the disruption of marine life.

On top of this, millions of tons of plastic waste is ending up in the world’s oceans every year, contaminating the base of the entire marine food chain. One estimate states that there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans by 2050 than fish.

In what amounts to a zero-sum game, the human footprint has expanded as natural systems are razed. Since 1970, the global population has more than doubled, to over 7.8 billion today, while GDP of the world economy has quadrupled, to almost $90 trillion.

Californian environmentalist and author Paul Hawken put it bluntly: “we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP”.

While the original Earth Day was inspired by people’s experience of ecological degradation they could see and even smell all around them, and while it achieved some notable successes, its ultimate legacy is one of failure.

We humans have so far proved unable to extend our empathy to other species, to nature itself, and to act unselfishly on behalf of people in other places, or indeed of all future generations. This was neither accidental nor inevitable.

Generations of neo-liberal thought have helped inure humanity against the pain of the natural world and the suffering of others, both humans and sentient animals, while shielding the billionaire predators, who have profiteered from this ruin, which is the consequences of their actions.

Our species achieved spectacular evolutionary success not just by brute force and violence, but primarily by our ability to cooperate, and the strength and complexity of our social structures. These have been worn threadbare by decades of atomised consumerism.

This too did not happen by accident. Back in 1955, US retail economist, Victor Lebow laid out the brave new world of manufactured consumerism: “our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

Dystopian Soylent fantasies notwithstanding, the future, in the words of environmentalist Jonathon Porritt “will either be green, or not at all”.

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We can feel the heat, but are we getting the message?

As the scorching summer of 2022 swept across Europe (it was to be the hottest summer ever recorded on the continent) I filed the below piece for the Business Post at the end of July, framing it around my own experience back in the late 1980s. Perhaps the most obvious and best understood manifestation of a rapidly warming climate, heatwaves are deadly and pernicious on a number of levels, severely hampering both food and energy production as well as threatening ecosystems while seriously stressing human health as well. It is truly sobering to consider that this year’s extreme heatwaves, wildfires, floods  and droughts across the northern hemisphere are fuelled by global average surface temperature rise of around 1.1-1.2C. What fresh hell awaits us when the dial tips 1.5C and beyond?

BEING CAUGHT in a severe heatwave is akin to being strangled and suffocated at the same time. I learned this the hard way on a sweltering July day in 1987, when I landed in the Turkish city of Izmir, where temperatures were in the high 40s and rumoured to have briefly touched 50C.

Stepping off the plane, I felt like I’d been hit by the blast from an industrial oven. Even though I was young and fit, every step with my luggage was a struggle. The cheap hotel in the city centre where I was staying had only a solitary small air conditioning unit in the lobby, with dozens of people crammed into the space seeking to escape the broiling heat.

In my room, the only relief was to strip off and hunker down in the luke-warm shower for hours. I could only venture outside after midnight, and even then, the air was still sticky, stifling and difficult to breathe.

Even though I only had to endure this cauldron for 24 hours before escaping by bus to cooler Istanbul, I will never forget the sensation of energy draining from my body, compounded by dizziness and mild nausea. Others were a lot less lucky.

While the death toll in Turkey ran into the hundreds, neighbouring Greece recorded at least 1,300 fatalities in what was at the time the deadliest heatwave in the region in at least a century. Back then, absolutely nobody was talking about global warming. An event like this was a genuinely rare meteorological phenomenon, and it was pure happenstance that I was caught up in it.

Fast forward to the 2020s, and heatwaves as extreme as that roasting July in Turkey are now almost routine. The death toll from the latest European heatwave is already above 1,500 and will undoubtedly continue to climb, as extreme heat can be a stealthy killer and the true human toll can take weeks or months to establish.

Some 19 years ago, the heatwave that swept Europe in 2003 led to at least 30,000 deaths, with over 14,000 fatalities in France alone. Many of those deaths only became apparent long after the event, as hospitals and mortuaries overflowed.

Across Europe, the shocking death toll of 2003 led to major improvements in preparedness for heatwaves, which take an especially heavy toll on the elderly and very young. This has undoubtedly saved many lives as subsequent heatwaves, too numerous to mention individually, have racked continental Europe.

We in Ireland have watched this unfold from the comfortable distance of our temperate Atlantic island, thankful that it couldn’t happen here. At least that’s what we thought until earlier this week, when record-smashing temperatures on our neighbouring island breached the 40C threshold, with even reassuringly chilly Scotland topping 35C.

If it can reach as far north as Scotland, it is probably just a matter of time before a giant European heatwave engulfs Ireland. And if we are very unlucky, and it stalls and develops into what is known as a “heat dome”, then many people here will likely die. Our huge livestock herds would also be in grave danger from heat stress and dehydration.

All seven of the hottest years on the instrumental record have occurred since 2015, so the rate of heating is now accelerating sharply as the impacts of the additional 1.2C of global warming added as a result of man-made emissions begins to supercharge our weather systems.

