2015. The hottest year on record. In Clare summer temperatures finally arrived in September. In Dublin Christmas dog walks around the park went coat free. Conned by the unseasonably balmy winter the daffodils stood proudly in bloom in December. In the same month, battered by rain from Storms Clodagh, Desmond and Eva, the Shannon floods mirrored the scale and damage of 2009. The likelihood of floods this large occurring in a year are an astonishingly low 1%.
What on earth is going on? The Earth is warming at a rate not seen for over a thousand years. Our activities have precipitated steeply rising air and ocean temperatures. The evidence to support that our climate is changing has been described as unequivocal. According to NASA global temperatures have risen by 0.8C since before the Industrial Revolution. Scientists the world over are now agreeing that a 2C will cause climate chaos.
Would you notice a 2C change laid back on a deckchair in the Marbella? Hardly.
Yet, warmer air temperature is decimating ice sheets at the poles. Sea levels are rising dangerously due to the increased volume of water and because heat is causing water to expand. Oceans are absorbing extra heat and becoming more acidic killing coral reefs. The vibrancy of our diverse natural world is under threat like never before: 1 in 6 species could face climate related extinction.
Enter a double glazed world
A total of 1,300 independent scientists have concluded with more than 90% probability that gases, released through our polluting activities, have double glazed the lower atmosphere. The greenhouse encasing our planetary home is inhibiting heat escape. Just as its near impossible not to sweat when walking or cycling in waterproof trousers, the Earth is struggling to catch a break from the Sun’s heat. This is not part of an inter-millenia cycle; while it is getting hotter close to the Earth’s surface, the atmosphere closer to the Sun is in fact cooling.
NASA attributes carbon dioxide to 64% of human-caused planet warming. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 40% higher than before the Industrial Revolution which began only 250 years ago. This short passage of time is a mere note in the symphony of life on Earth.
Although we produce carbon dioxide on a scale far smaller than natural emissions, the addition of extra gas has surpassed the World’s natural capacity for sustainable carbon regulation. This service is provided by our forests and oceans which absorb carbon dioxide. Examining the stats shows that 87% carbon dioxide emissions caused by us are associated with burning fossil fuels, to generate electricity and driving; 9% are attributed to land use changes, for example cutting down Amazon rainforest to produce beef; and 4% are associated with industrial processes, such as producing cement, plastic and fertilisers.
Carbon dioxide is not the only villain. Methane and nitrous oxide are less discussed but also adding support to the insulation of the Earth.
Methane is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide; approximately 30 times better in fact. Globally, over 64% of methane emissions are caused by our activities. Interestingly, the production and supply of fossil fuels, at 33%, is the largest source of this gas. Animal agriculture is responsible for 27% of methane, largely due to ruminants – cows and sheep – which produce methane during digestion. As the production of beef has doubled since the 60s methane is a big player in global warming.
Radical weather for Ireland
A decade ago scientists could make no link between storms and climate change, now scientists from the University of Oxford suggest human caused global warming increased the likelihood of recent storms by 40%.
In the short-term we are expected to witness radical weather events with increased regularity: extreme flooding, gale force winds and savage storms. This will affect the west disproportionately due to onshore winds and because of the flat nature of the Shannon catchment is prone to flooding. More power outages, more flooded homes, dirty drinking water and disruption to transport are inevitable. The increased costs associated with electricity and water supply as well as road maintenance in the worst hit areas would conceivably be recouped from homeowners nationwide.
For Ireland climate change will have some unfathomable consequences in the long-term. University of Oxford scientists have shown that 25–50% of us currently live in areas where homes will only be accessible by submarine. Galway, Cork, Dublin and Limerick are all vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the rising tide. A 2oC increase in temperature would send Shannon Airport underwater and submerge Kilrush and Ballyvaughan. Doubtless this will be far beyond our time, yet a differently etched Ireland is where the kids of 2,116 would live. What will they say about the decisions of our time?
Not on the political agenda
In the run up to a general election one might expect some mention of climate change adaptation strategies and plans to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Wasn’t flooding meant to be a decisive election issue? Fine Gael has no mention of climate change in its 3-step economic-growth-only plan online. Fianna Fáil offer nine election issues; climate resilience does not feature. Labour’s stance on climate change before the General Election is also not apparent.
The Green Party alone are clear in their environmental plans. The green economy, including renewable energy generation, sustainable forestry management, improved public transport provision and environmentally friendly farming practices, all feature as key party policies.
Climate change is a catastrophe evolving so subtlety the major political parties are not taking it seriously; it’s the proverbial alley can, kicked down the road, for another Government to contend with. In the next 50 years there will be approximately 20 five-year terms in Government. But we must act now for the long-term stability of Ireland. Legislative measures proposed to curtail greenhouse gas emissions must be centre stage of any prospective parliamentary party policy. On doorsteps the length and breadth of the country candidates must be questioned about their proposals to tackle climate change.
Individual action critical
All of us are can take action in our private lives and where we work, to help slow the rise of global temperature.
Car exhaust contributes 15% of emissions responsible for global warming. In Ireland a 2013 survey showed that 50% of car journeys recorded were less than 2km in length. The World Health Organisation has Ireland on course to become the most obese in Europe. Light journey-based exercise – walking and cycling – will not only improve our own health, it will lower carbon dioxide release and improve air quality to boot.
On par with tailpipe exhaust, meat production has a 15% share in responsibility for climate change. A University of Oxford study of over 32,000 British people found that meat-rich diets (100g plus per day) produce 7.3kg carbon dioxide emissions daily. To put that into perspective a beef quarter pounder weighs 120g in new money. Vegetarian or fish-based diets register a substantially lower carbon footprint at 3.8kg emissions per day.
Emissions of methane from animal agriculture linked to our dietary choices are rarely discussed with regard to climate change.
Methane emission, which is highly effective at global insulation, is rarely discussed in terms of what we choose to eat. A 2014 UK Government report found that pigs produced as little as 1.5kg of methane annually. One sheep produces the same amount of gas as 5 pigs per year. One beef cow emits 34 pigs worth annually, while one dairy cow releases the same as 74 pigs. However, when the number of beef cows raised to meet our demand is factored in, it is the beef sector contributing the greatest amount of heat trapping methane in the atmosphere.
With this in mind, re-shaping our diets by reducing meat consumption, especially beef, would be immensely beneficial to slow the rate of global warming. This is because methane dissipates from the atmosphere much more quickly than carbon dioxide. At the moment much of the protein-rich foods available – including a diverse range of beans, lentils and quinoa – are currently underutilised in the Western diet. Across Europe, however, there is a quietly growing movement of vegetable butchers, producing burgers, kebabs and even ‘meatballs’, attempting to fill the desire for those meat products so widely loved.
Climate change is the landmark issue of our time. Because of its global nature, it transcends the individual, the state, economic growth and short-term politics. The global nature of the problem also makes us feel powerless as to how our actions could make a difference. However, it is our shared responsibility to make personal lifestyle changes and changes in the workplace to minimise our carbon footprint. Equally, we must demand that the politicians fighting for our votes use legislative power to fulfil and even exceed Ireland’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
With the remarkable technology of our time the gift of foresight has alerted us to this looming climate catastrophe. For the prosperity of the people living on this island during the bicentenary celebrations of the Easter Rising we must take action now!