THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSE to Hurricane Ophelia shows three things. A “better safe than sorry” approach, officially called the precautionary principle. A willingness to cause disruption to apply that principle, for example by closing schools for a second day. And a new level of leadership, coordination and decisiveness in the State’s emergency planning.
Unfortunately, all three of these things are entirely absent in the government’s approach to preventing extreme weather events like Ophelia becoming more common.
Ophelia is what climate change looks like
Make no mistake, Ophelia is what climate change looks like. Every storm now bears the fingerprint of global warming. The Earth’s atmosphere is 1C warmer than it was 150 years ago. That additional energy makes stronger storms more likely.
Moreover, hurricanes can only develop over very warm water so they have been rare in the eastern Atlantic. As the ocean temperature increases, such hurricanes become more likely.
Preventing runaway climate change is a real emergency. The storms and floods of recent years took place in a 1 degree warmer world. 2 degrees is regarded is as the upper limit of what human civilisation could cope with.
All the pledges to cut pollution by countries across the world still leave us on track for 3 degrees of warming. And current policies have us on track for a 4 degree warmer world, which the World Bank has concluded is “incompatible with an organised global community”.
We are the third highest polluters per person in the EU
Ireland is among the worst countries in the world when it comes to tackling the climate emergency. We are the third highest polluters per person in the EU and the eighth highest in the rich world. We are one of only 5 countries in the EU which is going to miss its 2020 targets, and the only one of those where emissions are predicted to continue rising.
John Fitzgerald, the economist who chairs the official Climate Advisory Council, described the government’s recent plan on cutting pollution as “100 bright ideas but no new decisions”.
Decisions to actually cut emissions would disrupt powerful interests, and perhaps irritate some voters. Decisions would require leadership. Leadership that is so far fatally lacking, despite Leo Varadkar’s declaration on the night he was elected Taoiseach that he was “determined the Government should show new ambition in tackling climate change”.
Rooftop solar power is taking off in other countries
Ministers are so diffident about taking action that even where there are obviously popular measures they dither. In other countries rooftop solar power is taking off as costs plummet.
Here, Minister Naughten’s new plan for renewable electricity specifically excludes small scale solar that could transform schools, community halls and GAA clubs as well as homes, businesses and farm-buildings into locally owned power plants. His officials claim it would cost too much. So we commissioned an independent researcher to run the numbers for us.
It would cost less than €14 million a year to pay 50,000 homes and business for the electricity they could generate on their rooftops. That compares with the €120 million a year we currently pay to subsidise peat-burning for electricity. Or the more than €1 billion Ophelia is set to cost in damage and disruption.
Minister Naughten has put his renewables plan out for public consultation (details here and he wants to hear what you have to say by Friday 3 November). And you can add your name to our petition for a fair payment for solar power here, a petition Leo Varadkar himself signed at Electric Picnic last year.
Now he’s Taoiseach he can make it happen, but he’ll have to decide to overrule the bean counters who discount the future and dismiss citizen participation as a luxury. He’ll have to show leadership.
Oisín Coghlan is Director of Friends of the Earth, a member of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition.