Irish Examiner View: Humanity’s greatest challenge

Irish Examiner View: Humanity’s greatest challenge

A fire rages in a forest in Senyayla village near Mugla, Turkey. A UN Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change predicts a grim future unless more is done globally to tackle the problem. (Ismail Coskun/IHA via AP)

That last week Tánaiste Leo Varadkar had to apologise was a consequence of many things.

An uncomfortable sense that those behind a party he attended march to drum other than the one guiding public health policy was one. The misjudgment showed a naivety that should not be a presence in an administration in its second decade in power. It also confirmed an underappreciation of the potency of negative imagery and messaging. Because of that naivety-cum-hubris credibility has been squandered and his capacity to lead, especially on hotly-contested issues, is diminished. In the light of yesterday's frightening UN climate report that weakness is disconcerting especially as Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan has warned that the cost of ignoring climate change would be “catastrophic”  and that  “the window for action is closing”.

This failure to see the fuller picture, as a weekend event showed in a very different way, facilitates those with nefarious purposes. The West Cork History Festival heard that, unsurprisingly, British criticism of the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, reflected an unwillingness to accept that Crown Forces led a brutal campaign in Ireland between 1919 and 1921. Ignorance may be bliss but it also makes room for the most dangerous actions or, as is the case on the greatest challenge of our time, something far too close to inaction.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change yesterday formally published its latest report, one that predicts an ever-grimmer future. The UN confirms that we drive global warming — with unbearable heatwaves, rising seas, extreme rain and fires a reality in too many places. It warns too that without fast, deep cuts in greenhouse gases we will, during this century, exceed the 2C doomsday limits. In those circumstances, and especially for cities built on estuaries, catastrophe is promised. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres described the report as a “code red for humanity”.

The report drew on more than 14,000 scientific papers and was endorsed by 195 governments. Despite the comprehensive, agreed and peer-reviewed nature of the report it will be, as all climate reports are now, challenged by a vocal, unhinged minority.

Though the great majority recognises the crisis and yearn for political leadership to confront it and its causes, those opposed to necessary and radical change beat their drum ever-more loudly. The time has come for Government, governments, and the EU to be far more assertive in the information wars around this crisis.

One of the small ways that could be achieved would be by introducing climate and environmental studies as exam subjects in second-level schools. That, as Greece, Turkey, swathes of America, and Siberia too burn, may seem tokenism but if it helped create the mindset needed to embrace the scale of the challenge it would be worthwhile. 

A far less tolerant attitude to social media platforms that host climate deniers — often the same as those that host anti-vaxxers — is urgently needed too. After all, and Mr Varadkar's apology confirms, he who controls the message usually controls the outcomes too. Recognising this, and the growing urgency around responding to yesterday's alarm-bell report, will to a greater degree than anything else define our species' future and the stability of the societies we have built over millennia.

We have never faced a greater challenge. It is time to show we are equal to it.

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