What happens when the law no longer protects us?

Imagine you could somehow project yourself 10 or 20 years into the future, and were looking back at the world in the 2020s, in full knowledge of the slow-motion catastrophe that was unfolding. What would you have done differently? I suspect most of us probably would have major regrets, but this knowledge doesn’t make putting your neck on the line today any easier, as I wrote in the Irish Examiner in September.

IF YOU KNEW for certain that something unimaginably terrible was going to happen, yet the only possible way it could be prevented is by breaking the law, would you do it?

And, if by taking this action, you were likely to face public vilification, prosecution, and possible imprisonment, would you still do it? This is the dilemma facing many people in today’s environmental and climate movement.

As British climate activist and broadcaster Chris Packham put it last week: “We are sleepwalking to an apocalypse”. Just hours before his documentary, titled Is it Time to Break the Law? was aired on Channel 4, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak did a pre-election U-turn by abandoning a series of key environmental pledges.

It was perhaps the perfect curtain-raiser to the programme, helping to dispel any lingering notion that today’s political classes have the slightest interest in taking the kinds of courageous (and unpopular) decisions necessary to avert disaster.

We are, Packham noted wryly, “starting here from a point that if we don’t do something, we are doomed”. While groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have engaged in a series of mildly disruptive actions, none have come even close to crossing the line into violence.

Most of the great social and political struggles, from the suffragette movement to abolishing slavery and the 20th-century civil rights, anti-colonial, and anti-Apartheid movements, have all entailed violent direct action.

British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested seven times, enduring beatings and solitary confinement. As she said during her trial in October 1908: “We are here not because we are law-breakers. We are here in our efforts to become law-makers”.

Other suffragettes also engaged in arson and vandalism, with Emily Davison killed after throwing herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Who now still argues that these extreme actions, in the face of intractable discrimination, were not justified?

Today, climate activists are “depicted as dangerous radicals, yet the truly dangerous radicals are the countries and firms continuing to burn fossil fuels”, in the words of UN secretary general António Guterres.

There have been multiple reports of climate protesters engaged in peaceful actions, such as sit-ins on roads, being assaulted by members of the public, as well as being arrested and imprisoned.

The UK government’s new Public Order Bill, not dissimilar to repressive legislation in Russia, has effectively criminalised peaceful protests as innocuous as holding up a poster.

Other groups in society, from farmers to trade unionists, occasionally engage in disruptive street protests, but it is almost unheard of for them to be physically assaulted in the process.

Anger against climate protesters in the UK “has been fuelled by right-wing media”, Packham observed. “The public has been conditioned to hate them”.

Media coverage frequently employs loaded language like ‘zealots’ and ‘fanatics’  to stoke public antipathy against peaceful protestors who are acting not for their own gain but to draw attention to a dire ecological emergency that is becoming more apparent with every passing month.

For those involved in climate activism, these are dark, dark days. “I’ve been part of a generation of conservationists who’ve completely failed to protect the thing they’re meant to love”, Packham said.

Having been involved for years in peaceful campaigning, signing petitions, and going on marches, he is left with the stark reality that “none of it has worked; perhaps I have to take another route. Is it time for me to break the law?”

Packham’s experience mirrors my own, and doubtless, that of many other campaigners. We are losing badly, and every day of inaction takes us a day closer to irreversible climate breakdown and an unspeakable global tragedy.

We all do whatever we can. As a journalist, I have written hundreds of articles explaining the crisis and pleading for urgent action, attended numerous meetings and protests, and taken part in countless talks and interviews.

Yet, like Packham, I remain haunted by the sense that our best efforts are hopelessly inadequate.

Other than a couple of youthful indiscretions, I have remained on the right side of the law, and am grateful to live in a democratic country with a police force and judiciary that is broadly trusted. My climate activism likewise has been within the law, yet it is manifestly failing to make a difference.

In an era of climate breakdown, with our planetary life support systems unravelling before our eyes, the only truly radical action is to do nothing and meekly accept our fate.

“I’ve reached a point where I consider [breaking the law] the ethically responsible thing to do,” Packham concluded. Or, as civil rights activist Martin Luther King memorably put it: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”.

If the law seems more concerned with shielding polluters and coddling lobbyists, then yes, maybe we have to fight back. Frankly, what other choices do we now have?

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Is insurance the first climate domino to fall?

While most economists and much of the financial system is still living in la la land when it comes to failing to account for the climate emergency, one sector where the impacts are already piling up is the global insurance industry. It in turn underpins national and transnational commerce as well as being a vital component of the housing sector. No insurance, no mortgage, as I explored in the Irish Examiner in September.

FOR MOST OF us, most of the time, insurance is just another bill that drops on the mat once or twice a year for our home or car. And while sometimes it might be tempting not to bother renewing, the nagging possibility, however slight, of being financially wiped out by a catastrophe, such as a house fire or major flood damage, means we keep on paying those annoying annual premia.

Typically, it is assumed that in any given year, a small number of claims will be made per 1,000 vehicles or homes covered. The pooled income then allows a few big payouts to be made. What happens, however, if a city is hit by a storm or extreme flooding event that destroys thousands of cars and houses?

The home insurance market in particular is beginning to rapidly unravel in parts of the world as extreme weather events ratchet up. In the first eight months of 2023 in the US, there have been 23 ‘natural disasters’ where damage has exceeded $1bn, making it already the worst year on record, with almost four months remaining.

“Climate change is the number one long-term risk out there“, according to Jerome Haegeli, chief economist with re-insurance giant, Swiss Re.

Calculating insurable risk depends on complex mathematical modelling, but for all their sophistication, almost all models have a fundamental flaw in that they base current and future risk on what has happened in the past.

Accelerating climate change means the risks are increasing, in scale, frequency and in unpredictability. Last May, State Farm Insurance, the largest insurer in California halted all its new home policies in the state due to what it described as “growing catastrophic exposure” wildfire risk in particular.

In the last six years, California alone has experienced more than $30bn in insurable losses as a direct result of wildfires fuelled by rising temperatures. In March, Eric Andersen, president of Aon PLC stated that climate change has created “a crisis of confidence around the ability to predict loss”.

Ominously, Anderson added that “just as the US economy was over-exposed to mortgage risk in 2008, the economy today is over-exposed to climate risk”. Hurricanes, wildfires and flooding disasters have pushed insurers into crisis and bankruptcy in several US states, with homeowners struggling to get cover at almost any price.

The situation in Europe is also growing critical. According to the European Commission, losses directly attributable to climate change cost EU states some €145bn over the last decade, with Ireland ranking the third-highest country in per-capita climate related losses. These losses are expected to rise exponentially in the years and decades ahead, with dire implications for the insurance industry.

In parts of Cork, including Glanmire, there are already households that are unable to get insurance dating back to a major flood in the area over a decade ago. The inability to get insurance means people cannot get mortgages, with obvious knock-on effects into the wider economy.

Climate risk

In August 2022, Ireland’s Central Bank launched a consultation on climate change risk for the insurance sector, upgrading climate from “emerging risk” to “key risk”, and advised all insurers to closely monitor their exposure to climate risks.

“The stakes are high, not just for the future viability of the insurance sector, but for society as a whole”, according to Central Bank governor, Gabriel Makhlouf. A survey it conducted in 2021 found that only one in five insurers fully integrate climate risk into their risk management frameworks, with less than half the firms surveyed having conducted stress testing around climate risks.

This laid-back attitude to emerging climate risk is by no means confined to Ireland. Research published earlier this year revealed shocking levels of ignorance and complacency across the financial sector.

The study, involving the University of Exeter and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, found that many leading financial institutions simply didn’t understand the models being used to project the economic cost of climate change.

Models developed by economists that fundamentally misunderstand climate risks, including tipping points and compound events, are being used by financial institutions to estimate their own exposure to climate risks, and these are in many cases profoundly inaccurate.

‘Hothouse world’

For instance, a number of major financial institutions in the UK bizarrely reported that they would be unaffected or even do better in “hothouse world” climate scenarios that will lay waste to civilisation.

The most egregious example of this occurred in 2018, when famed economist, William Nordhaus in his address on receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics stated that an average 4C global temperature rise would represent the “optimal” balance between costs of climate change versus climate action.

As climate science has long confirmed, a 4C world would in reality be a hellish dystopia of famines, desertification, forced migration, political and economic chaos, ecological collapse and global immiseration. Indeed, at just 1.2C, the world is already experiencing ever-worsening and increasingly dangerous extreme weather events, as the ferocious summer of 2023 has so forcefully underlined.

The notion that the world’s food production system alone could withstand 4C global temperature rise is considered wildly unrealistic by scientists, yet many economists and the financial institutions they influence often appear to exist in a parallel reality where the physical limits of Earth systems do not apply.

As a case in point, an assessment of likely impacts on global GDP in a “hothouse” world of +3C carried out by a group comprising 114 central banks and financial overseers somehow managed to entirely omit “impacts related to extreme weather, sea-level rise or wider societal impacts from migration or conflict”.

If at this point it seems fanciful that some of the world’s highest-paid and ostensibly smartest people could really have gotten something this big so completely wrong, cast your mind back to the financial collapse of 2008, where greed, self-delusion and magical thinking on the part of major banks and investment companies came within a hair’s-breadth of triggering a total collapse of the global economy.

If they were this unable to grasp financial risk back in the early 2000s, is it really so difficult to imagine that the same people and institutions are any less blinkered today on climate risks?

