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.
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