Saturday 17 August 2019

Climate change could be our final undoing

Polar bears – like this one pictured in the Arctic – will not survive without action to tackle climate change and save their rapidly disappearing Arctic
habitat, conservationists warn
Polar bears – like this one pictured in the Arctic – will not survive without action to tackle climate change and save their rapidly disappearing Arctic habitat, conservationists warn

Liz O'Donnell

Advocates and campaigners for climate justice struggle to make the threat of global warming relevant to the general public. People are busy and understandably preoccupied by the day-to-day struggles of raising families and responding to the demands of work. Some people even find it hard to keep up with the routine domestic political agenda and rely on the media to keep abreast of current affairs.

So, expecting people to reflect on the seemingly remote implications of climate change is challenging.

Occasionally, a report from NASA or the UN and other agencies heralding the melting of the ice at the north or south poles, causing rising sea levels, forces the reader to stop and ponder.

But short-term concerns aroused are quickly eclipsed by the next, more immediate news item.

It is fortunate, therefore, given the fickle nature of politics and media, that public opinion is not the principle driver of initiatives on the State's policy on climate change.

This is a topic which requires global leadership and sophisticated policy-making by way of international agreements, targets and binding commitments.

India, the US and China have recently stepped up cooperation on climate change and carbon dioxide emissions.

The next UN conference on climate change in Paris, later this month, will be a test for the EU in respect of moving to a lower carbon trajectory and restating the EU's traditional leadership in this area. There are real fears that the EU will miss the 2020 emissions targets.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal will have cast a shadow, not only on the credibility of the motor industry and compliance with regulations, but on the reputation of the EU.

The United States and the Obama administration is now focusing on climate change policy domestically, and also by diplomatic engagement, which will go some way to make up for the failures of earlier administrations to address, or even acknowledge, the reality of climate change.

Much of the research in this area is assisted and informed by work in space by organisations such as Nasa. It is expensive work but vital in monitoring by satellite the many changes occurring on the planet.

Few people are aware that the international space station is circumnavigating the earth every 92 minutes, doing research, taking photographs and observing the planet in all its diversity.

Out of sight and out of mind, all this important work by Nasa goes on literally as if in a parallel universe.

Every now and then, when there is a launch or a landing of a space mission, we earthlings take notice and briefly marvel at the wonders of space and earth science.

We notice, of course, the big events; landings on planets, meteors, eclipses of the moon or sun.

But in the main, most of us are blissfully unaware of all this space exploration and research going on, with a host of devices monitoring planetary changes, carbon emissions levels, melting land and sea ice, and global warming.

Satellite images of icebergs breaking off are tracked and fed into the research supplementing the work of scientists here on earth.

Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield made all this real for millions of us by intensively photographing the earth from his tour on the International Space Station.

During 2,579 orbits of the planet, he took about 45,000 photos. He even had a Twitter feed from space, relating his experiences and went so far as to record David Bowie's iconic song 'Space Oddity' from inside the station. The astonishing sight and sounds of him floating around with his guitar is an indelible image for me of space travel.

His book of photographs 'You are here' is a revelation of astonishing views and commentary from space of the earth divided into continents.

The images over Africa are stunning in their colour, diversity and clarity, ranging from human settlements in Mali to deserts and deltas in North Africa and the coral reefs of Australia and the Red Sea.

These photographs have now inspired a new collection of paintings by Irish artist Catherine Daly, titled 'The Curious Eye', currently showing in the Source Arts Centre in Thurles.

Looking at Hadfield's images of our earth from space transported into paintings, I recalled all the places, particularly in Africa, that I visited as minister for overseas aid. I saw for myself the human calamity of famine in countries where food insecurity and drought, harsh terrain, environmental degradation and deforestation contributed to humanitarian disasters, mass displacement and chronic underdevelopment.

Climate change is now firmly on the human rights development agenda.

Reflecting on planet earth is a rewarding activity. These days one thinks of the war and instability in Syria and the unprecedented march of humanity fleeing across the blue waters of the seas to Europe.

One thinks of the tragedy of tsunamis which devastated several countries in the recent past, of melting ice caps and of earthquakes and hurricanes which claim so many lives.

Looking at our world from space reminds us that we are mere custodians of the planet for the brief period of our mortal lives.

We hold it in trust for future innocent generations. The significant money spent on space discovery and science, which informs policy here on earth, is money well spent.

The US federal government spends $1bn each year on Antarctic and Arctic research. Its impact is not immediate.

It is the slow burn of knowledge feeding into our collective intelligence about sustainable life on earth.

A recent report from Nasa said that the pace of melting of the ice in some parts of Antarctica was a cause for serious concern, suggesting a point of "irreversible retreat" had been reached, which could mean a rise in sea levels of three metres.

Similar research is going on in Greenland's ice sheet, the full melting of which could increase sea levels by six metres. Such significant rise in sea levels would have dire consequences for low-lying populations as diverse as Bangladesh and New York. We ignore this intelligence at our peril.

Failure to stop dangerous climate change will undermine all the development gains that have been made in poor countries which suffer the most impact.

Predicting how rapidly sea levels will rise in the 21st century is not just the stuff of policy wonks. It is a matter of life and death.

Irish Independent

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