Lessons from the COVID pandemic for climate breakdown

First of all, trust the scientists


Over this past year lots has been written and spoken about what lessons we might learn from the COVID pandemic for dealing with climate breakdown.  They both affect the health of millions, with over 3.5 million dead from COVID-19; they disrupt the economies of almost every economy; and, they are subject to being distorted in political discourse.  We also found that delaying to confront a critical problem is dangerous and costly.  There is deep inequality with poor and disadvantaged communities suffering more than privileged people.   Both crises are global in nature and scope and require international cooperation.

A critical lesson has been about science.  In the midst of the COVID pandemic, scientists were center stage everywhere for much of the time, especially when matters were unclear.   Of course, there were exceptions in the Trump White House and a few other regressive and repressive regimes, although even Trump could not entirely ignore the scientists.

We relied on the health scientists to explain what this COVID thing is, what we might be able to do to slow it down or minimize it (masks and social distancing), and how we might stop it (vaccines).









Photo: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay


Aligned against the health scientists were money interests that pushed to reopen local economies despite the grave risks in doing so.  The tension between the advice by the health professionals and the lobbying of the money interests was obvious and continues as we write.  Of course the money interests pushed the health community to support the economic actions, or at least minimize the public opposition to reopening.  But the public paid particular attention to the health professionals, and their judgments, and it was clear that even Trump could not prevail in reopening what he wanted to reopen without endorsement of the health professionals.  That has been largely true for other national, state and local governments across the world.

At the end of the day, Dr. Fauci in the US was trusted far more than was Trump and others like him.

In a similar vein, the general public, and even to some extent national governments, are relying more and more on panels of experts to define the nature and scope and extent of climate breakdown, and the need for corrective action.  For instance, the Climate Change Committee in the UK has been a clear and powerful voice in advocating for more proactive responses to the climate risks by the UK government.  In Ireland, the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) has become increasingly more outspoken about the failures of the Irish government, a known laggard on climate action.  This CCAC has served as a model for even the Irish EPA, the Citizens Assembly and the Oireachtas (legislature) Joint Climate Committee for pushing for more climate action.

At the international level, the long-term consensus of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reinforced by increasingly frequent and extreme weather events, has effectively silenced the climate denialists in most countries.

While these lessons are instructive, we also have to admit that one of the crowning achievements of the scientific community in the fight against COVID-19 was the development of the vaccines.

Unfortunately there is no vaccine for climate breakdown.



World Health Organisation (WHO), Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Climate change (22 April 2020).

Editorial, “Climate and COVID-19: converging crises,” The Lancet (9 Jan 2021).

“Covid-19 and Climate Change,” Climate Central (28 April 2021).

Klenert, D., Funke, F., Mattauch, L. et al. Five Lessons from COVID-19 for Advancing Climate Change Mitigation. Environ Resource Econ 76, 751–778 (2020).


One Very Dark Day for Fossil Fuel Companies

And a bright shining moment for the rest of us

Fossil fuel companies suffered significant losses in court and in shareholder actions, all on May 26, 2021.  And a major user of fossil fuel has committed to shake its dependence on fossil fuels.  The results reflect a distinct, growing expression of institutional concerns and action over climate breakdown.

Here’s what happened.

A Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to significantly cut its emissions over the next ten years.  Basing its decision in part on European human-rights law, the court found that Shell had helped drive “dangerous climate change.”  While Shell was taking actions to modify its business plans in response to climate change, the court found that it was not enough in light of current science.  The court ordered Shell to cut its own emissions and those of its suppliers and customers by 45% by the end of 2030 in comparison with 2019 levels.  The specificity of the order is impressive.  The court ruling can, of course, be reversed but as we have pointed out in the last several issues there is a growing body of legal cases supporting such action.  See ieBLOG posts cited below.






Exxon Mobil lost a critical fight to one of its shareholders, a small investor group, Engine No. 1, that owns only 0.02% of the company’s stock.  The investor group nominated four people to Exxon’s Board, and two were elected, with the help of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.  As usual Exxonj did not sit idly by and spent $35 million to block the Engine 1 candidates.






At the Chevron annual meeting, a shareholder resolution required the company to reduce its scope 3 emissions — greenhouse gases that are released by the use of the oil, gas and other products the company sells.  The resolution passed with 61% of the vote, despite stiff opposition by the company’s management.






At the same time, Ford Motor Company announced that its all-electric truck F–150 had received 70,000 reservations for a 2022 launch of the truck.  Ford also increased its spending on electrification, including battery development, to more that $30 billion by 2025, up from $22 billion.

The convergence of these actions on one day has been described as the light at the end of the tunnel, a tipping point, a game-changer, a powerful signal. But whatever positive read we give to these events, we should not be deluded.  The fossil fuel companies understand that they soon will no longer be able to compete with renewable energy.  But they are here to stay as long as they can continue to create the conditions that allow them to make lots of money.

Their life span may be shortening but their lust remains robust.



Bill McKibben, “Big Oil’s Bad, Bad Day,” The New Yorker (26 May 2021).

Lorraine Woellert, Ben Lefebvre and Amiricva Hernandez, “’Powerful signal’: In a single day, Big Oil suffers historic blows on climate,” Politico (26 May 2021).

Jillian Ambrose, “‘Black Wednesday’ for big oil as courtrooms and boardrooms turn on industry,” The Guardian (29 May 2021).

“Extending the reach of environmental litigation,” in the ieBLOG section of irish environment (1 February 2021).

“Continuing to extend the reach of environmental litigation,” in the ieBLOG section of irish environment (1 March 2021).

First there were big fossil fuel companies manipulating information on climate breakdown

Now the big meat and dairy companies are at it


Environmental protection efforts have been stalked for decades by the big money of fossil fuel interests.  These interests have spent not so small fortunes fostering denials of the realities of climate breakdown.  When the fossil fuel companies began to attack and undermine any climate action that threatened carbon products, they adopted the lobbying and public relations strategies of the tobacco industry in its long-standing fight against any regulation of cigarettes.

You have to wonder about adopting the strategies of big tobacco.  While their efforts succeeded for decades, more recently they have been widely exposed and cigarette smoking has been deeply curtailed and even vilified.  The work by Naomi Oreskes, and Erik Comway, in Merchants of Doubt, exposed the heavily funded and aggressive public relations and political campaign by the tobacco industry to undermine the science of and governmental efforts for regulating cigarette smoking.  Oreske has also done much the same for the oil industry.

Now we find a similar campaign being developed by “Big Meat and Dairy.”  A recent study from New York University, “The climate responsibilities of industrial meat and dairy producers,” concludes that:

Top U.S. meat and dairy companies, along with livestock and agricultural lobbying groups, have spent millions campaigning against climate action and sowing doubt about the links between animal agriculture and climate change…

It is the first peer-reviewed study that documents the individual carbon footprints of meat and dairy companies. Only four of the 35 companies had pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; the others waffled to varying degrees.  Also, as is often found to be the case, especially in Ireland, the focus and commitments from the agri sector are on carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions whereas the primary emissions from the sector are of methane, a particularly potent though shorter lasting greenhouse gas (GHG).







Generally, animal agriculture is responsible for about 14% of global GHGs, though in Ireland it is about 33%.  Interesting, because surprising, the study indicates that research has shown that the five largest livestock-based producers -— JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and Fonterra — emitted more GHGs than ExxonMobil.  Despite this heavy loading of GHGs from agriculture, only 7 of 16 countries discuss animal agriculture as part of their plans to meet the Paris Accord.

Moreover, when the researchers analysed the companies’ future emissions compared to the emission reduction pledges of their home countries, they found that some companies’ emissions were higher than their respective home country’s total emission pledges.  This was true, for example, for Switzerland-based Nestlé and New Zealand-based dairy giant Fonterra.

