The wettest year on record in Ireland

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at
Mon Jan 6 17:46:53 MST 2003

A hard rain is gonna fall

  We've just had the wettest year on record in Ireland, and the second
warmest year globally. The burning of fossil fuels is widely blamed for
dramatic climate change which has brought catastrophes in its wake. So why
is Ireland still churning out greenhouse gases at almost twice the rate of
our EU neighbours, asks Frank McDonald, Environment Editor.

Ireland has had the wettest year on record - and that's official. Figures
released by Met Éireann this week show most of its weather stations
registered higher than average rainfall, in some cases the highest since
records began more than a century ago. 2002 was the ninth year in a row the
weather was milder than usual.

Floods in November, when well over a month's average rainfall came down in
just 36 hours, will long be remembered by those who had to evacuate their
homes in Dublin's Drumcondra, Bertie Ahern's heartland, and other badly-hit
areas. Some householders in floodplain zones may even find that their homes
will be uninsurable.

Across the globe, according to Wild Weather (, 2002 was
the second warmest year on record. With the past five years the warmest
since meteorologists began taking measurements 120 years ago, "it looks like
we are climbing the stairway to heaven. Perhaps only a volcano or asteroid
can save us now", comments the web site. Over the past 100 years, global
surface temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.6° Celsius per century,
but this trend has dramatically increased to a rate approaching 2° Celsius
per century during the past 25 years. The evidence can no longer be
ignored - global warming is already happening, as the doomsayers have

More accurately, what's happening is climate change. Because as the
temperature of the Earth's surface increases, we are subjected to
increasingly frequent and severe "extreme weather events", often with
catastrophic consequences. Even by the end of October, the global bill for
such natural disasters was estimated at ?70 billion.

Random examples include 141 mph winds racing through central Scotland in
January, record rainfall in western Australia in February, 130 million
affected by dust storms in China in March, a killer tornado in Maryland in
April and a heatwave on the Indian subcontinent in May when temperatures
exceeded 50° Celsius.

In June, record floods hit southern Russia while a heatwave gripped the US
and egg-sized hailstones killed 25 people and injured 200 in central China
in July. August saw the worst flooding for a century in Germany, Hungary and
the Czech Republic, where Prague is still counting the cost of water damage
to historic buildings.

A record eight tropical storms came out of the Atlantic in September, 100
mph winds drove strong storms across western Europe in October. Northern
Italy and Switzerland were deluged by relentless rain in November and the
Pacific island of Guam was battered by a "direct hit" typhoon, with gusts of
up to 180 mph, in December.

Also last month, Beijing was blanketed by the heaviest fall of snow for 128
years, forest fires raged on the edge of Sydney fanned by the worst
Australian drought on record, heavy snow covered the eastern US, closing
airports from Boston to Baltimore, and the River Seine came close to
bursting its banks in Paris.

All of these "extreme weather events" have at least got people talking about
the possibility that they form a pattern of climate change, caused -
according to the UN's intergovernmental panel of scientists studying the
issue since 1988 - by an accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,
due largely to burning fossil fuels.

These gases create a greenhouse effect, trapping the heat of the sun and
thereby increasing surface temperatures. The main culprits are energy
production, transport and industry, but deforestation is also a contributory
factor as trees are natural sinks for carbon dioxide and their destruction
releases this gas into the atmosphere.

The UN panel, comprising some 3,000 scientists from throughout the world,
produced its third assessment report in 2001. It warned that the first signs
of climate change are occurring and the risks are enormous. These include
thawing permafrost, shrinking glaciers and rising sea levels that could
engulf low-lying countries.

Noting that the 1990s was the warmest decade on record and 1998 the warmest
single year, the assessment found there is "new and stronger evidence that
most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is attributable to human
activities". It also concluded that global warming is happening more quickly
than previously thought.

"The projected rate of warming is much larger than the observed changes
during the 20th century and is very likely without precedent during the last
10,000 years," according to the UN-sponsored report. (The difference between
the present average global temperature and the last Ice Age is only 5°

The greatest dangers are posed by large-scale and irreversible impacts such
as the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets melting, with knock-on effects on
the Gulf Stream, diverting it further south. That would be catastrophic for
Ireland, perhaps even giving us a climate regime similar to Spitzbergen, in
the Arctic Circle.

However, as Mark Twain once wryly observed, "everybody talks about the
weather, but nobody does anything about it". Least of all US President
George Bush, whose country belched out 1.883 billion tonnes of greenhouse
gases in 2001 even as he walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, declaring that
it would "damage" the economy.

Bush, who remains tied to the fossil fuel lobby, pleaded ignorance. "We do
not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on
warming. We do not know how much our climate could, or will change in the
future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our
actions could impact on it.

"And finally, no one can say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous
level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided," according to
the US president, whose speech in June 2001 was seen by environmentalists
and EU member-states alike as an attempt to re-open questions that were
answered years earlier.

This withdrawal by the world's single biggest polluter was intended to deal
a killer blow to Kyoto, which is the only international legal instrument
designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Bush's espousal of nebulous
voluntary efforts and partnerships as an alternative was music to the ears
of his fossil fuel friends.

The Global Climate Coalition, representing oil, coal and motor-manufacturing
interests, saw it as a "practical, forward-looking approach" that would
"lead the world out of the Kyoto quagmire". At the time, indeed, the US was
counting on Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia to join it in walking
away from ratifying the 1997 protocol.

