UCC vs ESB: A micro examination of Climate Change

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling on the ESB’s negligence to UCC regarding the 2009 floods that summer, Motley’s Current Affairs Staff Writer Brendan O’Grady examines the case as a clear example of the climate change our world is facing, right on the banks of our very own own river. 

Climate change is edging its way into dominating the public consciousness. Each year carrying with it a set of once-in-a-lifetime freak weather events. Storm Darwin uprooted approximately 7.5 million trees in 2014. The following year Storm Desmond gave us national treasure, Teresa Mannion. Storm Ophelia caused almost €70 million in damage in 2017 and just two years ago, Storm Emma covered the country in more snow than had been seen since the 1980s. Which, when considered, makes established scientific facts, such as the world being approximately 1°C warmer than it was during the 1970s sound so deceptively innocuous.

Photo by Jonathan Bowers on Unsplash

The 2020 General Election showed that Environmental issues were very fast becoming a viable and important electoral issue to the public. A hard assertion to argue against given the Green Party won a historic 12 seats and positioned themselves as a viable coalition partner. If there was one event that could articulately paint a micro-example of the problem with accountability and responsibility for managing the effects of climate change, it came on the 9th of July 2020, when the Supreme Court found the ESB failed in its duty of care to those downstream of their hydro-electric dams

The court found that no judgement calls were made by the ESB, despite having the scientific expertise and knowledge to be able to assess the potential effects on the interests of downstream landowners. It further argued that the ESB had a “special and substantial” level of control that would enable it to prevent or reduce harm arising from a flood danger. 

The ESB found itself in a position of being in authoritative control of infrastructure technology along the River Lee when more than 17 mm of rainfall fell over Cork in a matter of hours. This led to the ESB having to release 520 cubic metres per second of water from the Inniscarra Reservoir; more than 3 times the rate of 150 cubic meters per second they initially released; the maximum flow that would not bust the banks of the Lee downriver from the Dam.

Flooding is nothing new to Cork City. There have been over 292 floods since 1841, with the average number of flooding events gradually increasing each decade between 1880 and 1980. The 2009 floods were the worst flooding event in Cork City for a century. We know this city is prone to floods, we have always known this, and we all know that something should be done. The problem there being the use of the word ‘should’ since responsibilities of this scale are rarely taken up voluntarily by state institutions.

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

There is a grey area when it comes to who takes responsibility for the river flow during flood conditions. Dr. Phillip O’Kane, former Dean of Engineering at UCC, and a former member of the UNESCO-Italian Government Committee for the Safeguard of the Lagoon of Venice spoke to Eco Eye in 2019 with this take:  

“The ESB’s primary duty is to generate hydropower. If you make hydropower your primary objective and flood protection as your secondary objective, you attenuate the peak of the flood by on average 25%; maximum 50%.”

“If you make flood control the primary objective during the flood itself, and hydro-power as the secondary objective, it turns out you can knock 70% off the peak of the flood.”

This conflict over primary duty to produce power vs the social responsibility to mitigate the harmful effects of that duty, is as good a micro example of climate change as any. It also highlights the problems facing us in convincing international governments that systemic and institutional change is required to assume the responsibilities of mitigating the effects of global warming.

As aforementioned, this isn’t a new problem. We should be well past the point of accepting that institutions who find themselves in unique positions to actively mitigate these situations, ought to do so. What remains to be seen is whether we will deal with the problem now, or as is oftentimes the case in Irish politics, continue to kick the can downstream.