News Analysis

Monday 22 September 2014

Climate change isn't just an idea – it's here right now and we are woefully unprepared

Dr Kieran Hickey

Published 06/02/2014 | 02:30

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High tides and heavy swell cause damage to Bundoran Lifeboat Station.

Since the summer of 2009, Ireland has experienced virtually every type of weather disaster that our climate leaves us vulnerable to. There has been extensive river, estuarine and coastal flooding, extensive coastal erosion, extreme cold spells, a heatwave and drought, major storms, even a few damaging tornadoes.

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No part of the country has been spared from some or all of the effects of these weather events.

New records have been set during this time period: 2009 produced the highest rainfall total for summer at Valentia Observatory, beating the previous record by 160mm, going back to 1892. That is astonishing as typically weather and climate records are broken by small margins, not by huge leaps. November 2009 produced not just the wettest November on record at many meteorological stations around Ireland but the wettest month ever recorded. This is true of Valentia Observatory going back to 1866 and the meteorological station at NUI Galway going back to 1881.

Record low temperatures were set in November and December 2010, one of the main contributing factors being the loss of Arctic sea-ice making it easier for extreme cold air to escape southwards. The sea-ice is being lost because of rising air and ocean temperatures.

More recently, we came very close to breaking the all-time-high temperature record this summer gone by and it is only a question of time before this record too is broken.

Finally, a new highest tide level was recorded in the current bad weather spell in Limerick, leading to devastating flooding.

No period since 1900 at least is comparable to this dramatic sequence of weather disasters that have affected Ireland since 2009.

It is not just Ireland where new weather and climate records are being broken along with numerous weather disasters, but in many other parts of the world.

This tells us quite clearly that climate change is not some abstract academic idea or that it is something that might happen at some time in the future, so we can forget about it for now.

Climate change caused by humans is here and now, and has been for some time. The scientific debate, based on real evidence, is long since over. The recent weather events show us that Ireland is not immune from the changes and although the gradual changes in temperature and rainfall will pose some problems, these can be managed going into the future.

The challenge for Ireland will be dealing with the extreme weather events that have become and will remain a regular but not necessarily annual feature of our climate. The weather disasters since 2009, including the most recent storms, have shown us just how poorly positioned we are to deal with these types of events.

So what are our options?

Firstly, we could do nothing or very little, which has been predominantly the pattern of the past. Insurance has helped but insurance is currently not available to many people and those numbers will grow, and insurance does not cover everything.

The Government could do as it is doing now, which is providing extra money on a piecemeal basis, but this is short-term and reactionary.

This short-term approach will only marginally affect the vulnerability of Ireland to future weather disasters and in many cases the building of flood or coastal defences will only move the problem elsewhere to the next weakest point in the system.

From a strictly environmental position, doing nothing would be the ideal option and people and important activities would move away from the most vulnerable areas. 'Strategic retreat' is the term most associated with this approach.

It would be the least-costly option in the long run but there would be a need to provide new housing and employment for these climate change refugees.

Of course, this is utterly impossible in an Irish context where much of our population lives in towns and cities or are on the coasts, estuaries or beside major rivers in vulnerable locations.

The second and realistic option is to try and manage the environment in such a way as to reduce our vulnerability and increase our resilience to climate change and in particular to weather disasters. This will only be achieved by long-term strategic planning. There is a need for central co-ordination of all studies and reports by various agencies and researchers on this issue in Ireland over the last 15 years. We are awash with reports and studies but very little action. This assessment should form a baseline for long-term strategic planning.

However, the politics and costs now start to play a huge part. Clearly, we cannot protect the entire low-lying sections of the coastline and estuaries nor can we protect every piece of riverside land from flooding.

If we cannot protect it all then we have to be strategic in what we do protect. This means politicians making cold, hard decisions that will have a significant impact on some communities for the benefit of other communities.

Focus will have to be put initially on protecting cities and towns, key infrastructure and key amenities including tourist amenities and this alone will cost billions and will require a significant annual budget if it were to be done right.

What is of real concern is that if there are no new weather disasters to remind politicians of the urgency of preparing for climate change then it will quietly slip down the political agenda.

It is for this reason, and given the long-term dimension of climate change, that it should be taken out of the politicians' hands as much as possible and an agency with the sole purpose of preparing Ireland for the impact of climate change should be set up in order that we strategically plan for the future and not just put out the fires as they occur but stop them starting in the first place.

DR KIERAN HICKEY IS A CLIMATOLOGIST IN THE DEPARTMENT OF GEOGRAPHY, NUI GALWAY. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF 'FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT: IRELAND AND CLIMATE CHANGE' AND 'DELUGE: IRELAND'S WEATHER DISASTERS 2009-2010'.

Irish Independent

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