Climate emergency still failing to capture sustained media focus

Here’s a piece I filed with the Business Post in July which took a look at how the alarming extreme weather events ramping up this summer are still failing to raise a red flag in the media, both here and internationally. Given the mountains of scientific data, backed up with the evidence on our TV screens, how can we be still sleepwalking towards disaster, with scant sign that we have even begun to fully grasp the extent of the crisis that threatens to engulf us.

ON APRIL 19th last, the World Meteorological Organisation’s flagship State of the Global Climate report was published. Launching it, United Nations secretary general, António Gutteres stated bluntly: “we are on the verge of the abyss”.

To some, that may have sounded somewhat melodramatic. Then June 2021 happened. Continue reading

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More power to our fledgling solar industry

The missing piece of the puzzle from Ireland’s transition to clean and renewable energy has long been solar power. While wind energy has grown in just a couple of decades from almost nothing to providing more than two fifths of total national electrical power (with much more in store once offshore wind kicks in), solar has been almost completely overlooked. This is now finally changing. I filed the report below for The Irish Times in early July, taking a closer look at this bright new sector:

SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1931, US electricity pioneer, Thomas Edison confided to his close friends: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that”.

Today, some 90 years later, the pressing global crisis is that we are producing greenhouse gas emissions far more quickly than the biosphere can absorb them. The dramatic rise of renewables in response to this crux mean Edison’s bet on solar may at last be borne out, albeit not for the reasons he expected. Continue reading

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The heat is on: climate emergency deepens

After the savage heatwaves that swept the northern hemisphere in June and continuing into July, I was asked by TheJournal.ie to contribute a piece putting these ominous events into context. Here’s what I wrote:

“WORDS CANNOT DESCRIBE this historic event”. That’s how a statement from Canada’s official weather service began. It was referring to 28 June, a day in which 59 new daily record maximum temperatures were recorded across the province of British Columbia, as well as 43 all-time records.

From Canada to northern Siberia and across the Middle East, India, Pakistan and the entire western United States, June 2021 was a month of record-smashing extreme temperatures across vast swathes of the northern hemisphere.

Before last week, nowhere in Canada had ever recorded a temperature greater than 45C. That record was obliterated when the town of Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.6C in recent days. This is hotter than the highest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas, located in the Nevada desert, 1,600 kilometres further south.

Dozens of deaths have been reported across Canada, a country with little experience dealing with such extreme conditions, and where few homes have air conditioning. In Portland, Oregon, the streetcar service had to be suspended as the heat had melted cables, while citizens were advised to seek shelter in publicly run cooling centres.

Climate change is happening

“Without human-induced climate change, it would have been almost impossible to hit such record-breaking mean June temperatures in the Western United States, as the chances of natural occurrence is once every tens of thousands of years”, said Nikos Christidis, a climatologist with the UK Met Office. Human influence is estimated to have increased the likelihood of a new record several thousand times.

The remote village of Oymyakon in eastern Siberia is close to the Arctic Circle and is regarded as the coldest permanently inhabited location on Earth. On 29 June, Oymyakon recorded its hottest ever temperature, at 31.6C.

To put these and other extreme weather events so far in 2021 in context, NASA noted that last year was the hottest on the instrumental record, with the excess heating fuelling massive wildfires from Australia to Siberia and the western US.

Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the key heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, have risen by around 50% since the industrial revolution began, while levels of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, have more than doubled. Overall, the entire surface of the planet is now on average 1.1C warmer than a century ago, and this is rising quickly. Earth is running a dangerous fever.

Atmospheric CO2 levels today are higher than at any time in the last four million years, and human actions are dumping an additional 40 billion tons of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere every year. The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was during an era called the Pliocene, when sea levels were around 25 metres higher than today.

Unprecedented damage

We are the first humans in the history of our species to live through a period of such rapid heating. A leaked draft copy of a new 4,000-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that Earth was fast approaching a series of thresholds which, if crossed, will lead to irreversible climate breakdown.

“Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems – humans cannot”, the report stated bluntly. The IPCC report has identified around a dozen critical system tipping points, such as rapid polar ice melt or the sudden loss of the Amazon rainforest, as likely with even very modest additional warming.

