Saturday 22 October 2016

Climate change is not a problem for 2100, it's here now

The time has come to stop sitting on our hands. Ireland has to lead the way in combining economic vibrancy with strong action, warns climate-change expert Joseph Curtin

Joseph Curtin

Published 24/09/2016 | 02:00

Scientists studied the relationship between CO2 levels and climate change during a warmer period in Earth's history, the Pliocene
Scientists studied the relationship between CO2 levels and climate change during a warmer period in Earth's history, the Pliocene

It was not just at the Olympics that records were broken during the summer just past. July and August were the joint hottest months in 136 years of modern record keeping.

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There may be a familiar ring to this story. That's because, in an unprecedented streak, every month for the past 16 has set a new global record. This year will not just break the record for the warmest year (set just last year), it will shatter it. The odds of this occurring without man-made climate change are infinitesimally small.

Younger millennials, who will live to see a world utterly transformed by climate change, rank it as the biggest threat to their future. This is unsurprising, considering the NextGen Climate action group estimate that it will cost each 2015 graduate €160,000 in lost wealth over their lifetime. But older cohorts, especially older males, are more likely to engage in climate denial and less likely to see climate change as a threat.

But let's be clear: this debate is over. Climate change is not something for 2100, it is happening now in the world around us.

The wildfires that ravaged Northern Alberta in June received considerable media attention, as did the staggering one-in-a-thousand-year rains that swamped southern Louisiana in August.

Somewhat less so, the tens of millions pushed into food and nutritional insecurity because of rising temperatures and drought across Africa, parts of Asia and South America. According to Unicef, in Ethiopia alone almost half a million children will be treated for acute malnutrition arising from changes to the rainy seasons linked to climate change.

There is debate raging among scientists about how the relationship between these impacts and climate change should be presented. Some accuse scientists of being alarmist, but actually they must be very cautious.

This is because climate change works indirectly: it increases the risk of particular events happening, but does not cause them. This can be hard for scientists to explain to a media and public often looking for definitive sound bites against a backdrop of information overload.

What is clear is that the types of impacts we are seeing are broadly in line with scientific predictions, and in some cases they fit with worst-case scenarios. The public should be very clear - more climate change means more weather extremes and more negative impacts.

We need to move on from asking if climate change is happening and if it's real, to thinking about how bad will it be in Ireland, and what can be done.

Ireland is a wealthy country situated at a northern temperate latitude. For these reasons, the impacts of climate change may not be felt here as acutely as, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa. We will also be in a better place to deal with the damage. We can be considered a comparatively resilient country, physically and socially, compared to many vulnerable developing countries.

Nevertheless, there will be impacts, and they must be planned for. Two areas of concern that stand out are extreme precipitation or rainfall events and sea-level rise. These impacts are already being felt and linked to climate change, according to the UN's climate science body, the IPCC, in its latest report.

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If the world does not tackle greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC projects that sea levels could rise globally by between half a metre and a metre by 2100. There is, however, considerable uncertainty around these projections, and the rate of increase could be slower or indeed faster.

Many studies assume slow and linear melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which together contain 66 metres worth of sea-level rise. But some more recent studies have focused on how possible feedbacks could make ice-sheet collapse more abrupt, suggesting that multi-metre sea-level rise could be possible in "50, 100 or 200 years".

Given Ireland's settlement patterns, even modest levels of sea-level rise will have dramatic and negative impacts.

Loss of low-lying coastal land will occur in many urban areas, with Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast all affected. Coastal towns such as Ennis, Drogheda and Tralee appear particularly vulnerable. Incidences of flooding along the coast and major rivers will also become more frequent, particularly during storm surges. The potential cost of one metre of sea-level rise has not been estimated, but would likely be many billions of euro.

Another major impact that Ireland needs to prepare for is flooding from extreme precipitation. The wet winters of 2013/14 and 2015/16 may be a sign of things to come. These events are estimated to be 40pc more likely in a world with climate warming, and a UCD and Met Éireann study predicts a further 20pc increase in heavy rainfall events in winter and autumn by mid-century.

Ireland is therefore directly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. But we might also be indirectly vulnerable as a society to the global instability that climate change will bring.

Studies have linked climate change to the Syrian conflict. While these findings have been contested, it is a fact that there was a drought linked to climate change between 2006 and 2009.

It is also a fact that the Middle East and North Africa are among the most vulnerable areas on earth to climate change. In fact, climate models predict that mega-droughts and heatwaves could make parts of these regions uninhabitable as early as 2050, increasing migratory pressure. The question for Ireland and Europe within this context is whether we should see the current refugee crisis in isolation or as beginning of a longer-term trend? How resilient is Irish society to these potential pressures?

What is certain is that we need to start planning for possible impacts, be they physical, economic or social, just like Government makes contingency plans for other events, such as Brexit.

Second, we need to show far more urgency in reducing emissions. As a small, wealthy country, Ireland has an opportunity to illustrate that it is possible to combine economic vibrancy and strong climate action.

For individuals, it is easy to feel helpless and small in face of such big global challenges. Perhaps the most important thing we can each do is take time to understand what is happening, read the science, and discuss it with our friends, family and community, as well as our political representatives.


Joseph Curtin is a research fellow at University College Cork and the Institute of International and European Affairs, and is a member of Ireland's Climate Change Advisory Council. The views expressed are his own

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