On a positive note, many major insurers are now refusing to provide cover to new oil and gas exploration, having finally twigged that the fossil fuel industry is destroying the stable climate system that the insurance industry’s business model depends on.

While the only effective long-term defence against climate change is to drastically cut carbon pollution, in the interim, we also have to spend heavily to strengthen our infrastructure against threats such as rising sea levels.

To get a sense of just how unprepared the Irish public is for what lies ahead, Dublin City Council spent half a million euros in 2018 to lower a newly constructed sea wall as it slightly obstructed the sea views of motorists.

This change was demanded by local residents, even though these same residents may well face having their homes inundated as sea-level rise continues. The penny may not yet have dropped for many, but that too will change as the climate crisis comes crashing against our shores.

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Dispatches from a young eco-activist

I filed this review of ‘It’s Not Just You’, by Tori Tsui for the Business Post in August. While it makes a few interesting points, overall it fails to escape the dense tangle of eco-jargon and will be a struggle for all but the most committed to complete. You can, on the other hand, get a flavour of what it’s about by reading on…

THERE WAS a time when the young were largely free to get on with the job of growing up, while older, more experienced adults managed the serious business of looking after the future.

Lately, this natural order has been upended, with some youthful activists now finding themselves thrust into the unforgiving glare of the global media spotlight as the climate emergency deepens.

Most famous of all is Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who burst on to the world stage as a shy yet fiercely determined 16-year-old speaking truth in the plainest possible terms to the world’s political and business elite on whose watch climate change has deteriorated from being a managerial challenge into a dire existential crisis.

Thunberg is, however, one among many tens of thousands of young climate activists who have thrown themselves into the fight, often at huge personal cost. “I felt like I forfeited my youth, play and innocence to become an adult, to become a professional so that my voice is heard”, in the words of youth activist, Katie Hodgetts.

“I felt like the reward of stepping up to be a custodian for the planet and for people was poor mental health and burnout”, she told Tori Tsui, for her new book, It’s Not Just You. Tsui, a Hong Kong-born activist, has conducted extensive interviews with young climate activists and her book chronicles the heavy price being paid by these youthful campaigners, many of whom now also face criminalisation simply for trying to raise public awareness about the climate emergency.

Tsui explores a near epidemic of eco-anxiety sweeping through younger people. She defines it not as a pathology but rather as “a rational response to irrational circumstances”.

Many of these young activists face a dual burden. They are grappling with their own fears about a climate-ravaged future, as vividly illustrated throughout the chaotic summer of 2023, as relentless waves of record-smashing extreme weather events racked much of the northern hemisphere. In addition, many are buckling under the burden of being expected to somehow be the climate ‘saviours’.

“A lot of young people have so much pressure on their shoulders”, activist Dominique Palmer says. “People say: ‘You give us hope, you will change the world, you are more progressive and radical. If you won’t do it, who else will?'”

This intense pressure of expectation leaves Palmer feeling “burnt out and traumatised” and resentful of the idea that a handful of exhausted volunteer campaigners are “the answer to all of the world’s problems”.

While the concept of climate anxiety is relatively new, in the Global South, which has been at the sharp end of worsening climate impacts for which it is not culpable for decades, this has long been a worry, not about the future, but rather the bitter everyday reality.

“My ethnic group is being displaced across West and Central Africa due to climate change and conflict, but ‘climate anxiety’ is something only reserved for the rich and white”, observed Abdourahamane Ly, an activist from Guinea.

“My people are dying in the [English] Channel and stopped from entering fortress Europe while famines are sweeping the continent, but the focus is always on the feelings of those least affected”.

A high-profile campaigner, Tsui details the heavy toll climate anxiety has taken on her own mental health, with the Covid pandemic adding to the collective distress. “It’s a weird existence going from being an eco-conscious climate nomad who sailed the high seas to a traumatised, jobless twentysomething confined to a dingy shoebox of a flat” by the pandemic.

Tsui delves deeply into the links between mental health and issues including climate justice. “The climate crisis is making us unwell, and attempting to address it is my form of therapy, even if one suffers in the process”, she observes.

Tsui’s book suffers from a surfeit of jargon, with terms like “unpacking” and “intersectionality” used to excess. At times the author seems unclear if she is writing for an academic or general audience. As a result, some entire early chapters feel like they have been culled from a Master’s thesis.

It’s Not Just You will appeal to committed young climate activists, especially eco-feminists but it will struggle to win over a wider public audience beyond the eco-converted.

It’s Not Just You, by Tori Tsui, Simon & Schuster UK, €18.20

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Your time is precious: spend it wisely

While the big ticket changes to move the dial on the climate crisis are generally beyond the reach of most people, that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do. How we choose to spend our time, including our choices around who we do and don’t work for, carry real weight too, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in August.

GIVEN THAT apathy, cynicism, and outright denial still dominate how our political system, corporations and much of our media are reacting to the unfolding climate emergency, it is easy for us as individuals to feel as helpless as the situation feels hopeless.

Giving up is, however, not an option, so at least for now, it’s up to us: you and me. The most valuable commodity we possess is our time; how we choose to spend it is a decision we must each make for ourselves, but more and more people are coming to realise that, in a world on fire, it makes little sense to simply carry on with our lives and careers as if nothing has changed.

The global oil and gas industry is already feeling the pinch; the number of US business school graduates opting for careers in this dirtiest and most destructive of industries has slumped by over 40% in the last decade or so.

“Good people don’t want to work for a bad company”, according to Kerryman Bernard Looney, then chief executive of energy giant, BP. His total pay in 2022 was around $12 million, amid spiralling energy bills, great hardship for consumers, and a profit bonanza for the oil majors.

Meanwhile, BP scrapped its stated target of cutting emissions by 40% by 2030. “At the end of the day, we’re responding to what society wants”, was how Looney explained this u-turn. Society also wants a stable, liveable climate and secure global food system, though.

Most people want their values and actions to be broadly in alignment. With more and more now waking up to the twin crises of biodiversity collapse and climate breakdown, maybe now is the time to consider whether your current job or career can make a positive contribution to help build a safer, cleaner future for everyone.

As UN secretary general António Guterres told a group of new college graduates last year: “You hold the cards. Don’t work for the climate wreckers. Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future”.

For those with technical, managerial, or engineering skills, the renewable energy sector in Ireland is growing rapidly. Onshore wind, domestic and industrial solar power, and the upcoming boom in offshore wind will see the creation of thousands of new positions for a wide range of skills in an industry in which you can be doing good as you do well.

As Ireland rapidly transitions towards the electrification of home heating, transport, and energy, there will be winners and losers. Traditional car mechanics, for example, will need to re-train as the uptake of electric vehicles will render their existing skills redundant.

On the other hand, many of those trained to work in offshore oil and gas exploration are finding their skills in demand to help create and maintain new offshore wind farms.

Threat to health

The World Health Organisation has identified climate change as the greatest threat to human health this century. The most obvious risks arise from extreme weather events, but deteriorating air quality plus the spread of infectious diseases, food insecurity, and reduced access to clean water are all on the increase.

Groups such as Irish Doctors for the Environment are helping spread awareness about the dire health risks posed by climate breakdown, including threats to mental health.

The 300,000 people working in healthcare in Ireland are trusted voices who can help raise awareness among colleagues and patients about the climate emergency. This could include discussing the health and climate benefits of largely plant-based diets.

Those of us in media and communications have the privilege of having access to an audience. This should include the responsibility to include relevant ecological framing in how stories are presented. A new runway, for example, isn’t just a ‘business’ or  ‘travel’ story. There are also climate costs and implications to be considered.

Media also need to be ever vigilant about the growing tide of corporate greenwash being produced to bamboozle the public. If you have legal training, environmental law is a fast-growing discipline where you can put your skills to good use in fighting such deceptive practices.

If you’re one of the almost 70,000 teachers in Ireland, why not make regular space in the classroom to discuss the environment? Many schools have access to a garden space or polytunnel. Primary school children will love to get their hands dirty while learning about nature and food.

As recently as a generation ago, many homes had a “kitchen garden” where much of the fruit and vegetables for the family were grown. These disappeared with the advent of cheap, mostly imported, produce. However, food is never truly cheap, and knowing how to grow and preserve it is a vital skill that has been largely lost.

If you are a farmer, do consider horticulture, ideally organic. This is, by some distance, the most efficient way of producing food for human consumption, even using limited space. Moving production under glass helps to buffer your crops against damaging weather extremes. People need to eat every day. Soon enough, you will struggle to keep up with demand for your produce.

Even if you just have access to a garden or neighbourhood allotment, now is the time to pull on your gloves and get growing. Visit the Grow It Yourself website (giy.ie) to help set you on the right path. In previous times of emergency, communities dug ‘victory gardens’ to secure local food production and avoid hunger. The trick to being prepared is to start now.

The climate emergency will, in time, see the end of cheap food and may even lead to supermarket shelves emptying. Ireland imports nearly all of its fruit and veg, including from areas that are fast becoming too hot to produce food. It takes time to learn the basic skills we are all going to need as things become ever tougher, so the sooner we start, the better.

DIY courses

This is also a great time to sign up for a DIY course. A basic understanding of carpentry and electrics could one day prove invaluable. Solar panels could help offset future disruption to imported energy sources. Our grandparents’ generation got by on very little, wasted nothing, and were skilled at making and mending. We need to rediscover their thrifty ways as the era of global hyperabundance is now effectively over.

