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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Alamy Stock Photo July 16, 2023, Death Valley National Park, California, USA: A park visitor poses in front of an unofficial-digital thermometer reading 131F degrees at the Furnace Creek Visitor's Center.

Larry Donnelly Why is it that political will is lagging behind climate chaos?

Our columnist examines recent record temperatures across the globe and attitudes toward climate change in the US.

EVERYONE IS TALKING about the weather this summer. Much of continental Europe is experiencing extreme heat. Temperatures in the 40s – as an aside, I instinctively recoil at these readings because I don’t understand Celsius and will eternally be stuck in Fahrenheit – are commonplace, wreaking havoc on the lives of locals and ruining the holidays of people from Ireland and the United Kingdom on their annual expeditions for a bit of sun.

In China, records have been broken, with the thermostat climbing to 52.2 degrees in the Sanbao township. And in the United States, from Arizona to Florida, in excess of 100 million residents are subject to heat alerts. This is posing a grave public health hazard. Conditions are set to get worse. Bizarrely, a band of “heat tourists” is flocking to California’s Death Valley, where temperatures are hovering in the mid-50s.

people-stop-to-take-photos-of-a-thermostat-reading-119-fahrenheit-48-celsius-at-the-furnace-creek-visitor-center-on-tuesday-july-11-2023-in-death-valley-national-park-calif-july-is Alamy Stock Photo People stop to take photos of a thermostat reading 119° Fahrenheit (48° Celsius) at the Furnace Creek visitor center July 11, 2023, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. Alamy Stock Photo

Climatologists on the airwaves are telling frightened audiences that this extraordinary weather pattern is no aberration. Rather, it is still further proof of climate change. They broadly concur that destructive human behaviour is the main contributor to it. Even the unseasonably cold and rainy weather that my family and I had in Massachusetts during June and that we are enduring here now is apparently an aspect of it.

Who is in charge?

What, then, do we do about a planet that is on fire? This is a question that seems more urgent in a scorching July of 2023 than at any previous point.

Collectively, presidents and prime ministers have been reluctant to get to grips with it. Despite numerous summits and meetings, it has been all but impossible to reach a consensus on what the best plan to tackle an existential crisis is.

The issue of pain absorption – who is going to bear the brunt of the myriad costs that will flow from measures essential to mitigate climate change? – and domestic political realities – which global leaders have the guts to drive green policies unapologetically, without regard for what could be damaging electoral consequences upon their implementation? – are jointly to blame for this ongoing failure to act.

The US and China are widely deemed to be the worst offenders and laggards on this front. It is imperative that they work in concert, notwithstanding the discord between the two nations, to reduce their mammoth emissions of greenhouse gases. Regrettably, discussions this week between John Kerry, the Biden administration’s climate envoy, and Xi Jinping, the President of China, did not engender any firm commitments. Instead, China’s position is that it will endeavour to reduce pollution “at its own pace and in its own way.”

beijing-china-18th-july-2023-wang-yi-a-member-of-the-political-bureau-of-the-communist-party-of-china-cpc-central-committee-and-director-of-the-office-of-the-foreign-affairs-commission-of-the-c Alamy Stock Photo Beijing, China. 18th July, 2023. Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, meets with U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in Beijing. Alamy Stock Photo

What this means in practice is literally anybody’s guess. Stateside, it is refreshing that President Biden has committed to combatting climate change. He says this effort is “an obligation…to our children and grandchildren.” What his words will translate into ultimately will depend significantly on the extent to which the populace is with him.

US attitudes to climate

In April, Pew Research assessed opinions in the US. The data is pretty discouraging. As with all things in America, there is a split along party lines. 90% of Democratic respondents want their country to move toward being carbon neutral; only 44% of Republicans embrace this goal. 78% of Democrats see climate change as a major threat to their well-being; merely 23% of those affiliated with the GOP do. 59% of left-of-centre voters see the climate as a top priority; a paltry 13% of conservatives agree.

On the other hand, views have shifted in that 69% of all those asked believe the US should be nearer to carbon neutral by 2050. Young Americans especially are worried about the environment and want something done about it.

Across the ideological divide, poll participants in their late teens and twenties overwhelmingly endorse an emphasis on renewables and the development of wind, solar and other powers as opposed to remaining so reliant upon fossil fuels.

Worryingly, though, and in keeping with the rise of isolationist, inward-looking sentiment in the US, solely 30% of the individuals polled think America should do more than other big economies and 60% are against providing financial assistance to less wealthy jurisdictions for investment in alternative energy sources. The latter two figures are disappointing and fly in the face of the fact that, whether they like it or not, we are all in this together.

By total contrast, a 2023 European Commission survey shows that 93% of EU citizens are convinced that climate change is a serious problem and 88% want the EU to be carbon neutral by 2050. Why the transatlantic attitudinal chasm? Addressing this profound divergence could be the subject of a doctoral thesis. Reasonable, if slightly glib, suppositions to help account for it include the dominant car culture in the US, the more prevalent rejection of science and the greater adherence to orthodox religious faith. One wonders if this horrendous summer will have any influence on hearts and minds there.

Business as usual

Closer to home, as downright terrifying as American and Chinese recalcitrance may be, it does not relieve us of our shared responsibility for the world we inhabit. In the wake of a Covid-19 mandated freeze on our movements, Irish roads are once again teeming with cars and there are hardly any empty seats on planes jetting away to every destination imaginable.

To quote RTÉ’s Teresa Mannion, very many of these are “unnecessary journeys.”

Surely, battling climate change will require onerous sacrifices. An initial frank and honest appraisal of what each of us does on a regular basis will reveal uncomfortable truths. I personally hate the thought of it and what it might entail. Yet as agitators appropriately call upon governments to take action in the form of robust legislation and corporations to prioritise the future of humankind over their endless pursuit of profit, we have a duty, too.

rome-italy-13-july-2023-people-take-refreshments-from-a-water-fountain-as-rome-experiences-high-temperatures-the-italian-health-ministry-has-issued-a-red-alert-heatwave-warning-for-eight-major-ci Alamy Stock Photo Rome, Italy. 13 July 2023 People take refreshments from a water fountain, as Rome experiences high temperatures . The Italian health ministry has issued a red alert heatwave warning for eight major cities in Italy as temperatures topped 40°C/104F during the cerberus heatwave named after Dante's inferno. Alamy Stock Photo

For two trite maxims are worth repeating. The planet is on fire and we are all in this together. Ignoring what is transpiring around us would be foolish. We cannot assume a monumental risk. The increasingly apocalyptic warnings of experts are undeniably depressing and off-putting. But the evidence they cite appears irrefutable. Recent calamitous weather happenings could be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with


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