“The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own”, the IPCC report added. The panel now accepts that it has been too cautious in the past in assessing just how much risk is posed by even limited global warming.

A decade ago, the international consensus was to keep temperature increases below 2C. Given the devastating present consequences of the 1.1C rise in global temperatures and the extreme danger of breaching a planetary tipping point, the latest scientific advice says we must aim to stay as close to +1.5C as possible.

However, if all the pledges made by every country on Earth, including Ireland, under the Paris Accord on climate change were honoured in full, we are still on track for a deadly 3C+ temperature shift.

While our climate is rapidly shifting into extremely dangerous territory, the political and media response to date has been, at best, muted. For instance, Senator Michael McDowell set out in his Irish Times column this week a litany of reasons in favour of inaction on climate, which he appears not realise is an emergency.

And the national broadcaster, RTÉ (which has no acting Environment Correspondent) continues to report on the extreme heat dome affecting the Pacific north-west purely as a weather event, with little attempt at explaining the role climate change plays in loading the dice for extreme weather events.

Who’s voice is being heard?

Both of Ireland’s main governing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have repeatedly fudged strong climate action, partly for fear of an electoral backlash, but also in a bid to mollify the powerful agri industry lobby, which routinely misrepresents climate action as somehow an attack on ‘rural Ireland’.

Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney broke ranks when tweeting this week: “This is remarkable! These are frightening temperatures in Canada – take note – increased ambition for climate action is not a policy debate, it’s survival!”

If this sounds like hyperbole, a major study published last year warned that due to the rapid spread of extreme heat, up to three billion people will be living in climatic conditions “deemed unsuitable for human life to flourish” by 2070.

The researchers warned that land surface temperatures are likely to shift more in the next 50 years than in the entire last 6,000 years, rendering up to one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface too hot to support humans or agriculture. This in turn risks triggering the greatest migration crisis in human history and is likely to lead to political instability, wars and socio-economic collapse on an epic scale.

Commenting on the Canadian heatwave, meteorologist Scott Duncan tweeted: “I didn’t think it was possible, not in my lifetime anyway. Not so, countered climatologist, Prof Robert Brulle, who wrote: “These (2021) records will fall as climate change accelerates! This is just a mild version of what we can expect in the future.”

John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism.

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Dangerous myth of infinite economic growth exposed

Regular ThinkOrSwim readers will know that your correspondent is not a noted fan of mainstream economics, or most of its practitioners, for that matter. They have, in my view, done untold damage in impeding societal and political understanding of and response to the unfolding ecological emergency. 

Nobody, in my book, has explained this more clearly than Australian economist and economics debunker, Steve Keen. His cracking paper, ‘The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change’ is required reading. 

What caught my eye in preparing the article below for the Business Post in June, was a research paper published by the European Environment Agency challenging the inevitability of, wait for it, economic growth.

ANYONE WHO believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world “is either a madman or an economist,” quipped US economist and author, Kenneth Boulding. Even the 19th century father of liberal economics, John Stuart Mill, wrote extensively of the desirability of a ‘stationary state’ as the ideal model for a stable, sustainable society, but his warnings went unheeded in the race for growth. Continue reading

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A mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam: our fragile world

Has there ever been a better science communicator that the late Carl Sagan? If you’ve watched the original version of the series ‘Cosmos’, you’ll have a good sense of his mastery of the medium. The BBC’s Brian Cox recalls watching, as a 13-year-old, the series, and deciding to dedicate his life to science and science communication.

His distinctive cadence can be heard and enjoyed here as he speaks of the pale blue dot back in 1994. The following year, his book ‘Demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark’ foretold with uncanny prescience a future America, its critical faculties in decline, ‘unable to distinguish between what feels good and what is true’, is sliding inexorably into a new Dark Ages, with its media engaged in ‘lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance’.