If you can possibly afford it, insulate your home and add solar panels and, ideally, a heat pump too. These will be an invaluable buffer against possible future disruption to imported energy sources.

‘Meitheal’ is an old Irish term describing how neighbours would come together to help in the saving of crops or in other shared tasks. In the turbulent times ahead, we will likely need to once again look to our extended families and local community for support, security and solidarity.

True wealth in the future will be measured in ‘social capital’ rather than money. Invest wisely.

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Lifting the omerta on speaking plainly

Let’s be honest for a moment. We have collectively pussy-footed around the climate and biodiversity emergency for years, decades in fact. Despite the scientific evidence piling ever higher week by week, it has long been taken as read that stating this bluntly would be either alarmist or would simply cause the public to tune out or even give up altogether. I’ve never been convinced by this line of reasoning, and explored it in some depth in a piece for the Irish Times’ climate and science page in August.

IF THE POWER of positive thinking could be parlayed into action, it’s likely the global climate emergency would have been dealt with a long time ago. Instead, after years, even decades of upbeat pronouncements from can-do politicians and business leaders, the situation has never been more ominous.

The drastic escalation of the climate emergency this year has been signalled with record-shattering temperatures across much of the northern hemisphere, including simultaneous heatwaves on three continents. July 2023 has been confirmed as the hottest month on Earth on the instrumental record, and likely the hottest in at least 120,000 years based on palaeoclimatological evidence.

So extreme have conditions been this summer that UN secretary general, António Guterres declared: “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.” This is in stark contrast in both language and tone to previous can-do pronouncements from politicians and public officials. The omerta on speaking bluntly about the climate emergency may have been finally lifted.

The early optimism on the ability and willingness of the global community to come together and act in line with the science has now largely evaporated. During three decades of intergovernmental climate action more heat-trapping greenhouse gases have been ejected into the global atmosphere than in all of human history pre-flight.

Despite this manifest failure the dominant messaging within mainstream climate communications has been to keep it positive. This was brought home forcefully some years back during a talk to a group of environmental activists. While outlining the stark reality of rising emissions and policy failure I was interrupted from the floor by a seasoned campaigner saying they were “sick of hearing all this negative stuff”.

The understandable desire to shut down ecological bad news involves focusing on the wafer-thin silver lining while ignoring the giant black clouds. This is as pervasive as it is common, even in environmental circles.

The tendency to look on the bright side appears to be hard-wired into our species, and in the context of the climate emergency the argument now most frequently deployed is that optimism is necessary in order to stave off fatalism and doomism, the growing sense among many that it is already too late to avert a global catastrophe.

This was tested in a study in the journal Climatic Change in July titled Fanning the Flames or Burning Out, which set out to test the various hypotheses on how people react to threatening or frightening climate messaging.

The fact that the tone and frequency of media messaging on a given topic can impact people’s beliefs and emotions and even behaviour is not in doubt. The researchers set about testing this in relation to climate messaging.

They reported that in the short term exposure to gloomy media coverage led to increased fear and a reduced feeling of hope among participants. However, a more surprising effect was then detected when a second, longer term study was carried out. Here the results were reversed.

“People’s efficacy beliefs increased over time”, according to lead author, Christofer Skura of Penn State University. “The more exposure people had to these threatening news stories each day they were increasingly likely to think they could make a difference in addressing climate change”.

What is critical here is what the researchers call the “agenda-setting effect”. When people only see climate coverage sporadically in the media they assume it’s a fringe issue. “What may be more important for motivating them to take action is that they see coverage of it on a daily basis” said study co-author Jessica Myrick.

Dublin-based psychologist Dr Eoin Galavan is vice-chair of the Psychological Society of Ireland’s group on the climate and environmental emergency. He rejects what he calls the binary notion that either pessimism or optimism are necessarily the correct responses. “What I think is needed is a balance between our capacity to bravely, creatively and constructively meet challenges around the climate crisis and the recognition of the peril that we are in and the damage we’ve already done”.

The research on the role played by fear and anxiety in how humans respond to the emerging climate threat is, he suggests, mixed. “There’s enough research to suggest that it’s important that the peril that we’re facing, which can evoke fear and anxiety, is a significant ingredient in climate messaging”, Without the public being aware of the true nature and scale of the risks, he believes we will not be successful in getting people to engage in pro-environmental behavioural change.

What has yet to happen to effect dramatic change on both an individual and societal level is that we shift into what’s called “emergency mode”. When someone says their house is on fire, “we don’t get worried about whether they are being optimistic or pessimistic, we ring the fire brigade, we move into action” he adds.

Dr Galavan cites the recent Covid pandemic as a case study in what happens when there is such an overwhelming focus on a clear and present danger that all the usual political and social considerations, including the concerns of vested interests, are put to one side and the focus is on tackling the emergency, at almost any cost. “I don’t remember people saying should we be optimistic or pessimistic about how we talk about Covid; we just said it’s dangerous, it’s going to kill us, so here’s what we have to do to protect ourselves”, Dr Galavan added.

A 2020 study in Humanities and Social Sciences Communication found that while excessive pessimism in climate messaging could lead to people becoming paralysed with anxiety, an unduly optimistic spin tended to lead to complacency.

Participants exposed to more negative scenarios reported higher levels of emotional arousal, which in turn led to heightened risk perception. Interestingly, in people self-identifying as conservative, emotional arousal as a result of pessimistic messaging had the biggest impact in terms of changing their views around climate change.

Those reporting greater emotional arousal also felt more inclined to believe they could make a positive impact on tacking the climate emergency. While it has many downsides, fear is a potent emotion when constructively harnessed.

The idea that optimism can induce complacency was also examined in a 2017 study exploring ‘belief in a favourable future’. Behavioural scientist Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy school reported that “ironically, our findings indicate that this belief in a favourable future may diminish the likelihood that people will take action to ensure it becomes a reality”.

Decades of self-help mantras and upbeat business slogans have trumpeted the idea that we can, though the power of positive thinking, shape our lives and perhaps even bend reality to our will. Pessimism has been seen as negative and unhelpful yet it can be also extremely valuable.

People known as defensive pessimists worry deeply about stressful events such as exams or job interviews, but they tend to do better as a result, as they work harder, prepare better as they overestimate their likelihood of failure.

Professional pessimism, after all, saves lives. It leads engineers and scientists to check and recheck their calculations, or pilots to conduct more rigorous pre-flight checks. To borrow an old phrase: if you can keep your head about the climate emergency when the scientists around you are losing theirs perhaps you just haven’t been paying attention?

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The climate future? It’s already here

While this article was published in the Business Post in early August, it was already patently clear that 2023 was going to be the hottest year in recorded history, and so it has transpired. I set out the risks as plainly as I could, framed around a warning from 15 years ago by one of the most brilliant scientists of the last century as to exactly what lay ahead.

IT WAS ONLY A matter of time before a year like 2023 came along. I just never imagined it would be so soon.

Despite tracking the unfolding climate emergency closely for many years, I still clung to the notion that we would be into the 2030s before the signs of widespread climate breakdown became impossible to ignore. I was wrong, dead wrong. The future we have long feared is here, now.

In 2008, the brilliant scientist and inventor James Lovelock shocked an interviewer with this parting advice on the climate crisis: “Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan”.

That was 15 years ago, and that quote has played on my mind ever since. Apart from inventing the instrument that detected ozone depletion and so helped avert an earlier global calamity, Lovelock famously developed the Gaia hypothesis.

This is the concept that all elements on Earth are part of a complex self-regulating super-organism that holds in equilibrium the subtle mix of conditions conducive to supporting life. Climate science has since largely validated this once-exotic hypothesis.

Lovelock was more cynical than your average scientist. He was convinced that the ultimate obstacle to our survival is intractable human stupidity. “I see it with everybody. People just want to go on doing what they’re doing. They want business as usual. They say, ‘Oh yes, there’s going to be a problem up ahead’, but they don’t want to change anything”.

Sound familiar?

Lovelock’s grim projections for the 2020s are now playing out in real time. Despite decades of warnings from the scientific community, it is truly remarkable how few people have any idea just how dangerous the situation now facing humanity truly is.

Another visionary, Professor James Hansen, a former director of Nasa and the scientist who alerted the US Congress to the growing dangers of global warming in 1988, warned in recent days that the world is now shifting into a superheated climatic state unlike anything in at least a million years.

We are, Hansen added, “damned fools” for ignoring decades of repeated warnings that this crisis, left unchecked, would destroy human civilisation and much of the natural world.

Research published last month indicates that the vast ocean current known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc) could collapse as soon as 2025, but most likely by mid-century, with catastrophic consequences for billions of people worldwide. Such a shutdown would likely drastically alter the climate of Ireland, reducing average temperatures by several degrees and wiping out our agricultural systems.

“We have to stop making excuses and do whatever is necessary, no matter how difficult, to preserve the climate system we all depend on”, leading oceanographer Professor Stefan Rahmstorf told me in Dublin in April. Once the Amoc shuts down, then, in human timescales, it’s gone forever, he warned.

Meanwhile, deep in the southern hemisphere’s winter, an entire continent is beginning to awaken from aeons of frozen slumber. Antarctic sea ice has fallen to an all-time low, and it now covers an area 2.5 million square kilometres below average.

Scientists describe this drastic ice loss as at least a “five-sigma” event, meaning that under normal conditions, you would expect a winter ice melt event of this magnitude only once every 7.5 million years. “To say this is unprecedented isn’t strong enough”, said the oceanographer Edward Doddridge. “It’s gobsmacking”.

