Climate Change: Science, Horrors and Policy

HASSAN BAKER SPEAKS TO PROF. JOHN SODEAU, AN ATMOSPHERIC CHEMIST FROM THE CENTRE FOR RESEARCH INTO ATMOSPHERIC CHEMISTRY (CRAC) IN UCC.

“As well as the predictable signs of climate change, there seem to be more unpredictable effects; “Some of these sound like scare mongering crazy science fiction…”

Climate change has stopped being that boring thing Al Gore likes to rant about and has become the centre for much debate. It recently came into the Irish limelight when TD Danny Healy-Rae made some preposterous claims about his scepticism towards climate change. The majority of the publicity afforded to Danny Healy-Rae was of a humorous nature, because of his brash comments stating that “Only god controls the weather”, and that the story of Noah’s Ark is “a fact.”  Motley met with Professor John Sodeau of UCC to discuss the current situation and predicted impact of climate change.

The Science

There is lots of confusion between climate change, and global warming, a distinction that Prof Sodeau cleared up by stating that: “Global warming is basically a phenomenon that’s occurring and climate change is what’s happening over a longer term… They are different but we put them together, because people do respond to a phrase like global warming, they know what both things are, the globe and warming. Whereas with climate change, people don’t really know what it means, because people like me haven’t done a good enough job explaining what climate is, and the difference with weather.”

Photos by Emmet Curtin - photoemmet@gmail.com.
Photos by Emmet Curtin – photoemmet@gmail.com.

The hard scientific data which is used as evidence for climate change has been acquired “over the last 30 years where we’ve had pretty good measurements.” The reason why our best data is from 30 years ago is because “the physical instrumentations there are now is probably a result of trying to put a man into space. It’s the reason why so much has changed. So we have much better, much more sophisticated instrumentation” explained the Professor.

What was interesting to find out from this interview is that a previous UCC professor has played a crucial role in the science of climate change. “There was a professor here at UCC up to about 1970. He was a professor of civil engineering. His name is James Dooge, and he was one of 4 people who were tasked by the world meteorological organisation to go away and work out between themselves if there is such a thing as climate change and how it might affect us. What came back from that meeting is ‘yes there is, and there is going to be an effect of some type.’ In a way, it was our first push towards knowing that climate change even existed, and that was ‘76.”

The Horrors

Although we’re at a risk of seeing changing patterns of rainfall, the professor explained that Ireland doesn’t have as much to worry about when it comes to direct impact from climate change as other countries: “It’s not perhaps, for Ireland, so important. It is important for Bangladesh. By 2030, I think, it’s predicted that there will be a 30cm rise in sea levels. What that means is that about 31 million people will be permanently displaced. Every year or so, there are of course temporary displacements on there, on the floodplains, but now we’re talking about permanent displacements.”

Photo credit: BRENDAN BANNON/AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit: BRENDAN BANNON/AFP/Getty Images

The professor went on to say: “If there is anything, it will be the external influences of other places. We’ve taken 90 Syrian refugees in, or something like that. Can you imagine 31 million refugees being on the market in which the world will have to play a part? Some of them will end up in Ireland. Just think about taking in a million or two million refugees in a place like this. That possibly will be the biggest effect. We’re maybe talking about 50 years for that.”

As well as the predictable signs of climate change, there seem to be more unpredictable effects: “Some of these sound like scare mongering crazy science fiction, but if you get some of the permafrost in the Russian Siberian tundra melting, that might release of the biological material that might be stored underneath. Apparently Russians stored anthrax under there and there were dead animals and all sorts of things. That, if it’s then exposed to the air, can release those things.” It has been reported that the melting permafrost has let out anthrax bacteria that was stored in dead reindeer carcasses from years back. This has resulted in the death of a 12 year old boy and many more being diagnosed with the disease.

Policy

cop21Last year 60 countries met up in Paris for the COP21 conference to discuss climate change and make promises to reduce carbon emissions by 2030, so as to limit the damage we are causing to the climate. But talks of reducing emissions aren’t completely new to Ireland, as the professor explained: Between 2005 and 2020, we were supposed to cut emissions by 20%, and we actually managed 6%, and by 2030, they’re supposed to be reduced by 40%. So the Irish government managed to get a change of the baseline of where the 2030 cut is. So now it’s between 2016 and 2018 for the 2030 cut, to say I’ve got 40% less. So you you’ve got proportionately much less that you have to do. A lot of that was because of Ireland’s specific dependence on agriculture.”

He went on to say that the Paris Agreement, although definitely a huge step in the right direction, is not enough. However, there is good news. COP21 was not inclusive of the EU and there is reason to believe that the EU will be carrying out a similar agreement sometime in the future, which means the 55% mark might still be reachable.

Ireland is making progress when it comes to climate change action. For example, in 2015, the climate action and low-carbon development policy was founded. The country also has a climate change advisory committee, however Prof. Sodeau was critical of this committee as most of the members are economists and because it “doesn’t consist of any physical scientists I believe.”

The Media Effect

Professor Sodeau was very critical of the media and how it deals with stories of climate change. “We have to be vigilant against people who make outrageous and unsupported claims, because they have voters who follow them. They can’t be allowed to believe in these people… Cut off the oxygen, the media should certainly allow them to speak, but each time, it ought to be balanced by the scientific and sound view of measurement and fact.” Objectivity should come in for journalists and broadcasters and they should have somebody to answer the case. The public then make up their mind”

His opinion is that science is not subjective, so having someone like Danny Healy-Rae come out unopposed does considerable harm. He has been on Cork’s 96 FM along with Danny Healy-Rae to discuss the topic. The podcast maybe found on www.crac.ucc.ie, and is definitely worth listening to.