Maeve Higgins: Climate crisis puts Ireland in a particularly precarious position

We need to prepare for a more extreme climate system - and put the solutions in place
Maeve Higgins: Climate crisis puts Ireland in a particularly precarious position

Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have already doomed 120 trillion tonnes of Greenland’s ice to melt markedly raising sea levels.

"I see this like Apollo 13." Frank McGovern, the chief climate scientist for Ireland's Environmental Protection Agency, uses the metaphor of the failed 1970 moon shot to describe the climate crisis

Apollo 13's command module pilot famously said, "Houston, we've had a problem." We have one too, says McGovern: "We're out there, and we've got a problem, a major problem. They had a leak and were building up carbon dioxide in their system, so they would actually kill themselves, a bit like us here."

Homes are flooded on Salinas Beach after the passing of Hurricane Fiona in Salinas, Puerto Rico.
Homes are flooded on Salinas Beach after the passing of Hurricane Fiona in Salinas, Puerto Rico.

 As I write this, Hurricane Fiona is ripping through Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, with 90mph winds and flooding rain that have destroyed homes and left millions of people without power and over 1m without access to running water.

Puerto Rico, a small island with a large population, saw Hurricane Maria destroy many of its homes and massively exacerbate coastal erosion in 2017. Rising sea levels and rising temperatures, combined with ever-stronger hurricane seasons, ensure the dreadful suffering keeps coming.

It is obvious that Ireland has escaped the worst of the climate crisis. It's just as obvious that the chaos is coming for us all, and I wanted to talk to Dr McGovern about our country specifically

 I listed some potential challenges that might face our small island nation — will it be rainfall, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, loss of habitats, or water quality? 

"All of those. Take your pick. First of all, there's more energy in the system, and most of that energy goes into the ocean. The ocean is heating up significantly, and as water heats, it expands." 

McGovern tells me that this is happening at the same time as the ice is melting, putting more fresh water into the ocean. "Ireland is in a particularly precarious position in many ways; one is that we've got Greenland just across there."

Last month researchers released a new study stating that Greenland's melting ice sheet will likely contribute almost 30cm to global sea level rise by the end of the century. Scientists reported in the journal Nature Climate Change that even if we halted all greenhouse gas emissions, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have already doomed 120 trillion tons of Greenland's ice to melt. This massively ups the level predicted by last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which projected a range of 5-12cm of likely sea level rise by the end of the century.

Future climate

 McGovern explains that predicting the future climate is extremely difficult because researchers used to look at the historical records to do that, but now we are in new territory. The unknowns are not only contingent on the science but on the effectiveness of the responses to the science.

While it may be impossible to know, I ask for his best guess about what Ireland is facing. 

"Ireland is just at the interface between what could be a continental climate or an ocean climate." 

He continues that our climate and our weather will become more unpredictable and envisions a blend of both climates. 

"That's probably going to be what we'll get — that sort of mix. Some years we will get those extreme droughts and dryness, and other years will get more intense wetness and rainfall." 

It's a challenge to adapt to both, but that's what we'll have to think about in our strategies for how to deal with this. We need to prepare for a more extreme climate system

I'm struck by how calm McGovern is throughout our conversation about the biggest existential threat to humankind, a threat he understands more than most. "This supercharged carbon cycle that we've created by taking the fossil corpses of the Carbonaceous era of the planet and pumping that carbon back into our current world is perhaps the biggest mistake humanity has made so far." 

Even saying that, he is calm. I ask him how he stays that way. He chuckles and mimes panic. "What do you want me to be like? Oh, we're doomed, we're doomed!" That makes me laugh too, and then he is serious. "Look, people do what people do, and we have to be enabled to make the right choices. One of the things we need to do is to take fossil energy out of the system. That's a must. We have to get to net zero carbon dioxide emissions. And we need a whole new suite of technologies to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere because we're loading it up, and once it's up there, it stays up there."

I've written about how to deal with climate anxiety and take both direct and political action on climate before, like in this column inspired by Mary Robinson's three-pronged strategy for doing just that

There is so much work to do to secure a livable planet, and plenty of people are already doing that work. McGovern started out as an atmospheric physicist at the Mace Head Research Station on the Galway coast and has been working on the climate crisis for decades. We already have the solutions to this manmade crisis; now, it's a matter of implementing them.

Back to Apollo 13 now, and I ask him, didn't the crew survive? They did. In fact, Nasa refers to the mission as "a successful failure". 

After enduring unforeseen setbacks, immense hardship, and no small amount of fear, the crew on board and their team back at the base used all of their connectivity and ingenuity, and courage to get back to Earth safely. "They had to circumnavigate the moon, to get the rotation around it to get the gravitational swing back to Earth. The way I see it is we need to see Earth like that. We have to rotate around 2050. At that point, we need to be at peak warming, and then we have to get back into a more stable and managed climate system."

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