And then there are the heat waves. The hottest day on Earth for probably 125,000 years occurred at the beginning of July. Both June and July 2023 are now confirmed to be the hottest months ever recorded. Heat waves are rapidly increasing, both in frequency and ferocity. The northern hemisphere has been battered by contiguous extreme heat waves covering much of North America, Europe and large areas of Asia.

Neither have the oceans been spared. A marine heatwave is currently affecting an area of the North Atlantic Ocean covering around 40 million square kilometres, an area four times larger than Europe.

Seven Hiroshimas

The world’s oceans are accumulating the equivalent of the energy of seven Hiroshima bombs per second. That’s around 220 million Hiroshimas in excess energy each year. This is the fuel for future weather extremes unlike anything endured by modern humans.

Apart from the obvious misery and danger to humans and other animals, droughts, heat waves and floods are also fast degrading global food systems. What few seem to grasp is that all this dangerous disruption is a result of a global average temperature increase of barely 1.2°C.

Once we breach the 1.5°C and 2°C thresholds, planetary tipping points from Amoc collapse to the disintegration of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice packs, to the disappearance of Arctic sea ice cover in summer begin to kick in. Any one of these events will potentially redraw the map of the world. And as one planetary domino falls, it pulls other seemingly stable systems down with it.

These are what scientists call non-linear events. In other words, things get much worse far more quickly than societies can possibly adapt to. Our tragic failure to act commits us to a near future of mass migration, famine, economic collapse, violence and political and social breakdown.

We still have choices, though years of delay mean all the easy options are long gone. We now have to choose between wrenching austerity in order to drastically cut emissions, or carrying on regardless and letting the sixth mass extinction run its course.

For once, let’s be brutally honest: we’ve already chosen, haven’t we?

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Ramping up the war on science for private gain

The Irish agri lobby’s ongoing war on reality went up a couple of gears during the summer, when it turned its political guns on the Environmental Protection Agency for having the temerity to gather and assess water quality data and then report its findings to the European Commission. A series of politicians gleefully jumped on the science-bashing bandwagon in the hope, presumably, of currying electoral favour in rural Ireland, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in August.

IN A DEMOCRACY, we are all entitled to our opinions, but we are absolutely not entitled to make up our own facts.

We have to be able to agree on objective reality, including trust in science, as it forms the solid foundation on which policies can be developed and debated. When this basic trust is undermined, the results are invariably bad, as has been witnessed in recent years in the US in particular.

Ireland had largely escaped the worst of this ‘counter-factual’ debating up to now, but there are indications that the virus has jumped the Atlantic and is now infecting our own institutions. This to me was chillingly illustrated when watching a recent Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture hearing, where scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were testifying around nitrates and water quality.

The chair, dairy farmer Jackie Cahill TD made it clear that he fundamentally rejected the scientific evidence on water quality presented by the EPA. Why? The meticulously gathered and collated EPA evidence, drawn from constant sampling almost 3,000 Irish water bodies, came under sustained attack not just from Cahill, but from right across the committee.

Senator Victor Boyhan claimed the EPA report “is not scientific and its integrity is questionable”, a baseless slur on the integrity of the researchers who contributed to it. The EPA scientists were then harangued by other committee members with intensely hostile questioning. Fine Gael TD Michael Ring for instance described the EPA as “a necessary evil”.

Though at times looking shell-shocked, the EPA scientists, led by Dr Eimear Cotter, held up admirably and stuck to the facts despite the simmering enmity.

This hostile atmosphere evaporated in the afternoon session, when the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) reps were treated as honoured guests by the same committee, with their statements going largely unchallenged.

To underline the difference in how they were treated, Cahill stated: “it was clear that in spite of significant increases in dairy cow numbers since 2015, water quality has not disimproved”. He wisely waited until the EPA scientists had left the committee room before delivering that demonstrably false assessment.

The line of questioning of the EPA by most of the committee members repeatedly used the same industry talking points. A new pattern of direct attacks on science by farm groups is fast emerging. In February, an EPA Land Use Review document was described by the IFA as “fundamentally flawed” with its president, Tim Cullinan threatening an “uprising in rural Ireland”. 

Roscommon TD Michael Fitzmaurice claimed the EPA report amounted to “ethnic cleansing of the agriculture community”. The deployment of this kind of inflammatory language by the agri-sector and their political confreres is become ever more egregious. Earlier this year, Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen claimed EU nature restoration proposals “smack of cultural imperialism”.

Eddie Punch of the Irish Sheep and Cattle Association said he was “sick of listening to hippie dippies and tree huggers telling us we need to do more for the environment”.

Dermot Kelleher, president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association said that “a small cabal of unrepresentative but noisy activists were salivating at the prospect of ripping out the heart of economic activity in Ireland”.

Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association in June said: “Everyone can see that at this stage it’s not about the data or the science: it’s actually about the ideology and the Government’s need to keep in harness viciously anti-farming elements”.

Apart from flatly rejecting the EPA’s science around water pollution, McCormack also dismissed the role of agriculture in biodiversity loss, instead making the ludicrous assertion that motorway building and invasive minks were the real issue.

Ecologist Pádraic Fogarty, campaigns officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) has studied and reported on the drastic declines in Irish biodiversity for many years, and has been an outspoken and articulate critic of agricultural intensification and the negative impacts it has had on our already depleted ecosystems.

Fogarty is an expert in this area. Almost two weeks ago, he posted a blog on the IWT website accusing farmer representative groups of “increasingly lurching to the far right”, comparing their obstructionism and negativity to that deployed by the DUP.

The IFA took umbrage, even though Fogarty’s language was more measured than much of the frenzied mud-slinging from the agri side, and demanded its removal. Yielding to intense pressure, the board of the IWT amended the blog, but without consulting Fogarty, who then resigned, accusing the trust of “a capitulation to the IFA”.

In 2021, Oireachtas Agriculture committee chair, Jackie Cahill accused An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, of “a revolting act of treason” for opposing a cheese plant. Where were the calls for his resignation for peddling such an outrageous slander?

Agriculture appears to be a genuine blind spot for the Irish media. Were this level of rhetoric coming from, say the motor trade or construction industry, it would be rightly condemned and the agitators publicly denounced.

This drift in discourse has not gone unnoticed. In Dublin last year, senior EU Commission official, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea expressed the Commission’s alarm at the “increasingly aggressive stance” being taken against environmental defenders. This was, he added, “highly unusual to witness in an advanced society like Ireland”. The reaction to his comments? Silence.

This is how societies fail. Nobody spoke up against years of vicious attacks on environmentalists, so this emboldened agri-industrial activists to ratchet up the rhetoric and now target scientists and even smear the scientific process itself. Seriously, it’s time to shout “stop”.

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Time for a Department of Food Security

Food, glorious food. It has been so abundant and relatively cheap in the developed world for so long that it has become largely invisible to us. Where it comes from, what its ecological and carbon impacts and whether we are truly food secure are, I believe, among the big questions every society needs to urgently address in the 2020s, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in July.

CIVILISATION, it has been said, is only three meals deep. The threat of hunger has long stalked humanity. In recent decades, at least in the developed world, it looked like we had finally consigned the spectre of famine to the history books.

Reality, however, has a way of laying waste to our best-laid plans. Research published this month in the scientific journal Nature Communications warns the risks to global agricultural production and food security have been seriously underestimated.

The study warns of what it calls synchronised harvest failure across major crop-producing regions during summers in the northern hemisphere as a result of the jet stream becoming increasingly unstable as global warming accelerates.

The jet stream is a vast current of fast-moving air in the upper atmosphere, and changes to its flow pattern are already having dramatic impacts. The study found strong ‘meandering’ of the jet stream is already impacting major crop-producing regions, including North America, East Asia and Eastern Europe, leading to significant harvest reductions.

The reason the jet stream is becoming more unstable is because the polar regions are warming faster than the mid-latitudes, and the decrease in temperature difference is causing the jet stream to ‘wobble’, sometimes dragging up hot air from the tropics deep into the northern hemisphere, and also occasionally plunging Arctic air down into Europe and North America.

Risks to food production from the jet stream are only part of the picture. Already, Europe is warming twice as fast as the global average, and the summer of 2022 was the hottest in over 500 years of records, with drought conditions and water shortages across much of Europe.

These were expected to be eased with the arrival of winter, but there has been little recovery in water levels, with drought conditions and loss of groundwater continuing right through spring and into this summer.

According to the European Drought Observatory, more than one third of continental Europe is now under a drought warning, with 10% of Europe already experiencing “severe drought”.

This is being felt most acutely in Spain. Even for a country well used to dealing with high temperatures, what is now happening is unprecedented.

Acute water shortages

The acute water shortage has led many Spanish farmers to abandon spring planting of cereals and oilseeds, as well as hitting vegetable and fruit production, much of which traditionally ends up on supermarket shelves in northern Europe, including Ireland.

It is astonishing that for a country with such a large agriculture sector, Ireland imports about 85% of all the fruit and vegetables we eat. Last year, we imported nearly a million tonnes of fruit and vegetables. Incredibly, this included 75,000 tonnes of potatoes.

As climate destabilisation bites, the question arises as to how food-secure Ireland, an island nation cut off by geography from our neighbours, really is? Senior politicians, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have claimed Ireland “feeds 50 million people”.

This statement was echoed by Professor Gerry Boyle, then director of Teagasc, the State agriculture research agency, who said Ireland “produced enough food for 35 million people”.

