Raising the bar on climate change coverage in Ireland

I’ve often wondered aloud what it might be like to live in a place and in a time where climate change, the world’s biggest, baddest and most persistent crisis, was given media coverage something even vaguely approaching its actual significance.

As we’ve covered before in depth, Irish media performance on climate and environmental coverage in recent years would actually have to improve quite a bit before it could even be labelled abysmal. Notwithstanding the odd well-intentioned foray by its part-time environment correspondent George Lee, the national broadcaster has been truly awful (and none more so than the senior editorial crew of its flagship show, PrimeTime).

The rest of the broadcast media are little better, while climate coverage in the print media, what remains of it, best resembles scorched earth. The erstwhile Paper of Record, since the retirement of its environment corr, Frank McDonald in January 2015, has not so much dropped the ball as picked it up and gone home with it.

The best of the rest over the last year or so has tended to be the Irish Examiner, but even here, its recent coverage of Danny Healy-Rae’s flat capped flat earther insights have given aid and comfort to the lunatic fringe.

It was against this gloomy backdrop that opening the Irish Independent last Saturday morning turned out to be a genuinely unexpected treat. The paper dedicated a full early news page to kicking off a new series, ‘Climate Change And You’, which they very unsubtly subtitled: Climate change is the BIGGEST CHALLENGE facing the country.’

The paper’s review section picked up the theme, with five pages of coverage covering both the impacts of climate-fuelled extreme weather and a spread with an article by Joe Curtin of the IIEA which mercifully avoided the trap of framing climate change as some future crisis that someone, somewhere ought to ‘do something about’ at some conveniently distant future point.

‘Climate change is not a problem for 2100, it’s here now’ was how the article was headed. He wrapped up his piece succinctly: ‘For individuals, it is easy to feel helpless and small in face of such big global challenges. Perhaps the most important thing we can each do is take time to understand what is happening, read the science, and discuss it with our friends, family and community, as well as our political representatives’.

Less helpful was the inevitable ’10 ways you can help’ sidebar, with the usual list of feel-good advice about switching off appliances, cutting waste and greening your commute. This is the kind of advice people have been getting (and mostly ignoring) for the last 15-20 years.

Two welcome new additions to the list were: ‘Go meat-free’ and ‘Lobby your local TDs for change’. The meat-free message is critically important especially in Ireland, but it was then diluted by adding that ‘going meat-free at least once a week…will help reduce agricultural emissions’. In fact, a token step like that may be very easy, but will have no impact whatever on agricultural emissions or the amount meat and dairy in our food system.

If climate change is truly, as the Indo says, the ‘BIGGEST CHALLENGE facing the country’ surely we can do better than giving up meat on one day in seven? Where in the list, I also wondered, was the injunction to cut down severely on air travel, a major and rapidly growing contributor to Ireland’s share of global emissions. More than 25 million people passengers passed through Dublin Airport in 2015 – that’s around six times the entire population of the country. Passenger numbers are up yet again in 2016, with another 13.4% increase in numbers in the first six months of this year.

A new €320m runway is on the cards to cope with our ever-expanding collective travel bug. Yet when you look up ‘sustainability’ on the Dublin Airport website, all you get is some blather about it recycling 34% of its waste. The DAA’s ‘Sustainable Policy Statement’ includes such worthy objectives as ‘Reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions’.

How exactly do you reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions when by far the biggest consumers and emitters are the thousands of aircraft that are buzzing in and out of the airport? The DAA’s Sustainable Policy can be filed alongside the agriculture sector’s ‘Sustainable Expansion’ plans.

In essence, these involve some hand-waving about efficiency and technology while shuffling papers and looking slightly awkward when it is pointed out that overall emissions from both these sectors are, despite ‘efficiencies’, rising sharply. In that context, having a slightly less inefficient jet aircraft or a slightly less inefficient dairy herd than a dairy herd in some other country is, from a scientific standpoint, completely meaningless.

Back in the Indo, the baton then passed to the big-selling Sunday Independent, which gave a splash to the ‘20 Influencers who will shape our response to climate change’. Paul Melia, who compiled the list, noted in his introduction that some on his list ‘may not have necessarily have demonstrated they have skin in the game up to this point, but they must now deliver’

Topping the list is Climate Minister, Denis Naughten. The jury is still out. My first encounter with him was on a very testy RTE ‘Late Debate’ where, as a backbencher, he joined with peat contractor-cum-TD Michael Fitzmaurice in tag-teaming me about the sacred right of people driving industrial machinery to destroy our remaining bogs.

Not the most auspicious start for our soon-to-be Climate Guy, but all politics is local, often depressingly so, and decent politicians sometimes have to say dreadful things to get elected. I stand to be corrected, but the more I hear from Denis Naughten of late, the more there is the suspicion there is in fact a decent politician in there, desperately trying to get out and do some good.

Next on the list is Simon Coveney – a mistake, in my view. Coveney had the chance, when Ag. Minister, to help steer the IFA and the farming lobby generally away from its ill-considered and counterproductive anti-science stance. He funked it completely. Having a Bord Na Mona ecologist on the list will have raise eyebrows too, especially given its toe-curlingly awful ‘Naturally Driven’ greenwashing campaign.

Prof John Fitzgerald, chair of the Climate Advisory Council, is naturally among the 20 movers and shakers listed. Those who saw him in action last week at the Environment Ireland conference were more shaken than moved. Among the howlers from Fitzgerald was his view that people from rich countries emit no more carbon per capita than people from poor countries. This is utterly, demonstrably wrong. Fitzgerald is also wrong in saying climate action will only benefit our “grandchildren or great grandchildren” and therefore there is no current incentive to act.

