Changing environment - The greatest question facing us all

Over the last few days we’ve detailed how schools’ green flag programmes are fostering a greater understanding and urgency about how we develop ways of existing without further damaging the only environment we have.

These programmes are entirely laudable and, in hindsight, should have been in place decades ago but, as in so many fields, the truth comes dripping oh so slowly. And why only for children? Our record of environmental protection suggests all of us would benefit from any process that might deepen our understanding of how very precarious, how finely balanced, our situation has become.

Over recent days we’ve seen beaches closed because of an E.coli outbreak. We’ve seen a canary-in-the-mine fish kill caused by pollution. In the West we’ve had turfcutters ignore directives aimed at protecting the remnants of our raised bogs. We’ve seen Cork County Council establish a roving service to clean up illegal dumping. And, despite the wettest summer in living memory, Dublin’s water supply is still on a knife edge. We’ve had a great, disingenuous furore about septic tank charges as if it was not necessary to protect our drinking water from ineffective systems. We have dozens of towns, if not many more, dependent on sewage treatment plants long ago outstripped by development. This mismanagement has contributed to outbreaks of E.coli and cryptosporidium.

There are many more domestic instances of neglect but by far the most spectacular can be seen on the international stage. Over half of continental America is dealing with moderate or extreme drought after the warmest 12 months since records began in 1895. The worst drought in over 50 years grips a region that usually provides over half the corn and more than two fifths of the soya to world markets.

The US National Weather Service issued excessive-heat warnings for Arizona, Nevada and California. Temperatures were forecast to hit 45C in Phoenix, 45.5C in Las Vegas and 51.6C in Death Valley.

Late last month, a report by climate change strategists at HSBC bank — little or no tree-hugger sentiment there — said extreme weather had “direct implications for agricultural production” and was already reflected in higher commodity prices. In the US, corn production forecasts have been cut by 12.3%.

Irish farmers — and ultimately every one of us — face spectacular increases in food bills, especially as the domestic harvest was so damaged by relentless rain.

In Russia, a state of emergency was declared in Krymsk, Novorossiysk, and Gelendzhik after six months’ rain fell in two days, causing floods that killed at least 170 people.

Despite all of these irrefutable facts — not to mention soaring fuel prices — global emissions of carbon dioxide increased by 3% last year, reaching an all-time high of 34bn tonnes.

Of course it is wonderful to teach children about growing knobbly carrots, gathering rainwater, and turning eggshells into compost but in the face of the obvious and spectacularly daunting changes all around us our response seems utterly inadequate. Why this is so may be the greatest question facing each of us and the world today.


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