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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Bringing the climate emergency to book

When this blog first when live in late November 2007, the world was a quite different place.  That year, global CO2 levels, as recorded at Mauna Loa, had reached an all-time high of 384 parts per million (ppm). Since then, they have climbed relentlessly, reaching around 418ppm this year. And Greta Thunberg was approaching her fifth birthday. Few could then have realised the butterfly effect of the shy Swedish teenager and her now-famous Skolstrejk För Klimatet (school strike for climate). I filed a review of the quite remarkable new book she has conceived and co-ordinated for the Business Post in November. It brings together a crack squad of experts from across the spectrum in a readable, indeed engrossing volume. I was so taken by it that I decided to buy 25 copies and distribute them to a number of key figures in the media, and was fortunate to recently have the opportunity to present a copy of the book to President Michael D. Higgins at an event in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the record, this is the 450th posting on ThinkOrSwim, which this week marks 15 years and somewhere in excess of half a million words attempting to track and report on the rapidly unfolding climate and biodiversity emergencies. It’s sobering to consider just how quickly things have escalated since ThinkOrSwim first came into being. Consider that nine of the 10 hottest years on the global instrumental record have all occurred since 2010. This runaway climate train is quickly gathering speed, as global heating has now reached +1.2ºC over pre-industrial, which is already playing out in a dramatic ramping up in extreme weather events, such as the devastating summer of 2022 in the northern hemisphere; this takes us dangerously close to the 1.5ºC boundary into extremely dangerous climate change. Beyond this, “there be dragons”.

GIVEN ITS enormity, complexity and gravity, only the brave or foolhardy would try to capture the totality of the global climate and biodiversity emergency in a single volume. The Climate Book, the creation of the teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, is as brave as it is accomplished and succeeds well beyond any reasonable expectation. Continue reading

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Tackling stubborn climate myths & misinformation

Despite the mountains of scientific evidence, as well as what we can see with our own eyes, myths and misinformation about climate change are remarkably stubborn, so I take whatever opportunities on offer to debunk these in as many media outlets as possible. The below piece was commissioned by the Irish Daily Mirror, my first piece for this audience, and ran over two pages in early November.

THOUGH IT’S not yet over, 2022 will be remembered as a year of dramatic weather extremes and disasters. The extended heatwave that racked China this summer has been described as the most severe in human history, while Europe just endured its hottest summer ever recorded.

Meanwhile, from Africa and Asia to north America, many countries have experienced record-smashing heat, drought and flooding events this year.

It’s no mystery as to why this is happening. The Earth is heating up, rapidly and dangerously. The clearest evidence for this is that the five hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 2017. Continue reading

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Risky business for insurers as climate crunch bites

As extreme weather ratchets ever upwards, it seems inevitable that more and more locations will become uninsurable over time, whether as a result of coastal inundation, sea level rise or supercharged storms and flooding events. I took a look this this climatic ‘Achilles heel’ of the global economy in a piece for the Business Post in late October.

SO FAR THIS year, the world has been riven with war and economic uncertainty in Europe, famine and drought in Africa and record-breaking extreme weather right across the northern hemisphere.

Yet for the global energy sector, 2022 has been another annus mirabilis. While consumers and many businesses have been severely squeezed by soaring energy prices, fossil fuel energy corporations have raked in massive windfall profits in recent months.

A study published earlier this year based on World Bank data found that petro-states and fossil fuel companies have made $2.8 billion in pure profits every day – or more than $1 trillion a year – in the decades since 1970, when adjusted to 2020 prices. Continue reading

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Turning climate protest into an art form

An ingenious protest involving soup and a famous painting threw the global spotlight on the climate emergency in a way that a thousand scientific articles, petitions and marches seemed to have failed to do. I was asked by TheJournal.ie for my take on the protest in mid-October. This website has done some of Ireland’s best climate-related journalism in recent times, but its Comments section is famously a cess pit of unmoderated trolling, and it certainly didn’t disappoint this time either.

WHAT DO YOU think of the two young climate activists who threw some cold tomato soup over the famous Sunflowers painting by Vincent Van Gogh at the National Gallery in London? Maybe, like many people, you have some sympathy for their cause, but feel they went too far or picked the wrong target this time? Continue reading

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Silent killers of the biosphere revealed

I ran this article in the Irish Examiner in early October to mark and honour the 60th anniversary of the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson, the book that was arguably the foundation event for the modern environmental movement. Vilified and condemned by vested interests in her lifetime, Carson’s legacy of courageous, rigorous reporting endures.

