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.

This was perfectly captured in a surreal exchange on the right-wing GB News channel last week, where meteorologist John Hammond explained that with temperatures in Britain set to breach 40C, “I think there will be hundreds if not thousands of excess deaths. The charts I see in front of me are frightening. We all like nice weather but this will not be nice weather, it will be potentially lethal weather for a couple of days”.

The heatwave will, he warned, “be brief but brutal”. The response of presenter Bev Turner was to ridicule her guest. “I want us to be happy about the weather; I don’t know what’s happened to meteorologists to make you all a little bit fatalistic and harbingers of doom…haven’t we always had hot weather, wasn’t the summer of 1976 as hot as this?”.

Hammond shook his head as he replied that, no, this was anything but normal, adding that he didn’t think we should be “too light-hearted about the fact that many are going to die”.

This segment could have been lifted straight from the recent satirical film, Don’t Look Up starring Leonardo di Caprio, where scientists who had identified an incoming planet-killing asteroid were derided in television interviews and dismissed as self-serving alarmists.

The heatwave that was the cause of such mirth for GB News has already led to at least 1,000 fatalities in Portugal and Spain to date – these countries are well used to high temperatures, but the latest heatwave is altogether more dangerous, with temperatures having topped 45.7C in Spain.

Tabloid reactions

In the British tabloid press, pre-heatwave mockery was much in evidence. Last Tuesday, the Daily Mail, a paper with a long track record in promoting climate denial, led with the headline: ‘Sunny day snowflake Britain had a meltdown’.

The following day, the front page screamed ‘Nightmare of the wildfires’ over a photo of a row of houses in suburban London in flames triggered by the record heat.

An almost identical scenario played out in the Daily Express, which gleefully front-paged an image of a beach packed with people enjoying the sunshine on Monday last, with the headline ‘It’s not the end of the world – just stay cool and carry on’.

Two days later, the same front page was dominated by scenes of devastation, under the headline ‘Britain burns in 40.3C heat – wildfires rage in hottest day in history’.

Reality bites

While it may seem absurd that both editors would choose to ignore the overwhelming meteorological evidence that a deadly heatwave was fast approaching, it follows a pattern over many years of right-wing media actively campaigning on behalf of their billionaire owners and advertisers to discredit climate science and ridicule environmentalists.

The sheer force of habit may have led them to once again assume their deception would not be called out. Of course, there was no apology — there never is.

Climate-deniers in Ireland

While it is easy to point across the water to these egregious examples of media enabling climate denial, what about Ireland?

David Horgan, chairman of a fossil fuel company, Petrel Resources, was on RTÉ Radio One’s flagship magazine programme with Brendan O’Connor at the weekend, having already been on both NewsTalk and TodayFM to deny the climate emergency and taunt the “treehuggers” calling for action.

Horgan’s unqualified comments about ruminant methane were completely scientifically inaccurate, including his false statement that “cattle recycle carbon” while dismissing the dangerous impacts of biogenic methane. In response, O’Connor admitted he was “not qualified to get into the detail of this with you”, thus letting this stand uncorrected on RTÉ.

Horgan is a signatory to an international climate denier group styling itself ‘Clintel’, which declares “there is no climate emergency” and goes on to describe the dangerous planet-warming gas, carbon dioxide as “plant food”.

Despite now being able to witness climate breakdown in real time, our media continues to platform well-connected climate deniers with a vested financial interest in spreading propaganda, whether about oil or cattle.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that many in the media as well as politics and wider society are living in a bubble and still fail to grasp the existential nature of this crisis.

RTÉ News, for instance, was criticised last year for its woeful coverage of the 2021 heatwaves and its repeated failure to join the dots between extreme weather and climate change. Its managing director of news, Jon Williams accepted that the station had failed and promised to do better.

In some respects, it has. Prime Time, for instance, used to cover climate around once every three to four years, usually in the form of hosting a glorified shouting match, whereas now it has committed to quarterly ‘climate specials’.