These statements would suggest Ireland is highly food secure, but they are flatly refuted by data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Agency (UN-FAO), which notes the value of Ireland’s food energy net imports in calories is the “equivalent of the entire calorie intake of 2.5 million people”.

We are not, in other words, currently even providing for our own domestic food needs, let alone “feeding the world”.

While Ireland exports about 90% of the beef and dairy it produces, these exports contain less food energy than our imports of cereals, sugar and vegetable oils. Ireland also imports between 3-5 million tonnes of feed for livestock, as well as about 1.5 million tonnes of chemical fertilisers a year.

Agriculture industry’s influence

It’s our worst-kept secret that farm lobbyists and agri-industrial players have undue influence on how agricultural policy in Ireland is developed. Typically, agriculture ministers and senior Department of Agriculture officials are reduced to being glorified messengers who ferry lobbyists’ demands to government while trying to placate the most vociferous pressure groups.

This iron grip also extends to Teagasc and Bord Bia, the State agriculture marketing agency. Vital parts of a balanced agriculture mix, such as organic farming and horticulture, are the poor relations to the mega-beef and dairy producers, which explains why we have among the very lowest levels of organic farming and horticulture in the entire EU27.

The capture of our State agencies responsible for food production is best understood in the disastrous 19% increase in emissions from the agriculture sector over the last decade, accompanied by sharp increases in water pollution. Teagasc promised this would not happen, but its pronouncements were driven more by wishful thinking than scientific evidence.

While this is all ostensibly Government policy, in fact the plans are effectively written by agri-industrial players, then rubber-stamped by the minister of the day. This was confirmed by former Bord Bia chief executive Tara McCarthy when she described the Government’s Food Wise 2025 programme as “industry-owned”.

Extreme weather

Ireland and the world faces into a near future of ever-worsening extreme weather, with major question marks over our ability to feed ourselves, or our livestock. Twice in the last decade, Ireland experienced weather-related fodder crises due to inadequate grass growth to feed vast herds of cattle numbering more than seven million.

Were it not for our ability to import fodder by ship, many animals would have starved to death. What if in a future emergency, the countries we might turn to for fodder are themselves in crisis and unable to supply? In this scenario, the economic and animal welfare consequences would be horrific.

I believe the time is right to create a new department of food security, which would merge and replace the Department of Agriculture and Teagasc. Its remit would be to begin urgent planning for medium- and long-term scenarios, with an immediate focus on reviving and dramatically expanding our horticulture sector, as well as supporting a rapid expansion of organic farming.

It would also oversee Coillte phasing out its industrial clear-fell timber plantations and switching to biodiversity-rich native woodlands.

The reason we are fundamentally food-insecure is that the bulk of our farmland is given over to feeding livestock. For every 100 units of food energy in feedstuff to produce beef cattle, just 1.9 units of food energy for human consumption are produced. Huge amounts of land are therefore given over to producing remarkably few edible calories.

Horticulture, on the other hand, is by far the most efficient way to produce lots of food on very little land. The Dutch, with just 40% of our farmland, produce seven times more food. The key? Advanced plant-based horticulture carried out in nearly 10,000 hectares of greenhouses that are protected from weather extremes, while using fewer fertilisers, water and pesticides.

The likelihood of such a radical transition being led by the very people who masterminded our current livestock-led model is almost zero. Radical new thinking is needed. We’re not going to solve our food security crunch with the same thinking that created it.

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If they work hard, if they behave

Here’s a piece I chipped in to Village magazine during the summer on the hopes and fears that prospective new parents must navigate when considering taking on the awesome responsibility of bringing a new life into our climate-wracked, overheating world.

IN THE 2020s, as the darkening penumbra of climate collapse draws ever closer, it takes a remarkable leap of faith to decide to bring a new life into the world. After all, a child born this year or next will still be in their 20s by 2050, and, all other things being equal, expect to be alive to see in the 22nd century.

A new study of 5,000 parents in India, Mexico, Singapore, the United States and the UK found that more than half report that concerns about climate change are affecting their decision as to whether to have more children.

The research found surprisingly high levels of concern among these parents about climate change, with 91% reporting at least some degree of concern. Unsurprisingly, the single aspect causing most alarm is rising temperatures, while water shortages, extreme weather events and sea level rise were also cited as sources of concern.

In a letter to investors in 2021, investment giant Morgan Stanley described how the “movement to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline”. People are, you might say, voting with their foetuses.

“Every child had a pretty good shot, to get at least as far as their old man got”, went the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Allentown”, a dirge to the US rust belt and the despair of the abandoned working classes.

Choosing to become a parent is an act of faith in the future, broadly underpinned by the universal myth of progress, the belief that, despite setbacks and difficulties along the way, the future remains bright, and there for our children to inherit, “if they work hard, if they behave”, as Joel wrote.

In many respects, the promise of the future has indeed delivered. Who in 1980 could ever have imagined that one day we’d all have mobile phones, let alone the internet, on-demand video or digital music libraries that put millions of songs, all on an advanced computer that fits in your pocket.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, as the author and futurologist Arthur C. Clarke memorably put it. I am just about old enough to remember the absolute magic of seeing colour television for the first time. For other generations, the arrival of radio, the phonograph, the telephone, telegraph and the automobile were all in their own way miraculous.

A century and more of breath-taking technological progress has delivered the glittering baubles of modernity, but it has turned out to be the ultimate Faustian bargain, and now the devil, in the form of incipient climate and ecological collapse, is at our doorstep to demand his pound of flesh.

It’s a little over 20 years since I first became a parent. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of the dire condition of the biosphere. It was quite possible in the Ireland of the 1990s and into the early 2000s to not encounter anything on TV or in the papers around climate change, unless you were already aware of it and actively looking out for it.

Once my first child was born, I was now in a very real sense connected to the mid-to-late 21st century, an unknown country that previously had never cost me a thought. The future had arrived, and that rudimentary awareness in turn set me on the path that has come to dominate my life in ways that the 2002 version of me would have scarcely imagined.

As I write, there is a massive sea surface temperature anomaly covering the 40 million square kilometres of the North Atlantic, with temperatures to a depth of 20 metres a mind-boggling 1.3C above the 1982-2011 mean. Off the west and north-west coast of Ireland for much of June, what has been described as one of the most severe marine heatwaves anywhere on Earth has been occurring.

NOAA’s Marine Heatwave Watch has categorized this event as a Category 4 (extreme) marine heatwave. This provides the fuel for devastating storm systems and extreme flooding events, as witnessed in parts of Ireland with torrential downpours and so-called once-in-500-year flooding events.

The amount of energy required to heat a molecule of water is 10,000 times greater than the energy required to heat the same amount of air. To put this in context, last year, the world’s oceans heated up an amount equal to the energy of five of Hiroshima-sized bombs detonating underwater every second for 24 hours a day, every day. That’s the energy equivalent of around 160 million Hiroshimas accumulating in the oceans last year. The climate bomb is primed.

The bubble of climate complacency that has existed for many in the ‘developed’ world was popped with recent confirmation from the World Meteorological Organisation that Europe is now the fastest-warming continent. Yes, that’s where we live.

The summer of 2022 was Europe’s hottest in at least 500 years, and worse, much worse is to come. This is, quite literally, one hell of a world we are leaving for our children and theirs to inherit.

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To hold on, sometimes you have to simply let go

When facing seemingly impossible odds, we are sometimes capable of rising to the challenge, no matter how unpromising the situation, as I explored in this piece in the Irish Examiner at the end of June. On the other hand, value rigidity and an unwillingness to adapt can lead us to disaster a quirk we appear to share with some of our fellow primates.

CLIMBER ARON RALSTON faced an agonising choice. The then 27-year-old was exploring a narrow canyon in a remote part of Utah in 2002 when a boulder broke loose, crushing and pinning his right arm.

Trapped, low on water, and with no mobile phone or prospect of rescue, a slow death seemed inevitable. The only hope of saving himself was to do the unthinkable: hack off his own arm with a small knife.

Ralston’s story of survival against the odds was dramatised in the 2010 film 127 Hours. Wolves, coyotes, and other animals have also been known to chew off their own legs to escape from a trap.

The urge to survive is supremely powerful and is common across the animal kingdom. This instinct does, however, have some significant glitches.

Among humans and some other primates, there is evidence of flaws in our reasoning known as value traps. Author Robert Pirsig famously explored these, using the example of the “South Indian Monkey Trap” which indigenous hunters have devised to catch the otherwise elusive forest monkeys.

The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut tied to a stake, with a narrow hole and a bait of rice or fruit inside.

“The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped by nothing more than his own value rigidity”, Pirsig wrote.

Even when the hunters return to check their traps, the hapless monkey remains stationary, clinging on desperately to its ‘prize’ caught in an invisible trap of its own construction and unable to comprehend that sometimes, to avoid losing everything, you simply have to let go.

Climate crisis

Despite our superior intelligence and reasoning power, we humans are also prone to value rigidity, and there is no more egregious example of this than in our collective response to the rapidly deepening global climate and biodiversity emergency.

Yet how have we reacted to this stark reality? With angry denial and indignation, demanding instead that “someone else” take the hit, while we cling ever tighter to our prize, whether it is cheap aviation, steaks, giant SUVs, or rampant throwaway consumerism.

Yet all the while, the trap is closing ever tighter. A recent study in the journal Nature Sustainability found that widespread ecological collapse is likely to get underway much sooner than had been thought.

