The political climate needs to change – and quickly

The latest international report makes us more certain than ever about climate change – why then does global inertia persist?

Last week saw the publication of two research reports into climate change, the fifth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a study from Met Éireann on how climate change is likely to affect Ireland.

The IPCC report has now reached a 95 per cent confidence level that much of the change taking place is related to human activity.

At this stage the debate should be over, and governments should be moving towards agreement on how to respond to the massive threat we face.

Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. There was no sense of urgency arising from the report, nor much local response from Met Éireann's fine study. Yet climate scientists here argue that the time for action is now, given that the ongoing science has delivered more than enough evidence to show climate change is real.

A kind of Manhattan Project
"The latest IPCC report didn't reveal new things, but it makes us more certain than ever about climate change. There is no doubt about it now," says Peter Lynch, professor of meteorology at University College Dublin.


“I would never say the science is done, but the scientific picture is very clear and there has to be political action.”

However, there is nothing to suggest that governments will act in any concerted way. “I don’t think the politicians are going to solve this, really,” says Lynch.

He suggests we need innovative thinking, and the resources and resolve to make bold moves. Lynch likens the situation to the effort and money poured into the Manhattan Project in the US to develop and build a nuclear weapon. At the time that goal became a key objective, and technological and financial obstacles were swept away.

He would like to see this sort of determination applied to, for instance, the development of a working fusion reactor, a source of electricity based on the chemistry that makes the sun and stars work.

Heavy engineering may deliver ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or methods to mop it up through carbon capture and storage, he says. We have to think big, because engineered alternatives such as wave energy are still a long way off delivering cheap, reliable power.

Governments are slow to respond to the challenges posed by climate change in part because electorates are indifferent to the issue. This is partially due to the effectiveness of the climate-change sceptics lobby.

There have been errors in some of the published science, and these are seized upon to raise doubts, says Mike Jones, environmental biologist and emeritus fellow at Trinity College Dublin.

“We are still involved in having to sway the community at large,” he says, warning them of the negative effects but “having to sound believable. The problem is we have so much evidence from so many areas we are going to see these impacts. We really need to take this seriously.”

However, governments still do not seem motivated to do anything about it. “We have got to have a clear path. There are significant changes that will take place, and action can follow once we accept we have to do something about it,” Jones says.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue, not just one country deciding to do something about it. Unfortunately, we have pretty much failed to do this so far,” he says.

Whither Kyoto?
The closest the world got was the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that sets binding obligations on industrialised countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Signatory countries had a working five-year "first commitment period" but countries have not signed up for the next five-year period, leaving Kyoto moribund.

The science has shown clearly that any lingering doubts are so small as to be insufficient to block action, says Colin O'Dowd, director of the Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies in the Ryan Institute, and the school of physics at NUI Galway.

“There is no way out of this unless we change our behavioural patterns,” he says. “We have to start realising we are causing a problem for our future generations.”

In Ireland, he says, we need “joined-up thinking” to increase the impact of mitigation efforts.

"As a nation we need to really accelerate sources of renewable energy such as wind and wave. It requires proper planning, not a knee-jerk reaction from one alternative to another."

Money not the issue
Yet competing arguments seem to end up causing inaction, and Prof O'Dowd believes money is not the fundamental issue: even during the Celtic Tiger years, nothing was accomplished in terms of alternative energy.

One thing Ireland can do is continue to support the European Union’s position that international action is warranted and needs to happen now. Yet he remains uncertain about whether any progress will be made on reaching international agreement. “I wish I had a higher degree of confidence,” he says.

More reports about what the scientists have discovered under the Fifth Assessment Report will be published next year. Undoubtedly they will add to the reasons why action on climate change is urgently needed. However, the option of waiting until the next report arrives – or the one after that – is no longer there if we are to have any hope of coping when the major changes come.

An end to hot air: Call to action
Two reports last week, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by Met Éireann, have provided yet more evidence that climate change is under way and more certainty that human activity is its main driver.

While more science is needed, it is time for governments around the world to take this issue seriously, suggests Peter Lynch, professor of meteorology at University College Dublin.

“Our nose is up against a rock and we have to do something,” says Prof Lynch. “Putting in a few low-energy light bulbs in Ireland while the Chinese are building a new power station every week is not going to have an impact. There has to be political action.” Unfortunately the only options available are both “difficult and painful”, he says.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.