Years and decades of dithering, denial and inaction mean that the remaining options open to humanity grow more limited and more unpalatable by the day. I explained in this Irish Examiner piece in late October the crucial differences between climate mitigation and adaptation.
“WE BASICALLY have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering”. This is how Barack Obama’s energy advisor, Dr John Holdren, in 2007 memorably set out the stark choices ahead.
However, rather than acting to mitigate the impacts of climate change by urgently reducing emissions, in the 16 years since Holdren’s comments, global levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the powerful heat-trapping gas, have risen by one-tenth. In little more than half a century, one species has fundamentally altered the chemistry of an entire planet.
Atmospheric levels of CO2 are now at their highest in at least three million years. At that time, during the Pliocene Epoch, global sea levels were more than 15 metres higher than today. Earth system inertia has shielded us from the impacts — for now. Nor has humanity any serious intention to slow down or reverse course any time soon.
If you needed any further confirmation that the vague promises being made by governments and corporations about being ‘net zero by 2050’ are meaningless, consider that oil giant Chevron has just paid $50bn to buy out a rival.
This, according to the Financial Times, means Chevron is “doubling down on its bet that demand for fossil fuels will remain robust for decades to come”.
The direct impact on our weather systems of the oil, gas, and coal being burned to power global civilisation is no longer mysterious or abstract. A new branch of science called climate attribution allows experts to calculate in almost real-time the degree to which a specific extreme weather event has been influenced by climate change.
Take, for instance, last month’s deadly flooding event in Libya which claimed at least 11,000 lives. The explosive rainfall that drove this disaster was found to be 50 times more likely to occur than would have been the case in a world without human greenhouse gas emissions, according to analysis by World Weather Attribution experts.
Mitigating climate change is politically unpopular, as it means carbon taxes on fuels, restrictions on flying, and heavy taxes on SUVs, red meat and other energy-intensive but non-essential sectors protected by powerful lobby groups.
As research released this week by the Environmental Protection Agency underlines, most Irish people still think that “others”, including people living in other countries, as well as future generations, will suffer the most.
In short, while we tell pollsters that we support climate action, in reality, we are not yet prepared to trade our present comfort and convenience for the safety or even survival of others, even if it seems that those others are in reality our own children or grandchildren
However, as the recent extreme flooding in the Cork area has reminded us, there are no free lunches when it comes to climate mitigation. If we collectively choose not to limit our high-emissions lifestyles for the common good and our government actively promotes major polluters like the livestock and transport sectors, then the price to be paid is in devastating climate-fuelled events.
While climate mitigation can be thought of as turning down the spigot to limit future damage, adaptation means investing in coping with the dangers we can no longer avoid. For Ireland, flooding is the number one climate risk we face, whether as a result of coastal inundation from rising sea levels or severe flooding events as a result of a supercharged atmosphere.
The impact of extreme precipitation is made worse by land use changes, such as drained bogs and degraded uplands. For Ireland, effective adaptation has to start at source. Overgrazing by sheep and deer of our uplands as well as bog cutting and burning of vegetation leads to rainfall cascading rapidly off mountains and overwhelming lowland settlements.
Similarly, many of our rivers have lost their floodplains to “improvement”, either for poorly located housing developments or drained land for farming. Decades of arterial drainage schemes overseen by the OPW may have been well-intended, but many of these modifications now make us far more prone to flooding disasters as water no longer has the space to harmlessly disperse.
In our warmer, wetter future, this problem will only get worse. While it may be tempting for Irish authorities to look inwards and put all our focus on local solutions such as adapting to manage flooding events, this is only at best a stop-gap approach.
Research published this week states that the giant west Antarctic ice shelf is undergoing accelerated melt. Its complete loss would raise global sea levels by five metres, leading to the abandonment of many of the world’s major coastal settlements and river basins.
Only concerted intergovernmental action on climate mitigation, including a decisive shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewables as well as mainly plant-based diets and more modest lifestyles for those of us in wealthy countries like Ireland, gives us any chance of altering this devastating trajectory.
The choice that now confronts us all is how much climate mitigation we are prepared to support, even if it means some pain in higher costs in the short term. We will also be forced to spend ever more of our available budgets on adaptation and cleaning up the mess when it fails.
Make no mistake: the alternative to strong climate action now is endless suffering later.