Oil giants struggle to wash blood off their hands

It may be making more money than ever, but the fossil fuel industry is rapidly losing whatever semblance of social licence it could still cling to. And despite the high salaries on offer, more and more young people are turning their backs on this most toxic of sectors, as evidence of its pathological greed, deceit and ecocidal business model becomes ever more incontrovertible. I filed this piece for the Business Post in February. 

THE BIGGEST TV show of the 1980s, Dallas, followed the fortunes of the Ewings, a family of oil tycoons in Texas, and showcased their glamorous, opulent lifestyles, as well as the wheeling and dealing and back-stabbing in the industry.

Fast forward to the 2020s and the industry is arguably more profitable than ever. In 2022, the combined profits of ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Total, BP and Equinor surged to nearly $250 billion, the highest in their history. It is, however, unlikely in the extreme that there will ever be another major TV show lionising the oil billionaires.

According to Bernard Looney, the Kerry-born chief executive of BP, “there’s a view that this is a bad industry, and I understand that”. Looney took over at BP in February 2020 and recognised that the entire sector was “socially challenged”, and struggling to recruit new talent to replace an ageing workforce. Continue reading

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Watch out for quick-fix climate techno solutions

Decades of abject failure to curb carbon emissions has left us in a perilous situation as global climate destabilisation begins to bite in earnest. Numerous techno-fixes are now being seriously explored, backed by some big names as well as attracting serious interest at governmental level. However, trying to engineer a system as complex and dynamic as an entire planet’s climate may be as dangerous as it is implausible, as I explored in the Irish Examiner in February.

IN APRIL 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia underwent the largest eruption the world had seen in more than 1,000 years. This triggered a ‘volcanic winter’ that caused global average temperatures to quickly drop by around 1°C.

As a direct result, the summer of the following year saw crop failures and famines from China to Europe, North America and beyond. Ireland also was impacted, as a typhus epidemic resulting from widespread hunger killed thousands in what has become known as the ‘Year Without A Summer’.

Author Mary Shelley, confined to indoors in a villa in Switzerland as a result of incessant summer rainfall and darkness, was inspired by the dank conditions to write the famous horror novel Frankenstein — which explores the dangers of humans dabbling in technology and tampering with forces we barely understand — in June 1816.

While its cooling effects were short-lived, the Mount Tambora eruption showed how sensitive the global atmosphere is to large-scale disruption, yet for the last two centuries, humanity has been engaged in an uncontrolled experiment involving altering the basic chemistry of the entire planet.

Following the clearing of vast areas of forests as well as burning of billions of tons of fossil fuels, the level of carbon dioxide, a key heat-trapping gas, in the global atmosphere has increased by 50% versus pre-industrial. while methane levels have trebled.

This rate of change is the fastest in millions of years, and is already having dramatic impacts on the global climate, as heatwaves intensify, flooding events become more extreme and droughts and desertification accelerate.

In the three decades since intergovernmental efforts to curb global warming got underway in earnest, total emissions have actually increased by more than in all of human history up to 1990. As the old joke goes, ‘we’ve tried nothing, and now we’re all out of ideas’.

While the climate situation deteriorates, ever more desperate measures, once thought too dangerous to ever be seriously considered, are now on the table politically. Chief among these is what’s known as solar geoengineering.

The US government recently announced it would study the effects of spraying chemicals such as sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to essentially mimic the effect of a major volcanic eruption and artificially engineer a global cooling event.

When released high in the stratosphere by a fleet of aircraft, aerosols such as sulphur dioxide disperse and block some of the incoming solar radiation. This effect also occurs as a result of emissions from coal plants that haven’t been fitted with scrubbers.

Ironically, pollution from these coal-burning plants, largely in China and India, currently masks nearly half a degree of global warming.

Right-wing groups who have long opposed action on climate change, such as the Heritage Foundation in the US, now support geoengineering, as they see it as a business-as-usual way of continuing to burn fossil fuels while using geoengineering to offset ever-rising temperatures.