IT IS A LITTLE known but alarming fact that every year, some 44 per cent of farmers and farm workers worldwide experience poisoning by pesticides. That means 385 million people are affected, 11,000 of whom die annually, while tens of millions live with the long term health impacts of this exposure.

“Acute pesticide poisoning is an ongoing major global public health challenge”,  according to a scientific study published in December 2020. Among its recommendations was the phasing out of “highly hazardous” pesticides.

Scientists at University College Cork are currently seeking volunteers from the farming community for a study into a possible link between exposure to pesticides and Parkinson’s disease. Continue reading

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Carbon offsetting a cynical cop-out on climate action

In the late Middle Ages, there was a roaring trade within the Catholic Church in the sale of indulgences, as handy way for the sinful to wipe the slate clean by purchasing redemption. The abuse of this system is often cited as one of the key drivers for the Reformation. In recent years, a secular version of indulgences has made a comeback, this time in the form of carbon offsetting, as I explored in the Business Post in mid-September.

WHEN IS A measure that looks like it will protect the environment not actually a measure that will protect the environment? Sometimes, it’s when it involves carbon offsetting.

Put simply, a carbon offset is the promise of the removal or neutralising of a given amount of carbon dioxide (CO2). This is particularly appealing for sectors such as aviation, where there are few realistic alternatives to burning fossil fuels. Continue reading

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Sorting scientific fact from fiction on climate

Seeking out and clinging to reassuring myths as an antidote to the often frightening realities around the climate emergency is a surprisingly common reaction among the public, and even persists amid the all-too-obvious signs of climate breakdown happening in real time, all around us. I filed this piece for the Irish Examiner in mid-September which looked at a number of the more common myths and how they might be addressed.

THE PUBLICATION this week of the multi-agency ‘United in Science’ report on the climate crisis led by the World Meteorological Organisation underlines the overwhelming scientific evidence that the Earth is warming quickly as a result of human actions, and that this poses grave dangers to humanity.

However, a minority of people still cling to the belief that it’s not happening or that it has nothing to do with us. Here are five of the most common climate myths, and how to unpick them.

1. The climate has changed before and is always changing, therefore it’s all just part of a natural cycle. Continue reading

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A walk on the wild side in the Beara peninsula

Ever wonder what Ireland might look like in its primordial condition? One man set about not just finding out, but recreating this, in a remote corner of south-west Ireland. I filed this review of the book he has just written about his adventures in rewinding for the Business Post in early September. 

YOU MIGHT not expect a book about restoring a rainforest to be a romance, but Eoghan Daltun’s tale of how he came to find his passion and purpose in the rugged wilderness of the Beara Peninsula is essentially a love story.

“Within seconds, I knew with absolute clarity that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, if at all possible,” is Daltun’s description of his initial encounter with the wild woodlands at Bofickil. “I said out loud the words, ‘This is it.’ That might sound a bit of a stretch, but for me it really was love at first sight.”

If much ecology writing in Ireland is about paradise lost, then Daltun’s odyssey, which at times takes on an almost dreamlike quality, is about paradise regained. He offers readers a tantalising glimpse into the mysterious, mystical, even spiritual wild world that lies waiting to be rediscovered. Continue reading

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Coming up short on fanciful sectoral emissions goals

As the controversial sectoral budgets for Ireland were published, the Irish Examiner asked for my take on how they measured up, particularly the ultra-low 25% target assigned to Ireland’s largest polluting industry. This piece ran at the start of August.

IT IS SAID that if you’ve managed to annoy and infuriate all sides, then clearly you are doing something right. This being the case, the government should be fairly happy with the  compromise on sectoral emissions budgets it has cobbled together after weeks and months of wrangling and arm-twisting.

The headline-grabbing number is of course the 25% emissions cut agreed for agriculture, the sector contributing by far the largest single share of the national carbon pollution pie, at over one third of all emissions.

While this is undoubtedly an unfairly low percentage of the overall burden, for agriculture to come within the proverbial country mile of this target will require the dramatic reversal of an aggressive expansionist policy in the dairy sector that has seen around half a million cows added to the herd, pushing overall sectoral emissions up by almost 20% in the last decade. Continue reading

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