These are modest steps when in reality a truly revolutionary approach is now required of all media. Elsewhere in Montrose, big-name broadcasters like Joe Duffy carry on as if they have literally never heard the term ‘global warming’ while playing to the gallery in attacking moves to limit either aviation or dairy expansion.

Influential British journalist and author George Monbiot made a rare appearance on RTÉ this week, in a quite surreal Prime Time debate with the president of the IFA. As Monbiot outlined the probable collapse of human civilisation, Tim Cullinan discussed Teagasc projections.

On a separate occasion, Monbiot was asked which industry presents the greatest environmental threat, oil or media?  His reply: “I would say the media. Every day it misdirects us. Every day it tells us that issues of mind-numbing irrelevance are more important than the collapse of our life-support systems”.

Is he wrong?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
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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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Feeding the planet without destroying the Earth

My review of ‘Regenesis’ by George Monbiot appeared in The Irish Times in mid-June. The author has, since its publication, been on the receiving end of what looks like a co-ordinated campaign to smear and discredit both him and and the conclusions of this book. That may give you an idea of the vested powerful interests being confronted here, and how they are trying desperately to shut down any serious discussion on the future of food, specifically our planet-destroying livestock systems.

MODERN agriculture has delivered astonishing productivity, but at a fearsome price to the living planet. Today, its footprint covers more than half the habitable land area on Earth.

This sequestration and radical alteration of vast swathes of the biosphere for the sole benefit of one species among millions has triggered a catastrophic collapse of ecosystems while also destabilising the global climate system.

There is remarkably little sustained public or political attention paid to this tsunami of destruction sweeping away the life support systems upon which we all ultimately depend, or to the interest groups profiting from it. Continue reading

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How financial sector fails to grasp climate risks

It has been described as a classic case of saying the quiet bit out loud, but jaws dropped when a senior banker (and former FT financial journalist) let his guard down and shared with his audience everything we’ve feared about the deeply sociopathic nature of banking in particular and economics more generally. As a footnote, Kirk finally quit HSBC in July, blaming “cancel culture” rather than his own odious remarks for the decision. Kirk, in his own words, “only ever tried to do the best for my clients and readers in a 27-year unblemished record in finance, journalism and consulting”. Quite. I filed the article below for the Business Post at the end of May.

THEY SAY THAT everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, and for Stuart Kirk, global head of ‘responsible investing’ at British multinational bank, HSBC. It came, appropriately enough, after his 15-minute presentation to a recent Financial Times conference in London.

Kirk, who previously worked as a financial journalist with the FT, stunned his audience by explaining how everything they thought they knew about climate risk was simply wrong. “Who cares if Miami is under six metres of water”, he said. After all, “Amsterdam has been six metres under water for ages, and that’s a nice place, we’ll cope with it”. Continue reading

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

Message remains the same, but who’s listening?

I filed this comment piece for the Irish Examiner in May to coincide with the publication of the WMO ‘State of the Climate’ report. The science gets clearer and clearer, the direct evidence of global climate destabilisation is now evident for all too see first-hand, yet still the response remains muted.

“I GET ALL the news I need on the weather report”. That line is from a classic Simon & Garfunkel song from 1970 capturing the zeitgeist of an era, real or imagined, where the most you had to worry about was what to wear to the beach.

Half a century later, and now the weather itself is the news. The release this week by the UN World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) of its ‘State of the Global Climate in 2021’ was just the latest in a seemingly endless series of dire warnings emanating from the scientific community about the rapidly deteriorating global climate system. Continue reading

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

Shadow of war throws new focus on nuclear energy

One source of near-zero carbon for energy production that is often overlooked and excluded from serious consideration is that of nuclear energy. In ordinary circumstances this might be understandable, but in a dire climate emergency, I find it baffling that anyone serious about this issue would peremptorily dismiss nuclear without first subjecting it to detailed ongoing assessment. I wrote about this conundrum in the Business Post in May.

