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.
In this parallel universe, public transport is efficient, reliable, and cheap. It no longer has to compete for road space with over 2m private cars. Very few people need to own a car, and since the ban on car and aviation advertising was introduced, they are no longer seen as must-have status symbols.
As a result, the average family is €10,000 a year better off — this is the typical annual cost of keeping a car on the road, from finance and depreciation to tax, insurance, maintenance, and fuel. Our quiet roads now teem with bicycles, buses, e-bikes, scooters, cargo bikes — and the occasional EV.
Our countryside, once dominated by intensive, highly polluting production mainly to service the middle classes of Saudi Arabia and China, is now buzzing with thousands of new smallholders. Polytunnels, solar panels, and drip-irrigation systems for horticulture have largely replaced milking parlours and monoculture fields.
Agricultural employment levels are at their highest in half a century, delivering a social and economic boost to rural Ireland. Meanwhile, our media brings sustained daily coverage to these issues.
Broadcasters now have as many journalists on the environmental beat as they do for business or sport, while Met Éireann integrates climate into every bulletin.
The climate emergency hasn’t gone away, but Ireland is now a world leader in genuine sustainable development, and has secured energy independence and domestic food security into the bargain.
This vision from a parallel universe probably reads like a fever dream. We have become so inured to the growth and consumption-based model that it can seem hard to imagine that such alternate realities could even exist, never mind actually making sense.
Yet by blindly following the ‘sensible’ mainstream voices, from economics and politics to the media and beyond, we find ourselves at the very edge of an ecological abyss, facing an existential predicament likely as acute as any our species has encountered in perhaps a hundred centuries.
In that parallel universe, the finest minds would be working around the clock to engineer a safer future, while plotting our planned retreat from much of the natural world, both on land and in the oceans, to allow these systems the chance to recover and to help stabilise the global climate before it tips into full collapse.
However, in this world, we dither and we dally, clinging ever more tightly to our privilege. Anyone who dares to suggest even the slightest sacrifice or discomfort is immediately lampooned, with RTÉ’s Joe Duffy cheerily leading the outrage posse.
Ridiculing Environment Minister Eamon Ryan for even contemplating such eminently sensible ideas as lowering speed limits and turning down our thermostats to reduce fuel consumption is now an unofficial national sport.
While it was open season on Ryan, the International Energy Agency recently calculated that lowering motorway speed limits by 10kmh would cut fuel usage in the developed world by 15%. This, with other modest measures, could cut immediately Europe’s dependency on Russian oil by one fifth.
Meanwhile, the very politicians and commentators who have never heretofore shown the slightest interest in either our climate system or natural heritage are now eagerly explaining how this is “not the right time” for serious climate action. This year’s excuse is Ukraine. Last year was Covid. Before that, Brexit. And so on.
Yesterday’s publication by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the third and final part of its blockbuster sixth Assessment Report has underlined the gravity of the climate crisis and how little time remains to avoid disaster.
In the words of United Nations secretary general António Guterres, the report is “a litany of broken promises … that put us firmly on track to an unlivable world. We are on a fast track to climate disaster”.
Setting out the scope of that calamity in the plainest terms, Guterres foretold a world where “major cities are underwater, unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, the extinction of a million species of plants and animals”. This is not, he added, fiction or exaggeration, but “what science tells us will result from our current energy policies”.
To the governments and business leaders talking big on climate action while doing nothing to deal with this emergency, Guterres was especially scathing: “Simply put, they are lying”.
The humanitarian disaster in Ukraine has seen around 10m people forced from their homes. Imagine a scenario 100 times worse, and you arrive at the UN’s projections for 2050, where as many as 1bn people may be climate refugees, as their lands become largely uninhabitable and crops fail due to extreme temperatures and humidity.
Worse, on our current emissions pathways, areas of the world currently home to around 3bn people may be uninhabitable by 2070, according to a major 2020 study, which is less than 50 years from today,
Future generations are watching. Will we be remembered as good ancestors, or will they instead curse our memory? It’s in our hands — for now.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator