Kathriona Devereux: Climate crisis hasn’t gone away, you know

If you think the Covid-19 crisis has been disruptive to normal life, wait till you see how the climate crisis is going to disrupt things, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: Climate crisis hasn’t gone away, you know

RED ALERT: Embers light up a hillside behind the Bidwell Bar Bridge as a forest fire burns in Oroville, California, last week.

LAST Tuesday, the European Space Agency issued a press release that arguably could have been front page news the following day.

Measurements from ESA satellites show that the Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than expected and is on track with the United Nations’ “worst-case scenario” climate predictions.

Another study by U.S scientists analysed 40 years of Greenland glacier data and determined that its ice sheet has melted past the point of no return. Annual snowfall accumulations in polar regions are not replenishing the ice that is melting during the warmer summer months.

Some might argue this is hardly front page news, given the immediate public health and economic crisis, but if you think the Covid-19 crisis has been disruptive to normal life, wait till you see how the climate crisis is going to disrupt things.

In fact, you don’t have to wait, look at California. Los Angeles broke weather records, hitting 49C, and kicking off wildfires and apocalyptic scenes of smoke and destruction caused by extreme heat, drought and weather events.

“Un-survivable” was the warning for U.S residents at risk from Hurricane Laura just a few weeks ago. That caused widespread destruction too and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted an “extremely active” hurricane season for 2020 because of warmer than usual sea surface temperatures.

Even if we immediately stopped all greenhouse gas emissions to halt warming, we are witnessing the demise of the Greenland ice sheet. Scientists hadn’t expected to see this level of melting for another 50 years.

Greenland and Antarctica have lost 6.4 trillion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2017, raising global sea levels by 17mm.

So that’s it then. A pitiful legacy to leave our children and grandchildren — the melting of one of the world’s largest reserves of freshwater, falling into the sea and ultimately raising sea levels by seven metres. That’s not going to happen in our lifetimes or our grandchildren’s lifetimes, or possibly for centuries, but if warming continues unchecked we don’t know what tipping points or thresholds will be crossed. That’s why so much science is being done to get a handle on how the melting is happening and at what rate.

Some 1.9 million people live within 5km of the Irish coast and 40,000 live less than 100 metres away from the sea, so rising sea levels should be high up on our worry list.

Yes, it may take 1,000 years for that seven-metre sea level rise to happen, but if our carbon emitting trajectory doesn’t nosedive soon, our ancestors of the future might not be living in Cork — the city will be under water.

We find it hard to grasp timeframes beyond the human lifespan but our existence here today is a consequence of the choices our ancestors made centuries ago.

Around 1,400 years ago, St.Finbarr came to Cork to found a monastic settlement, and archaeological excavation of the former Beamish brewery site on South Main Street revealed a Viking house dating from 1070 AD.

So, 950 years ago, our Viking cousins were reclaiming land from the River Lee, building houses, establishing a trading port and starting the urban centre that we know and love today.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris took 182 years to build from 1163-1345 and besides being an awesome place of worship, it is a testimony to human skill, ingenuity and planning. After the devastating 2019 fire, pledges to rebuild it poured in from the great and the good of society. That level of commitment, to rebuilding a sustainable world, is needed to deal with climate change.

Notre-Dame was built by a succession of bishops, not a succession of like-minded politicians. It was financed by the Church establishment, not by taxpayers’ coffers. For climate action, a long-term ‘cathedral-building’ mind-set is required by countries and citizens.

Scientists say that global carbon emissions must be cut by half by 2030 if humanity is to have a realistic chance of keeping temperature rises to below 1.5C, the limit set by the Paris Agreement and the limit of warming that humans can just about cope with. We are already seeing the consequences of approximately one degree of warming and I’m not sure if the people of California are coping too well with that. We need to pursue two tracks. Climate mitigation to halt emissions and stop the warming, and climate adaptation to deal with with the climate change that is currently underway.

All sectors of society will be affected — transport, agriculture, forestry, seafood and marine, built and archaeological heritage, biodiversity, water quality and services — and there are climate adaptation plans in place to help us deal with what nature and climate change are going to throw at us.

It’s been two years since Greta Thunberg focused the attention of the world on the climate crisis and mobilised millions of schoolchildren to strike for climate action.

She moved the climate crisis up the political and public agenda and made it front page news, but in those two years the world emitted over 80 billion tonnes of CO2 and ‘business-as-usual’ continued for many. Greta has gone back to school this year and I hope the momentum of the climate action movement won’t be swallowed up by the pandemic.

The real hope is that the billions being spent by governments to stimulate economies during the pandemic will be spent on ways to halt our emissions and change course away from climate destruction.

Otherwise, a thousand years from now, what will our ancestors be saying about us?

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