- 03 Feb 14
The recent storms are just a harbinger of far worse to come. Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride...
So, what are we hot for? Well, picture this: the heat at the Australian Open tennis championship is so intense that Caroline Wozzilroy claims the bottom of a plastic water bottle part-melted on the court. Fearsomely fit athletes have been collapsing in temperatures of 45C. I once walked a Middle Eastern desert at that temperature. Believe me, it’s truly fearsome.
And this: storm surges on the west coast of Ireland have redistributed many millions of tonnes of sand along the coast, exposing old habitations and graveyards to the elements, some for the first time in thousands of years – for example, in Omey Island off Connemara – and washing others away. Massive waves have been a boon for surfers, but they’ve created havoc for everyone else.
After a warm and dry summer, December here in Ireland was the wettest in two decades. The floods were only a part of it. Indeed, when heavy rain, washing down rivers, met high tides and winds, there was widespread, very serious destruction. Our experience is of a piece with the incredible freeze experienced along the east coast and in the Midwest of the US, a couple of weeks ago, only different. There was one extraordinary, and somewhat surreal, photo of a building where firefighters had hosed down a fire and the water froze in the air.
Two big questions arise. The first is to do with climate change, and more precisely, with what is happening on the planet as a result of human activities. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if people continue to emit greenhouse gases at current rates, the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere could mean that within as little as two to three decades the world will face nearly inevitable warming of more than 2C, resulting in sea levels rising further. Heatwaves, droughts and even more extreme weather will follow.
The IPCC’s latest report – which will be published in full in April – was agreed by 200 experts, who have come to the conclusion that there is no doubt that global warming is a result of human actions, and that the symbolic threshold of 2C of warming will be passed unless there are “substantial and sustained” reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Make no mistake: this is a huge crisis in the making. We’re not even close to where we should be. We’ve got away with ignoring the problem over the past few years because there has been a break in the usual pattern of solar activity. But that will
be right back on track within a decade and then the shit will hit the fan. Once the 2C barrier is broken, the seas will rise and inexorably rise. Driven by ever more furious storms, they’ll do enormous damage. And that brings us to the second question: if we can’t protect everywhere along our coast from the vast powers of nature, where will we prioritise? And where is expendable?
I ask this because many experts believe that we should be making such decisions right now, to inform our policies in decades to come. Robert Devoy, Professor of Physical Geography at UCC, was quoted in the Irish Times as saying that decisions have to be made, about which sections of the coast are too expensive to retain.
His point is that we are entering a new phase of violent coastal change, arising from climate change-induced storms. It isn’t feasible to save each and every bit of the coast – so which bits will we work at and which will we let go?
As ever, the assumption in Ireland is that someone somewhere will come up with the resources to keep everything as it is or indeed to return it to how it should be. That’s been the basis for every campaign that’s been run throughout the history of the State. In a sense, people still subconsciously think of how a once-rich empire was able to pay for things like piers in congested districts...
That empire is long gone. The new European one gave us Structural Funds for a generation and now that era’s gone too. So we’re on our own, and Ireland doesn’t have the money to save every dune. We’re going to have to let some of our sand migrate.
Of course, this isn’t just about the sands around our coast. It’s about the fuel we choose for our power source, it’s about the geopolitical relationships we establish, it’s about wind farms and gas pipelines and, perhaps most important of all, it’s about making critical decisions – and how those decisions are executed. But there’s the rub. Look at how the Irish Water story is unfolding.
Mark my words. In twenty years, our collective outrage at bankers and robbers and top-up payments will have dissipated and we’ll have new a set of targets. Violent storms and rising tides will create all kinds of havoc around our coasts. Everyone will be shouting at each other and pointing fingers and demanding to know why nothing was done when we all knew it was coming.
The thing is, politics in Ireland are local and short-term. Also, public servants in decision-making roles are usually generalists, supposedly deployable anywhere in the system.
Neither of these models is appropriate to the challenges of the 21st century. We need a sustained discourse on policy that will go way beyond the lifetime of this Government or the next (this is beginning to happen as regards the economy). It needs to be about more than my electoral ass or yours.
We also need indigenous expertise on mitigating and managing the impact of climate change and we need those experts to be part of both the decision-making and the execution.
Tragically, this isn’t the way the public service works in Ireland. Worse still, the Minister for the Environment is Phil Hogan. Those two facts mean that if we get any decisions they’re almost certain to be the wrong ones.
Looks like we’re headed up Shit Creek without a paddle...
Happy New Year