Friday, November 25, 2016

Climate Change – an avoidable human tragedy

If you believe the new President of the United States then global warming is a hoax. If you believe the mountain of hard data coming from countless scientific agencies then global change presents the gravest threat to the future of humanity.

Sea levels in the Irish Sea are now rising by three centimetres per decade. That’s seven centimetres since the early 1990s. For those of you like me who grew up on inches, feet and yards seven centimetres is almost three inches. It doesn’t sound a lot but that means we could see another half a metre rise in sea levels in the next fifty years. With most of our major cities and towns on this island, and around the world, sitting on the coast the environmental, economic and human cost associated with rising sea levels and the climatic changes that are giving rise to it, present huge life changing challenges to humanity.

Dr Conor Murphy of Maynooth University’s Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units (Icarus) also said: “The big thing for Ireland is rainfall and storms, with rainfall either too much or too little… “ And storms mean increased flooding upriver as more and more water tries to drain off toward the coast and too much water when it reaches the coast because of increasing sea levels.

Just before last Christmas, the UN panel of climate change experts concluded that humankind is to blame for global warming and warned that the planet will see increasingly extreme weather as events unfold, unless Governments take strong action. In its report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world is ill-prepared for the risks arising from a changing climate. It also warned that many states could expect more frequent storms and flooding. That certainly has been the experience on our little island. The devastation along the Shannon river catchment area and the impact on families was horrendous. Many homes were totally destroyed by floodwaters.

Louth, and in particular part of the Dundalk area, also witnessed serious flooding. All of the families affected face a winter filled with dread. They are angry, they are concerned and those I met last year and have spoken to since tell me that flood defences have not been constructed and that their homes and businesses have no more protection now than they had last year.  

The weather is no respecter of the border. Among the storms which battered the island of Ireland last year one of the most damaging was Storm Frank. It was the sixth storm of eleven that hit between November 2015 and March 2016. The heavy rainfall and strong winds that Storm Frank brought disrupted travel and left 21,000 homes without electricity. At least 270 roads were blocked by flooding and fallen trees. Planes couldn’t land at either of Belfast’s two airports.

Two months ago the world passed a unique and dangerous milestone in our climate change process. According to all of the scientific data the atmosphere now carries over 400 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide and is not expected to drop, probably for decades to come. This is a greenhouse gas that has a huge impact on our rising temperatures. This increase is almost entirely the responsibility of humanity which is consuming greater than ever amounts of our planets resources.

It is also melting the Artic icecap, with some scientists predicting that it could disappear entirely by the middle of this century. Mountain glaciers in Europe, Canada, Africa, the Himalayas and Asia are retreating. The Greenland icecap is melting. The introduction of huge amounts of fresh cold water into the north Atlantic and the impact this is having on the salinity of the north Atlantic Ocean is causing concern among climatologists. They believe there is a real risk that it could have an effect on ocean circulation, including the Gulf Stream which helps warm the island of Ireland.

A recent study in the journal Science reported that the, "The rate of mass loss that the ice sheet is now exhibiting, post 2010, is somewhere in the neighbourhood of three times higher than the rate of mass loss prior to the 1980s… This means that Greenland is losing about 8,300 tonnes of ice per second each day.”

There have been alarming reports of the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. The Marine Park Authority, responsible for the reef, recently estimated that at least 22 per cent of the corals that make up the reef are dead. This is largely a response of warm water arising from climate change. The impact of this on other marine animals that rely on the coral is enormous.

To add to this disturbing pattern of significant changes in our climate the World Meteorological Organisation said that 2016 will be the hottest year on record. Its latest data reveals that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been since 2000.  

The Paris climate change agreement, which the Irish government and scores of other states, ratified several weeks ago, sets two key thresholds for planetary temperatures. The first is 2 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures. The agreement argues that this must be avoided. The second is 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures which needs to be achieved as a way of limiting the warming that is occurring.

The World Meteorological Organisation says that global temperatures for 2016 achieved 1.2 degrees about pre-industrial levels. We are already dangerously close to breaching the second threshold and the global effect on climate is already posing huge problems for our eco system and for our future. In this context the threat by the new US administration to quit the Paris Agreement is significant.

The effect of climate is also evident in the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Many of those fleeing war and famine in Africa are also the victims of climate change. This year is the worst on record for refugee deaths. Over four and a half thousand men, women and children have died. In one 48 hour period last week at least 240 refugees drowned as thousands continue to brave the worsening weather in the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

Last week the United Nations held a climate change conference in Marrakesh. Its objective was to strengthen the agreement reached in Paris last year. As part of this the United Nations published its latest Emissions Gap Report 2016. Its objective is to track progress in restricting global warming to 1.5 - 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. It makes grim reading. It reveals that “overall emissions are still rising”. It concludes that “the Paris Agreement will slow climate change. The recent Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol will do the same. But not enough: not nearly enough and not fast enough. This report estimates we are actually on track for global warming of up to 3.4 degrees Celsius”.

So, urgent action is needed. Without it, according to the report’s authors “we will mourn the loss of biodiversity and natural resources. We will regret the economic fallout. Most of all, we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy; the growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver.

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