This is as dangerous as it is convenient. First, one of the critical weaknesses of the very concept of geoengineering is that it dangles the prospect of an easy techno-fix in front of governments that are already struggling to cut emissions and are facing strong resistance from vested interests. Simply having the option of geoengineering ‘on the table’ is likely to stall vital action to cut emissions.

Second, who exactly gets to decide the rules? What happens if for instance Russia, the US, or China decides to embark on a solo global geoengineering project they think may benefit their region?

Such an initiative in one part of the world could lead to disastrous unintended consequences elsewhere. For instance, an intervention by the US government to tackle the deepening drought in its western states might cause the annual monsoon rains to weaken or fail in Asia, leaving hundreds of millions facing disaster and setting in motion a massive geopolitical crisis.

“Solar geoengineering is an extremely risky and intrinsically unjust technological proposal that doesn’t address any of the causes of climate change”, according to Silvia Ribeiro, of the ETC group, an NGO that monitors the impact of emerging technologies.

Another issue that geoengineering has no answer for is: what happens when you stop? If say global temperatures have been artificially lowered by aerosols in the stratosphere or a marine cloud brightening project and this is no longer possible in the future because of war or economic collapse, the atmosphere would experience a ‘termination shock’, triggering a devastating sudden temperatures spike.

There are forms of ‘natural’ geoengineering that don’t require scientists to play God with the global climate system. These include afforestation and peatland restoration, as well as rewilding.

These may be less of a quick fix but ultimately the problems caused by technology can never be solved by simply applying ever more technology.

In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon: ‘Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed’.

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There’s no vaccine for the greenhouse effect

The future is an Undiscovered Country. Things are done differently there. For those who follow the science of the climate and ecological crisis, it’s also an overwhelmingly scary place. Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is our best available vehicle with which to venture beyond the bourns of the present and into the near-to-medium future, and ‘The Deluge’ by Stephen Markley. Buckle up, it’s a bumpy ride, as I outlined in the Business Post in February.

HOW EXACTLY DO you set about telling the biggest story of them all, one almost nobody even wants to talk about and which has no happy ending? This conundrum has engaged a growing number of writers in the rapidly emerging field of climate fiction.

Yet, at first glance, the scenario is all too familiar. After all, hasn’t Hollywood’s conveyor belt of blockbuster disaster movies already inured us to the end of the planet?

Oddly, the ultimate fiction of these dystopian imaginings is that once the lights go up and the credits are rolling, we can all return to the reassuring normality of our lives, confident that the world outside is just as we left it.

Stephen Markley’s approach to tackling this biggest of stories is with the heftiest of cli-fi novels. Weighing in at almost 900 pages, The Deluge feels almost as overwhelming as the crises it elucidates.

Set in the United States, its multi-layered and dense narrative thread spans from the present day until around 2040, as rolling ecological calamities fray and then fragment the very fabric of society, tossing its motley cast of characters around like straws in a sandstorm.

“It’s pretty simple: we fight to the fucked and bitter end or we die,” says central figure Kate Morris, a firebrand political organiser mockingly titled the “manic pixie dream girl of global warming”. She tries the impossible – to shock the deeply dysfunctional Washington DC system out of its terminal anomie – and pays a terrible price for her pains.

While Markley’s consuming passion is in exploring the brutal machinations of US politics, The Deluge is anchored firmly in actual climate science. This is conveyed through the character of Tony Pietrus, a geophysicist who in the opening chapter receives a death threat along with a package containing an unidentified powder. Science has been a contact sport in the US for quite some time.

“You want the world to be this place of rational actors, but no one’s rational, Tony,” says his wife, Gail, explaining how evidence-based arguments are dashed against the rocks of human intransigence. “We’re all guided by our crazy.”

What’s unnerving about the future-scape mapped out in The Deluge is how familiar it all is. Life plods relentlessly on for a decade or two, even as the wildfires lay waste to cities and flood waters ruin vast areas of low-lying land. Many people simply retreat into immersive VR headsets where they can escape the gathering storm, at least for a while.