One in five of Earth’s critical ecosystems is now expected to collapse within a human lifetime.

The authors of the study explained how climate extremes could hit already stressed ecosystems, “which in turn transfer new or heightened stresses to some other ecosystem, and so on”. They label this likely cascading domino effect as “an ecological ‘doom-loop’ scenario, with catastrophic consequences”.

Using advanced computer modelling, the new research identifies how, once the interaction of the multiple stresses that are being simultaneously applied is calculated, the tipping points in ecosystems (the point at which they commit to failing irreversibly) occur much sooner than conventional climate models have indicated.

As an example, they cite a specific ecosystem currently predicted to collapse by the 2090s due to rising temperatures; it could in fact fail in the 2030s once other stresses such as extreme rainfall, pollution, or resource depletion are also factored in.

April and May saw the highest ocean surface temperatures for this period since records began in 1850.

The current Atlantic heatwave is “way beyond the worst-case predictions for the changing climate of the region. It’s truly frightening how fast this ocean basin is changing”, Prof Richard Unsworth of Swansea University told CNN. Nor is this an isolated incident.

Last year, the world’s oceans heated up by an amount equal to the energy of five Hiroshima-sized bombs detonating underwater every second, 24 hours a day, every day. That’s the energy equivalent of 160 million Hiroshimas accumulating in the oceans last year.

Global response

Make no mistake, the climate bomb is primed. The trap is set. The only question that remains is whether Homo sapiens, the “wise ape” is capable of living up to that description and limiting our ecological footprint and so perhaps escape our fate.

Thirty, even 20 years ago, the options for an ecological “soft landing” were still very much available, but during that period global emissions have effectively doubled.

What has to change now, so that our children and grandchildren have at least some hope for the future? In a word: everything. We now need to rapidly decarbonise every part of our societies and economies.

And yes, this means sacrifice and austerity. First and foremost, we have to break our lethal addition to fossil fuels. Conspicuous consumption, cheap aviation, and most meat need to be consigned to history.

Nature urgently needs the breathing space to allow ecosystems, on land and in the oceans, to begin to recover.

As in wartime, we must now ration carbon as a key resource, which means learning to live within harsh planetary boundaries. If all that really is asking too much, then you already know how this story ends.

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Rationing our way to a rational aviation policy

To see the enthusiasm with which politicians have been co-opted to help Dublin Airport Authority to overturn the planning permissions that govern its operation in order to facilitate ever more flying is indicative of just how much of a vote-getter cheap aviation is, and the massive headwinds anyone attempting to clip the sector’s wings is likely to face. Though it may not be popular, only sensible longer term approach involves rationing, as I argued in the Irish Examiner.

AVIATION IS ONE of the true wonders of the modern world. To be able to step on a plane in Dublin and step off in New York, Paris or Istanbul just a few hours later is an everyday miracle few of our ancestors could ever have even imagined possible.

You can, however, have too much of a good thing, and in the case of aviation, there are some serious downsides. More than most, we Irish love to fly. In 2019 for instance, there were 35 million passenger movements through Dublin Airport alone. With our population of just five million, this is an astonishingly high number.

The rise and rise of aviation, mostly for leisure, is driven by the simple fact that the sector is heavily cosseted. For example, airlines across the EU pay around €800 million a year in pollution fees. However, due to the exemption of jet kerosene from taxies and duties, it is estimated that this industry gets the equivalent of €27 billion a year in subsidies.

The reasons for this are historical, dating back to a 1944 agreement to exempt international flights from taxes. No one at that time could have possibly imagined that billions of people would be one day taking flights. Ireland alone foregoes almost €1 billion a year in VAT and fuel taxes not charged to the aviation industry or its customers.

That’s why you have the ridiculous situation that it can be cheaper to fly from Dublin to Malaga than to get the train from Dublin to Cork.

If aviation were a country, it would be in the top 10 polluters in the world, yet almost nine in 10 people globally will never set foot on an aircraft. Flying is very much a luxury enjoyed by those of us in wealthy countries, yet its impacts, in terms of climate destabilisation and weather extremes, are felt most directly by people who have never flown.

As recently as 1980, there were in total around 800 million flights taken worldwide. By 2019, that had risen almost six-fold, to 4.6 billion flights. This explosion in air travel was facilitated by the rise of the low cost airlines like Ryanair. Today, the Irish-based carrier has the dubious distinction of being officially listed in the top 10 carbon-polluting companies in the EU.

While billions of people in the developing world have no access whatever to aviation, even among those of us who do, there is huge inequity. A recent study found that just 1% of the population in wealthy countries take around 50% of all flights. This group are known as “super-emitters” given the inordinate amount of pollution they are responsible for.

However, rather than being penalised or even charged for this, frequent flyers instead are lavished with bonuses, such as free flights and upgrades by airlines.

While emissions from aviation continue to climb, the industry has turned to “silver bullet” technologies to address its emissions problem. These include so-called sustainable aviation fuels, including biofuels, as well as newer aircraft that are more fuel-efficient.

However, growing crops to feed to aircraft as biofuels is a disastrous policy as food prices rise and climate change impacts crop productivity. Modest improvements in aircraft efficiency are overwhelmed by the growing number of flights, so overall, emissions continue to spiral upwards.

A first and obvious step would be to tax aviation on the same basis as all other transport fuels, as well as applying carbon taxes to reflect the true costs of flying. This is problematic, as the public has grown accustomed to cheap flying and governments are reluctant to take politically unpopular steps.

The other issue is of equity. A blanket increase in the cost of flying would dampen overall demand, yes, but would be much less effective in deterring the wealthy, who can afford to pay more, and who are already the biggest problem due to the dozens of flights they are each already taking every year.

The solution, in my view, is to introduce a system of rationing. Each person is allocated a given distance, say 1,500 kilometres, annually, with this non-transferrable allocation tied to your PPS or passport number. This is enough to cover a typical return flight to Europe. If you don’t take any flights in a given year, your allowance can be carried forward to the next year.

Take another flight and your next 1,500 kilometres attracts a €200 climate levy. From there, the levy doubles with every additional round trip €400, €800, €1,600 and so on. Eventually, even the wealthy will start to get the message.

A system like this would of course need flexibility around, for instance, compassionate grounds in the event of a bereavement, but could still be hugely effective in eliminating many flights that happen today simply because they are so cheap.

In the 1940s, during the Emergency, everyone in Ireland had a ration card. This ensured fair and equal access to the limited resources then available, and boosted social solidarity. Today, we are in a full-blown Climate Emergency. Action is needed that is both drastic yet fair. Once again, rationing could be the key.

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Laying waste to Europe in pursuit of short-term profits

The bitter ongoing battle this summer to get the crucial Nature Restoration Law enacted and the dirty tricks campaign orchestrated by the EPP on behalf of agri-industrial lobbyists is not yet over, but below, I reported for the Irish Examiner in late June on how the whole process came within a hairs-breadth of being scuppered.

EFFORTS BY THE centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) to torpedo the EU’s new Nature Restoration Law came up short earlier on Thursday, but by the narrowest of margins.

Loud cheers broke out at the European Parliament’s environment committee as the EPP motion to have the law simply thrown out ended up in deadlock, with the vote split 44-44 among the 88 members of the committee.

This means the restoration law survives and will now go to a full vote of the European Parliament. Committee member Grace O’Sullivan described the outcome as “a disappointing end to a frantic morning”, adding there was still time to pressure MEPs to support nature restoration.

Voting in the ENVI on nature restoration has now been postponed until the next committee meeting, which takes place on June 27. Various amendments were also voted in on Thursday, including one in which the EPP spearheaded the defeat of efforts to “green” European cities.


This decision was met with incredulity by Ariel Brunner, director of Birdlife Europe. “The ideological crusade [of the right-wing] is so extreme that playing the ‘farmers party’ means literally killing people in the cities. Just wow”, he tweeted.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, a row erupted involving allegations that German MEP Manfred Weber, chair of the EPP had “blackmailed” members of his own EPP voting bloc, with threats of political retaliation, including being thrown out of the EPP, if they voted to support nature restoration.

Earlier this week, Czech MEP Stanislav Pol?ák said he would vote for the law, but the following day he said he had asked to be substituted at Thursday’s vote in the environment committee.

“I do not consider the EPP’s overall rejection of the proposal to be a good decision, but I decided to respect it”, the EU Observer reported. Despite evidence of coercion of its own members to vote against their conscience, the EPP continues to deny it has engaged in blackmail.

Another MEP, Frédérique Ries from Belgium, decided to be replaced during Thursday’s vote “so as not to betray my party, my group and my conscience”.

The EPP, of which Fine Gael is a member, is a centre-right grouping within the EU, but has drifted towards the far-right position in its blanket opposition to the EU’s efforts to throw a lifeline to its beleaguered ecosystems, many of which are now buckling under the pressures of intensive agriculture and climate change.

Last summer was the hottest ever across Europe in over 500 years of instrumental records, with major rivers such as the Rhine in Germany and the Po in Italy running at record lows.

With an El Niño global weather system developing this year, there is every likelihood the summer of 2023 with be even hotter, with potentially devastating consequences for food production as well as natural ecosystems.

Anti-nature lobbyists

The anti-nature lobbyists were hard at work from early morning in Brussels. The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) tweeted pictures with Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher and Sean Kelly.