This flight from reality has brought humanity to the very edge of ruin. Whether we proceed, or somehow turn back in the nick of time, remains very much in the balance. Much will depend on how robust our planetary boundaries turn out to be. We may be lucky, or we may be very unlucky in that regard. The below piece ran in Village magazine in June. Continue reading

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Billionaires to the rescue? No thanks

With our billionaire overlords queueing up to be the first into space or to colonise some real estate on Mars, I thought it was an opportune moment to file a piece in the Business Post taking a cold look at the phenomenon that a diet of movies has prepared us all for: the benign hyper-rich swooping in to save the world. After all, what could possibly go wrong? If that sounds like the ultimate fiction, then grab your popcorn and read on…

HEROES WITH super powers have long been a staple of Hollywood movies. The actual super power some, such as Iron Man and Batman, possess is extreme wealth. These billionaire playboy vigilantes aim to save the world with ingenious, expensive gadgets.

Life now appears to be imitating art with the emergence of not one but three actual billionaire would-be superheroes, this time on the most exciting quest of all: to rescue Earth from the ravages of climate chaos. Continue reading

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A safer future for all means a better future for most

This article appeared in the Irish Times in early May, based around an intriguing paper published in the journal ‘Global Environmental Change’, titled “Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario”. As the abstract begins: “It is increasingly clear that averting ecological breakdown will require drastic changes to contemporary human society and the global economy embedded within it”, it qualifies this by noting that today, despite humanity gorging on stupendous amounts of energy, the basic material needs of billions of people are still not being met. This, as you might suspect, is leading the authors towards the inevitable conclusion that without addressing gross inequality, we are not going to make any real progress grappling with the climate and biodiversity crises either. 

MORE THAN any other single factor, the defining characteristic of the modern era has been humanity’s use of cheap, plentiful energy. In the 20th century alone, humans deployed more energy than in all 20 previous centuries – combined. Continue reading

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Do we care enough about nature to bother saving it?

This piece ran in the Business Post in early May, inspired at least in part by the devastating fires that swept many of Ireland’s uplands yet again this Spring, an annual ritual, it seems, that comes around with depressing regularity, and for whom no one is ever truly held to account.

YOU WON’T save what you don’t love. In the world of conservation, activists and scientists have long struggled to engage the public emotionally with efforts to prevent the destruction of the seemingly remote natural world. This is likely why, for instance, the World Wildlife Fund uses the cuddly Panda as its symbol.

Similarly, the plight of dolphins, polar bears and other so-called charismatic megafauna are often highlighted to try to tug on the public’s heart-strings. Who could forget the images of terrified koalas fleeing the Australian wildfires in 2020? Continue reading

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Hard cheese for environment as Big Ag juggernaut steamrolls NGOs

This piece ran on Desmog.com in mid-April. This site has, since 2006, sought “to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science and solutions to climate change”. And in Ireland, nowhere is this pollution more pervasive than the smog of greenwash and disinformation that shrouds the livestock sector. All that has transpired even since this story was published in April would take another, much longer, post to even begin to cover. Suffice to say it has been eye-opening; both ugly and sinister in equal measure.

Consider for a moment that the chair of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee (and Glanbia shareholder) described An Taisce’s legal appeal as “a revolting act of treason” without even the slightest rebuke from his party colleagues or media backlash and you realise how fragile our democratic norms truly are and how easily they can be cast aside when greed and naked self-interest go unchecked. I will return to this in a future posting.

A NUMBER of senior Irish politicians and agri-industry interests are trying to block a legal challenge to a new cheese factory brought by environmentalists over concerns relating to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Continue reading

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Beyond denial and grief and towards solidarity on climate

This piece ran in the Business Post in late March as my take on the revised – and considerably improved – Climate Bill. Since it was written, it has become clear that the absolute maximum ambition the agri sector is even considering is a 10% emissions cut by 2030, and even that depends on largely untested technologies rather than any constraint on the key source of sectoral emissions – ruminant agriculture. This being the case, all other sectors of Ireland’s economy and society must exceed 70% cuts in the next decade so the net 51% target can be reached. 

SWISS PSYCHIATRIST Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously developed a five-step model to describe the stages of grief. These are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While originally relating to the psychological processes around dying, her model has come to be applied to other areas where wrenching change is being contemplated. Continue reading

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Climate hoofprint of ruminant agriculture under spotlight

The Farming Independent sought two contrasting views on the merits or otherwise of continued expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd, so I contributed the below, wearing my hat as a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate committee. This article was published in late February.