In light of the major influence the agriculture sector has on GHG emissions and climate breakdown, it is disturbing to see the sector and individual companies denying climate breakdown and/or their role in the breakdown and opposing any climate regulation of the sector.  And they are not shy about spending money to fight climate regulations, including by public relations campaigns and through political candidates.

For example, in the U.S, the agribusiness spent $750 million on national political candidates from 2000 to 2020, close to the $1 billion spent by the energy sector.  For lobbying, the agri sector spent $2.5 billion from 2000 to 2019, compared to the $6.2 billion by energy and natural resource companies.  In comparing individual companies, Exxon spent substantial more dollars on campaigns and lobbying, but relative to each company’s revenues, Tyson spent double what Exxon spent on campaigns and 33% more on lobbying.

As with the fossil fuel interests, the meat and dairy industries also fund their own academic experts, who then publish research that minimizes or denies the adverse impacts of agriculture on climate breakdown.

The authors of the study note that there has been substantial research on fossil fuels industry’s efforts to influence public discourse but little on the agricultural industries’ similar campaigns.

This last note is especially relevant to Ireland.  In contrast to the US, there is little in the way of a fossil fuel industry and so little political influence from fossil fuel interests in Ireland.  But the agriculture and food sector exercise significant influence over socio-political affairs.  In particular they continue to push hard for an expansion of the sector despite its contributing about a third of Ireland’s GHG emissions.

What we need in Ireland is an independent and thorough assessment and evaluation of how the agri-food sector is trying to influence public perception and political action, or inaction, on climate breakdown.


Lazarus, O., McDermid, S. & Jacquet, J. “The climate responsibilities of industrial meat and dairy producers.” Climatic Change 165, 30 (2021).

Samuel Sigal, “ It’s not just Big Oil. Big Meat also spends millions to crush good climate policy: A new study reveals how the companies you buy meat from block climate action,” Vox (13 April 2021).

See “Tobacco Strategy “ in iePEDIA section of irish environment magazine (1 April 2012).

See, “ExxonMobil’s Culpability for Climate Change Denialism,” in Reports section of irish environment magazine (1 October 2017).

The Fantasies of Conversion to eCars

And some of the realities


The fantasy about electric cars (eCars) is that we will replace virtually all gasoline-powered cars and trucks with cleaner electric vehicles charged largely by low-carbon power sources, such as solar and wind.  And live happily ever after.

It is a clear and compelling fantasy.  It does rest on the belief that if people just buy eCars, most of everything else will fall into place.

For years the government has offered the grand illusion that by 2030 Ireland will have almost 1 million electric cars on the road.  Yet as of August 2002 there are just 17,000 electric vehicles in Ireland, up from 11,700 in 2019, and 7,647 in 2018.  Not exactly a robust growth pattern.  And to add insult to injury, the government has only 25 eCars in a fleet of 6,000 vehicles.

Unfortunately there are a few blocks in place that will make it unlikely that we will see one million electric vehicles magically appear in 10 years.








Some blocks are obvious.  The upfront costs of eCars can still be up to 50% higher than the costs of gasoline cars.  Of course the costs of running an eCar can be lower but people still have to be able to afford the purchase price.

To power these eCars, we still need to decarbonise the electric grid, a long-term project that is quite complicated and very expensive.  And the public needs to be convinced that constructing more wind towers and solar installations, and electric grid towers, makes sense, is manageable, fairly placed, and does not disrupt their lives and living spaces.

Gasoline cars are not going to go away without a struggle.  Gas cars have been made with more advanced technology over the past 10 years and now have about a 14-year life span.  These gas guzzlers will be around for a while.  In addition, there are markets where end-of-life cars in developed countries are shipped to developing countries and rebuilt to extend the life of that car.  So it will take at least several generations to replace gas-powered cars.

It won’t be just any eCar that will satisfy the car-buying public.  In a recent UK Audit Office study, it is noted how the increased sales of power-hungry SUVs, as well as increased driving, have offset the carbon omissions achieved through the increase in sales of eCars.  See Reports below.

