Ireland's weather might have returned to usual after its heatwave but UN's report, "a code red for humanity," along with the footage of fires around the world, is surely a wake-up call. We must change and it may already be too late.
Watching the TV news last week, it looked like half the world was on fire and the other half was drowning in floods.
Disaster seemed to be everywhere, with fires raging in Greece, Italy, California, and Siberia among other places around the globe. Germany, Turkey, China, and other countries were hit by catastrophic flooding.
If anyone still needed a wake-up call on the effects of global warming, this was it. You could not avoid it, night after night on the news.
Even here in Ireland, there were shocked conversations about the deteriorating global situation. And you know it's getting bad when people in Ireland are becoming worried.
The reason for the lack of serious concern here up to now is the benign Irish climate. We had a hot spell a few weeks ago when the temperature hit 30C degrees (86F) and everyone wore shorts and pretended we were a Mediterranean holiday spot. But since then we have been back to the usual Irish summer of mild weather, with every day a mix of passing showers and brief sunny spells.
Last week I was talking to a friend who had taken his family on a staycation in Sligo on the west coast. "We haven't seen the sun for three days and there's drizzle coming in off the Atlantic every hour or two," he said mournfully. A typical Irish summer holiday, in other words.
Not that it was bothering his kids too much. They were still out on the beach, he said, even if they needed their rain gear on.
It's the kind of unreliable weather that makes Irish parents like him despair and wish they could be holidaying as usual in Spain or Portugal where the sun beats down day after day and the only worry is keeping the factor 50 on the kids.
Before climate change became such a big issue, we have always been thankful that Ireland does not do extreme weather. We don't get tornadoes and hurricanes like the U.S. does every year, or earthquakes like the devastating one in Haiti last weekend. There's a lot to be said for our uneventful mild climate and its "grand soft days."
Now there is even more reason to be thankful. Looking at the terrifying fires and flooding in so many countries last week, we have to feel lucky. We are still largely unaffected by climate change, even if our weather has become a bit warmer and wetter.
Despite that, people here have been scared by the apocalyptic fires around the globe last week. Their concerns were increased by the latest report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which called it "a code red for humanity."
The stark language in the report, the first since 2013 and based on the work of scientists around the world, makes it clear that climate change is real, it's happening now and Immediate action is necessary to save humanity and our planet.
The link with human activity is "unequivocal," the report says. Emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases are the driver of global warming and our activity is the cause.
Unless we alter course, we face disaster. And time is running out. Some of the climate change may already be irreversible, the IPCC says.
The devastating consequence of increased global temperatures is already apparent. The scale of the forest fires last week in Siberia, for example, a vast area where it's freezing for much of the year, is unprecedented. Around four million acres have now burned.
And the fire is still going. That should be enough to convince anyone, not just in Russia but around the world, that something is seriously wrong.
It’s similar with the flooding in large parts of Germany and Belgium, two of the richest, most developed countries in Europe. Even so, they were caught by the speed of the deluge, they could not cope and around 200 people died.
That was much closer to home for us here in Ireland. If it can happen there, could it happen here?
What many people here fail to grasp is that even a small increase in the global temperature can have devastating consequences. The IPCC report says that the global surface temperature was just over 1C higher in the decade 2011-2020 than it was between 1850-1900.
That may seem minuscule but that's all it takes. And it's getting worse.
That is why almost every country in the world signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015 to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2C this century and to try to keep it below 1.5C above where it was in pre-industrial times. But we're struggling to make progress.
The past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850. Droughts, famine, desertification, and so on will be the result in the future. As the glaciers melt, the recent rate of sea-level rise has been three times the rate between 1901-1971.
Unless huge cuts in carbon emissions happen, we are heading to disaster. It's difficult because so much of what we do -- in industry, transport, farming, home heating, etc. -- produces carbon emissions.
There is still little sign that political leaders around the world are on board with this, despite all they say. The bottom line is that it can't be done without disrupting our lives and impacting our living standards, probably drastically. And that is something most politicians who are focused first on getting re-elected are not prepared to risk.
Here at home we also had a local report last week from university scientists titled Status of Ireland's Climate Change 2021. This was a welcome counterpoint to the nonchalance that is common here about climate change.
It spelled out the dire consequences for Ireland of continued global warming. All the indicators are going in the wrong direction, it said.
Ireland, like all countries around the world, will have to play its part. The huge coal-burning nations (like China) will have to do most, but that does not get us off the hook.
The coalition government here includes the Green Party and, although all parties share the concerns, that has meant an extra focus on combatting climate change. Limiting global warming to under 2C this century means greenhouse gas emissions have to be reduced to zero by 2050, and we have set an interim target for 2030 of a 50 percent reduction.
The target is backed by law but there is a big difference between setting targets and meeting them. The Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has said there will be increased carbon taxes in every budget going forward. But how this will be done without inflicting fuel poverty on poor families, for example, is not clear.
We have done some things already, like closing the peat burning power stations in the midlands. But the giant coal-burning station at Moneypoint on the Shannon will remain active for some years yet as wind power is developed further. Much more remains to be done -- we're really just starting on the transition.
It's going to be painful for everyone, whether you're getting rid of your gas central heating boiler or your wood-burning stove. Alternative heating systems (solar panels, heat exchangers, etc.) are very expensive.
Then there's transport and whether you can afford an electric car. And there are so many other carbon-aware choices to be made on food, clothes, plastics, etc.
One of our biggest challenges will be farming. Since 2015, when the EU ended the milk quota system, Irish dairy farmers have massively increased cow numbers here. The problem is that cows produce methane, which is 170 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
We will never meet our targets if we don't deal with this. But so far the farming lobby has managed to undermine any significant attempt to do so.
Then there is the increasing number of data centers being set up here by the big global players. It's a new sector for our economy and initially caused a lot of excitement. But the problem is they consume enormous quantities of electricity.
As we transition to carbon-free generation there won't be enough power to go round. So it's probably time to say no to them.
These are just two examples of many problem areas for us. The conversion to a carbon-methane-free country is going to be hugely challenging for everyone here. It will involve not just a big lifestyle shift but a mental readjustment as well.
Few of us are ready for it. In fact, most of us are unaware of the full extent of what lies ahead.
*This column first appeared in the August 18 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.