IFA environment committee chair Paul O’Brien described Thursday morning’s deadlock as “a wake-up call for the EU Commission”, which he claims “has blundered on and refused to heed the warnings about what they were proposing to do. It’s been an example of how not to bring people with you”.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, more than 3,300 scientists from across Europe, including dozens from Ireland, jointly issued an open letter in support of the EU’s Green Deal. The letter pointed out that claims being made by opponents of nature restoration argued it would negatively impact farmers and the fishing industry as well as threatening food security and killing jobs.

“These claims not only lack scientific evidence, but even contradict it. We urge policymakers to continue the legislative process for the nature restoration law as a cornerstone of food security and human health”.

The open letter addressed six key arguments being made by opponents of nature restoration. The first involves claims that it will impact food security. “The biggest risks to food security stem from climate change and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as pollination and pest control”.

And, rather than marine protected areas hurting the fishing industry, the scientific evidence shows these areas in fact boost marine life by allowing it to recover and regenerate, and so actually benefit the industry.

On food industry claims that nature restoration will “prevent Europe from feeding the world”, the scientists noted Europe can contribute to global food security “by reducing the drivers of global food scarcity, such as high meat consumption and the use of biofuels”.

Nature protection, they added, improves resilience and enhances biodiversity, which in turn offers our food systems better protection against the intensifying impacts of climate change.

A nature-depleted Europe is far more vulnerable to extreme droughts and desertification, wildfires and crises arising from the reduction in the availability of fresh water for agriculture as well as human consumption.

Voting against nature restoration is voting against our own common good and in favour of powerful vested interests that are quite prepared to lay waste to Europe in pursuit of short-term profits.

According to Birdlife Europe’s Ariel Brunner, the EPP under Manfred Weber “has now fully brought to the EU the US crazy politics. Science doesn’t matter. Facts don’t matter. People’s lives don’t matter. All that matters is playing us vs them and using hatred and division to get to power”.

This, remember, is what Fine Gael, among others, is wholeheartedly supporting in the EU. This may be worth keeping in mind for when people come knocking on your door looking for votes.

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To cut or to cull, that is the question

It’s amazing the power of a single word or phrase. A headline writer in one of the Irish dailies deployed the word ‘cull’ to describe proposals to modestly reduce the total number of Irish cattle in line with our climate targets, and it became the phrase that rang around the world. At a stroke, it mis-framed this issue as being all about animal welfare, and defending our cattle from being ‘culled’ by greenies. As a cynical inversion of reality, it’s about as perfect an example as you could get, but as I explained in the Irish Examiner in June, this conspiratorial nonsense gained serious traction, especially when boosted by Elon Musk.

HAVE YOU HEARD the one about the poor defenceless Irish cows that callous, bloodthirsty environmentalists want to kill?

“You will not believe the insanity now happening in Ireland”, Fox News host Dagen McDowell told her US audience last week (clip below).

“Farmers there are revolting against a proposal by the Government to kill 200,000 cows, all to meet the EU’s climate goals’, this is the kind of insanity going on in the name of fighting climate change.”

She then quoted a tweet from billionaire Elon Musk, which read: “This really needs to stop. Killing some cows doesn’t matter for climate change.”

Musk’s comments were in response to a tweet from conservative author Ashley St Clair which stated: “The push to end life, of both animals and humans, in the name of ‘climate activism’ is fundamentally evil”.

This deranged narrative which, among other things, conflates abortion with “killing cows” has gained traction globally.

It has been said that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has time to pull its boots on, and this is a case in point.

There is a certain Orwellian genius at pitching a sector, whose business model involves commercially exploiting livestock from the moment of birth until they are slaughtered, into the defenders of these same animals (for the record, all dairy cows also end their lives in an abattoir).

But in a post-truth world, such deception, enthusiastically abetted by right-wing media, is as unremarkable as it is rife.

Nature Restoration Law

This gusher of disinformation is all part of a concerted drive to derail the EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law, with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), of which Fine Gael is a member,  leading the charge.

The EPP has produced a torrent of dubious data and dodgy claims to support its efforts. Among the more egregious was that villages would have to be demolished to make way for nature restoration. When asked to name one village anywhere in Europe actually facing demolition, the EPP admitted the claim was baseless.

Despite the dishonesty, its efforts appeared to have been successful, having persuaded the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture to vote for an outright rejection of the entire nature restoration law.

However popular these attempts to sabotage nature restoration are with the agri-industrial PLCs and the farm groups who support them, the EPP’s plans may now be unravelling.

‘Core economics’

It turns out, in the words of the European Central Bank (ECB), that “humanity needs nature to survive, and so do the economy and banks’ destroy nature, and you destroy the economy”.

The ongoing war on nature being waged by unsustainable intensive farming “presents a growing financial risk that cannot be ignored”, according to Frank Elderson, vice-chairman of the ECB’s supervisory board.

These threats, Elderson expanded, are measurable. The ECB assessed that the decline of so-called ecosystem services (things provided by nature for free) threatens up to 75% of all bank loans in the Euro area, as many of the millions of companies operating in the EU area “depend on ecosystem services to continue producing their goods or providing their services”.

In short, it turns out that thrashing nature for a quick profit is not quite the bargain that many, especially in the EPP and Fine Gael, appear to think. Responding to criticism of his comments, Elderson added: “This is not some kind of flower power, tree-hugging exercise, this is core economics”.

Arguments rebuffed

Another powerful economic argument was advanced in an explanatory paper issued by the European Commission. It noted that nature restoration offers a spectacular return on investment of €8 for every €1 spent. In wetlands, the ratio is even higher.

There was more bad news in store in recent days for the agri-industrial lobby and its political supporters. Among the various arguments mounted in opposition to nature restoration have included Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s claim that this would impede renewable energy projects.

This was thoroughly debunked by the lobby group Wind Europe, which noted that biodiversity protection and the expansion of renewable energy “go hand in hand, the two are completely compatible”.

Varadkar’s claims regarding nature protection being a threat to food security have also been roundly refuted. A clear example of this is the collapse in insect populations across Europe. Some 84% of crop species cultivated in Europe depend on insect pollinators, providing “free services valued at over €150bn a year”.

It beggars belief that ecologically illiterate politicians, and indeed farm lobbies, would be vying to allow the very basis of our food systems to be destroyed, principally, it appears, at the behest of the giant agri-chemical industry, whose profits depend on the sales of millions of tonnes of the very pesticides that are devastating the insect kingdom.

Efforts at EU level on nature and climate protection usually degenerate into a David-and-Goliath tussle, as NGOs with shoestring budgets are outgunned, out-schmoozed, and outspent by industry players. This time, however, there are some genuine heavyweights in their corner.

A coalition of more than 60 corporations, including Patagonia, Unilever, Nestlé, Ikea, Decathlon, and even Coca Cola, have lobbied EU legislators, urging them to hold their nerve and implement strong nature restoration laws. Their argument can be boiled down to the simple fact that it’s hard to run a thriving business in a dying biosphere.

In a moment of unintended levity, the EPP accused the European Commission of urging firms to lobby in favour of nature restoration. As Politico reported this week, the response of César Luena, the Socialists & Democrats MEP to their complaint was to dismiss it as “only theatre”.

Luena added mockingly: “Oh poor people of the EPP, now they are afraid of the lobbies, do you believe this?”


Having initially opposed the nature restoration law, Sinn Féin now says it will support it, stating that it received additional assurances. Fianna Fáil remains split, with Billy Kelleher opposed.

However, his party colleague, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue, spoke at the weekend at the “fearmongering” surrounding this issue and called on the EPP to rejoin negotiations, adding that “nature restoration is absolutely essential”.

As today’s crucial vote in the European Parliament’s environment committee takes place, ahead of a Council of Ministers meeting on June 22, the mixed messaging in Ireland will likely leave the public bewildered.

It should be a source of great concern that only 15% of Irish natural habitats are rated as being in good condition. Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency reported on the continuing decline in Irish water quality, mainly as a result of the over-use of nitrogen and phosphorus in agriculture.

Meanwhile, another State agency, Bord Bia, describes Irish dairy as “more sustainable, more natural, farmers working in harmony with nature” while simply greenwashing away the growing tide of negative consequences. This, bear in mind, is in a country with the second-lowest amount of land farmed organically in the entire EU27.

It’s hard to begin an honest conversation about striking a balance between the needs of nature and our agricultural systems when so many still remain mired in denial about even the most rudimentary facts.

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We’ll miss them when they’re gone

The insect kingdom, sometimes described as the “tiny empires that rule the world” is now facing its gravest threat in its 400 million-year reign, with human impacts taking a devastating toll, as I explored in this piece for TheJournal.ie in mid-June.

NOT SO LONG ago, a spell of glorious summer weather like this would have brought out countless millions of flying insects into the warm night skies.

If you left a window open with a light on, you’d likely return to find the room swarming with insects, while on a night-time drive you would have to use the wipers to clear off the dense ‘bug splat’ that festooned your windscreen. Not any more.

If all of the above sounds unfamiliar, even fanciful, chances are that you are under the age of 30-40 and you may be largely unaware of the truly shocking rate of change that has swept through the natural world in just the last few decades.


This was all brought back to me forcefully the other evening, on completing a 150km drive back to Dublin in the late evening. My route was a combination of national roads and motorway, and on parking up, I noticed that my windscreen was almost completely clear of insect splat marks.

And no, it’s not just my imagination. The term “Insectageddon” has been coined to capture the epic ongoing global collapse of insect life. A major scientific review of insect population decline studies published in 2019 found that two in five insect species worldwide are declining. According to the authors, “we are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods”.