AT LAST, the world seems to be getting serious about tackling the climate emergency. The EU has set the ambitious goal of cutting emissions by more than half by 2030, with the upward ratchet on targets to accelerate until net zero emissions are achieved.

Hitting these targets will be tough but essential, since the certain price of failure is global climate destabilisation and the horrific social and economic consequences that will ensue.

Agriculture is the industry most exposed to climate breakdown and extreme weather, for the obvious reason that it is almost entirely weather-dependent. You would think therefore that Ireland would be working hard to reduce total agricultural emissions, rather than just tinkering with efficiency tweaks. You would be mistaken. Continue reading

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Investors running for cover as allure of fossil fuels fades

The below piece was published in the Business Post in late February. By my usual standards, this probably ranks as quite optimistic, in pitching the argument that fossil fuel, the world’s most dangerous industry, is in the process of losing its social licence. While it may be wounded, it is still massively wealthy and politically powerful, and will doubtless fight to the bitter end to maintain its hegemony in energy.

THE DECISION to rely on fossil fuels to power civilisation and expand our dominion over the planet means humanity has unwittingly struck a Faustian pact with nature. Surprisingly, we have in fact understood the broad terms of this bargain for well over a half a century. In 1965, US president Lyndon Johnson published a report that presciently examined the existential risks involved in uncontrolled fossil fuel burning.

“By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25 per cent,” it found. This “may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.” Continue reading

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Taking the fight to the climate inactivists

One of the most enjoyable books on my 2021 reading list to date has been climatologist, Prof Michael Mann’s latest volume, ‘The New Climate War – The Fight To Take Back Our Planet’. I’ve long been a fan of his courageous defence of climate science in the teeth of relentless political and media hostility in the US over the last two decades. I conducted a Skype interview with him in 2014 for a magazine article (the full one-hour recording is available here).

It was a real pleasure to join him for a pint of Guinness (remember pubs?) in Dublin more recently, when he was in town to present a lecture in TCD. While many scientists have been cowed into silence by the constant intimidation, the bully boys messed with the wrong man when targeting the Penn State climatologist.

He has been a fierce defender of the scientific process and the right of scientists to speak openly and honestly about their work. Along the way, Mann has had to weather eight years of the George W Bush regime’s assault on science and another four as Trump and his acolytes set about destroying our fundamental ability to trust in expertise of any kind.

This review was published in The Irish Times in late February. Continue reading

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From Climate Week to ‘climate weak’, RTÉ coverage falters

Here we go again, slagging off the national broadcaster. What about the independent broadcasters, why not go after them? Well, in short, we expect more, much more, from RTÉ as our public service broadcaster, heavily subsidised by the licence fee and mandated to cover stories based on their actual importance, as opposed to their appeal to advertisers. This article, which appeared in the February 2021 edition of Village magazine, is informed by my strong desire, not to knock RTÉ, but to see it live up to its role as a truly ‘public service’ broadcaster, especially when it comes to reporting the biggest story of the 21st century. They have shown they can do it. So, what are we waiting for?

IN NOVEMBER 2019, RTÉ unveiled its first ever ‘Climate Week’, an intensive blitz of broadcasting across its TV, radio and online divisions drawing attention to the deepening climate crisis.

The station’s current affairs team swept into action, with reporters dispatched as far afield as the ice sheets of Greenland to report on all aspects of this global emergency.

Announcing the initiative, RTÉ Director General, Dee Forbes said: “The world is rising to the burning issue of climate change, and here in Ireland our young people have been especially moved by the climate crisis. This special week reflects the growing concern, globally and here at home…RTÉ On Climate is our contribution to framing, explaining and, ultimately, moving us all one step closer to solving the problem”.

Meanwhile, 15 months later, the climate emergency has measurably deepened. All 10 hottest years globally since instrumental records began in the 1880s have occurred since 2005, with last year, covid-related economic slump notwithstanding, tied with 2016 as the two hottest years ever.