Markley switches the narrative voice in alternating chapters, while also interspersing fictional articles from The New York Times and other media outlets as well as dense political briefing documents. The author’s wonkishness shines through, but mercifully this often technical material is leavened with wicked humour. One protagonist “looked like she was watching her cat burn to death but had been told if she intervened, her other cat would get it as well”.

Even Tony, the buttoned-down climate scientist, gets to deliver some zingers, such as when a politician is trying to reassure him about climate models. “Fuck the models. You saw the numbers coming in from Greenland this summer and the Antarctic ice sheets are frying… yet you’re sitting there with all the concern of a happy baby in a fresh diaper.”

As the novel progresses, a confluence of events draws the protagonists through their Sisyphean and ultimately doomed task of “trying to unfuck the world”, in the words of another character called Ashir. He catalogues on the government’s behalf how a relentless toll of extreme weather events and rising sea levels is crippling society and sending the US economy into a death spiral of slow but relentless collapse.

“The difference between 2037 and 2020 is that there is no vaccine on the way for the greenhouse effect,” Ashir observes wryly.

The Deluge is an ambitious, sweeping novel, its darker passages illuminated by some sparkling turns of phrase. It is in turn an enthralling and infuriating read. I can’t help but wonder how much more enjoyable it might have been had Markley managed to compress his impressive storylines into a book several hundred pages shorter.

The Deluge by Stephen Markley, Simon and Schuster, €30.20

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Oh! What a Lovely War for fossil fuel profiteers

While 2022 may have been the year when full-scale war returned to Europe for the first time since 1945, with massive spikes in energy prices impacting tens of millions of households, it was also a great year for fossil fuel industry war profiteering, as oil companies raked in a record $200 billion in profits in 2022. That works out at around $4 billion a week, every week last year for an industry whose decades of lies and deception have taken us to the brink of a global calamity, as I explored in a piece for TheJournal.ie in early February.

CONSPIRACIES, REAL AND imaginary, come in all shapes and sizes. None however are more real or more dangerous than the vast, decades-long conspiracy by the global energy industry to deceive and mislead us on the existential dangers of fossil fuel burning.

At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, UN secretary-general António Guterres called out the conspirators by name, identifying the fossil fuel industry and its financial backers as “racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival.” Continue reading

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Best of times, worst of times

The annual ritual of seeing whether the famous Doomsday Clock moves closer to or further from midnight took a worrying turn this year, as it inched to its closest point to the witching hour in the last 75 years, in response to a confluence of events and escalating risks, as I described in the Irish Examiner in early February.

“IT WAS THE best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens wrote in 1859. “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”.

Today, a century and a half later, his opening lines from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ still ring true. There are more people alive now than at any other time in history, and more are living free from the shackles of abject poverty, hunger, disease and early death than ever before.

By many objective measures, especially for those of us in prosperous, stable countries like Ireland, these are indeed the very best of times. We enjoy levels of personal freedom, material wealth, comfort and physical well-being almost unimaginable even to our grandparents’ generation. Continue reading

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Spreading a deadly smokescreen of disinformation

Long before the fossil fuel industry began using its money and influence to spread doubt and disinformation about the climate crisis, the book on how to dupe and deceive the public by peddling doubt had been practically written by the tobacco industry and its PR advisers, as I discussed in this Irish Examiner piece in January.

AS RECENTLY as two or three decades ago, cigarette smoking was part and parcel of life. People lit up indoors, in cars, pubs and on public transport, even aircraft. In fact, the GAA All-Stars awards were sponsored by PJ Carroll until 1978.

Posters, billboards and media sponsorship normalised a product whose manufacturers had known for decades kills one in two smokers. Slowly at first, then quickly, the smoke cleared and cigarettes were pushed almost completely out of the public domain. Continue reading

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Bracing for the coming climate refugee crisis

The millions of people displaced by wars and conflict in the 20th century and in the early part of this century are likely to be eclipsed by a vast waves of forced migration in the decades ahead, as rising temperatures, droughts, desertification and coastal inundation render more and more places virtually uninhabitable. Yet little real thought has gone into how societies around the world will cope with this coming human tsunami, as I explored in the Business Post in January.

