Sunny spells. Scattered showers. Changing climate

Met Éireann made a rare prounouncement on climate change this week. As the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes its Fifth Assessment Report, can Ireland’s living-room scientists rekindle interest in a major global issue?

Sat, Sep 28, 2013, 01:00

Gerald Fleming is no placard-wielding radical. Met Éireann’s head of forecasting, who was famous for signing off his evening TV broadcasts with a wink and “goodnight”, exudes laidback, homespun unpretentiousness. But he’s worked up about climate change.

“The science is very strong, and has been strong in every successive IPCC report, right up to this latest, fifth one,” he says in his soft Wexford brogue, referring to the work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “But there are many, many vested interests in society who say we should pay no attention to this. There is also the natural conservatism of people, who are saying: ‘I have grown up in this climate, I’ve seen all sorts of things happen, my grandfather has also seen things happen.’ ”

Fleming is speaking at the National Botanic Gardens, where Met Éireann published a study on Ireland’s future climate on Thursday, on the eve of the long-awaited release of the UN IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. For the first time, Met Éireann has had an input in the IPCC process, by contributing to a global modelling project.

As important, perhaps, is the signal Met Éireann is sending to the Irish public. It’s using its reputation to reach Middle Ireland and change minds.

“We’re doing two things,” says Fleming. “First of all, acting as a nucleus for the Irish scientific community, bringing the disparate strands together to focus on the problem that affects us here in Ireland. But also, because people know us and see us every night, hopefully we have some credibility in this game, and from our point of view inside Met Éireann when we do the research and look at the scientific results there is no doubt as to what we are seeing.”

Environmental activists have welcomed the initiative. A new narrative is needed, they say, to counter both “message fatigue” and the tactics of climate-change deniers. “Met Éireann and its weather forecasters have potentially a really significant role to play,” says Oisin Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth Ireland. “They have high trustworthiness – notwithstanding that we often complain about the accuracy of weather forecasts – and they have high recognition.”

Although there is little chance of Jean Byrne doing an Al Gore routine after the Six One news, references to climate change may become more frequent. Evelyn Cusack has already engaged in radio debates on the subject. Some might regard this as “mission creep” but it’s an understandable response from a scientific community that is seeing public opinion move farther from the facts.

Despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize for its 2007 report, the IPCC has suffered reputational damage from the “Climategate” rumpus over leaked emails acknowledging qualifiers in the research. Climate-change sceptics have also latched on to the discovery that temperature increases have slowed since 1998, a factor that meteorologists put down to natural fluctuation.

Polling by the UK Energy Research Centre shows that the proportion of people there who believe climate change is a myth rose from 4 per cent to 19 per cent between 2005 and 2013.

In Ireland, a similar trend has not been detected, but Eurobarometer surveys indicate that we are falling behind the European attitudinal norm. In 2009, 46 per cent of the population regarded climate change as one of the world’s most serious problems. This fell slightly to 45 per cent in 2011; the average score for EU countries rose from 47 per cent to 51 per cent.

Coghlan speaks fondly of a phase of “postmaterialism” here in the mid-naughties when the green movement gained some traction. “It was almost at a stage where the Irish Times Magazine would be asking, ‘What type of high heels are best for climate-change flooding?’ That sort of thing. It had reached a real popular-culture zeitgeist.” Because of the economic downturn, he says, “I don’t think we are going to get that again.”

He admits that if you mention global warming to anyone today the most likely response is, “Sure, wouldn’t all those hot summer be great?” Coghlan describes this as “a typical Irish defence mechanism”.


Seeds of doubt
Lobbying by the fossil-fuel industry has been blamed for sowing seeds of doubt in the public mind, but another sector is coming in for increasing flak: the media. “The media, by its nature, tends to look at climate change the same way as it looks at political problems,” says Fleming. “So it has ‘this person’ and ‘that person’, and they have different points of view, and they can convince one person or another person and the electorate ultimately will decide. Well, in this case, the atmosphere is the electorate, and it’s not listening to any of us.”

Duncan Stewart, the veteran broadcaster, is more emphatic. “The media has been irresponsible, and I include RTÉ in that . . . I feel ashamed to be in the media, to be honest with you, because the media have been the cheerleaders for a lot of these sorts of doubts. Television, radio and newspapers” – he includes The Irish Times in his criticism – “are incredibly vulnerable to the sensation and the controversy around this.”

In Britain and the US, coverage of the issue has become increasingly polarised. Rupert Murdoch has publicly expressed scepticism about climate change, and his media organisations have been accused of giving unscientific views excessive airtime. A study last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US labelled as “misleading” 93 per cent of climate-change coverage on Fox News and 81 per cent of the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pieces on the issue.

“It does seem like Murdoch is engaged in a personal war against the scientific community,” says Eamon Ryan, the Green Party leader. “In the Australian general election his papers ran an extraordinary series of articles of climate-change denial, and the people elected a conservative government, one of the key mandates of which is to cut carbon tax.”


Bitter memory
Ryan has his own bitter memory of the media influencing polling trends. Shortly before the 2007 general election, Channel 4 broadcast The Great Global Warming Swindle, a much-publicised polemic downplaying the significance of scientific claims. “I remember it clearly. We were flying in the run-up to that election. People were really following up the climate-change message, but it died a death that night. It was remarkable how one TV programme could have such an effect.”

But has the climate-change cause here been undermined by the Greens themselves – by virtue of their role in the last, hugely unpopular government? “I don’t pick that up at all,” replies Ryan. “People are more forward-looking, I find.”

Coghlan, who supported the Green Party in the last government, admits that its subsequent dip in popularity may have rubbed off on broader environmental attitudes, although “I would not assume it’s true. There is a difference between causation and correlation,” he says.

These and other campaigners believe that a tipping point in public opinion is being reached. Ryan says people forget how far we have come already in areas such as energy conservation and recycling. “Who would put paper in the black bin today? It would be incomprehensible,” he says.

Investing in renewable energy is now seen as a key to future growth and job creation rather than a charity cause, and there are very few out-and-out climate-change deniers in Ireland.

Who knows, Met Éireann’s soft sell could make all the difference. “The political arena and society in general will have to deal with the consequences. It’s not for us to have one side or the other on that,” says Fleming. “There are big decisions to be made. But our job as scientists is to present the scientific evidence and let the policymakers take it from there.”

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