WE HUMANS are notoriously poor judges of risk. It’s a design quirk in an ancient brain system that served our ancestors well on the Serengeti but is woefully inadequate to deal with the deluge of complex and often contradictory danger signs and signals we face in the modern world.
Most of us instinctively fear flying, yet statistically, it is far safer than driving. In the 12 months following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in 2001, an additional 1,600 road deaths were recorded in the US as more people chose driving over flying. This is almost half the total fatalities in the attack itself. Continue reading

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Nuclear | Leave a comment

The 1.5C danger line draws ever closer

I contributed the article below to TheJournal.ie in mid-May to mark the publication of a worrying new report from the World Meteorological Organisation. Tried to stress for the umpteenth time that physics is indifferent to the many political, economic, social, cultural and indeed psychological barriers that have to somehow be overcome if we are to act collectively and decisively in line with the science. The piece attracted over 100 comments from readers which, for what it’s worth, turned out to be a lot more nuanced than the online reaction I have received to similar articles in previous years.

FROM POLE TO pole and across every continent on Earth, the broadly benign and predictable climatic conditions under which humanity has flourished for centuries are rapidly destabilising.

Two months ago, scientists were astonished to report on simultaneous polar heatwaves. Multiple weather stations in Antarctica reported temperatures up to 40C above normal, while in the Arctic, temperatures 30C above normal were recorded. “We have entered a new extreme phase of climate change much earlier than we had expected,” warned Professor Mark Maslin of University College, London.

His concern has been borne out this week with the publication by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) of a new report indicating there is now an evens chance of the 1.5°C threshold of extremely dangerous climate change being breached within the next five years.

A similar analysis carried out by the WMO ahead of the Paris climate conference in 2015 found an almost zero chance of 1.5°C being breached in the near future. It is astonishing to consider how quickly the global climatic situation has deteriorated in just the last seven years.

“The 1.5°C figure is not some random statistic. It is rather an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet,” according to WMO secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas.

Data for 2021 indicated that global average temperatures have already risen by around 1.1-1.2°C. While this may sound modest, it is likely the greatest temperature shift Earth has experienced since the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago, but today, the rate of change is far more rapid than at any time for millions of years.

Measurements of global average surface temperatures also include the surface of the oceans, so in reality land surface temperatures in many areas have already risen far more rapidly. Much of India and Pakistan has been suffering under sustained and unprecedented heatwave conditions since March, with Pakistan’s Sindh province recording its hottest-ever April temperature of 49ºC.

Across India, crops are wilting in the fields and the wheat harvest is likely to be down 50% in some regions this year, putting yet more pressure on global food security.

This region is home to some 1.5 billion people and it is nudging ever closer to a situation where it is simply too hot for humans or most animals to endure, or for crops to grow.

A research paper published two years ago warned that, on current emissions trends, within just 50 years, between 2-3.5 billion people will be living in areas of the world that will be effectively uninhabitable due to extreme heat. The vast majority of the world’s poor do not have access to air conditioning, and even if this could somehow be provided, the emissions arising from the huge amounts of energy required to power these would make the situation even worse.

This portends the greatest forced migration crisis in human history, with billions of hungry, desperate people having to abandon their homelands. The likely political and humanitarian consequences of a displacement on this scale almost defy imagining.

We are approaching a near future of escalating conflict, including warfare, over access to dwindling food and fresh water resources and the near-complete collapse of globalised trade as countries struggle to maintain order while closing borders in a desperate bid to look after their own citizens. As a result, countless millions of climate migrants face a bleak future of barbed wire and persecution.

There is no mystery whatever as to what is driving this rapidly escalating global crisis.

“For as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise. And alongside that, our oceans will continue to become warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea level will continue to rise and our weather will become more extreme”, added Prof Taalas.

Climate extremes

Last summer saw a series of savage climate extremes around the world, including severe floods that left 125 dead across Germany, Belgium and Holland. The town of Lytton in once-chilly Canada recorded an almost unimaginable 49.6ºC temperature, shattering all national records. Yet there were two La Niña events last year that should have exerted a cooling effect on overall global temperatures.