ALTHOUGH World War II ended in 1945, tens of millions of refugees displaced by the conflict continued to seek safety and shelter for years after the fighting stopped. This humanitarian disaster, which affected well over 50 million people in Europe alone, spurred the creation of the UN Refugee Convention in 1951. Continue reading

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Ozone recovery offers sliver of optimism on climate action

Good news stories on the climate beat are few and far between, and offer occasional relief from the quickening drumbeat of bad news on the climate and biodiversity front. I didn’t have to be asked twice to file this piece for the Irish Examiner on a newly published WMO report showing the slow but steady recovery of the global ozone layer. While it undoubtedly holds some lessons on tackling the wider climate emergency, there are also limits to the parallels, as I explore below. 

GLOBAL EFFORTS to tackle both climate change and biodiversity loss have been underway in earnest for at least the last three decades, yet our best efforts to date have been an unmitigated failure. Emissions continue to spiral, temperatures climb and ecosystems buckle under ever-expanding human impacts. Continue reading

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Step by step towards a lower carbon future

Here’s a piece that ran in the Irish Daily Star in the first week of January, my 10-point guide for those dipping a toe in the water of climate action in 2023. It’s not intended to be either definitive or comprehensive, rather, a starting point for people considering getting involved but not quite sure where or how to begin.

AFTER YET another year of record-breaking extreme weather around the world, public concern about the climate emergency is now at an all-time high. More than four in five Irish people now say they are “alarmed” or “concerned” about the crisis, according to research from the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, while people are anxious and want to take personal action, many are unclear as to what are the most important steps to take to help tackle climate change. A study by the ESRI in early 2022 found that many people incorrectly thought recycling was more important than driving or eating meat in tackling climate change. Continue reading

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Dialling up the global thermostat another notch in 2022

It sounds almost a cliché to say that last year was a year of weather extremes. After all, which year out of the last 20 hasn’t been? After all, according to the WMO, the past eight years have been the eight hottest on the instrumental record. Yes, all eight. Hottest of all was 2016, the last El Niño year. Since then, around another 300 billion tons of heat-trapping gases have been released into the global atmosphere. The next El Niño may be as soon as later this year. Hold onto your hats. I filed the below for the Business Post as a review of global climate change in 2022.

IT IS LIKELY that 2022 will be remembered as another year of living dangerously, as climate destabilisation moved ever closer to home and, in the process, became impossible to ignore.

The summer of 2022 was the hottest in at least 500 years in Europe, the hottest on instrumental record in China, and the second hottest across both Asia and North America. Britain recorded its highest-ever temperatures, with the mercury touching 40.3°C in mid-July. This led to fires sweeping around the edges of London, and some rail lines buckling in the heat.

Scientists from the World Weather Attribution group calculated that such extreme European temperatures, which led to at least 20,000 excess deaths, would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.

None of this was unexpected. Earlier in the year, the synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that it was “now or never” on addressing the climate emergency. The IPCC report spelled out in the plainest language the risks of fast-rising global temperatures, yet the political and social response has been muted.

Pakistan and India are two populous countries already close to the limits of human heat tolerance. Last March, a heatwave swept the region, bringing the hottest conditions in at least a century, with temperatures frequently above 50°C.

This heatwave eventually abated, only to be followed by devastating flooding, killing over 1,700 people, leaving millions homeless and causing billions of euro in damage. Attribution studies confirmed that the extreme heat waves and flooding events had been made more likely and more severe as a result of global warming.

After global emissions fell slightly as a result of Covid lockdowns, by 2021 they had rebounded to their highest level in history, with every indication that 2022 will have seen emissions continue on an upward trajectory.

The hottest topic in Ireland this year was how to divvy up our ambitious 2030 target of cutting national emissions by 51 per cent. After intense political wrangling and lobbying by the industrial livestock sector, agriculture (Ireland’s largest polluting sector, with over a third of all emissions) was given special treatment in being set a 25 per cent goal, which is half of the national target.

An analysis by the Climate Change Advisory Council of the sectoral emissions budgets indicated that, assuming full implementation, they added up to just a 43 per cent cut at best – and even this excluded land use change, which is another major source of carbon.

The transport sector has been set a 50 per cent target, and despite government hype about electric cars, in reality such a dramatic reduction can come about only as a result of a decisive modal shift away from the private car and towards public and active transport. This is proving a tough nut to crack.

In 2021, more than half the funding provided by government to rural local authorities on cycling and pedestrian infrastructure went unspent, while one third of funding in the greater Dublin area was unused. The situation in 2022 was at least as bad – with Galway, for instance, drawing down just 6 per cent of its active travel budget. The Irish public remains wedded to the private car, and politicians are markedly reluctant to take actions seen to antagonise motorists.

Anxiety around climate spilled over into direct action in 2022, as Just Stop Oil activists garnered headlines around the world by throwing soup at a (protected) Van Gogh painting. The response of the British government has been to criminalise non-violent protests – a position disgracefully supported by Keir Starmer, the Labour leader – but there is little indication that this will deter activists.

This year’s big climate showcase event, COP 27, took place in Egypt. During his address, then taoiseach Micheál Martin warned that “our citizens will become increasingly cynical, weary and hopeless if words are not urgently matched by deeds”.

That sense of cynicism will have been sharpened by the revelation in this newspaper that commitments Martin signed up to at the 2021 COP conference on cutting methane by 30 per cent by 2030 have been quietly scrapped, while livestock emissions continue to spiral.

While the COP 27 conference once again fell far short of what is needed, the Irish delegation led by Eamon Ryan, the climate minister, scored a notable success in having the “loss and damage” provision strengthened. This commits high-emitting countries to compensate developing countries already suffering severe climate impacts.

With Leo Varadkar back as Taoiseach, his altogether more lukewarm approach to climate action is likely to dominate the coalition. Mary Lou McDonald underlined Sinn Féin’s ambivalence on climate when she offered her party’s unconditional support to the continued expansion of the dairy industry, despite its devastating impact in both emissions and water pollution. Ironically, the only farms Sinn Féin appear to have any issue with are wind farms.

While yielding to lobbyists can seem the smart play politically, it may also be storing up electoral trouble. A survey published late last year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that an astonishing 84 per cent of people were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change.

The EPA report proves there is a huge groundswell of public support for strong climate action in Ireland, but it has yet to find its political voice – with special interest and Nimby groups continuing to have the ear of politicians, for now.

Ireland has so far escaped the very worst impacts of climate change, which may explain the widespread complacency among many in politics and public administration. In continental Europe, the rapid drying up of mighty rivers, from the Loire in France to the Po in Italy and the Rhine in Germany, as well as a major decline in food production after the worst drought in 500 years, has come as both an economic and psychological blow.

Better news came from Brazil with the ousting of the far-right administration led by Jair Bolsonaro, whose policies pushed the Amazon rainforest perilously close to the tipping point of ecological system collapse. Incoming president Lula da Silva has promised to reverse the destruction. In the US, unexpected mid-term successes for the Democrats have kept president Joe Biden’s relatively progressive climate agenda alive.

A turbulent year finished on an upbeat note with the COP 15 biodiversity conference in Montreal agreeing a landmark deal committing to the protection of 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030, along with a slew of other measures.

While 190 nations signed up to what has been described as the Paris Agreement for Biodiversity, the enduring challenge is in enforcement and the political will to face down vested interests. Whether actions match the fine words at Montreal will become clear in 2023.

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Cutting down on global deforestation

For as long as I can remember, we’ve been hearing about deforestation, usually expressed as an area of old-growth forest the size of x number of soccer pitches being lost per minute/hour. Globally, more than two billion hectares of forest have been lost to human actions – an area twice the size of the continental United States. However, a change of leadership in Brazil and a new EU initiative give rare pause for optimism on deforestation, as I explored in the Business Post in December.

