2014: Time for urgent action on climate

Sat, Jan 4, 2014, 01:00

A sizzling summer; a late late spring, ferocious storms driven by the Atlantic jetstream, evidence of more extreme weather. All these meteorological trends were recorded in Ireland during 2013. But weather and climate are such highly complex, unpredictable aspects of our planet the temptation to suggest such events provide more undeniable evidence of global warming and climate change should be resisted.

A further complication arises given recent indications of slowing in “the rate of warming” (though the overall trend continues to show a warming climate) and scientists are not agreed on why this is so. When it comes to long-term trends however they are overwhelmingly in agreement. And other evidence is supporting that view. The glaciers of the Himalayas are melting so fast they will affect the water supplies of a population twice that of the US within 22 years. The addition of 33 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere every year means our civilisation will not survive in a “business as usual” scenario.

“When it is 75 degrees in Chicago in the beginning of March, you start thinking,” US President Barack Obama noted in conversation with Oprah Winfrey shortly after beginning his second term. But it was his declaration last June that “we have a moral obligation to lead the fight against carbon pollution” that was welcome indication the issue is back close to the top of US political agenda.

The time for more meaningful global action becomes more pressing with each passing month but, unfortunately, amid growing indications of a failure of effective scientific communication. A UK Energy Research Council report last autumn confirmed the number of climate change “deniers” has quadrupled in Britain since 2005. Meanwhile, support for alternative energy has declined sharply, though most respondents still favoured use of wind power and solar energy.

There is every chance of a similar hardening of views in Ireland. Despite wind power providing Ireland with potentially very large sources of renewable energy, “the case for” does not attract widespread acceptance. The Government is making progress on renewable energy policy including the pursuit of export possibilities, yet we wrestle with a planning framework that has not been modernised sufficiently to deal efficiently with energy development.

We need a frank national debate on our energy options including appropriately located windfarms (onshore and offshore); biofuels, wave power and opportunities from new technologies. Are there any circumstances that fracking is acceptable in an Irish context? Should possible new options on nuclear power be considered? Climate change trends require that we advance on these fronts and rule out options not suited to us with much more urgency.

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