March saw the launch of the IPCC’s AR6 Synthesis Report, which brings together the three main strands, as well as other IPCC special reports, into a unified, albeit hefty, document. Despite its quite shocking conclusions, it made barely a ripple in terms of media coverage, and had largely disappeared from the Irish news cycle within 24 hours. The below was published in the Irish Examiner in late March.
IT IS SAID that at the start of every disaster movie, there’s a scientist being ignored. They are usually portrayed as ashen-faced nerds waving sheafs of data as the politicians and media stifle a yawn. Until, of course, calamity strikes.
Still, the great thing about the movies is that, no matter how scary things get, the audience can enjoy the white-knuckle ride in the certain knowledge that, as the final credits roll and the lights come up, the world will be exactly as they left it a couple of hours earlier.
And while the newly released Synthesis Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at times reads like the script of a Hollywood B movie, this one is for real.
“The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years”, according to the report. In what has to be the least reassuring assessment of the IPCC’s findings I have ever read, Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London added: “It does not mean we are doomed”.
Here we stand, on the cusp of the greatest disaster in human history, as the global climate rapidly destabilises and ecosystems buckle under the relentless weight of human pressures.
Lots of bad impacts are already locked into the system, but a full-scale collapse of human civilisation may yet be averted. There’s a catch. Everything, yes everything, has to change, and soon.
“Rapid and far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems are necessary to achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”, as the IPCC report put it. The key word in that sentence is “liveable”.
Unless we in wealthy countries like Ireland are prepared to accept tough choices right now, and bear our full share of the burden of keeping the global climate system within the 1.5C to 2C threshold beyond which lies climate collapse, to be absolutely clear, we are instead choosing to dig our children and our grandchildren’s graves.
I appreciate many will find this choice of language uncomfortable, but frankly, we should be long past sparing one another’s feelings. If we’re to have any kind of a liveable future on this uniquely beautiful, once-bountiful planet, then we’re going to have to square up to what the science has been screaming at us for decades.
Despite modern civilisation being built on the fruits of scientific discovery, we’ve collectively taken an a la carteapproach to science, cherry-picking the bits we like and denying the mountains of evidence that says we’re on a pathway to disaster, while ridiculing and marginalising those attempting to raise the alarm.
It is sobering to contemplate that in the decades since the intergovernmental process of tackling climate change as a global crisis began in earnest, total emissions have more than doubled. More heat-trapping gases have been released into the atmosphere since 1990 than in all of human history before that date.
It’s easy to lay all the blame on politicians, but they regularly respond that if they were to introduce unpopular measures, such as strong carbon taxes or limiting air travel or livestock, they would be thrown out at the next election.
Surveys show high levels of concern among the Irish public about climate change, yet the paradox remains that this somehow does not translate into voting intentions. It’s said that the ‘end of the month’ trumps the ‘end of the world’, and in our busy lives, it is easy to focus on immediate issues and tune out the drumbeat of the climate emergency.
After all, it is still a marginal issue for our media. The IPCC report may be front page news today, but it will likely have vanished from the news agenda within a day or two. And all the while, we are bombarded every waking hour of every day with advertising and marketing messages urging us to fly, drive, shop and spend like there’s, well, no tomorrow.
Surely, most people may reason, if this truly was an emergency, wouldn’t the government and our media outlets act accordingly? The national response to the Covid crisis, including a €20 million government spend on advertising, left no one in and doubt that it was being taken seriously.
In contrast, have you ever seen a single government advert explaining the climate emergency, or why whole-of-society change is urgently needed and what are the steps we should take next?
To be clear: the choices we make or fail to make lead to either a difficult, dangerous future – or no future at all. Those still peddling fantasies such as ‘net zero by 2050’ simply haven’t engaged with the hard science, either through ignorance or by design.
By now, the special interest groups will be flooding the airwaves explaining why someone else should take the pain while their sector gets a free pass. UN secretary-general, António Guterres had them squarely in mind when he said: “Every country must be part of the solution. Demanding others move first only ensures humanity comes last.”