Earth is now heating at a rate equivalent to the energy from five Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions per second, or 432,000 Hiroshimas every day. Could we really have imagined we could so profoundly disturb our planetary life-support systems and not expect serious blowback?

While Ireland’s apparent isolation from the climate-fuelled weather extremes currently affecting countries all over the world is coming to an end, there is still no real sense that our collective psychological detachment from this unfolding calamity is beginning to crumble.

While very few Irish people outright deny the reality of climate change, the real denial remains that we mostly think it’s simply not our problem. Besides, aren’t we only 0.06 per cent of the global population, so what’s the point in us doing anything? Anyhow, what about China, what about the US, what about Brazil?

This kind of parochial whataboutery still pervades our political and media discourse on the climate emergency. It’s a form of smug fatalism that believes that while we have made ourselves rich by gorging on resources and spewing out among the highest per capita emissions in the world, somebody else should pick up the tab for our profligacy.

As last week’s Environmental Protection Agency emissions report revealed, the Covid lockdown turned out to be the briefest of ecological reprieves; last year, Ireland’s carbon emissions bounced back to pre-Covid levels and beyond.

Rather than seeing the deadly heatwave lapping ever closer to our shores as the impetus for strong domestic climate action, TDs from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil jostled to see who could best undermine our already inadequate emissions budget for the agriculture sector.

Leo Varadkar, the Tánaiste, said “we’re not going to penalise and punish people if the [climate] targets can’t be achieved”. With no downsides for non-compliance, small wonder nobody takes these “targets” seriously.

Fine Gael’s website includes such anodyne fluff as “we are on a clear trajectory towards carbon neutrality in 2050”. The in-joke is, of course, that nobody in politics cares what happens in five years’ time, let alone 28.

On the thorny issue of agricultural emissions, Sinn Féin, the party most likely to lead the next government, incredibly claims it is “not in a position” to identify where on the spectrum between a minimal 22 per cent and a necessary 30 per cent emissions cut the party stands. Sinn Féin also supports the reassuringly vague concept called “net zero by 2050”, which is political-speak for “not our problem”.

It is said that real change happens not when people see the light, but rather when they feel the heat. Well, the heat is coming, whether we are ready or not.

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Doffing the ministerial cap to the lobbyists

I contributed the below piece to The Journal in late July by way of a commentary on the ongoing battle by Ireland’s agri-industrial lobby to dodge having to play its fair share in meeting Ireland’s emissions reductions standards. What’s most of note here is the role of the minister in charge of this sector. Rather than trying to encourage and if necessary compel compliance with agreed government-wide policy targets, the agriculture minister lobbies for “the other side”, a ludicrous situation that sadly has been the norm in this portfolio for decades.

IS THERE A stranger job in Irish politics than being Agriculture Minister? Most senior government ministers get to set policy, frame legislation and have regulatory oversight of the sector their ministry is responsible. Within normal limits, the minister calls the shots.

Except in agriculture. Here, the role of the minister is often reduced to being one of a courier or emissary, shuttling instructions from agri-lobbyists to and from the government. Consider the Kafkaesque exchange between agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue and Climate Minister Eamon Ryan.

McConalogue warned Ryan that setting what he described as “impossible” emissions cuts targets for agriculture would undermine the sector’s “well-established green image”, as revealed to Noteworthy by the Department of Agriculture.

If failing to achieve an actual “green” target undermines your image, the problem, I would suggest, lies with your image in the first place.

The Irish taxpayer has ploughed tens of millions of euro into developing and promoting the ‘Origin Green’ branding for Irish food. The problem is that in the years in which this branding was being rolled out and heavily promoted, emissions and pollution from the livestock sector in particular have been spiralling. The “well established green image” is in reality a marketing mirage.

Despite the ‘Origin Green’ branding, Ireland has the second lowest percentage of land farmed organically in the EU, while barely one percent of Irish farmland is used to grow vegetables, the lowest percentage in the EU. Any country serious about its “green” credentials would invest heavily in organics, but in Ireland it remains a Cinderella sector.

As this week’s emissions report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed, agriculture is now by far the largest single source of carbon pollution, accounting for 37.5% of total national emissions.

This rose in 2020 and again in 2021, driven by a 5.8% increase in chemical fertiliser usage, a 2.8% increase in dairy cattle numbers and a 5.5% more milk. The rapid expansion in Ireland’s dairy herd in the last decade is an absolute outlier in Europe, where concerns about both pollution and emissions have seen governments push to shrink dairy herds.

Last December, the Dutch government announced a €25 billion plan to sharply reduce the number of livestock in the country and the resultant overload of animal manures. This has triggered an angry backlash from some farmers, with street blockades and conflicts with the police.

The Dutch decision followed a court ruling in 2019 that found the government was breaking EU law by failing to reduce excess nitrogen in sensitive natural areas, as a result mainly of intensive agriculture activities. Belgium, Denmark and Germany are understood to also be considering similar actions.

An EPA report published last July found excessive nitrogen levels in 47% of Irish rivers and 25% of groundwater. Water quality is threatened by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus arising from agriculture and to a lesser extent, waste water. Given the latest increase in the use of chemical nitrogen in 2021, this situation is likely to have further deteriorated.

