Hurricane Ophelia Hit Ireland Days After Minister Lobbied to Weaken Climate Commitments

Dennis Naughten

Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland earlier this week, leaving three people dead, some 170,000 people without electricity, and water supplies for over one third of a million people in jeopardy as a result of loss of power to pumping stations.

But while the satellite imagery of hurricane Ophelia bearing down on the edge of western Europe may have been alarming, it could hardly be described as unexpected.

A 2013 study predicted with some precision that “greenhouse warming (would) enhance the occurrence of hurricane-force storms over western Europe during early autumn (August–October)”. Four years later, hurricane Ophelia barrelled up from the Azores, where sea surface temperatures were high enough for it to form, and it followed an arrow-like trajectory north, with the Irish coast dead in its tracks.

Ophelia is the first Category 3 hurricane ever witnessed in the east Atlantic. But it may not be the last.

There is evidence that hurricane-force storms hitting the UK, like Ophelia, will be enhanced in the future due to human-induced climate change,” Dann Mitchell of the University of Bristol told New Scientist.

With satellites tracking its formation, growth and movement, Ireland had ample warning of the arrival of this massive storm, and the entire country went into virtual lockdown, helping to keep death toll relatively low.

The prevailing political and public policy view about climate change in Ireland is that it is a problem for the next generation or two, and one that has technical and engineering solutions.  

Ireland’s recently established Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC), a body dominated by economists, with economist Prof John FitzGerald as its chair, has an Adaptation Committee but, bizarrely, there is no equivalent committee for mitigation.

The view expounded by the CCAC and others in Irish political circles is that climate change is a distant problem and that mitigation is too expensive to bother with.

FitzGerald appears to have a fundamental misunderstanding of climate change and risk management, as seen in comments such as this: “action on climate change involves an appeal to altruism on the part of voters – there is little in it for people living in Ireland today.”

That view has been badly shaken by the sheer brute force of storm Ophelia.

Lobbying to Weaken Ireland’s Climate Commitments

Housing minister, Eoghan Murphy made an unusually blunt intervention on Irish national radio this week: “In everything we do, climate mitigation and adaptation has to be at the forefront of our actions, it has to be running through everything”.

As an island on the western fringe of Europe, he added: “we are exposed, given our geographical position, to extreme weather events, we have to be constantly aware of climate, we have to be aware of what we as a country are doing to mitigate climate change and meet our targets”.

However, just three days before Ophelia made landfall, his cabinet colleague, Denis Naughten, Ireland’s first ever ‘Climate Action’ minister, went to Brussels to demand special treatment and to look for loopholes regarding emissions reductions.

In particular, Naughten was pleading that the starting point for Ireland’s 2030 emissions reductions calculations be cut to, in essence, ‘reward’ it for failing to achieve its modest 2020 targets.

Ireland, Naughten continued: “is intent on investing to drive down our emissions between now and 2030, but we will not be able to do this if, rather than funding productive mitigation efforts, we are forced to divert scarce resources to purchasing compliance”.

His argument was somewhat undermined in the recently published Budget 2018, which showed no evidence whatever of this proposed major funding of mitigation efforts. Nor has Naughten taken any steps to shut down Ireland’s loss-making and hugely environmentally damaging peat burning power stations.

As Laura Burke, director general of the Environmental Protection Agency recently revealed, peat subsidies are four times higher per megawatt of electricity produced than supports for clean wind-powered energy. Ireland also refuses to pay any feed-in tariff to encourage small-scale producers such as rooftop or farm-based solar. None of these positions square with Naughten’s claim to EU environment ministers last week that Ireland is on the cusp of unveiling significant mitigation efforts.

Naughten’s insistence that binding commitments on emissions entered into by a previous Irish government were ‘unrealistic’ and so can be walked away from when they prove inconvenient appears to set an extraordinarily dangerous precedent for intergovernmental climate negotiations.

Meanwhile, after numerous delays, the Irish government finally published its own National Mitigation Plan last July. It was roundly condemned by environmental analysts for lacking both concrete targets and ambition.

Trend-Setting

One-off weather disasters like Ophelia could be regarded as unfortunate for any country, but, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, several such “unprecedented” disasters in rapid succession begins to look like carelessness.

Climatologist Prof John Sweeney pointed out this week that, in just the last four years, Ireland had its wettest ever winter, as well as its stormiest winter in 147 years – and now, with Ophelia, “its first taste of a near-intact Atlantic hurricane”. And in August last year, yet another ‘one-in-100-year’ flooding event caused widespread damage along the north west of Ireland.

Ireland is already among the laggards of Europe, being one of only five EU states which is certain to fail to meet its 2020 emissions targets. Unusually, however, Irish transport and agriculture emissions are actually rising sharply, thanks to government policy supporting a rapid expansion of its dairy herd, as well as major ongoing investment in a car-dependent transport infrastructure that has exacerbated urban sprawl.

The government sanctioned the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly last year, its remit being to bring 99 ordinary members of the public together to hear expert views on contentious topics and draw up recommendations. The first issue it tackled was abortion, and its recommendations were far more radical than any Irish political party had ever proposed.

The Assembly is currently discussing climate change and the fear for Naughten and his colleagues is that they may be further embarrassed if the Assembly’s recommendations, as expected, go well beyond the Irish government’s timorous approach.

Ophelia may have given Assembly members a sharp foretaste this week of what a future of unmitigated climate change has in store for Ireland.

John Gibbons is a Dublin-based specialist writer and commentator on climate and environmental issues. He blogs at ThinkOrSwim.ie You can follow him on Twitter here.

Main image credit: EU2016 SK via Flickr CC0

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