John Sweeney: Time to tackle powerful vested interests on climate change

Ireland should accept its share of responsibility for ‘planetary emergency’

Mary Robinson with Trócaire volunteer Daniel Cullen at Maynooth University in June for a two-day conference on climate change. Photograph: Eric Luke

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), approved over the past two years by 195 governments, including Ireland, has provided a dramatic wake-up call on the ongoing crisis of climate change.

The realisation that the world has only a decade or two left to dramatically reduce its carbon emissions or face the unknown horrors of “dangerous climate change” represents the carefully considered view of the global community of atmospheric scientists.

As might be expected, the dwindling band of sceptics continues to fight a rearguard action, not least in Ireland, where the usual pseudoscientists, would-be climatologists, and scientific contrarians rehearse long-discredited arguments in various media outlets, including The Irish Times.

The familiar tactics of selectively quoting supposedly supportive sentences from IPCC reports, cherrypicking years for establishing temperature “trends” and using model uncertainties as justification for inaction,pop up again and again. They betray a misrepresentation of where the science is at and offer false premises to address the looming “planetary emergency”.


The Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC clarified the best scientific estimate is that essentially all of the warming over the past 60 years is due to human activity. While the ups and downs of individual years may give short-term comfort to deniers, the message that the future of climate is in human hands is indisputable. Cherrypicking years such as 1998 to downplay recent temperature trends, therefore, is mischievous – and at variance with what has been observed.

Warming has continued since 1998. Last year was the warmest on record, with early indications that 2015 will exceed even this. Such is the likely contribution from the current El Niño event, climatologists expect 2016 to be even warmer.

While short-term variations occur in those parts of the environment (ocean, land or air) where the excess heat of the planet is being stored, its continuing, rapid warming, due primarily to human activity, is not in any significant scientific doubt. Neither is there increased uncertainty regarding causes of future sea level rise. The IPCC report provided a complete budget for this for the first time: the very opposite of increased uncertainty.

Ireland will not be immune from adverse impacts of climate change, even in the short term. Increased frequency of extreme weather events are likely to become more common, with rainfall and sea-level changes having large economic consequences for our infrastructure, agriculture and biodiversity.


Even before Eircodes, analysis of addresses in coastal Ireland confirms the costs of doing little to protect vulnerable people and places quickly rises above €1 billion for individual storm surges from a rising sea level. Unlikely events occur sooner or later, as many western communities learned in winter 2013-2014.

What should our response be to this "planetary emergency", which the World Health Organisation estimates is responsible for the premature deaths of 150,000 people annually?

First, we have to accept our share of responsibility. On average, each Irish person is responsible for emissions of 12.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually; about 40 per cent more than countries such as the UK or Germany, and 40 per cent more than the average for the EU as a whole. Indeed, Ireland emits more greenhouse gases than the poorest 400 million people in the world combined. For a country with a proud record of positive assistance to the developing world, this is our unwelcome contribution to current and future food insecurity.

Second, we have to see beyond the political rhetoric to tackle the powerful vested interests working to ensure the polluter doesn’t pay. In the long-delayed Climate Change Bill, the sectoral winners and losers have already been decided.

The household, energy and transport sectors are to be decarbonised completely by 2050 with effectively all our nonindustrial emissions being allocated to agriculture. Emissions from this favoured sector (1.6 per cent of GDP) are rapidly increasing again and are not expected to peak until the late 2020s. Any fines or purchases of carbon emission quotas for breaching our 2020 reduction commitments will be levied on the general taxpayer.

I serve on the academic committee of the Shanghai Climate Change Research Centre. When my hosts ask about Ireland's plans to greatly intensify its agriculture over the next decade, increasing its dairy production by 50 per cent, I have to explain to them that China is a primary target. Ireland's strategy is to sell more powdered milk to Chinese mothers who have traditionally relied on breastfeeding. Meanwhile, Irish taxpayers spend a six-figure sum to encourage Irish women to stop using powdered milk because breastfeeding is better.

As the crucial Paris Conference of Parties approaches, what guidance is being given to our negotiators?

Special case

It would seem the national short-term economic interest is all that matters. Special-case pleading for Ireland’s emissions has reached a high level as concessions for Irish agriculture are sought for 2030. Irish farmers are among the most efficient dairy producers in


. German car manufacturers are among the most efficient car producers in Europe. Where does the special pleading stop?

Indications are that a shoddy little deal for 2030 is emerging which will enable Ireland to freeload on the efforts of other countries. The placing of short-term national interest before global duty is not the climate justice that Pope Francis, Ban Ki-moon, Mary Robinson or President Michael D Higgins talk about. Neither, one suspects, is it what the Irish people want their legacy to their children to be based on.

John Sweeney is emeritus professor of geography, Maynooth University