It is estimated that the number of flying insects across Europe has declined by around 80%, triggering a collapse in the number of bird species that depend on insects.

European farmland birds are in sharp decline, with 57% disappearing largely as a result of a combination of mechanisation, pesticides and land clearance for intensive crop production. In Ireland, the situation is even more dire, with 63% of our bird species in decline and one in four seriously threatened, according to research carried out by Bird Life International.

Overall, around a quarter of the world’s insect population has disappeared since 1990. Declines in insect biomass are occurring at the rate of around 9% per decade, a situation without precedent in tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of years.

Tipping point

In his 2022 book titled “The Insect Crisis”, journalist Oliver Milman set out the grim scenario in stark terms: “our Pyrrhic victory at the very last gasp of Earth’s history means for the first time that a single species is the primary cause of an extinction episode to impact the only known life in the universe”.

Milman describes the insect kingdom as “the tiny empires that run the world”, and this is hardly an overstatement. Were insects to disappear, virtually all species of birds and amphibians would vanish in a year or less, and entire ecosystems would crumble.

The trillions of insects that occupy every ecological niche on Earth collectively outweigh all of humanity 17-fold, and are the critical components in every land-based ecosystem on the planet.

“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind”, wrote Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney in a scientific review that identified intensive agriculture as the main driver of insect decline, specifically the heavy use of pesticides, while urbanisation, climate change and light pollution are also implicated.

At over 400 million years old, the insect kingdom is truly ancient, pre-dating the rise and outlasting the demise of the dinosaurs, yet the severity and global nature of the crisis it now faces is without precedent in Earth’s history.

According to entomologist Josef Settele, the current agricultural system, with its heavy dependence on pesticides, is ultimately “putting the food security of the entire human race at risk”.

Political posturing

Efforts at EU level to ease the severe pressures on the natural world resulting from intensive agriculture have met a wall of organised resistance and lobbying from multinational chemical PLCs (global agri-chemical sales amount to over €230 billion a year) who stand to lose if the EU is successful in its goal of achieving a 50% cut in pesticide usage this decade.

The success of these interest groups in influencing many farmers’ organisations, as well as politicians to support their commercial agenda, has been one of the most disheartening aspects of the recent debate around the European Commission’s modest, measured Nature Restoration Law, with Irish Fine Gael MEPs leading the charge, broadly supported by Sinn Féin and some in Fianna Fáil.

As the recent recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss have shown clearly, the Irish public strongly support robust action to protect nature and restore biodiversity, but for politicians like Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, even these modest but essential measures “go too far”.

The insect kingdom represents the critical strands that hold the web of life together. “Insects are the food that make all the birds and make all the fish”, said Dr David Wagner of the University of Connecticut. “They’re the fabric tethering together every freshwater and terrestrial ecosystem across the planet”. Three-quarters of the world’s food crops are pollinated by insects, a ‘free’ service to agriculture valued at more than $500 billion a year.

Some 80% of wild plants depend on insect pollination, so the consequences of rapid declines in insect populations cascade throughout the entire tree of life.

Intensive farming

Land use change, mostly the conversion of forests and wetlands for food production, had been the number one driver of insect decline. However, climate change is now adding to extinction pressures by disrupting habitats and drying out ecosystems.

Ironically, rising global temperatures have been a major boon to ‘pest’ species including mosquitos and pine bark beetles; the latter have wreaked havoc on temperate forests, having destroyed over a quarter of a million square kilometres of North American forests in the last two decades.

The form of agriculture least harmful to wildlife, including insects, is when organic systems are used. Across the EU, on average around 9% of land is farmed organically. This area has grown rapidly, increasing by 41% in just the last five years as awareness of the biodiversity crisis has spread.

Ireland, however, is the second worst in the EU27 for organic farming, with barely 2% of our land farmed without chemicals. This low uptake may well reflect the resistance in some quarters in Ireland to the reality of the climate and biodiversity emergency, and the influence of populist politicians who stoke urban-rural tensions for electoral advantage by using inflammatory rhetoric to ridicule even the bare-minimum actions to protect nature.

In one of the most surreal moments in Dáil Eireann in recent years, deputy Michael Collins demanded an apology from junior minister, Pippa Hackett for describing him as an “organic farmer”, even though Collins had previously described himself as “proud to be organic”

It is strange to consider that, in some quarters, “nature” is almost a dirty word, yet without healthy, functioning ecosystems, there is no future for farming or, come to think of it, for any of us.

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Good ancestors demand a Ministry for The Future

While the title for this piece was borrowed from the Kim Stanley Robinson cli-fi classic novel, I wanted to explore our paradoxical relationship with the future and how we struggle to engage in intergenerational stewardship to take into account the needs of our successors when decisions that are being made today that have long term implications, as I discussed in the Business Post in June.

OF COURSE, WE all claim to care about the future. After all, that’s where our children and theirs will have to live. Yet whose job exactly is it to really think about posterity? Or, as Groucho Marx quipped: “What have future generations ever done for us?”

Corporations operate in quarterly timeframes. Politics, too, is bedevilled by short-termism, dominated by the horse race of three- to five-year electoral cycles. Amid the constant clamour of competing demands, the quiet voice of the future is barely heard and easy to ignore.

Meanwhile, the digital age has plunged society into an era of what philosopher Roman Krznaric describes as “pathological short-termism”. Never has it been more critical that we focus on the severe threats and challenges ahead, yet never have we as individuals and societies seemed more dazed, distracted and disconnected.

Nearly four decades ago, the United Nations Brundtland Commission famously defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

This 1987 definition has never been bettered, yet with every year that passes, the ecological debt we are inadvertently piling on to our children’s shoulders grows ever more crushing. This intergenerational injustice was brilliantly captured by Californian author Paul Hawken when he wrote: “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP”.

Fifty years ago, Sweden appointed its first junior minister with specific responsibility for what it called future studies. This was followed up in 2011 by a Commission on the Future of Sweden, which was tasked with taking the long-term view, up to 2020 and then beyond to 2050.

In 2014, Sweden went a step further, setting up its so-called Ministry of the Future. In reality, this functions as a think tank within government, where interdisciplinary teams work together to future-proof decisions and policies being developed today.

For most policies, the acid test is how they will hold up over five- to 15-year timeframes, but on climate change the time horizon expands to 50 years. As a result of this approach, which aims to overcome the traditional rivalries between government departments, its head Kristian Persson was able to announce in late 2015 Sweden’s ambition to be “a fossil-free country” by 2030.

In an interview in 2016, Persson argued that “every country should have a Ministry for the Future. Politicians tend to be reacting to things that are happening, but then it’s too late. You should look ahead”.

Having ambitions on climate action are, she added, worthless unless you implement them boldly and rapidly. “I can see social catastrophes coming as a result of climate warming, and also from the increasing division and inequality in the world”, she warned.

While a number of other countries including Canada, Israel and Hungary have tried out various mechanisms to give a voice to future generations, arguably the one to make the most concrete progress is our nearest neighbour, Wales, which in 2015 passed the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. This created the role of Future Generations Commissioner, with statutory powers.

Sophie Howe, whose term as Future Generations Commissioner ended earlier this year, explained that her job was to ensure that political decisions being taken now did not compromise the interests of citizens in the future.

As an example of this role in action, her office opposed a €1 billion relief road project being planned for around Newport, arguing that the immediate economic benefits were offset by the likely long-term damage to biodiversity in the region.

Naturally, politicians are loath to cede power, so the commissioner’s role is limited to requiring policymakers to justify their decisions, without the power to overturn them if the answers come up short.

Political dysfunction and capture by special interest groups often mean that not alone are future generations not represented, the will of people today is also routinely ignored. For me, this is best illustrated by the outstanding success of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, an ongoing experiment in what is known as deliberative democracy.

This involves a randomly selected group of ordinary citizens engaging in an in-depth review of a given issue, guided by independent experts and without lobbyists being able to shape or distort their deliberations.

In 2016 the assembly was far ahead of the Oireachtas in accurately identifying the public’s wish to scrap the Eighth Amendment and overturn Ireland’s blanket abortion ban. In 2018 the assembly’s recommendations on climate action were light years beyond what politicians, fearful of pressure groups, were prepared to even countenance.

And earlier this year, the assembly’s recommendations on addressing biodiversity loss were far-reaching and ambitious, yet within weeks, both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin had caved in to agri-industrial lobbyists working to torpedo the EU’s proposed new Nature Restoration Law.

This clearly flouts the will of the great majority of Irish people, but the iron grip of self-interested lobbyists on politicians is not easily broken. This begs the question: if politicians can’t even work in the best interests of people alive today and with a vote, realistically what hope is there for a voice for those yet to be born?

Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly has won praise internationally for breathing life back into our democracy by allowing direct, meaningful civic engagement. I believe that to consolidate this success, our political parties should commit to establishing a Ministry for the Future based on a combination of the Swedish and Welsh models to form part of the next Coalition government.

While it may seem novel, this concept has long existed in indigenous communities. For example, the native American Iroquois and Onondaga nations invoked the concept of seven-generation stewardship. Every major decision taken by the tribe had to weigh its impact deep into the future.

The eyes of posterity are on this generation, right now, silently urging us to act strongly on the biodiversity and climate emergency, to save them from an immiserated future in a collapsed biosphere. Will we ignore their pleas, or will we instead rise to the moment of our greatest crisis and earn the right to one day be regarded as ‘good ancestors’?

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