Food and energy insecurity mean double trouble

The long-banished spectre of food insecurity has returned to Europe for the first time since the 1940s. I wrote the below piece for the Business Post in late March which looked at the intersection of energy and food security in the light of the radically changed geopolitical landscape across Europe and beyond.

IN THE HYPER-globalised world of the 21st century, such notions as national energy or food security until very recently may have seemed almost quaint. Ireland has bet heavily an economic model of exporting most of what we produce while importing almost everything we actually need. Continue reading

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Polar heatwaves sound global climate alarm bells

Polar heatwaves are, as you would imagine, rare events, but in March, simultaneous heatwaves were recorded at both poles, an event without precedent in the instrumental record. I wrote the following Opinion piece for the Irish Examiner discussing the phenomenon and its wider implications.

AT NEARLY 14 million square kilometres in area, Antarctica is a gigantic landmass, around one and a half times the size of the continental United States. The ice shelves perched on top of this vast southern continent contain an almost unimaginable 26 million cubic kilometres of frozen water. A single cubic kilometre of ice weights one billion tonnes. Continue reading

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The ecological point of no return draws ever closer

The first invasion of a sovereign European state since the second world war got underway on February 24th with the Russian assault into Ukraine. Just four days later, the IPCC Working Group 2 report, “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” was released. It would be almost impossible to overstate the gravity of the IPCC’s findings, yet it was largely pushed to one side as the eyes of the world turned to the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine. The existential struggles that today face millions as a result of conflict, famine and inequality will, in the decades ahead, be dwarfed by a looming global immiseration as the conditions for life on Earth rapidly deteriorate and destabilise, sweeping away societies, economies and entire ecosystems. This is not – yet – inevitable, but on our current path, it is all but certain. I wrote about this for the Business Post earlier this month.

UNITED NATIONS general secretary António Guterres is rarely stuck for words. This week, however, he seemed genuinely flummoxed.

At the launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Guterres spelled out the reasons for his distress plainly: “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this”. In many ways, the sober document, signed off by 195 countries, reads almost like science fiction. Continue reading

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Big trouble as world’s tiny empires crumble

As recently as 30, even 20 years ago, when at night across Ireland, by the time you reached your destination, the front of your car would be caked in hundreds, even thousands, of dead insects. Commonly known as ‘bug splat’ it was a minor inconvenience usually remedied with soapy water to clean off the windscreen. This is now a thing of the past. After aeons of abundance, the world’s insect populations are in a state of accelerated collapse. I filed this book review for the Business Post recently.

IT IS A MARK of the enduring resilience of the insect kingdom that in the course of its 400 million year reign, it has weathered four of the Earth’s great mass extinction events relatively unscathed. Today, however, the world’s insect populations face an array of existential threats far greater than at any time in the past.

“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”. This is how Guardian journalist Oliver Milman summarises the bleak state of affairs that confront what he calls the “tiny empires that run the world”. Continue reading

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EU decries attacks on Irish environmental defenders

The well-worn narrative emanating primarily from the Irish agri sector and amplified by a cohort of vocal rural TDs is that, despite being the true custodians of the natural environment, they are being constantly “demonised” by over-zealous environmentalists, animal welfare activists, vegans, etc. It’s a line that has been spun so often that many, especially in the Irish media, have taken it uncritically to be broadly true. It must have come as quite a shock when a senior figure from outside the Irish media/political bubble came along recently to point out forcefully that this narrative is in fact a complete inversion of the truth. I reported on the background to this in a recent Business Post article.

WHEN A HIGH-RANKING EU Commission official recently denounced a member state for its “increasingly aggressive stance” against environmental campaigners and its “worrying” undermining of the rule of law on environmental protection, you might be forgiven for thinking he was discussing Poland or authoritarian Hungary. Continue reading

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Things are Looking Up as climate crunch hits funny bone

It will come as no surprise to regular ToS readers to learn that the biggest ‘story’ of the 21st century, or perhaps 66 million years of Earth history, is the rapidly unfolding climate emergency and simultaneous global mass extinction event, only the sixth such episode in the last billion years or so.

