The Irish Times view on extreme weather: refusing to get the message

Even peaceful and prosperous democracies like Ireland’s seem incapable of heeding the feedback messages from our environment

A year’s rain fell in just three days over the weekend in and around Sydney. Fifty thousand people are either evacuated or on evacuation alert. On the other side of the world, Italy declared a state of emergency for the watershed of the River Po, a key engine of Italy’s agriculture, as it suffers its worst drought in 70 years.

From Catalonia to California, citizens and tourists alike live in fear of the ever more intense and catastrophic wildfire seasons that each summer now brings. Wherever you may be thinking of going on holidays this year, the rapidly increasing frequency of such extreme weather events is the most dramatic indication of the speed with which we are shifting the climate towards making our planet unliveable for human civilisation, and quite possibly for human survival.

For poorer people in many parts of the world, far from romantic holiday destinations and media headlines, the indications have been evident for decades, in failing crops and starving livestock, collapsing social bonds and pushing millions into mass migration and bitter conflicts.

Nine months ago, the Cop 26 UN climate conference in Glasgow concluded with an agreement then widely criticised as insufficient to mitigate the climate crisis. “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees [the ‘safe’ increase for global heating set by the 2015 Paris COP] alive,” concluded conference president Alok Sharma. But he warned that “its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

We have not done so, and the Glasgow targets look almost utopian today. Instead of focusing on a collective effort to cope with the defining challenge of our generation, authoritarian politicians are dividing us, propagating nationalist delusions to remain in power, plunging us into wars and nuclear brinkmanship. And the world’s richest democracy is now further blocked from making real advances by last week’s supreme court decision to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from effectively regulating power plants.

Less dramatically, but just as tellingly, even peaceful and prosperous democracies like Ireland’s seem incapable of heeding the feedback messages from our environment with the urgency and radicalism required. The UN Development Programme has a powerful little cartoon currently showing in cinemas, in which a dinosaur addresses the UN General Assembly. “Going extinct is a bad thing,” it tells the delegates. “But driving yourselves to extinction, that’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard… imagine if we had spent billions of dollars subsidising giant meteorites.”

And yet that is what, metaphorically speaking, we are continuing to do.