Around seven years ago, I read a history of the planet in the 20th century, entitled ‘Something New Under The Sun‘, by Georgetown University professor, JR McNeill. The book examined the biosphere, slice by slice, and concluded that, whatever else, the 20th century should be seen as a historical once-off.
The 21st century, he noted, would have to be profoundly different – either humanity learns to live within limits (of resources and carbon emissions), or the entire system would crash, with the profoundest of consequences for life on Earth. This book had a major influence on my decision to get involved in writing and campaigning on climate and environmental topics.
What was telling about McNeill’s award-winning scholarly analysis is that climate change/global warming wereÂ peripheral to his work, which was first published in 2000. His focus was on the cumulative impacts of resource depletion and pollution.
Fast forward to last Monday on RTE radio. Pat Kenny ran a 20-minute segment on climate change, about which, says Kenny, a debate is raging. This debate, I would suggest, is in Kenny’s head. The rest of the world, having understood the issue and accepted the need for urgent action has moved on, but Ireland’s veteran broadcaster is caught in a time warp of his own construction. You can make your own mind up by playing the piece at the link below:
On Tuesday night, I emailed Kenny a series of questions in an effort to nail down his own personal beliefs in this area:
Dear Mr Kenny
I’m researching an article on climate change and climate sceptics in particular. Following your piece on Monday’s program on climate change, could I ask your opinion on the following short questions:
a) Do you believe global warming is occurring and is likely, as projected by the IPCC and others, to get far more serious in the decades ahead?
b) Assuming you agreed with (a) above, do you believe this warming is primarily occurring as a result of anthropogenic forcings?
c) Do you accept that the principal moderator of the Earth’s surface temperature is atmospheric CO2?
d) Assuming yes to (c) above, are you concerned that at 387ppm CO2 (or 440ppm CO2e), these levels are now far beyond the range of 180-280ppm that has pertained on the Earth for at least 650,000 years (based on direct measurements from Antarctic ice cores) and probably several million years (based on more indirect observations)?
e) Are you familiar with Svante Arrhenius’ work on atmospheric CO2, specifically his conclusions, that have stood unchallenged for a century, that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels would lead to global surface temperature increases in the range of 5-6 degrees C?
f) Are you familiar with the near-certain mass extermination of all life forms that such temperature rises would render inevitable?
g) Do you believe such a scenario could conceivably play out this century, or indeed, this side of 2050?
Rather than respond in writing, Kenny phoned me at around 9.20 on Wednesday morning. What ensued was a 33-minute conversation, frequently animated, but, at Kenny’s absolute insistence, off the record. Quite what the point of having such an in-depth discussion without attribution was unclear to me. For a man who has spent his life in the media gaze, Kenny is extraordinarily sensitive to criticism, real or imaginary â as I was to discover first hand on Wednesday morning.
While I am going to honour the off-the-record injunction, I have no trouble describing the gist of the discussion. It was part lecture on journalism (specifically his expertise and fearless even-handedness in presenting all sides of the argument, compared with my shabby bias and evangelising). Further, he confirmed to my satisfaction that while graciously accepting that global warming is occurring, he’s unconvinced that humanity has anything to do with it.
Rather than troubling himself to read the conclusions of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007), Kenny instead likes to curl up with a good conspiracy book, like The Chilling Stars. It’s all about cosmic rays, clouds, etc. etc. Bottom line: climate change has got nothing to do with us, so no need therefore for any of us to in any way consider reining in our lifestyles. This is especially good news for the wealthy, whose lifestyles contribute disproportionately to carbon emissions.
Luckily for me, I’m not a young reporter/researcher who’s that easily intimidated. If I were, I might well have considered pulling the article that appeared in today’s Irish Times which dares to suggest that there’s something seriously awry with Kenny’s consistent championing of climate scepticism after the “chat” from Pat setting me straight on who’s who in this town. The subject of my article was based around a segment from his program on Monday which was simply a platform that the experienced broadcaster constructed to ventilate his own bias, with his “guests” mere props in the charade.
Kenny’s wilful stupidity in suggesting that since you wouldn’t really notice an extra 30-50% of CO2 in the air that you breathe, yerra, what’s all the fuss about left his expert guest practically gasping for breath at so bone-headed an observation. Kenny may or may not be as clever as he himself thinks, but he’s hardly stupid â unless it’s deliberate.
I asked OisÃn Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth and a nationally recognised bona fide expert in climate change to listen back to Kenny’s segment and to comment on Kenny’s general coverage of this area. Here’s Coghlan’s observations:
“There is an clear pattern in Pat Kenny’s coverage of the issue. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence he is a climate change sceptic. It is reflected in who he has on his shows and in the questions he asks.Â Given his hugely influential position in Irish life that is not without consequence. It is a drag on public and political action. Can you imagine the uproar there’d be if he was consistently looking to sow doubt about the link between smoking and cancer?”
“I’d lay down this challenge to him. Go and spend a week with climate scientists in the Arctic, or better still with the farmers in Tanzania whose lives and livelihoods are under threat from climate change right now. And then let’s have a proper discussion on Frontline with scientists and policy-makers, not strawmen and snake-oil salesmen.”
Some could attribute sinister motives when a senior broadcaster is so deliberately, consistently, constantly and wilfully wrong on such a crunch issue. Personally, I don’t. I reckon Kenny has become so jaded from decades of Punch-and-Judy journalism that he genuinely, honestly, truly is incapable of grasping the profound new reality that we now live in the Age of Consequences. The world has changed. Kenny hasn’t.
Climate change and wider ecological collapse are the issues we must contend with as the price for constructing an intensive consumption-fuelled civilisation without pausing to consider the consequences, and even when warned, being too much in love with our consumer lifestyle to pull away from a profoundly risky “growth” trajectory that is taking us towards system collapse, precisely as outlined in 2000 by JR McNeill.
When Waterford farmer, John O’Mahony listed out some interesting (but completely irrelevant in terms of extrapolating towards any meaningful climate observation) data on local rainfall levels in Tallow over the last 30 years, Kenny pounced to observe: “In a sense, there’s nothing new under the sun”. He couldn’t have summed it up better. If you are bloody-minded enough to take a certain line on an issue, irrespective of the facts, there is no difficulty (especially with Google close to hand) to find plenty of loose cannons out there to agree with you.
Kenny clearly believes that courageous scientists who have the hard data disproving anthropogenic climate change are being blocked from having their research published, and said as much on the radio on Monday. Proof, Pat? One example, perhaps? Didn’t think so. Surely we can expect slightly better from Ireland’s most senior broadcaster than reheating fairy tales and serving them up as fact?
If Kenny is prepared to have an honest, adult debate about climate change, focusing on the science and leaving the non peer-reviewed pet theories and colourful self-publicists out, fair enough, I for one would be happy to get involved. One thing I do know since yesterday: Pat has my number.