When, as expected, an El Niño (which has an overall warming effect) event next occurs in the near future, this will again push global temperatures to new record highs.

The only thing that can now prevent the climate system from breaching a tipping point into irreversible global collapse is urgent action by governments around the world to reduce emissions. The Covid lockdown saw emissions fall slightly in 2020, only to fully rebound last year to their highest level in history.

The greatest onus to act strongly rests on wealthy countries like Ireland. We have laudable ambitions to cut our emissions by 51% by the end of 2030, but with that deadline fast approaching, it is clear that none of the main parties, including Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have the slightest appetite to push through measures that are unpopular with the public or resisted by lobbyists. It is clear that Ireland is still paying lip service to climate action.

For instance, despite energy imports into Europe from Russia helping Putin to fund his war on Ukraine, there isn’t even political appetite in Ireland to reduce speed limits, a proven and equitable method of cutting our fuel consumption. Nor have there been any moves whatever to require the aviation industry to pay any taxes or duties on the fuels that its business model of climate-destroying cheap flying demand.

The recent political imbroglio over turf underlined how cynicism and political opportunism trumps any form of leadership or vision on this issue. What was truly depressing is how Sinn Féin is every bit as disengaged on climate as the other main parties, despite it being a growing concern among the younger voters it has successfully courted.

It will probably take our coastal cities and towns being routinely flooded, international trade collapsed and our agriculture system devastated by extreme weather for politicians and the media to wake up and start taking the climate emergency seriously.

By then, of course, it will be far too late.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

Posted in Arctic, Energy, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Turf wars signal betrayal on climate action

The bizarre and pointless recent ‘turf wars’ are a throwback to an Ireland many of us thought was gone forever. The scramble by politicians to outdo one another in capitulating to a handful of industrial turf cutters and their noisy acolytes, while ignoring the climate and biodiversity crisis has been one of the most depressing episodes in recent years. I wrote in the Business Post about this shameful yellow streak running right across our political classes and how it augurs badly for tough decisions that lie ahead.

THIS WEEKEND, hundreds of millions of people across the Indian sub-continent continue to endure almost unliveable conditions as the region remains gripped by a deadly heat dome that scientists have confirmed has been intensified by climate change.

Neither this ominous humanitarian crisis nor the horrific conflict in Ukraine could even begin to compete for political or media oxygen in Ireland this week with the bizarre rolling controversy surrounding, of all things, turf. Continue reading

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The magic porridge pot is finally running out

To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the landmark ‘Limits to Growth’ book, I contributed the below article to the Business Post. We are now precisely half way through the century modelled by the Club of Rome, and the conditions pointing towards the “sudden and uncontrollable decline” in industrial civilisation they projected to occur in the early to mid-21st century appear to be coalescing right on schedule. How could we have ignored such clear warnings? The answer may lie in the fantasy of infinite economic growth peddled by leading economists that has been accepted as not just rational, but inevitable, by governments around the world.

FIFTY YEARS ago this month, a book was published that caused a global firestorm of controversy. Titled ‘Limits to Growth’ (LtG) it warned that the century from 1972 would, on current growth trends, see the world reach and then breach key boundaries. These included food production, natural resources, pollution and population. Continue reading

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Can we reimagine a better, safer world?

It sometimes feels like our collective inability to respond to the global climate and ecological emergency is first and foremost a failure of imagination. We are conditioned to see the world the way it is, and can easily assume there are no serious alternatives. I contributed an op-ed to the Irish Examiner to mark publication of the latest IPCC report and opened by trying to imagine how, in a parallel universe, we might be squaring up to the existential challenges that confront us.

TRYING TO contemplate how a civilisation guided by science and reason would deal with the rapidly unfolding climate emergency requires paying a visit to a parallel universe. Here, the global climate and biodiversity crisis is front and centre of every part of our everyday lives; children learn about it from pre-primary onwards. Continue reading

Posted in Agriculture, Economics, Energy, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment