Feeding the planet without destroying the Earth

My review of ‘Regenesis’ by George Monbiot appeared in The Irish Times in mid-June. The author has, since its publication, been on the receiving end of what looks like a co-ordinated campaign to smear and discredit both him and and the conclusions of this book. That may give you an idea of the vested powerful interests being confronted here, and how they are trying desperately to shut down any serious discussion on the future of food, specifically our planet-destroying livestock systems.

MODERN agriculture has delivered astonishing productivity, but at a fearsome price to the living planet. Today, its footprint covers more than half the habitable land area on Earth.

This sequestration and radical alteration of vast swathes of the biosphere for the sole benefit of one species among millions has triggered a catastrophic collapse of ecosystems while also destabilising the global climate system.

There is remarkably little sustained public or political attention paid to this tsunami of destruction sweeping away the life support systems upon which we all ultimately depend, or to the interest groups profiting from it. Continue reading

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How financial sector fails to grasp climate risks

It has been described as a classic case of saying the quiet bit out loud, but jaws dropped when a senior banker (and former FT financial journalist) let his guard down and shared with his audience everything we’ve feared about the deeply sociopathic nature of banking in particular and economics more generally. As a footnote, Kirk finally quit HSBC in July, blaming “cancel culture” rather than his own odious remarks for the decision. Kirk, in his own words, “only ever tried to do the best for my clients and readers in a 27-year unblemished record in finance, journalism and consulting”. Quite. I filed the article below for the Business Post at the end of May.

THEY SAY THAT everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, and for Stuart Kirk, global head of ‘responsible investing’ at British multinational bank, HSBC. It came, appropriately enough, after his 15-minute presentation to a recent Financial Times conference in London.

Kirk, who previously worked as a financial journalist with the FT, stunned his audience by explaining how everything they thought they knew about climate risk was simply wrong. “Who cares if Miami is under six metres of water”, he said. After all, “Amsterdam has been six metres under water for ages, and that’s a nice place, we’ll cope with it”. Continue reading

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Message remains the same, but who’s listening?

I filed this comment piece for the Irish Examiner in May to coincide with the publication of the WMO ‘State of the Climate’ report. The science gets clearer and clearer, the direct evidence of global climate destabilisation is now evident for all too see first-hand, yet still the response remains muted.

“I GET ALL the news I need on the weather report”. That line is from a classic Simon & Garfunkel song from 1970 capturing the zeitgeist of an era, real or imagined, where the most you had to worry about was what to wear to the beach.

Half a century later, and now the weather itself is the news. The release this week by the UN World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) of its ‘State of the Global Climate in 2021’ was just the latest in a seemingly endless series of dire warnings emanating from the scientific community about the rapidly deteriorating global climate system. Continue reading

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Shadow of war throws new focus on nuclear energy

One source of near-zero carbon for energy production that is often overlooked and excluded from serious consideration is that of nuclear energy. In ordinary circumstances this might be understandable, but in a dire climate emergency, I find it baffling that anyone serious about this issue would peremptorily dismiss nuclear without first subjecting it to detailed ongoing assessment. I wrote about this conundrum in the Business Post in May.

WE HUMANS are notoriously poor judges of risk. It’s a design quirk in an ancient brain system that served our ancestors well on the Serengeti but is woefully inadequate to deal with the deluge of complex and often contradictory danger signs and signals we face in the modern world.
Most of us instinctively fear flying, yet statistically, it is far safer than driving. In the 12 months following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in 2001, an additional 1,600 road deaths were recorded in the US as more people chose driving over flying. This is almost half the total fatalities in the attack itself. Continue reading

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The 1.5C danger line draws ever closer

I contributed the article below to TheJournal.ie in mid-May to mark the publication of a worrying new report from the World Meteorological Organisation. Tried to stress for the umpteenth time that physics is indifferent to the many political, economic, social, cultural and indeed psychological barriers that have to somehow be overcome if we are to act collectively and decisively in line with the science. The piece attracted over 100 comments from readers which, for what it’s worth, turned out to be a lot more nuanced than the online reaction I have received to similar articles in previous years.

FROM POLE TO pole and across every continent on Earth, the broadly benign and predictable climatic conditions under which humanity has flourished for centuries are rapidly destabilising.

Two months ago, scientists were astonished to report on simultaneous polar heatwaves. Multiple weather stations in Antarctica reported temperatures up to 40C above normal, while in the Arctic, temperatures 30C above normal were recorded. “We have entered a new extreme phase of climate change much earlier than we had expected,” warned Professor Mark Maslin of University College, London.

His concern has been borne out this week with the publication by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) of a new report indicating there is now an evens chance of the 1.5°C threshold of extremely dangerous climate change being breached within the next five years.

A similar analysis carried out by the WMO ahead of the Paris climate conference in 2015 found an almost zero chance of 1.5°C being breached in the near future. It is astonishing to consider how quickly the global climatic situation has deteriorated in just the last seven years.

“The 1.5°C figure is not some random statistic. It is rather an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet,” according to WMO secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas.

Data for 2021 indicated that global average temperatures have already risen by around 1.1-1.2°C. While this may sound modest, it is likely the greatest temperature shift Earth has experienced since the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago, but today, the rate of change is far more rapid than at any time for millions of years.

Measurements of global average surface temperatures also include the surface of the oceans, so in reality land surface temperatures in many areas have already risen far more rapidly. Much of India and Pakistan has been suffering under sustained and unprecedented heatwave conditions since March, with Pakistan’s Sindh province recording its hottest-ever April temperature of 49ºC.

Across India, crops are wilting in the fields and the wheat harvest is likely to be down 50% in some regions this year, putting yet more pressure on global food security.

This region is home to some 1.5 billion people and it is nudging ever closer to a situation where it is simply too hot for humans or most animals to endure, or for crops to grow.

A research paper published two years ago warned that, on current emissions trends, within just 50 years, between 2-3.5 billion people will be living in areas of the world that will be effectively uninhabitable due to extreme heat. The vast majority of the world’s poor do not have access to air conditioning, and even if this could somehow be provided, the emissions arising from the huge amounts of energy required to power these would make the situation even worse.

This portends the greatest forced migration crisis in human history, with billions of hungry, desperate people having to abandon their homelands. The likely political and humanitarian consequences of a displacement on this scale almost defy imagining.

We are approaching a near future of escalating conflict, including warfare, over access to dwindling food and fresh water resources and the near-complete collapse of globalised trade as countries struggle to maintain order while closing borders in a desperate bid to look after their own citizens. As a result, countless millions of climate migrants face a bleak future of barbed wire and persecution.

There is no mystery whatever as to what is driving this rapidly escalating global crisis.

“For as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise. And alongside that, our oceans will continue to become warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea level will continue to rise and our weather will become more extreme”, added Prof Taalas.

Climate extremes

Last summer saw a series of savage climate extremes around the world, including severe floods that left 125 dead across Germany, Belgium and Holland. The town of Lytton in once-chilly Canada recorded an almost unimaginable 49.6ºC temperature, shattering all national records. Yet there were two La Niña events last year that should have exerted a cooling effect on overall global temperatures.

When, as expected, an El Niño (which has an overall warming effect) event next occurs in the near future, this will again push global temperatures to new record highs.

The only thing that can now prevent the climate system from breaching a tipping point into irreversible global collapse is urgent action by governments around the world to reduce emissions. The Covid lockdown saw emissions fall slightly in 2020, only to fully rebound last year to their highest level in history.

The greatest onus to act strongly rests on wealthy countries like Ireland. We have laudable ambitions to cut our emissions by 51% by the end of 2030, but with that deadline fast approaching, it is clear that none of the main parties, including Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have the slightest appetite to push through measures that are unpopular with the public or resisted by lobbyists. It is clear that Ireland is still paying lip service to climate action.

For instance, despite energy imports into Europe from Russia helping Putin to fund his war on Ukraine, there isn’t even political appetite in Ireland to reduce speed limits, a proven and equitable method of cutting our fuel consumption. Nor have there been any moves whatever to require the aviation industry to pay any taxes or duties on the fuels that its business model of climate-destroying cheap flying demand.

The recent political imbroglio over turf underlined how cynicism and political opportunism trumps any form of leadership or vision on this issue. What was truly depressing is how Sinn Féin is every bit as disengaged on climate as the other main parties, despite it being a growing concern among the younger voters it has successfully courted.

It will probably take our coastal cities and towns being routinely flooded, international trade collapsed and our agriculture system devastated by extreme weather for politicians and the media to wake up and start taking the climate emergency seriously.

By then, of course, it will be far too late.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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Turf wars signal betrayal on climate action

The bizarre and pointless recent ‘turf wars’ are a throwback to an Ireland many of us thought was gone forever. The scramble by politicians to outdo one another in capitulating to a handful of industrial turf cutters and their noisy acolytes, while ignoring the climate and biodiversity crisis has been one of the most depressing episodes in recent years. I wrote in the Business Post about this shameful yellow streak running right across our political classes and how it augurs badly for tough decisions that lie ahead.

THIS WEEKEND, hundreds of millions of people across the Indian sub-continent continue to endure almost unliveable conditions as the region remains gripped by a deadly heat dome that scientists have confirmed has been intensified by climate change.

Neither this ominous humanitarian crisis nor the horrific conflict in Ukraine could even begin to compete for political or media oxygen in Ireland this week with the bizarre rolling controversy surrounding, of all things, turf. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The magic porridge pot is finally running out

To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the landmark ‘Limits to Growth’ book, I contributed the below article to the Business Post. We are now precisely half way through the century modelled by the Club of Rome, and the conditions pointing towards the “sudden and uncontrollable decline” in industrial civilisation they projected to occur in the early to mid-21st century appear to be coalescing right on schedule. How could we have ignored such clear warnings? The answer may lie in the fantasy of infinite economic growth peddled by leading economists that has been accepted as not just rational, but inevitable, by governments around the world.

FIFTY YEARS ago this month, a book was published that caused a global firestorm of controversy. Titled ‘Limits to Growth’ (LtG) it warned that the century from 1972 would, on current growth trends, see the world reach and then breach key boundaries. These included food production, natural resources, pollution and population. Continue reading

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Can we reimagine a better, safer world?

It sometimes feels like our collective inability to respond to the global climate and ecological emergency is first and foremost a failure of imagination. We are conditioned to see the world the way it is, and can easily assume there are no serious alternatives. I contributed an op-ed to the Irish Examiner to mark publication of the latest IPCC report and opened by trying to imagine how, in a parallel universe, we might be squaring up to the existential challenges that confront us.

TRYING TO contemplate how a civilisation guided by science and reason would deal with the rapidly unfolding climate emergency requires paying a visit to a parallel universe. Here, the global climate and biodiversity crisis is front and centre of every part of our everyday lives; children learn about it from pre-primary onwards. Continue reading

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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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