IMAGINE FOR A moment that our government and others around the world had been given detailed information and warnings about the coronavirus years, even decades before it finally erupted.
Imagine also that experts had shown the path to minimising or even avoiding this global disaster, but our political and business leaders, uneasy about the costs of taking action and possible disruption to commerce, chose to ignore the expert warnings as alarmist and carried on regardless.
In reality, full-blown pandemics are vanishingly rare. Almost no human is alive today who lived in the time of the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918-19.
In the modern era, our collective cultural experience is that of taming, rather than being at the mercy of, nature in general and deadly diseases in particular. Consider smallpox: during the 20th century, it killed an estimated 300 million people worldwide. A global vaccination campaign eventually led to its eradication in 1980. Likewise, polio, another dreaded disease, has been almost completely vanquished by vaccination.
The damage done
Until very recently, premature death had been the norm for most humans. However, in the last five decades, largely freed from the threat of predators, large and small, our numbers on this earth have more than doubled, to over 7.8 billion, while average life expectancy in the same period has increased by well over a decade per person.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that this unprecedented global expansion of the human footprint has brought the biosphere, our living planet, to the brink of collapse. There are many ways of measuring this, such as the precipitous decline in biodiversity, the average annual loss of 15 billion trees, many of them from razed ancient rainforests.
A major report on biodiversity and ecosystems published last May found that the natural world is declining globally ‘at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely’.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report concluded that around one million animal and plant species now face extinction in the coming decades. ‘The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed…this loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being’, the IPBES report warned.
The unavoidable warming
We face an equally daunting and arguably more intractable challenge from climate change. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on the likely impacts of global warming at and beyond 1.5ºC over pre-industrial temperatures.
Arising from this landmark report, it emerged that in order to keep global temperatures within relatively safe limits, carbon emissions would have to fall by at least 45% by 2030, which is just ten years from now.
This is in line with commitments made by almost all the world’s leaders, including Ireland, when we signed up for the 2015 Paris Agreement, which legally committed us to doing everything possible to avoid extremely dangerous climate change at 2ºC and beyond.
This commitment was underlined in January 2020 by the all-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action when it agreed a minimum targeted emissions reduction of 7%+ per annum and this, in turn, has become the Green Party’s key precondition for entering into a coalition government.
According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the economic impact of the coronavirus is likely to see global carbon emissions fall by some 6% in 2020.
We need to flatten both the pandemic and climate change curves; we need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against Covid-19”, according to WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. Action, he added, would be needed “for many generations ahead.
What this underlines is that to achieve a compound 7% annual emissions cut every year from now until 2030 would require the most radical rethink of how we organise our society and economy since the foundation of the state.
Can you see it happening?
Many are deeply sceptical. Former ‘Climate Action’ minister, Denis Naughten dismissed the 7% target as ‘unachievable’, claiming it would equate to banning every private car and slaughtering every (farm) animal in the country.
Naughten is at least being consistent. Back in 2017, he threatened to block implementation of the Paris Agreement at the EU level, claiming it was ‘unaffordable’ for Ireland to implement.
Since 2011, a succession of Fine Gael-led governments has stymied meaningful climate action. As a result, Ireland has now the third-highest per capita emissions in the EU, with the average Irish citizen accounting for more than double the emissions of their high-income Swedish counterparts.
As Sweden shows, ultra-low carbon solutions in transport, energy, home heating, agriculture and industry are indeed possible, but in Ireland, these have been held back by vested interest groups pursuing short-term agendas and TDs engaged in parish pump politics.
Even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has had to concede he was “not proud of Ireland’s performance on climate…as far as I am concerned, we are a laggard”.
At what cost?
Apart from constant lobbying by commercial and agri-industrial groups, another reason politicians have run scared of climate action is that the issue is consistently framed in the Irish media in terms of the cost of tackling climate change. However, international studies have shown repeatedly that the price of inaction far outweighs the costs of addressing the crisis.
It is estimated that the cost of the coronavirus to the global economy is in the range of $2–$4 trillion this year. A 2018 report calculated that failure to rein in climate change would deliver a devastating $34 trillion hit to the global economy – many times greater than the economic chaos arising from the pandemic.
Other estimates are even less sanguine. An Australian study published in 2019 argues that ‘climate change represents a near to mid-term existential threat to human civilisation.
Should global temperatures reach 3C over pre-industrial by mid-century, ‘the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end’, the report warns.
So, the next time someone asks if we can ‘afford’ to tackle climate change, a better question might instead be: what price isn’t worth paying to avoid the collapse of civilisation?
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Guardian and DeSmog.uk and is a regular guest environmental commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at Thinkorswim.ie and also runs the website Climatechange.ie and is on Twitter: @think_or_swim.