Right here, right now. Climate change impacts get real

Below, the original version of my article, which ran in the Irish Times last week, including some links:

THE US National Weather Service is not noted for making alarmist pronouncements. So, when it earlier this week described Hurricane Harvey as “unprecedented – all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced”, it became clear we are fast moving into dangerous new climatic era.

Meteorologist and science communicator Eric Holthaus set the facts out bluntly: “in all of US history, there’s never been a storm like Hurricane Harvey, but there’s an uncomfortable point that, so far, everyone is skating around. We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen and we didn’t care… Harvey is what climate change looks like”.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ireland again felt the latest lash of extreme weather with the sudden recent deluge that caused havoc in Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula. Met Éireann labelled it a “once in 100-year event” and pointedly avoided discussing any possible climate component.

However, UCC climatologist, Dr Kieran Hickey told me that “phrases like ‘once-in-a-hundred years’ to describe these extreme events really need to be retired”. Over the last decade or so, he calculates that Ireland has experienced an extreme weather event, on average, every 6-8 months. This represents an astonishing four to five-fold increase in the frequency of such extreme events versus Irish weather several decades ago.

While there is no doubt the Donegal deluge was a freak event, “if we were to do an in-depth analysis, I suspect we would detect a climate change element in terms of its severity”, said Dr Hickey.

A new EPA-funded climate attribution project involving Dr Hickey and colleagues at UCC, as well as world-renowned attribution expert, Prof Myles Allen of Oxford University will spend the next two years investigating the specific fingerprint of climate change on recent extreme weather events in Ireland.

Climate Action minister, Denis Naughten acknowledged that “severe weather events like the ones we’ve seen in Donegal are going to happen more frequently”. He added that “funding would need to be put in place to deal with the colossal costs of repairing the damage after every new extreme weather event”. Naughten is notably less sure-footed when it comes to the politically thorny issue of taking on the domestic carbon polluters who are actually helping fuel this upsurge in extreme weather.

Already, the cost to the taxpayer of flood defences has increased ten-fold to around €400–€500 million per annum over the last decade, and this figure is set to continue to spiral. Dr Hickey cautions against the belief that there are engineering solutions to climate change: “we could spend billions on adapting our infrastructure to climate change but since the baseline keeps shifting, we don’t know what we need to adapt to”.

In terms of actually tackling the emissions that are fuelling dangerous climate change, he adds: “we are failing miserably; we’re not being led politically”.

The Office of Public Works (OPW) is the government agency with key responsibility for flood risk management. It is, in the view of NUI Maynooth climatologist, Dr Conor Murphy, “the most climate-engaged organisation in the country”. Given the number of state agencies such as Bord Na Mona (‘Naturally Driven’) and Bord Bia (‘Origin Green’) actively engaged in corporate greenwashing, the bar for success in this context is quite low.

The OPW is now moving towards a risk-management approach to future weather extremes. What this means in practice is looking at worst-case scenarios and then assuming specific extreme events could be 20 per cent worse than even the most pessimistic modelling scenarios.

While the do-nothing advice of an active cohort of Irish climate contrarians may hold sway with some politicians, media and lobby groups, the actual front-line experts such as the OPW can see the fatal folly of playing wait-and-see.

However, against the shifting backdrop of ever-escalating climate change, no amount of planning can offer a panacea against future catastrophes. Flooding is almost certainly Ireland’s chief climate vulnerability. For every degree of temperature increase, the atmosphere can hold seven per cent more moisture. We are already having to cope with a supercharged atmosphere. Unabated, this can get much worse, much sooner than many people may realise.

As the OPW points out, every major Irish city and town is either by the coast or adjacent to a large river, which means we are extremely vulnerable both to monster flooding events and to the equally dangerous threat posed by sea level rise and storm surges.

While the ultra-conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects sea level rises of up to one metre by 2100, the IPCC’s co-chair Prof Chris Field told a conference in Dublin that it would in fact be prudent for Ireland to plan based on a massive two metre rise this century.

As Texas drowns, over 1,200 people across Asia have already been killed in the worst floods in decades. Ominously, wildfires have this summer swept areas of Greenland as well as deep into the Arctic circle. “This idea that climate change is just something taking place in other parts of the world needs to change”, added Dr Murphy. “It’s also happening right here, right now”.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

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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