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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 21 October, 2014

Column: Climate change might not seem important – but it will have an impact on us all

In a post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, people might be forgiven to think that these changes don’t appear so bad in the greater scheme of things. But they’d be wrong, writes Gavin Harte.

Gavin Harte

I’VE HEARD IT said that gambling is a fool’s way of buying hope on credit – but that the bookie always wins. Now, I’m not much of a gambler but when it comes to betting on the probability that human activities are the cause of our planet’s current warming, I’m with the bookie all the way.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Working Group 1 (WG1). It looks like the odds are now extremely likely, in fact 95 per cent certain, that human activities have caused more than half of the observed temperature increase from 1951 to 2010.

The debate is over

On Thursday in Stockholm, 195 governments sign off the final text of the most comprehensive report on climate science published since 2007. The AR5 report has been drafted by an international team of scientists selected back in May 2010. It has been through a multi-stage review process, involving over 1000 expert reviewers and contains research from over 2 million gigabytes of numerical data from a host of climate model simulations.

The science behind climate change is now clear, the debate is over. It tells us that sea level rise has acceleratedprecipitation patterns are changing, the rate of arctic sea ice loss has doubled, the melting of glaciers and ice sheets is faster than before and the worlds oceans are acidifying. We are currently emitting around 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary driver of recent climate change, into the atmosphere every year. As of May this year, the global concentration of CO2 reached 400 parts per million, the highest it has been in 4 million years.

What will the flat earthists say?

So what are climate change misinformers, contrarians, deniers and flat earthiests likely to say about this report? No doubt these crackpots will continue to reject the overwhelming scientific evidence. They will probably say that climate change is not happening or it’s not us or it’s not bad and anyway we can’t fix it. But no matter what they say the science supporting human caused climate change isn’t going to change.

Unfortunately for the climate change contrarians the IPCC AR5 report is not a flimsy house of cards, ready to topple as they try to cherry pick at some of the scientific “uncertainties” in an effort to dismiss the whole thing.

The latest fallacy published in the Mail on Sunday suggests that there has been global cooling since 1997! But when it comes to climate science reporting, the Mail on Sunday is reliable in the sense that you can rely on them to get the science wrong.

Our planet is warming at an alarming rate

Unfortunately for the deniers the IPCC process is more like a jigsaw. It is a body of scientific evidence that has been building up over many years. Establishing an ever-improving picture of what drives our climate system, it is now completely accurate to say that science has provided us with multiple lines of evidence that all point to a single, consistent scientific answer: rising CO2 levels from our burning of fossil fuel is warming our planet at an alarming rate.

The impacts of this warming are significant on Ireland. In a recent report from the Irish Times, scientists at NUI Galway said that Ireland can expect to experience huge temperature rises in the near future. By as soon 2050 average Irish August temperatures are projected to increase by two to three degrees Celsius. Now, before we start to jump up and down with delight at this news we need to consider more than just our choice of sun screen in pondering the wider impact such a huge increase will have.

Climate change is unavoidably important

A series of recent studies published by the EPA also reported that the Irish economy is vulnerable to a changing climate. Researchers in NUI Maynooth found that there had been an increase in the size of flooding events, particularly since the late 1990s, with an increase in river flows during spring and a “clear signal of change” in summer flows.

Another study from Trinity College Dublin shows that the warmer Irish climate has led to a change in the seasonal cycle of a range of plants and animals, with a three-week extension in the growing period for deciduous trees.

For a post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, where our crashed economy grabs all the media attention, people might be forgiven to think that these changes don’t appear so bad in the greater scheme of things.

However according to the World Bank, our planet is barrelling down a path to heat up by as much as 4 degrees at the end of the century. If this is the case, I think it is fair to say that such a rapid warming will make our current economic depression look like a pleasant walk in the park if we don’t transition to a low carbon economy soon.

I started out by saying that I am not much of a betting man. However this week I think I want to take a flutter. If there are any climate science cherry pickers out there that would like to make a bet that global average temperature will not be higher 15 years from now based on the 1997 value, I’m willing to bet €1000, even money, that you are wrong.

I’ll throw in that global average sea level will rise as well. Care to put your money where your mouth is?

Gavin Harte has been a spokesperson on environmental and sustainability issues in Ireland for many years. He has worked as the national director of An Taisce and was the founder and developer of Ireland’s first eco-village in Cloughjordan Co Tipperary and now runs ESD Training, his consultancy for Education on Sustainable Development.

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