Are we to increase the costs of SUVs to discourage their commercial success.  Won’t people want power-hungry eSUVs even when they buy eCars and the grid has been decarbonized?  Is that a problem?

As for the continuing increase in driving distances, a recent study in Nature Climate Change found that if Americans keep driving more total miles each year, we will need 350 million electric vehicles by 2050, with an enormous drain on the electric grid and supplies of natural resources for batteries.

Of course, a significant counter force against more driving is more public transport.  When policymakers talk about ways to advance transport, shouldn’t we insist on talking not about “road maps” for plans and strategies but ‘busmaps” and “railmaps” and “cyclemaps” and “walking maps”?

And public planning is closely tied to public transport, or should be.  If we want to promote public transport, we need housing and work easily accessible to it.

And of course there is the 500 pound gorilla in the closet: taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, with some protection for low-income drivers.

Just encouraging lots of people to buy an eCar is not nearly enough.  Creating the supporting infrastructure and policy framework are prerequisites for adequate climate action.

As the Citizens Assembly stated:

It’s important to note that improvements in energy efficiency alone​, such as electrification of transport, will not be enough to reduce Ireland’s emissions. A shift to walking, cycling and public transport, as well as other measures such as pricing, are needed. A recent report for the European Environment Agency put it this way: “meeting decarbonisation goals for the sector requires not only incremental changes like the wider introduction of electric vehicles and improved fuel efficiency in planes and ships, but also more far reaching changes to lifestyles and habits which greatly influence the way we use transport.”

Now that the new climate bill has been published and there is a growing consensus to take concrete action on climate breakdown, time is of the essence for the government to deliver on these wider implications for a conversion to eCars.



Ireland, Climate Action Plan 2019: To Tackle Climate Breakdown

See More eCars Does Not Equate to Reduced Carbon Emissions:  Why Not? In the Reports section of the current April (2021) issue of

“Electric Cars in Ireland – Some Facts and Figures,” Money Guide Ireland (6 October 2020).

Michael McAleer, “Climate plan: 1m electric cars by 2030 does not look realistic,” The Irish Times (18 June 2019).

Brian Hutton, “Only 25 of State’s 6,000-strong fleet of vehicles electrically-powered,” The Irish Times (27 March 2021).

Brad Plumer, Nadja Popovich and Blacki Migliozzi, “Electric Cars Are Coming, but How Long Before They Rule the Road,” The New York Times (10 March 2021).

“Ireland’s plan for electric vehicles will reduce emissions, but may come at a cost,” MaREI, the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine.

‘The Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change: 7 Questions To Raise on Climate Action in the Transport Sector,’ Stop Climate Chaos

Continuing to extend the reach of environmental litigation

Manchester, France, and Nigeria

Last month we discussed how new litigation with coroners, deportation proceedings, and the Amazon has broadened the reach of environmental litigation.  In earlier issues we covered two critical, successful climate cases by the Friends of the Irish Environment and by Urgenda in the Dutch courts.

Here we add three more lawsuits in which ordinary citizens, often with the help of environmental organisations, overcome powerful vested interests to shape the protection of the environment.

Manchester UK

In Manchester UK, a group of women sued the local council to block the building of a 440-space car park next to the city center’s only primary school.  As part of a large retail “park,” the City gave itself planning permission to build a car park that was to be temporary until the land could be developed for offices.

The women proposed instead that the space be used for a “people’s park“ as Manchester has very little open, green space.  They held protests, and sit-ins, filed petitions, to no avail.  So they brought an action for a judicial review against the council arguing that the fumes from the concentration of cars would put the kids at risk from air pollution.  The council was also charged with the hypocrisy of having declared a “climate emergency” and then proposed to build a polluting car park next to a school.

A High Court has recently ruled in favor of the community. The Council has indicated that it has appealed the decision.


The French government endorsed the Paris Accord on climate change, with its commitment to limit the rise in global average temperature to below 2°C, and, if possible, to below 1.5°C.  France also enacted a law with a commitment to achieve a net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.  This legal commitment included pledges to cut greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 1.5% each year, and by 3% annually beginning in 2025.