Yet, of the tens of thousands of films made in the last two decades, probably only two could be said to have addressed global warming head-on. The first, The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster blockbuster, was released in 2004. Two years later, Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, became a surprise hit, though as a non-fiction piece, only reached a very limited audience. We’ve had to wait till the last month of 2021 for a smash hit film taking on our (non) response to the climate crisis via the metaphor of an incoming ‘planet killer’ meteor. ‘Don’t Look Up’ has already been viewed for over 250 million hours on Netflix, which translates to around 115 million households and likely around 250 million individual viewers. It’s still number one worldwide, so these numbers are likely to rise significantly. Continue reading

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Confronting consumerism for a safer future

Among the many challenges we face this decade is how to achieve radical decarbonisation in a way that does not entirely alienate the public. This is no mean challenge. After all, we are all bombarded with constant advertising and promotional messaging telling us “we’re worth it” and encouraging us to forge our self-identity, even our self-worth, via the things we buy and the things we consume.

As the retail economist, Victor Lebow famously wrote in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption”.

Now we see all too clearly that consumption is itself consuming the natural world, yet changing course means first of all, acknowledging and then confronting these forces profiting from nihilistic consumption that goes far beyond meeting our fundamental needs, and in so doing, threatens us all.  In a recent article in the Business Post, I teased this out in a little more detail.

A FAMOUS pair of photos were taken several years apart on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The first was shot in 1900, and shows a street scene crowded with horse-drawn vehicles. Pictured amongst the melee was a solitary automobile. Continue reading

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No national security without food security

We often hear about Ireland’s supposed role in “feeding the world”. The reality is altogether different. Despite the hype, domestic food insecurity is a very real concern in the difficult decades ahead. I explored this issue in detail in a recent Business Post article.

AS THE government this week unveiled carbon budgets for the next decade, the sectoral group scramble for special treatment has gotten underway in earnest.

Livestock agriculture in particular is now coming under sustained scrutiny, given its emissions trajectory is in direct conflict with government policy.

Agriculture minister, Charlie McConalogue found himself in the uncomfortable position this week on RTÉ Prime Time of attempting to defend this situation and to pitch the implausible notion that “efficiencies” or new technologies were going to somehow reduce spiralling methane emissions from Ireland’s oversized livestock herd. Continue reading

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The library of our living planet is burning down

Shortly before the COP26 climate conference began, another global conference, this one on biodiversity, known as COP15, took place in Kunming, China. My piece around the global biodiversity crunch ran in the Business Post in late October.

THE NATURAL WORLD is an unimaginably vast repository of more than a billion years of evolutionary history, a priceless record of life in all its startling complexity emerging against the odds and coming to vivify our once-sterile planet.

“Each higher organism is richer in information than a Caravaggio painting, a Bach fugue, or any other great work,” according to celebrated naturalist Prof EO Wilson.

This living library is, however, burning down, with volume after volume being destroyed, and the conflagration is gathering pace. As the world struggles to come to terms with the climate and covid emergencies, it seems hard to imagine there could be another crisis of equal magnitude and gravity now unfolding, but this is in fact the case. Continue reading

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No time to lose as climate clock approaches midnight

This article was published in the Irish Times in late October, just days before the start of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

AHEAD OF the upcoming UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, many countries are now revising their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) as originally agreed following the 2015 Paris climate conference.

At that time, the stated aim of international climate policy to keep global temperature increases to ‘well below’ 2 degrees and to ‘pursue efforts’ to keep it to no more than 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial.

