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'28 degrees is a major challenge already': Warming would acutely impact Ireland, expert says

A Maynooth professor and climate report author says any change in extreme weather would be difficult for Ireland.

WARMER TEMPERATURES DUE to climate change would have a significant impact in Ireland even if they don’t soar as high as in other countries, an expert has told The Journal.

A lack of infrastructure to handle hot weather would mean that a long-term rise in temperatures would be acutely felt.

Governments, companies and individuals all need to take action against the climate crisis, said Maynooth University professor Peter Thorne, one of the authors of a major report released yesterday.

The sixth assessment report on the physical science of climate change from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has come a few months ahead of COP26, where world leaders will negotiate new climate agreements.

In an interview with The Journal, Thorne outlined that since the IPCC’s last assessment report, which was published seven years ago, scientists’ understanding of humans’ role in climate change has grown clearer.

“The major innovation since the fifth assessment report is our understanding of changes in extremes and their attribution to human causes,” Thorne explained.

“The findings are very much stronger on heatwaves, droughts, and extreme rainfall being made more likely by humans,” he said.

“There is much more explicit [detail] on long-term changes in the climate system. In particular, sea-level rise is considerably more nuanced and more detailed than it was in the fifth assessment report.”

The report looks at the climate on a regional level rather than on a country-by-country basis.

Even with a significant decrease in carbon emissions, the frequency and intensity of hot weather extremes in Europe are expected to continue to increase.

Scientists have seen a rise in hot extremes, in heavy precipitation, and in agricultural and ecological droughts in the region since the 1950s.

Ireland is broadly in line with the rest of the region, Thorne told The Journal, but with some specific nuances.

“Ireland is a relatively small landmass surrounded on all sides by sea or ocean,” Thorne said.

“What we experience will differ even from our nearest neighbour, the UK, but even more so from the continent, which has a very different climate and annual cycle that differs from Ireland,” he said.

“The broad picture of the region applies to Ireland, but there would be differences. We have a much more benign climate than the near continent – our winters tend to be milder and somewhat wetter and our summers tend to be cooler and again probably somewhat wetter.”

This means we could see “less extreme extremes”, but “any change in extremes matters”.

“Everything we do is built around the climate we [currently] have. Many people would have found the recent heatwave uncomfortable because it wasn’t possible to cool the fabric of the building,” Thorne said.

“It doesn’t take 35 or 40 degree heat to have serious impacts for us nationally, because for us, 28 or 30 degrees is a major challenge in its own right already. Similarly, with extreme rainfall, we don’t necessarily need rainfall as extreme as was the case in Germany last month to have an impact.

“Even if the headline-grabbing numbers of 40 degrees of half a metre of rain don’t occur, it will still be extreme and it will still have significant impacts on Ireland.”

In the long term over centuries, if emissions are significantly reduced, the increase in surface temperatures could be gradually reversed.

Reductions in methane emissions – which, in Ireland, come mostly from livestock – would also limit the warming effect and improve air quality.

However, other consequences of the climate crisis, particularly sea-level rises, are already set in motion, meaning that our actions now would be to limit further damage.

Thorne said that “from a national perspective, we need to be honest that sea-level rise will not impact us but will impact many generations”.

“The decisions we make today are the difference between multimetre and tens of metres of sea-level rise that future generations will have to deal with,” Thorne said.

“This is not an impact that will happen in our lifetime, but we’ve set in chain the motion for already multimetre sea-level rise in the very long term,” he said.

“Unless we get very seriously very quickly about emissions, we will be committing to tens of metres of sea level rise and therefore very hard choices down the line for future generations.

“You could not defend cities like Dublin or Galway from that type of sea level rise, and much of Cork as well.

“We can stabilise climate ourselves within our lifetime for things like temperature and rainfall, but we’re already committed to very long-term sea level rise and if we don’t stop soon, it will be very large.”

In the shorter term, a report last year found that a two degree rise in global temperatures would lead to increased storm events and coastal flooding.

Storms and flooding in the next fifty years would come with significant property costs, the report identified.

What can we do?

Lowering emissions will require shifts in government policies, companies’ actions, and individuals’ behaviours.

“The technology [to lower emissions] exists, the capability to produce and deploy that technology exists, the nature-based solutions exist, the opportunity to diversify the agricultural sector with the right policy and bringing the farming community along with it exists,” Thorne said.

“It’s all a question of will the collective priorities of the government provide a policy framework, legal framework, fiscal framework, incentives, and disincentives that can nudge behaviour?”

Along with the government putting in place the means to reduce emissions, individuals should “put climate at the heart of decision making”, Thorne said.

“Lobbying is part of it, but it’s also your personal choices,” he said.

Individual choices could look like buying an electric car instead of a petrol or diesel one and taking a holiday within Ireland instead of travelling abroad, he said.

It could also include using savings to install solar panels, solar water heating, or other sustainable technologies.

“It’s about being informed and the government putting in place the necessary framework to enable people to make those choices,” Thorne said.

“It’s ‘all of the above’ – it’s government, it’s companies, it’s individuals.”

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