Flooding: Time is running out... we need to act now
The flooding in England and the Republic should be a wake-up call for the Executive to do more to tackle the causes of climate change, writes Gary McFarlane
The recent extreme weather conditions and widespread flooding have been a wake-up call for us all across the UK – including Northern Ireland. Understandably, there is much public concern at the severe weather that has beleaguered Ireland and the UK over these past weeks.
There is seemingly no end to the cocktail of high winds and torrential rain that have undoubtedly and tragically caused misery for many. There has also been public outrage that the Government has not done enough to assist those suffering and earlier in the week Prime Minister David Cameron pledged unlimited public funds and a wider role for the Army as he sought to exert his authority over the crisis.
Yet in the midst of the debate, I have heard little – if any – reference from either politicians, scientists, or indeed the public, to its causes, and, more specifically, whether or not what we are experiencing is somehow linked to climate change. (Or, as Sir Mark Walport, the Government's chief scientist, recently put it, "climate disruption".)
Weather and climate, of course, are not the same thing and it is impossible at this stage to make any definitive link, because climate is assessed over significantly longer time-periods than we have been experiencing in this recent spell of extreme weather.
However, the scientific predictions within the first comprehensive UK Climate Impact Assessment, published in 2012, warned that "flooding, heatwaves and water shortages could become more likely" and for some considerable time, science has been predicting changes to UK weather patterns, with flooding one of the main issues of concern. In a recent lecture, Sir Mark laid out a number of possible options to deal with what has been widely accepted as the most significant global challenge for generations.
* Making drastic cuts in our use of fossil fuel – the main source of CO2, which is now scientifically indisputably the main cause of climate disruption;
* Adapting to the consequences of climate change through a wide variety of interventions – for example, improved flood defences, robust emergency resilience planning and greatly enhanced community resilience.
It is abundantly clear that governments alone cannot solve these challenges and, while in my view they have the duty to provide leadership through appropriate policy measures, the challenge and, indeed, the responsibility falls to all of us.
While the challenge is global, it will only be met if all governments and societies – particularly those in the developed world, which have created the problem – do their bit.
So what has been the response of leaders in Northern Ireland to this challenge? In terms of adaptation, Climate NI was established in 2012 through the Department of the Environment and it is to be commended for their efforts to address this particular issue in a cross-sectoral way, with the public, private and NGO sectors working together to prepare for future impacts.
This includes a realisation that increased community resilience – in other words, communities helping themselves – must be a critical part of the solution.
However, in terms of mitigation, while the Executive has set targets and established strategies for CO2 reduction, these are not binding (unlike the rest of the UK) and there is no consensus, either politically or, indeed, within civic society, that we need binding targets.
Moreover, the current target for greenhouse gas reductions – 35% by 2020 – are inadequate based on the current scientific evidence.
The Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan (left), has, to his credit, been very clear that he believes much greater effort is needed to find an achievable pathway to reduce our CO2 emissions.
While there may be disagreement regarding the need for legislation to drive such efforts, there is little disagreement over the need to reduce emissions in the first place.
The debate is further plagued by a profound and fundamental untruth – that economic growth and environmental sustainability are diametrically opposed. To put it another way, growing the economy by definition means more emissions.
Certainly, if we continue "business as usual" and keep relying entirely upon coal, oil and gas for our energy sources, that is highly likely going to be the case.
As, too, is the likely outcome, which does not make comfortable, or pleasant, reading and which, if we continue on our current trajectory, is ultimately the road to nowhere.
In 2014, we in Northern Ireland need to turn this particular ship around and be at the forefront of moving away from a carbon-constrained world towards a sustainable economy and society in which all its people could benefit.
We have the potential natural resources and the skills and abilities within our universities and entrepreneurs to do so; and we will not prosper if we do not. But, if we do, we could be not only more prosperous, but a healthier, happier society, too.
To achieve this requires not only political courage and leadership, but the efforts of the whole of society. It also requires urgency. Time is running out.
For the sake of our children and their children, let's hope we can collectively meet the challenge – and reap the rewards that will flow from it.