Much has changed in the six years since Paris. Perhaps the most significant new factor was the landmark IPCC Special Report published in 2018 and known as SR15. This report made it clear for the first time that devastating and potentially irreversible climate breakdown could be locked in at the lower threshold of 1.5 degrees. Continue reading

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Latest chapter in one man’s journey into climate obscurity

This piece ran in Village magazine in mid-October, tracking the latest moves by Ireland’s climate denier-in-chief in his continuing mission to spread doubt on the science of climate change and the help stymie effective climate action.

OVER FOUR decades ago, famed meteorologist, Jule Charney wrote a report for the US government which sought to answer the key questions of how sensitive the global atmosphere is to increased levels of the heat-trapping gas, CO2.

Charney’s 1979 estimate was that a doubling of global CO2 levels would lead to a temperature increase in the range of 2–4ºC. This summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest major report calculated that a doubling of CO2 would lead to temperature rises in the range of 2.6–4.1ºC. Continue reading

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The most dangerous man in the world?

It’s almost always a mistake to characterise any one person as ‘evil’. There’s good and bad in everyone, as the song says. Well, almost. You could make an exception for one noxious Antipodean nonagenarian who has, over the span of the last five decades or so, done more than perhaps any other one individual alive to make the world a nastier and ever more dangerous place. No cat-stroking Bond villain caricature has ever captured the true mendacity of this individual, as I explained in this piece for the Business Post in September.

MEDIA TYCOON Rupert Murdoch “isn’t just an Australian problem or even an Anglosphere one. He has become a planetary problem”. That is the scathing view of former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

While such acute criticism might usually be dismissed as politically motivated, in fact Rudd’s analysis is shared by another former PM from the opposite end of Australia’s political spectrum, Malcolm Turnbull. Continue reading

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We are Generation Incineration

This piece ran in the Business Post magazine in late August, as more and more media outlets rallied to engage with the climate emergency and its vast implications for all life on Earth, humans included.

AT EXACTLY 1.18am, on June 24th last, the pool deck at a beachfront condominium in Surfside, Florida, collapsed. Seven minutes later, the entire 12-story building crashed down, instantly killing around 100 residents.

Three years ago, a simple yet crucial design error was discovered in the 40-year-old building. This had led to rainwater pooling and gradually eroding the supporting concrete slabs.

The 2018 estimate for repairs was $9 million, but this rose to $12 million two years later. Owners faced bills of $100,000 per apartment to fund the repairs and many simply dismissed the findings of the engineering report. In April, just two months before the disaster the condominium president complained that discussions about the fixes had gone on for years, yet action still hadn’t been taken. Continue reading

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Which part of ‘Code Red’ don’t we understand?

The publication of the first working group report (physical sciences) of the IPCC’s keenly awaited AR6 report in mid-August came against the backdrop months of genuinely alarming extreme weather events across multiple continents, from killer floods in Europe and China to deadly heatwaves, droughts and wildfires from Siberia to Africa, the US and beyond. Below is an explainer piece I filed for the Business Post to mark its publication.

THE SCIENTIFIC community has long understood that heating up the global atmosphere with greenhouse gases would, in time, lead to potentially dangerous consequences for the Earth’s climate system. This is uncontroversial. The real enigma that science is ill-equipped to address is that most elusive of variables: how humanity chooses to respond.

In the 30 years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was first established to manage this emerging crisis, global greenhouse gas emissions have roughly doubled. We have created as much carbon pollution since 1990 than in all of human history up to then. Continue reading

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Climate emergency ‘widespread, rapid and intensifying’

I was asked by TheJournal.ie to write a reaction piece to mark the release of the first part of the IPCC’s new climate report in early August. I also recorded an Explainer Podcast with TheJournal.ie later in August.

JUST HOW MANY more ‘wake-up calls’ on the climate emergency are we likely to receive before the message finally gets through? That question hungover this week’s release by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the first section of its mammoth Sixth Assessment Report (AR6).

The report confirmed many of the worst fears of scientists and activists when it stated that the effects of climate disruption are now: “widespread, rapid and intensifying”, with the window to avoiding extremely dangerous and irreversible climate system breakdown rapidly closing. Continue reading

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