There’s one issue that I’d just like to clarify – there’s a figure saying that the international scientific community is 90% certain that our burning of fossil fuels is leading to the problem of climate change.
You have to remember with those statistics, it relates to international agreement where every single country has to sign up. Actually what the scientists were saying, is that it’s 99% certain. They only brought it back down to 90% because some scientist somewhere said, “Oh no, are we sure?”
That’s important, because we have to listen very carefully to what the scientists are saying on this issue. We have one of the best of them here in this University, in John Sweeney.
There’s a difficult, maybe political or moral choice we have because, if you do listen to the scientists, you cannot but be scared to your core. It is truly frightening what they are saying. It’s a difficult one, because I’m sure you know in Trócaire, in your campaigns, frightening people isn’t always the best way [to convey] a message. There’s been much debate as to whether that engages or activates people or whether that just switches them off.
But it’s important I think, that we are aware of the science. In those circumstances, given that scientific information, I think Trócaire is absolutely right to run this year’s Lenten campaign on the subject of climate change. It follows absolutely rightly from the campaign they ran last year in terms of identifying that it’s women are at the centre of much world poverty.
But I’d have to slightly take point with the sense that this is just an advocacy thing and therefore it’s not the big issue – we move on next year and go back to our core business which is poverty eradication. I am sorry but when you look at the science, when you understand what’s going on – this is the core issue, this is the one subject that will determine how we develop as a people on this planet. There are other issues, but this is the interconnecting one – it is the one [issue] that brings development and environmental issues together.
What I’m saying is, that the solution to this [climate change], is also a unifying solution. In the way that we’ll have to undertake it, it brings resolution to so many of the social and justice issues that we face and have faced on this planet, as long as we can remember, as long as we have been reporting on what’s happening.
So this year, it is the Climate Change Lenten campaign. But next year, no matter what subject you are talking about will be the Climate Change issue, because it will be related without doubt to what’s happening in our environment, in our climate. Unfortunately, it’s not going to go away.
Two people I met recently whom I very much respect. One is John Sweeney, an excellent scientist, an excellent person at explaining it. He’s a member of the International Panel of Climate Change Scientists, which is the main advisory panel – they set out scenarios of where we might be going, ranging from a 2 degree to 6 degree increase in average global temperature. The earth’s average temperature is at about 14 degrees so a six degree increase in temperature throws us into a completely different world.
That’s what he says, that we’re on a six degree point. And there’s a real concern that when you’re on that path, you may flip this planet into a completely different stage of change. It’s not just a gradual process where Ireland is a Marbella in twenty years time, but the whole system flips and changes that we do not know and will not be able to understand until it actually happens.
In that regard, it’s interesting to look at who the real leaders are. I met Professor Schellnhuber in Germany– he’s an advisor to Angela Merkel. He works with Jim Hansen, who’s the leading American scientist in this area.
They’ve just published a report saying that that propensity for a climate which we’ve seen in the past flip to a different state is the real concern. There’s a real possibility that this will not be a gradual change but in a very short possible time you could see a catastrophic change, which leads to runaway climate change – a micro climate change in the Amazon rainforest would lead to a change in the ecosystem there – you would switch effectively from a rainforest ecosystem to a savannah ecosystem, and they’ve set out the plausible reasons why that could happen. There’s been serious drought in the Amazon in the recent years.
The scientists are now saying that there’s an 80% chance by the end of this century that that flip will occur in the Amazon. I know we’ve heard this for thirty years, it’s a cliché, “Oh the Amazon rainforest is in trouble because of the ozone layer, and it hasn’t happened yet” – but that’s what the scientists are saying (80%). And if that happens, there will be some 600 billion tonnes of additional carbon released into the atmosphere because those trees are carbon stores – and then there’s a real problem, there’s a runaway effect. There are other typical points – the fact that the tundra is melting and this may release methane caltrates which actually increase greenhouse gas effect.
So what those scientists are saying, very clearly, in almost un-diplomatic language (because they’ve been diplomatic for the last twenty years) is that these tipping points are the crucial points we cannot go across. The risks of going across those increases significantly, when you go above a two degree average increase.
So what Professor Schellnhuber advised the German Government to do – he said try whatever you need to do to manage your emissions so you don’t go above a two degree increase. That figure set the European Union policy, which we are trying to set in the United Nations Framework. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is where these negotiations take place – in Kyoto, in Bali last year, in Poznan in Poland next year and in Copenhagen in 2009.
The European Union has learned and is saying, because this is the scientific advice, we have to set our emissions on a path which keeps us below two degrees’ increase, on a climate security basis. Of note, is that if you go above a two degree increase, is that you start to see very serious consequences for very large sections of populations in the planet.
Take one example, the city of Lima in Peru. Some 11 million people who are living in a desert, but getting their water from a river that comes from the Andean glaciers. And those glaciers are retreating rapidly. And when you go above a two degree increase, what is being projected is that cities like Lima may well not have water, or indeed other major cities in sub continental India and China. And what do 11 million poor people do without water?
Those risks of water shortage, of new malarial areas being introduced, of food shortages, of flooding, start to really come in - and tens of hundreds of millions of peoples live are put at risk when you go above a two degree increase.
Keep below two degrees’ increase to stop climate tipping points, but also to prevent the lives of hundreds of millions of people being put at threat.
In terms of what we can do then - I sense that there’s a frustration out there among people, people saying, “would you please tell me what I can do, I need to feel as a human being that I can do something about this, more than putting my few euros into the Trócaire box.” So what are we going to have to do? As a government as a whole, we can do a number of different things, but on an individual level? Three or four different things:
We need to drive and fly less. Having a society where everyone is going around in a half tonne of metal around them, is not my idea of a good cohesive community society. In fact, the privatised transport system we have developed which is hugely emitting of fossil fuels emissions, is I believe, leading us to a more individualised, fragmented, less cohesive and strong community society. So I believe tackling that transport issue; yes it brings climate change benefits but it also brings social benefits. It also delivers us a clever, more sophisticated; more effective, more efficient transport system by driving and flying less.
We need to eat better. Again I look at a system of where we get our food from and where it goes…We go out on our weekly shopping, we buy a whole trolley load of stuff, go back, put it in our fridge and we forget what’s there two weeks later and we throw it out. So we waste and we waste and we waste. By eating better, by buying cleverly, by eating less meat and less dairy products – that’s not going to go down very well in certain circles - cuts down our emissions. We’re told all the time in western society, we have all these ills from having the wrong diet. By switching our diet , we’re going to cut back our emissions and also make it healthier.
So eating better is one simple message, it’s not doom and gloom. Seamus Sheridan, he takes a fish from the sea and treats it in an “Italian way”– it’s a very different way from buying a fish finger, covered in fat and butter, which probably came from North West Africa. That’s not clever – Seamus Sheridan’s way of appreciating what we have is better.
We need to be energy clever. It’s too warm in this room. It’s always too warm. We’re using huge amounts of carbon and chucking it up into the atmosphere, so we can be uncomfortable here in a room that is too warm. We need to rethink our use of energy.
On that note, I’ll finish up and thank you for your kind attention. Thank you.