Government needs to start preparing now for climate change impact

Extreme weather events will likely become more frequent and Ireland has to be ready to handle them

The continuing extreme weather events this summer are keeping global warming high on governments’ agendas. However, as this week’s report from the Climate Change Advisory Council makes clear, Ireland is not going to meet its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Progress, though real, is too slow.

Extreme weather events make it clear that climate change is already happening, with record temperatures, wildfires, storms and flooding. We are fortunate in Ireland that, so far, the effects have been limited, but many Irish holidaymakers have experienced southern Europe’s problems at first hand.

In Ireland, we need to prepare now for a world that’s getting warmer. The Government needs to set aside a budget to invest in tackling the impact of climate change, and it needs to spell out the priority works to be undertaken by 2030.

Our focus to date has been on adapting our homes to keep the heat in, and to enable us stay warm in winter with minimum energy use. We haven’t paid as much attention to the problem of excess heat and how to keep ourselves cool during heatwaves. It’s not just about feeling uncomfortable on hot, sticky nights; excess heat can be dangerous for elderly and medically-vulnerable people. We’ve already had a few foretastes of what prolonged hot weather looks like, especially in 2018. But only a small fraction of our building stock is adequately geared to keeping us cool in a lengthy heatwave.


The building standards for new homes and retrofits should anticipate more frequent heat events

After tens of thousands of excess deaths among the elderly in France’s summer heatwave of 2003, the advice there was to bring vulnerable people to air-conditioned shopping centres to avoid heat exhaustion. As I get older, I don’t fancy the idea of spending my summer days in the supermarket, staring at tins of baked beans, in order to survive. There must be a better way.

The building standards for new homes and retrofits should anticipate more frequent heat events. It should not be necessary to install air conditioning in Irish houses, but they need to be equipped with appropriate ventilation, and shading from direct sunlight when heat proves a problem. When a house or apartment is being built or renovated, doing this should not be a major expense. However, planning guidelines and building regulations need to factor in excess heat as well as insulation from the cold.

Regular maintenance of cooling and ventilation is also essential. I recall a horror European rail journey in blistering heat where the windows were sealed and the air conditioning was broken. I could see why Hell is synonymous with overwhelming heat.

Global warming will also bring more heavy rainstorms and flash flooding. We need to invest to protect against this risk. The Office of Public Works has already identified a set of priority investments designed to minimise the consequences of flooding.

Rising sea levels

Sea levels are rising as Greenland and Antarctic ice melts. In combination with more severe storms, this threatens low-lying coastal cities and towns. Central Cork, with the tidal river Lee, is very vulnerable and already suffers from frequent flooding. However, by the second half of this decade Dublin, Galway and Limerick could experience even worse floods due to rising sea level. Because of the severe damage and high costs of any flood event in our major cities, if necessary it is worth investing very large sums to avoid such an outcome.

After the North Sea floods in 1953, London began planning to prevent such devastation happening again. The Thames barrier, completed in 1984, was a massive temporary dam constructed downstream of the city to protect it. It cost about £2 billion at current prices. I have been there, and it is a truly impressive structure. While London’s foresight in constructing this has protected the city to date, it may now need to build a much bigger barrier, at major cost, to protect against the size and frequency of floods that are expected over the coming century.

We need to consider whether Ireland’s cities will need similar fortifications against rising sea levels to avoid catastrophe, with the increased risk and impact of floods. Planning for necessary investment needs to begin today, because of the possible scale and cost of such infrastructure. It’s also recognised that huge projects could take decades to complete.

We need substantial investment to deal with the impact of the climate change that is already here, let alone any worsening, as the world remains painfully slow to take effective action to halt it. The costs of ignoring the problem could be massive. The consequences of failure are unimaginable.