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A scene from last year's floods in Dublin Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Column Ever wondered why the weather is getting weirder?

Flash flooding in Dublin, gales around the country – it’s happening more often. So what’s going on? John Gibbons has some answers…

GIVEN THE DRAMATIC slump in media coverage of climate change compared to two or three years ago, you could be forgiven for thinking that it must all have been a bit of a storm in a teacup, rather like the Y2K panic back in the late 90s. This impression, while understandable, could hardly be further from reality.

The decline in public and media concern about climate change is doubly puzzling, considering that extreme weather events are now occurring with a frequency and intensity greater than at any time in the century and a half for which detailed instrumental global climate records have been tracked.

2011 was a year of unparalleled weather extremes, with heatwaves, droughts, flooding and a host of other ‘natural disasters’ causing record damage from Russia to the US, Australia, across Asia and in Europe.

Ireland, thanks to its maritime location, is buffered to a degree against the most severe weather events, yet even here, disasters like the freak flooding in the Dublin area last October that left two dead and the Dundrum Shopping Centre under water are recurring with ominous regularity.

Across the continental US, almost 3,000 monthly weather records were smashed in 2011. Severe weather events cost the US over $50billion last year. Early in 2011, unprecedented floods in Australia covered an area almost twice the size of France.

In fact, the 13 warmest years since global records began in the 19th century have all occurred since 1998. This year will almost certainly continue this trend. Even though 2012 is only a few days old, this can be predicted with a high degree of confidence. I can also predict that 2012 will see another tumultuous year of weather extremes right across the globe. And next year may well be worse again…

Given that Met Eireann struggles to predict the weather here on this one small island more than a handful of days ahead, how can I be so sure about projections months, even years ahead and right around the globe?

‘The economic crisis has blindsided us to a rapidly unfolding tragedy’

The answer is surprisingly simple: global average temperatures are rising rapidly, and human activities are the main driver. Last year, we pumped yet another 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), a powerful ‘greenhouse’ gas, into the atmosphere.

Year after year, tens of billions of tonnes of CO2 arising from burning of fossil fuels make their way into the atmosphere, where they remain for hundreds, even thousands of years into the future. As this layer of invisible heat-trapping gases thickens, so the global temperature rises, slowly but inevitably.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its landmark 2007 report, warned that if carbon emissions were not quickly and drastically reduced, the world would face ever-worsening weather disasters, leading within decades towards a global environmental catastrophe on a scale not witnessed in recorded human history.

The IPCC’s warnings have gone unheeded, and carbon emissions are now running at levels well beyond the IPCC’s “worst case” scenario figures, which projected a cataclysmic 4C rise in global average temperatures this century.

The obsession among the media and politicians with the economic crisis has blindsided us to a rapidly unfolding environmental tragedy that is on course to demolish the world economy (which depends entirely on natural resources) and plunge billions of us into crushing poverty as well as drastically diminishing biological diversity on this planet for millennia. Unstoppable sea level rises will, in time, wipe most of today’s coastal settlements from the map of the world.

Scientists have a name for all of this: The Sixth Extinction. The very survival of millions of species now hangs in the balance, chief among them the genus homo sapiens, a young species which has enjoyed global hegemony for barely a hundred centuries (the dinosaurs ruled for an impressive 160 million years).

If this all sounds like the plot from a Hollywood disaster movie, keep in mind that these projections are from the world’s most respected scientific experts and organisations. And they don’t do science fiction.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and is online at Twitter: @think_or_swim

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