Kyoto requires a "double trigger" to enter into force. The first trigger is
ratification by 55 governments - a requirement met early in 2002. The second
trigger is that the ratifying governments must include industrialised
countries representing at least 55 per cent of that group's greenhouse gas
emissions in 1990, the treaty's base year.

Tortuous negotiations at climate summits in The Hague, Bonn and Marrakesh
were required to agree on how to implement the average 5 per cent cut in
emissions by industrialised countries by 2010. After all the unseemly
horse-trading, a compromise package was agreed which is likely to mean a
less dramatic reduction of 1.5 per cent.

Last month, the Canadian parliament asserted its independence from the US by
ratifying Kyoto. So did New Zealand, even though neighbouring Australia -
with its huge coal reserves - has obdurately stayed in the US camp. Now, the
protocol only needs ratification by Russia to bring it over the "55/55"
threshold early this year.

Nonetheless, strenuous efforts to undermine the Kyoto process continue
unabated. Last April, Bob Watson, outspoken chairman of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was ousted following a
campaign which was "orchestrated by Esso and the Bush administration",
according to Friends of the Earth.

Kate Hampton, its climate co-ordinator, said the fossil fuel industry and
the US government "will be celebrating their success in kicking out Bob
Watson, an experienced scientist who understood that urgent action is needed
to tackle global climate change" - by far the most serious environmental
threat now confronting humanity.

Indeed, within days of Bush entering the White House in January 2001, a fax
came in from Arthur G. Randol III, senior environmental adviser at
Exxon-Mobil (Esso's parent company), specifically asking: "Can Watson be
replaced at the request of the US?".

As Greenpeace noted later, "the answer, evidently, was Yes." Before Bush's
inauguration, Exxon took advertisements in the US media trumpeting "An
Energy Policy for the New Administration" which stated that "the unrealistic
and economically damaging Kyoto process needs to be re-thought". Within
months, it was claimed that US policy "will not be very different to what
you are hearing from us".

Three years earlier, a $7 million campaign by the American Petroleum
Institute aimed to "maximise the impact of scientific views consistent with
ours" (by recruiting sceptical scientists who dissent from the IPCC
consensus) with a view to "erecting a barrier against further efforts to
impose Kyoto-like measures in the future". Greenpeace produced its own
assessment of Exxon's "weapons of mass deception" last October, with a
foreword by Bianca Jagger complaining about "powerful agents with vested
interests who continue to wage a cynical, self-interested war" to derail the
Kyoto process. "The worst of these is Exxon-Mobil," Jagger declared.

Though other leading oil companies, such as Shell and BP, withdrew from the
Global Climate Coalition and began diversifying into alternative energy,
Exxon-Mobil still concentrates its efforts on lobbying against concerted
international action to deal with climate change. No wonder
environmentalists are running a "Stop Esso" boycott.

With more than half of his cabinet - including Vice President Dick Cheney -
drawn from the oil and gas industry, it is hardly surprising that Bush's
plan to deal with climate change is unlikely to result in a serious
reduction in US emissions, which amount to 24 per cent of the global total
for a country with 5 per cent of the world's population.

Not that we can afford to be too critical. After all, one of the lasting
legacies of the so-called Celtic tiger economy has been to push Ireland's
emissions way above the limit (an increase of 13 per cent over 1990 levels
by 2010) we signed up for under an EU "burden-sharing" deal hammered out in
Luxemburg in June 1998.

If, as expected, the Kyoto Protocol comes into force later this year,
Ireland could face massive penalties for failing to meet its agreed target,
as the Minister for the Environment, Martin Cullen, has been warning lately.
For anything to change, however, his first task will be to convince his
Cabinet colleagues, notably Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy.

Despite having a successful template in the 15 cent plastic bag tax, the
Minister for Finance has long-fingered the promised introduction of
unspecified carbon energy taxes until late-2004 at the earliest. His Budget
last month also abolished important incentives for investment in wind energy
and cut the allocation for forestry by 22 per cent.

None of these measures makes any sense in the context of Kyoto. The
short-term savings are minuscule compared with the penalties Ireland might
have to pay in the future - as much as ?1.3 billion a year, according to
Cullen. Yet Kyoto is merely a first step towards much more ambitious targets
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As a rich country, we can hardly take comfort from the knowledge that those
likely to suffer most are poorer people in Asia and Africa who have had
least to do with creating the problem.

Our emissions, at 17.7 tonnes per person per year, contrast with an EU
average of 10 tonnes per capita and just two tonnes per capita in the
developing world.

There are solutions. As the IPCC has noted, low-cost technologies are
already available that would help to reduce harmful emissions. Wind power,
for example, could supply 10 per cent of the world's electricity within two
decades and solar energy could make an even bigger impact - but only with
the active encouragement of governments.

At present, as Greenpeace repeatedly points out, fossil fuels receive
billions of dollars in subsidies; oil is still far too cheap, even at $32 a
barrel. "Polluting industries are allowed to pollute for free while clean
technologies remain under-funded," it says. "Oil companies must stop
exploring for more fossil fuels that the world cannot afford to burn."

Black oil. Some of it washed ashore in November on the beaches of Galicia
from a clapped-out tanker called Prestige, of all names. It was being
transported across the ocean to fuel our cars, trucks, trains, aircraft and
power stations. Hydrogen fuel cells may be just around the corner, but in
the meantime we remain addicted to oil even though it may cost us the Earth.

© The Irish Times

Extreme weather has at least got people talking about the possibility of
climate change due to global warning which is rapidly accelerating.

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