Do Danny Healy-Rae’s climate claims pass scientific scrutiny?
Independent TD told a climate change committee ‘only God controls the weather’
Danny Healy-Rae’s wholesale dismissal of climate change and its consequences may be heartfelt but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Doubts about humankind’s ability to have an effect on climate are long since gone due to a vast number of scientific studies from around the world including Ireland which show that global warming is our shared new reality.
He raises a collection of related issues which he associates with climate change including the destination of our carbon taxes, cleaning out the River Shannon and Ireland doing only its fair share when it comes to addressing climate change.
He rightly says there have been patterns of climate change going back over the millennia, long before humans could have had any impact.
The last ice age is an example and there have been cycles of temperate and cold occurring on the planet going back to its origins.
But he backs this up his rejection of climate change by citing periods of warm or cold conditions over relatively short periods of time, for example a famine in the early 1740 or a warm period in the 11th-12th centuries.
These periods however do not show climate change, they show how variable the weather can be. The periods he mentions show changes in short-lived weather patterns not changes in climate.
They do not represent long lasting trends that become established and remain in place for very long periods and this is the difference between weather and climate.
The ‘combustible engine’
He says that climate changed by itself “and mankind had no hand, act or part in it. It was just something that happened.”
This is certainly true for changes in climate that occurred up to about 1750, but everything started to change when the industrial age got underway.
From this time the need for energy from coal, oil, gas and timber rose rapidly to power industrial production of all kinds, from weaving to steel production.
The discharges from these fuels began to have an impact on the amount of carbon dioxide - a key greenhouse gas - in the atmosphere above.
Discharges from fossil fuels continue apace but after two and a half centuries we have pushed up carbon dioxide levels to a point where it can affect climate.
We didn’t have internal combustion engines in the 1740s but we do now, an estimated 2.5 million of them in cars alone.
Mr Healy-Rae repeatedly asked where the money collected in carbon tax is going, saying it was not being used to help the elderly or invalids.
“We are collecting so much of it that someone has to answer for it or be accountable for it.”
He is right there and vast sums are involved, but where it goes is easy to answer – the Exchequer. Carbon tax lands in with all the other taxes and is not ring-fenced from other sources of taxation income.
Collectively the carbon tax and other energy, pollution and resource taxes are described by the Central Statistics Office as Environment Taxes and in 2014 they returned €4.6 billion to the Exchequer.
About 60 per cent of the environment taxes are related to transport, and taken together the Environment Taxes account for 8.4 per cent of all taxes raised.
He rejected the idea climate change was the cause of flooding here, saying instead that it was caused “due to the fact that rivers have not been cleaned out”.
The Flesk in Killarney and Glenflesk was “cleaned out” 35 years ago and didn’t flood for 20 years but is bad again. And the Shannon hasn’t been dredged “since the English cleaned it out”.
He believes this is the root of the problem, not climate change, but engineers looking at Shannon flooding would not agree with him.
Fast rivers tend to flush out silt but slow ones like the Shannon tend to accumulate it and all rivers maintain a balance between the two. The problem comes when a winter storm hits and these storms will be more common due to climate change.
Dredging offers no permanent fix because the silt will return to the river’s natural balance, engineers say. So severe flooding is likely to arise more frequently than in the past.
Ireland’s fair share
He expresses concern that we are a small country and other larger countries “must play a role”. Ireland can only play a “proportionate part”, but he feels “we are being overcharged and over-regulated in this regard”.
The EU exerts the greatest level of control over greenhouse gas discharges, but the targets for each country are custom made for that country.
Successive governments have negotiated these targets and have sought derogations for those that cannot meet in the timeframe set by the EU.
We are being asked to do our share in controlling emissions as a contribution to the international effort to reduce the impact of global warming.
We are not being asked to do more or less than any other country.