When the government failed to reach it targets and instead CO2 emissions rose by 4%, over 2 million people signed a petition complaining of the government’s failures.  Then in 2018, four non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — Greenpeace France, It’s Everyone’s Business, Oxfam France, and the Foundation for Nature and Mankind — filed a lawsuit against the French government for its failures to fulfill its climate obligations.

In early February, the Administrative Tribunal in Paris ruled that France had failed to fulfill its promise to reduce greenhouse gases under commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement, and was “responsible for ecological damage.”  The court awarded each of the four NGOs a symbolic one euro in damages, but ruled that it would decide in several months the extent to which any climate action measures would be required by the government to resolve its failure to meet its commitments.

The French government noted the decision and indicated that it was preparing further legislation to accelerate “France’s ecological transition.”   It is not clear if the government is appealing the decision.


In a more traditional environmental lawsuit, in January 2021 a Dutch Court of Appeal held that a Nigerian subsidiary of the British-Dutch multinational Royal Dutch Shell company was responsible for oil spills in Nigeria in 2006 and 2007.  The lawsuit was filed by four farmers and Friends of the Earth.

The lawsuit was filed in 2008 and the Shell subsidiary argued for years that the spills resulted from sabotage where pipes were intentionally opened to discharge oil.  The court found that while many spills were the result of unauthorized opening of valves, Shell was legally obliged to protect its activities from sabotage, including to build better warning systems to detect and prevent leaks.







The subsidiary company was ordered to pay damages to the four farmers, for the destruction of farming land and ponds.  Unfortunately, as the lawsuit has been going on for over a decade, two of the four farmers have died.  But as a result of the decision, it is likely that there will be more lawsuits from other farmers against the Shell subsidiary.

Besides the money damages that will be awarded, Shell was ordered to clean up the area that had been contaminated by the oil spills.  In such cases, cleanup costs are often far more expensive than personal damages of individual farmers.

The case is still not done.  Shell can appeal the case to a higher Dutch court, and it can try to ignore the order to clean up the site as it has done in other cases.  But at the very least the case offers hope and opportunity for others to bring cases against a Nigerian subsidiary of a Dutch company, Royal Dutch Shell, in the country where they are headquartered for damages done in overseas countries which may have weak environmental laws, or corrupt institutions.


In the Urgenda lawsuit in the Netherlands, the government was ordered to increase the level of climate action to comply with its legal obligations.  In the Friends of the Irish Environment lawsuit in Ireland, the government was obliged to develop and issue a new National Mitigation Plan to proactively deal with climate change.  In France, the government was given a slap on the wrist, with the one Euro award of damages but it remains to be seen what the court will do with the “ecological damages” for which the government is responsible.  And the government is under sharp pressure to increase its climate actions.  In Manchester, the local council will have to actually take account of the “climate emergency” it declared when it makes planning and land use decisions.  Farmers from Nigeria found that they could sue the responsible party in Netherlands for damages from oil spills at home.



“Extending the reach of environmental litigation: in ieBLOG section of irish environment magazine (1 February 2021).

“Irish Supreme Court Decision in a Climate Case: When Vagueness Became Illegal” in ieBLOG section of irish environment magazine (1 October 2020).

“Dutch Court Orders Dutch Government to Increase Its Climate Change Targets” in ieBLOG section of irish environment magazine (1 July 2015).

Helen Pidd, “Manchester council loses legal fight to build car park next to school,” The Guardian (20 Feb 2020).

Jariel Arvin, “A court has convicted the French government of failing to meet its climate goals,” Vox  (4 February 2021).

Elaine Cobb, “Paris court finds France guilty of failing to meet its own Paris climate accord commitments,” CBS News (4 February 2021).

Elian Peltier and Claire Moses, “A Victory Over Big Oil For 4 Nigerian Farmers,” The New York Times (31 January 2021).

Jean Shaoul, “Nigerian farmers win hollow legal victory against Shell for oil spillages,” World Socialist Web Site (7 February 2021).