His view that the technology doesn’t exist yet to make the low-carbon transition suggests his information is seriously out of date. Others were annoyed at Fitzgerald’s suggestion that the EU needs to provide Ireland with “incentives” in order to make the transition. Finally, it might sound like a minor niggle but should we be worried that the Chair of our National Climate Advisory Council speaks in a public forum more than once about a “2 percent” temperature limit not “2 degrees”?

Maybe it’s a slip of the tongue, but it suggests a worryingly thin grounding in the physical sciences. A scientist who sat through Fitzgerald’s talk reckons his approach is that of someone who stopped keeping up with the science 15-20 years ago.

It certainly can’t have helped Fitzgerald’s grasp of climate science 101 to have had the shape-shifting Prof Richard Tol as a former colleague back in his ESRI days. Tol is a professional mischief-maker with all the classic overconfidence of an economist when sounding off on the physical sciences and none of the humility and caution of an actual scientist working in the field.

One ‘climate expert’ who will have been more than a little miffed at being omitted from Melia’s Influencers list is Prof Ray Bates, retired UCD meteorologist and self-appointed National Contrarian-in-Chief. Bates and Fitzgerald appear to take turns at writing opinion pieces in the Irish Times that are often poorly argued rehashes of ideas that mainstream climate science has considered – and then discarded – some years ago.

Back in the Independent, coverage has continued every day this week. Tuesday saw a useful foray into the Farming Independent, including a vox pop of six farmers from the ploughing match. Five of the six, presumably randomly chosen, expressed genuine concern about climate change, underlining my strong suspicion that the farming organisations are hopelessly out of touch with their own members on this issue. That has certainly been my experience of taking directly and frankly to farmers about climate change and its impacts on their lives and livelihoods.

Even if you have missed the print editions, I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Indo’s Climate Change & You web section for a feast of interesting and varied coverage, wrapping in energy, politics, transport, agriculture, finance, infrastructure, healthcare and much more besides.

I contacted the paper’s environment correspondent, Paul Melia to ask what lay behind this seemingly Pauline (no pun intended) conversion by Independent Newspapers to taking a concerted, group-wide approach to its climate change coverage. He replied that in his view, the subject isn’t new to the Indo.

“We just felt a decent series over a week might focus minds on what the issues are, particularly with a new government and national mitigation plans underway”. Presenting challenges and solutions is, he continued, important, “particularly as lots of Irish companies are doing interesting things. Only by talking about this stuff will we get action”. He concluded as follows: “we’re certainly going for it and it’s far from being a one-off”. There is no question the bar has just been raised, albeit from a depressingly low starting point. Credit where credit is due to the Indo’s editorial team for making it happen.

Maybe, just maybe, climate change will one day be covered with as much passion and as many specialist writers and column inches as we currently dedicate to, say, the GAA, business, farming or light entertainment. That may seem a long way off today, but change is funny like that. For ages, nothing seems to happen, then, almost imperceptibly, the whole world suddenly seems to shift on its axis. Let’s keep pushing.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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2 Responses to Raising the bar on climate change coverage in Ireland

  1. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    John, – You mention a Bord na Móna ecologist named by Independent journo Paul Melia…but who is it? Is it Caitríona Farrell? Because, while I agree that Bord na Móna deserves your opprobium and must sea-change its approach to what’s left of Ireland’s bogs, Caitríona Farrell has been working to make the cutover bogs work for the environment, by creating new wetlands and forests and by resuscitating bog-growing capacity, thereby their ability to absorb and store carbon for the long-term. She may be just a small cog in the machine, but could wedge a new future for Bord na Móna.

    Another thing Bord na Móna could take on board for the future is management of water resources. This could become critically important with the passage of time and global warming. We think we have all the water we want, but major summer droughts are also forecast.

    Bord na Móna narrowly missed out on securing the Irish Water franchise, which went to Bord Gáis, purportedly for its customer invoicing database. It would have made more sense to give responsibility for water to Bord na Móna, whose properties contain the country’s biggest water basin, the midlands (or large swathes of same).

    Because they didn’t get Irish Water, Bord na Móna are seeking alternative ways of securing a future for their employees, given that they have to quickly phase out their peat-harvesting operations (as peat is the dirtiest contributor of greenhouse gases, bar none). They have been trying to get biomass going, which is a good idea, or would be a good idea were it based on Irish-grown timber. But by basing it on imported timber from North America, as proposed, the idea defeats its purpose. It is unsustainable, not only because it requires diesel, a fossil fuel, to bring the wood all the way here, but because the wood is from natural forests that store carbon; cutting it down and shipping it thousands of miles is more damaging to climate.

    What Ireland needs, and should have been developing for decades now, is its own timber-for-biomass forestry industry. It would supply a biomass incinerator for Bord na Móna with timber from nearby sources; several incinerators eventually; all producing power in a carbon-neutral way.

    Of course, the prospect of such change in the Irish landscape, with farmers producing timber for power instead of beef or dairy, appalls many, especially those who fear change. Leitrim is the county where a switch from grassland to forestry would be most beneficial, by all accounts. The fields are wet, the soils are poor – farming is just not productive in this county – it is ideal for forestry. And yet we hear the wails from the IFA and others, complaining that forestry will destroy Leitrim’s tourism, its agriculture, its whole being. There is very little to see in Leitrim except for the lakes, rivers, canals and a few mountain glens. The rest, and that’s most of it, is wet fields of snipe-grass and rushes; that’s a lot of land for producing willow, alder and poplar for biomass. Leitrim can capture a big slice of this market. It should get on it right away. I know, it’s already thirty years late, but the sooner it gets going the better.

  2. Pingback: A crisis in media and climate communication | ThinkOrSwim (the Climatechange.ie Blog)

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