Perhaps even more worryingly, upper ocean temperatures hit new record highs in 2020. The real impact of greenhouse gases (GHGs) occurs in the world’s oceans, as they absorb around 93% of the total heat trapped, with only the remaining 7% warming the atmosphere.

So, while temperatures continue to climb off the charts, Irish media coverage has yet again fallen off a cliff. And nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in the national broadcaster, the one media outlet specifically funded to ensure it is empowered to fulfil its public service mandate to cover stories that are important, as opposed to being caught on the commercial broadcasting treadmill of constantly chasing ratings and ad revenue.

What has happened to RTÉ’s new-found commitment on covering what Dee Forbes movingly described as the ‘burning issue’ of climate change? Its ‘Climate Week’ in 2019 was replaced with Science Week 2020 featuring not a solitary mention of ‘climate’ or ‘environment’. So much for RTÉ’s fleeting commitment to “framing, explaining and solving the problem”.

RTÉ’s website has channels for Sport, Entertainment, Business, Lifestyle, Culture etc. but no discrete area for environment or climate. In order to find any climate-related content, you would have to know to use the pathway: rte.ie/news/climate.

On arriving at this sub-section in mid-February, you find that the last story RTÉ tagged under ‘climate’ was an AFP wire-service report filed on November 4th last, announcing the US’s short-lived withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.

Prior to that, there was a piece filed nearly a month earlier, on October 7th, by Fran McNulty, reporting on motor industry complaints about proposed VTR changes designed to reward less polluting vehicles. This would, McNulty reported, “cripple the (motor) sector and cost thousands of jobs.”

What is truly startling is that, in the entirety of 2020, RTÉ tagged a total of 12 stories under ‘climate’ (including industry special pleading, as in McNulty’s piece above) for the whole of 2020. The RTÉ website does include a channel called ‘Brainstorm‘ which, oddly, is only open to academic contributors. This sub-channel does include a few interesting web-only articles of relevance (‘Human dominance of Earth has come at a steep cost to our planet‘ for example), this is a long, long way from being an integral part of the public-facing function of RTÉ, ie. its output on radio and television.

The last time RTÉ’s ‘Science and Environment’ Correspondent, George Lee, filed a report relating to climate or environment was November 25th last. Prior to that, Lee filed just a solitary article – on the Climate Bill and motor vehicles – in October and one piece in September 2020.

When I asked Lee in January what was going on, he replied that while he is still covering the Environment brief, the ‘Science’ part of his job has come to dominate. “The covid-19 science story has been the constant story throughout the pandemic”, he explained, adding that the newsdesk “has been assigning other reporters on an ongoing basis to cover the environment and climate stories…there has not been any one specified reporter covering”.

George Lee is in no way to blame for this staggering lacuna in coverage. Clearly, these key decisions are made at the highest editorial management level in the organisation. And, as 2020 has so vividly illustrated, the station’s heart simply isn’t in it.

There are of course long-running shows such as the well-regarded ‘Eco Eye’ (an independent production that is saddled with a 7-7.30pm off-peak time slot) and ‘Ear to the Ground’, a show ostensibly about agriculture but which has produced some excellent environmental coverage. These remain small oases of green in an editorial desert dominated by programmes such as ‘Pulling with my parents’, ‘Celebrity Bainisteoir’ and ‘Ireland’s fittest family’.

Addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (Jocca) in January 2019, Dee Forbes stated: “The coverage of climate change, and other sustainability topics, are a matter of ongoing review in terms of our editorial activities, and we have renewed ambition in this regard for 2019”. This was duly delivered with a high-impact and critically acclaimed Climate Week in November of that year.

However, Forbes also noted that, notwithstanding RTÉ’s ability to reach a mass audience, “there is no substitute for bespoke public information campaigns… which are essential in bringing about the broad understanding critical to changing behaviour”.

This point is reiterated by the Jocca report, which urged “a significant awareness-raising programme by Government”. That report also urged a review of all primary and secondary curricula, warning that without an effective and persistent public awareness programme in place, “the necessary policy interventions may quickly become unpopular, leading to substantial challenges in implementation”.