EVERY YEAR, the world loses an area of natural forests the size of Italy in a global pulse of deforestation that has been ongoing for centuries, but has dramatically accelerated in recent times. Since 1900, more than one billion hectares of forests have been cleared – and with them, countless species and ecosystems that evolved over millions of years have been swept away. Continue reading

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Giving nature the legal right to exist

Mankind’s relationship with the rest of nature has been overwhelmingly predatory for centuries, with the natural world used as both a quarry from which to extract ‘resources’ and as a dump into which to eject our mountains of waste. The roots of this extractivist philosophy run deep, but it is now being challenged, as I explored in the Irish Times in December.

THIS SUMMER, in the English town of Ringwood, Bretton, the local council ordered the felling of an oak tree it claimed risked causing structural damage to nearby houses. The tree, which is listed on the UK Woodland Trust’s ancient tree register, is known to be well over 600 years old.

Having stood since the 14th century, long before the surrounding town and houses even existed, the mighty oak disappeared forever in little over an hour on June 29th last, despite determined efforts by locals to save it.

Campaigners had served the local council with an injunction in a last-gasp effort to save the tree, but a local district court judge dismissed it, claiming it was outside its jurisdiction. Continue reading

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Is a social tipping point on climate within sight?

It is often said that nothing seems to happen for decades, then decades can happen within a matter of months or even weeks. Despite the overall pessimism, there is growing evidence that we are approaching societal inflection points that may take us on an altogether different trajectory. Whether this happens soon enough to avert climate disaster remains to be seen, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in early December.

IN NATURE, tipping points occur when certain critical thresholds have been crossed and momentum into a new phase becomes unstoppable. Well-known examples of this include the vast ice sheets in Greenland or western Antarctica. While they can withstand some warming, rather like stepping off a cliff, full-scale collapse becomes irreversible beyond a critical point.

In the relatively recent past, drink-driving in Ireland was commonplace and widely regarded as more a misdemeanour than a crime. Attitudes to smoking have also altered radically in the last two decades, to the point where it is now almost unthinkable to light up indoors. Similarly, it is now taboo for parents or teachers to beat children, yet a generation ago, this was seen by many as essential and unremarkable. Continue reading

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Biosphere buckling under weight of human pressures

Rapid population growth has seen another billion humans added to world population in just the 11 years since 2011. In tandem with dramatic economic growth and accelerating climate change, these are placing unbearable pressures on the biosphere, foreshadowing a near future of famines, forced migration, economic collapse and endless conflict, as I outlined in the Business Post in late November.

FRITZ HABER is hardly a household name, yet the German chemist’s invention in the first decade of the 20th century arguably changed the course of human history.

His breakthrough was in creating ammonia, or chemical nitrogen. Initially, it allowed Germany to continue to produce explosives as well as fertilisers, after the British had imposed a naval blockade during World War I.

Haber also developed chlorine as a poison gas, which the German army deployed to deadly effect along the Western Front. Despite this, in 1918 he received the Nobel prize for chemistry for his invention, known as the Haber-Bosch ammonia process. Continue reading

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All easy options are now off the table

Irish political leaders have an unfortunate habit of showing up at international climate conferences and delivering eloquent, impassioned speeches that are clearly not meant to be taken in any way seriously. This time out Micheal Martin took the interesting tack of directly addressing public cynicism “if words are not urgently matched by deeds”, as I explored in the Irish Examiner during COP27.

IT WAS BY any standard a passionate, moving speech. The Taoiseach urged world leaders to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in dealing with the unfolding climate emergency.

“Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response… we share a common humanity and each of us must play our part.”

The Taoiseach in question was Enda Kenny, and these stirring words were delivered at a UN climate summit in New York — in September 2014. By unhappy coincidence, 2014 was also the last year in which Ireland’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were tracking downwards. Continue reading

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