On the other side of the world, New Zealand also has a vast livestock herd, with dairy exports earning over $16 billion a year. However, a study from Victoria University calculated that the cost of remediating the environmental damage done to New Zealand could be up to $15 billion, in other words, almost as much as the entire sector’s earnings.

The New Zealand Ministry for the Environment estimates it costs $10.7 billion to remove nitrates from drinking water in order to make it safe for human consumption. Excess nitrogen in waterways and estuaries is also highly toxic to aquatic life.

Last month, New Zealand proposed a ‘burp tax’ on methane emissions that could cost a typical large dairy operation €11,000 a year. The tax is to financially incentivise farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices.

Due to the almost complete capture of the political process in Ireland by the powerful livestock industry lobby, it is thought highly unlikely such an idea would even be seriously entertained here.

However, if Irish politicians expect gratitude from the sector for their unconditional support of its expansionary plans, they may be sorely disappointed. The IFA this week put out a statement defending continuing rise in agri emissions on the grounds that they “reflect decisions made by farmers, based on Government policy, after the abolition of milk quotas”.

In other words, don’t blame us, we’re only following government policy.

This is somewhat disingenuous, given that it is the industry that has dictated policy to government, not the other way around. This fact was confirmed by former Bord Bia chief, Tara McCarthy, when she candidly described the Food Wise 2025 programme as “industry-owned”.

The committee that developed the follow-up Food Vision 2030 strategy is similarly overwhelmingly dominated by agri-food industry figures. One solitary seat on a committee comprising over 30 representatives was given to the entire environmental sector. Having seen its numerous recommendations ignored, the Environmental Pillar formally withdrew from the process.

Charlie McConalogue did not create this situation. He’s just doing exactly what every other agriculture minister for the last 40-50 years has been required to do, and doff the cap to the lobby that maintains an iron grip on our political process, even though primary agriculture barely contributes one per cent to Ireland’s gross value added, and is a relatively small employer.

Its oversized and consistently negative influence on discussions around Ireland’s national climate policy is the clearest possible case of the tail wagging the dog.

–  John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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Media needs to step up on covering the climate emergency

They say that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re likely part of the problem, and that certainly seems to hold for much of the media when it comes to the climate and biodiversity emergency. Whether it’s as a result of neoliberal ideology, the ever-present influence of advertisers and sponsors, or the inertia of newsrooms where science literacy is the exception, even the so-called quality broadsheets are by and large failing us badly. Yes, there are some notable exceptions, and some individuals doing truly sterling work, but they remain the exception to the rule. And that is before we even consider the deeply toxic billionaire press owned by Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond and others. I explored this in a piece for the Irish Examiner in late July. I gather it annoyed RTÉ’s Joe Duffy enough to warrant a written complaint to the paper.

VETERAN BRITISH broadcaster and author, Andrew Marr, this week reached the end of his tether.  “I for one have had enough of being told by pallid old businessmen and lazy, ignorant hacks and sleazy lobbyists who aren’t real scientists, any of them, that the science is wrong,” he railed on LBC radio.

As the UK boiled in the hottest temperatures ever recorded on the island, with buildings ablaze and red alert warnings from the Met Office, this in no way deterred the climate deniers and their media shills. Continue reading

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Austerity or catastrophe: options grow ever narrower

Our chronic dependence on an invented system of growth-based capitalism that is destabilising the global climate system and laying waste to the natural world looks increasingly like a Faustian bargain, and metaphorical Mephistopheles is now knocking at the door looking for his due, as I explored in the Business Post in mid-July.

LIVING WITHIN a capitalist system increasingly feels like being in an abusive relationship. Deep down, we know it’s bad for us, but for now our abuser meets all our needs and wants, and the alternatives seem unappealing. So we find ourselves in the jaws of a series of ever more intractable progress traps.

Consider our relationship with fossil fuels. The discovery of how to extract almost boundless energy from aeons of stored ancient sunlight transformed civilisation, allowing humans to dominate the planet like no single species in a billion years of Earth’s history. Continue reading

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Putting our bodies on the line to save everything

I contributed the below piece to the Business Post in mid-June looking at the extraordinary phenomenon of climate scientists taking to the streets and risking professional ridicule, arrest and more in order to ring the alarm bells on the ever-deepening climate emergency. For most, such actions fly in the face of all their training and scientific instinct, which is to be seen to remain rigorously neutral and let the data do the talking. To me, it underlines just how hopelessly inadequate our response has been to date, as the ecological clock ticks towards midnight.

IN THE 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, famously denounced Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as a “typical terrorist organisation”. And even after meeting Mandela, she never retracted those remarks.

It wasn’t until 2006 that David Cameron, another Conservative prime minister, formally acknowledged that Thatcher had got it wrong about Mandela, describing him as “one of the greatest men alive”. Some three decades on from Thatcher’s comments, history has been rather kinder to Mandela than her. Continue reading

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