The Jocca report noted that there was “a substantial communication effort required” if the public are to accept the need for changes to lifestyles. “It is essential to communicate why this is necessary and the ways in which it is beneficial to all of us. The inertia represented by the status quo is hard to overcome”.

Given how dependent many households and businesses are on fossil fuels, “it is clear that this is not an easy task”, the report added. What it could also have pointed out is that vested interests, from the motor industry lobbyists to livestock agriculture pressure groups, will fight tooth and nail to paint climate action, however modest or progressive, in the worst possible light.

And in many cases, they will find elements within the media more than happy to stoke up real or imaginary controversy.

While then Climate Minister, Richard Bruton promised in late 2019 that the government would design “a nationwide communications campaign early next year”, no action whatever has since been taken on this promise.

The Jocca report went so far as proposing that quotas of climate-related content be imposed on all licensed broadcasters (as currently applies for news, current affairs and the Irish language), to ensure the subject was given the consistent editorial attention that has been sorely lacking in the past.

Reviewing the testimony it had received from RTÉ, Jocca said it “remains concerned by the relative lack of climate change content and dedicated programming on RTÉ”. The committee also noted the problem of false balance “that has been a negative feature of broadcast media in many countries and specific examples in the national context were raised by members of the Committee.”

Village has previously highlighted how RTÉ’s flagship current affairs programme, PrimeTime, lurched for years from completely ignoring climate change to presenting some of the worst imaginable ‘debates’ that gave entirely unwarranted editorial credence to climate deniers and fringe contrarian scientists, presenting a faux ‘balance’ to viewers and in the process, completely misrepresenting the true state of the science.

However, rather than accept reasonable criticism of its abysmal performance, RTÉ and PrimeTime in particular, doubled down on aggressively defending the indefensible and stymied and browbeat complainants.

Going back to the heyday of Pat Kenny, who took anti-environmental contrarianism to new lows, RTÉ has had a recurring problem with its environment and climate coverage. This was studied in a 2017 EPA report by Trish Morgan which delivered a damning indictment of the station’s overall performance.

It noted that, astonishingly, the station completely neglected to treat the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports as “stories suitable for thematic coverage”. The report identified a key deficiency in RTÉ’s coverage being that the station was operating without an environment correspondent for much of the timeframe of release of the IPCC’s 5thAssessment Report.

This was supposed to have been remedied by the appointment of George Lee, but his environment brief was initially paired with agriculture, leaving Lee in an impossible poacher-cum-gamekeeper conundrum. This was, after several years, updated to pair environment with science.

This too crumbled as soon as covid-19 arrived, and RTÉ senior management decided to jettison their short-lived climate crusade in favour of obsessive, wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic.

That the coronavirus pandemic is a huge story is not in doubt. What is far more questionable is when a public service broadcaster abdicates its duty to cover equally important topics in favour of slavish, highly repetitive around-the-clock coverage of the pandemic while completely abandoning climate and environmental reportage.

The fact that covid has its roots in environmental destruction and has likely been at least in part fuelled by disruption to animal habitats arising from climate change has gone largely unreported in Montrose, since there is literally no one responsible for joining the dots.

Today, despite the Green Party being part of government, there is still no indication in the recently published Climate Action Bill that any of the steps recommended either by the Citizens’ Assembly or Jocca have been taken or are even contemplated to copper-fasten climate awareness.

The purpose of such safeguards is to ensure that, in the stampede to cover the most topical stories, profoundly important topics are not pushed aside. The understandable media focus since March 2020 on covid-19 has drained media coverage in general and RTÉ’s output in particular of climate content.

Ignoring the unfolding climate and biodiversity emergencies while focusing solely on the Covid-19 crisis is a literal case of failing to see the wood for the trees.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
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Global food system hurts people, crushes nature

It’s hard to keep being shocked or even surprised at the litany of reports on the dire condition of our biosphere, but the recent Chatham House study on biodiversity is still an eye-opener. Politicians often claim their job is to keep food cheap, irrespective of the toll it may inflict on human and planetary health. This is countered by Prof Tim Benton of Chatham House, who retorted: “We must stop arguing that we have to subsidise the food system in the name of the poor and instead deal with the poor by bringing them out of poverty.” The article below ran in the latest edition of the Sunday Times‘ Climate supplement.

