My granddaughter Grace celebrated her fourth birthday last week and the next day the fifth assessment report by scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published. The scientists look back at what has happened, and forward to 2050, when Grace and her friends will be 41. The scientists document the loss of mass by the ice sheets, and the inexorable rise in:
global temperature, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions and in sea level.
They look forward and – with appropriate attention to likelihood – see the sea level continuing to rise, conclude that it is very likely that heat waves will occur with higher frequency and duration, that the contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, and extreme precipitation events will become more intense and more frequent.
So what should we do? As regards adapting to the changes that are already emerging, the first step is psychological – get our heads around the fact that we are likely to have more intense rain and longer dry periods.
The second is to get smart about what to do about it. Being smart means learning from others – we have a lot to learn from countries closer to the equator who deal with these extremes and uncertainties as a matter of routine. It means experimenting. One example: this past summer, some farmers found themselves short of water, and saw grass and other crops struggle to survive. Irrigation is not part of our tradition and expertise, and the costs of installing "off the shelf" systems and operating them (water is very expensive to transport) are much greater than the financial benefits. The challenge is: can we find low-cost ways of storing water and getting it to where we need it when drought happens?
Smart science involves simulating different atmospheric and water conditions, and seeing what this means for ecosystems and for crops adapting to change. Smart policy means using river basins as the key unit for making decisions about water management, making sure that the property rights to water are clear and fair, protecting green infrastructure that stores water and purifies it. It also means managing risk, so that if someone insists on building in an area where serious flooding is very likely, they bear the risks, while politicians who insist on zoning such areas for development share the liability.
And fairness demands that we extend a helping hand to those who have played no part in creating the problem but will bear most of the costs. Average per capita emissions of CO2 – the main greenhouse gas – are 7.3 tonnes in the EU and 0.2 in Ghana. Grace’s equivalent in Ghana depends far more on rain-fed agriculture than she does, and is likely to suffer much greater weather extremes, with far fewer resources to deal with them.
But a lot of this smartness will be wasted if we fail to stabilise the volume of emissions that are causing most of the heating. Carbon dioxide emissions globally have risen from 22.7 billion tonnes in 1990 to 33.9 billion in 2011. A recent World Bank publication, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4C Warmer World Must be Avoided, provides the evidence that much adaptation effort will be overwhelmed if emissions keep growing and if the temperature rises by 4C. What should we in Ireland (accounting for 0.1 per cent of emissions) do? A Commentary for PublicPolicy.ie (available at www.tinyurl.com/m7ypru8) covers the ground. The essence is to:
n Prioritise action over targets and talk.
n Get the incentives right – apply the "polluter pays" principle. We are among the leaders in the EU in introducing and increasing a carbon tax, and in the recalibration of the vehicle registration tax and the annual road tax applied to new cars to reflect their emissions performance. The income from the carbon tax is helping avoid the need to raise other job-destroying taxes, and both taxes are helping to reshape our behaviour in the direction of reducing climate change pressures.
But we need to hold our nerve, and there are signs that we are not. From July 1st a rebate scheme – 6.6 cents for a litre of diesel costing €1.50 - has been available to road transport operators (details at www.tinyurl.com/mcjn2ll). This is exactly the wrong signal. If road transport operators are under more financial pressure than the rest of us, and there is a decision to help, the response should have been to make funds available equivalent to revenue forgone by the Exchequer as a result of a rebate to those who demonstrate, by the composition of their fleet, and how they manage it etc, that they are serious about reducing emissions.
n Make it clear who is accountable for what – the sectoral approach in the Government's Climate Bill makes a lot of sense.
n Focus especially on interventions where Irish experience and performance has lessons for the world, and where there is a potential for globally competitive green business to emerge.
n Be a thought leader in Europe – the latter is the fulcrum for change on which we should lean.
n Support innovation and a climate research and development programme that supports smart policy and smart science, and is designed to make
And, finally, take on the climate sceptics. In recent years, dedicated scientists saw off the sceptics in regard to the dangers of smoking, and the health implications of exposure to asbestos and too much radiation. The evidence from serious climate science is now compelling: of 13,950 peer-reviewed articles published on climate change between June 1991
and 9th of November 2012, only 24 (0.17 per cent) deny it is happening (see www.jamespowell.org).
Grace and her pals will be grateful.
Frank P Convery is chair and senior fellow at the Earth Institute, UCD and chairman
of Publicpolicy.ie. The IPCC report is available at www.tinyurl.com/qadtvud