WITHOUT EVER intending it, humanity has gone to war on the natural world. Worse, we are winning this war, and in the process, in real danger of crippling the very biosphere which sustains all life on Earth.

In Ireland and across the world, biodiversity loss is accelerating. According to a recent report published by the Chatham House think tank, the global extinction rate is orders of magnitude higher than at any time in the last 10 million years.

The global food system is the main driver of this trend, the Chatham House report concluded. It pointed out that over the last 50 years or so, wildlife habitats and entire ecosystems have been destroyed at an ever increasing rate to clear land for agriculture.

Of the 28,000 or so species currently known to be at risk of extinction, some 86 per cent are primarily threatened by agriculture. Our efforts to feed a burgeoning human population approaching eight billion are taking an ever graver toll on nature. This is not, however, inevitable.

In total, around four fifths of the world’s farmland is used for animal agriculture, either to graze them directly, or to produce vast quantities of fodder for housed animals. Yet, the animals only provide around 18 per cent of the calories eaten by humans.

Eating food directly, such as bread, vegetables, nuts or fruit is vastly more efficient in terms of resources used than consuming animals and animal products.

Farmed animals now comprise around 60 per cent of the Earth’s mammals by weight, with humans accounting for another 36 per cent. That means that, by weight, just four per cent of the world’s mammals are wild. So-called cheap food comes with a high ecological price tag.

While the number of wild animals and insects is in freefall, it is estimated that there are now around 70 billion farmed animals in the world. These, along with billions of humans, all require food, fresh water and other resources. These are being consumed at a far faster rate than the natural world can provide.

By depleting biodiversity and crippling ecosystems, humanity is also putting its own survival at risk, the report added. However, while dire, the situation is far from hopeless. The first critical step is to shift human diets to be largely based on plants, rather than farmed animals.

A shift of this kind would also benefit the dietary health of populations around the world, and, crucially, reduce the risk of future devastating pandemics. The new report follows a similar study by the influential Lancet EAT Commission in 2019. It recommended a drastic 90 per cent cut in meat and dairy consumption if we are to avoid dangerous climate change and protect biodiversity.

Intensive food production systems in Ireland and around the world involve the heavy use of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and are often monocultures. Ireland’s famously green fields are not what they seem. Most are now largely biodiversity deserts, as they typically consist of a single species of ryegrass for livestock fodder and depend on chemicals.

Up until relatively recently, many Irish farmlands were havens of biodiversity, with meadows in particular supporting a wide range of wildlife, grasses and flowers. However, as agricultural practices intensified, this led to drainage of wetlands and clearing of ‘marginal’ lands. As a result, farmland birds such as the corncrake have virtually disappeared.

According to Birdwatch Ireland, many wild animals in Ireland are now facing extinction, with birds particularly hard hit. Shockingly, some 40 per cent of waterbirds have disappeared in just the last 20 years.

Organic farming, which involves food production without artificial fertilizers or pesticides, allows nature to exist in harmony with agriculture. Recognising the crucial importance of this, the EU recently published its ‘Farm To Fork’strategy, which aims to see one quarter of Europe’s farmland managed organically by 2030, with ambitious targets on cutting the use of chemical inputs.

Ireland, despite trading heavily on its ‘green’ reputation for food production, has barely two per cent of its land farmed organically. It would require a revolutionary shift for our systems and attitudes to both farming and nature to see Ireland come into line with the new EU targets.

Today, barely a quarter of the world’s agricultural land is used for growing crops for human consumption, yet this land produces the vast majority of the global calorie supply. Sharply reducing the number of farm animals would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also freeing up millions of hectares for crucial rewilding, to allow the natural world the space to begin to recover and regenerate.

It could also help arrest and reverse the ongoing clearance of rainforests, which is having a catastrophic impact on vital ecosystems which are being razed to clear land for meat production.

Agriculture made modern civilisation possible. Ironically, our runaway intensive agricultural systems, left unchecked, risk destroying the very natural world upon which we all ultimately depend.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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