This time 10 years ago, the portents for real climate action seemed genuinely encouraging. With the science-literate Obama regime in Washington, Merkel in Germany and a Labour government in the UK that seemed prepared to listen to the advice of experts, steady political progress was being made towards the crunch climate conference to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009.
That was then. With the clarity of hindsight, it should have been obvious that despite all the political posturing and media column inches, there was almost no clear public awareness or understanding of the true depth and existential nature of the climate and biodiversity crises.
That both media and political support for strong climate action evaporated in the face of a cleverly orchestrated but blatant hoax known as ‘Climategate’ in late 2009 showed just how shallow were the roots underpinning the global response to environmental threats.
Based around an illegal hacking attack on university computers by unknown parties with likely links to Moscow, Climategate also foreshadowed later more widespread electronic attacks and social media manipulation, most notably in the lead up to the Brexit vote and the US elections, both in 2016.
In Ireland, while the Greens were still in power in 2009, the country was by then in the grip of a deep economic recession, and any lingering notions that the crisis-racked government had either appetite or inclination to seriously address climate issues were quickly dispelled.
Media interest in covering climate issues, spurred by both the success in 2006 of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and the hard-hitting Fourth Assessment Report produced in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had begun to founder even before Climategate kicked in.
In all probability, what people (at least in Europe and north America) were experiencing at that time in terms of extreme weather events simply weren’t sufficiently intense, frequent or absolutely alarming to decisively shift public opinion. This apathy was clearly reflected when RTE, the national broadcaster, left the position of Environment Correspondent unfilled for several years from 2011.
Even worse, when it did eventually reopen the post, it split the role between Environment and Agriculture, thus placing their new correspondent in the invidious position playing poacher-cum-gamekeeper, given that Ireland’s agriculture sector is by far our largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as being a major contributor to both air and water pollution.
In stark contrast, the staggering sequence of heatwaves, droughts, flooding events and uncontrolled fires worldwide in 2018, which then continued and intensified into the fiery summer of 2019 appears to have finally shocked the public, politicians and much of the media out of complacency.
The rapid rise of the impressive School Strike movement, inspired by the phenomenon that is Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has energised an anxious young generation of serious climate activists, people who are in no mood to be fobbed off and patronised by the overwhelmingly pale/male/stale political and media commentariat.
The parallel rise of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, with its focus on radical but peaceful civil resistance and disruption has been strikingly successful where other attempts at mass mobilisation on climate have foundered. The sight and sounds of some 15,000 noisy, boisterous, colourful but fiercely determined student marchers on the streets of Dublin last March seems to have jolted Ireland’s ecologically moribund political establishment into taking notice. The declaration by the Dáil of a climate and biodiversity emergency smacked of yet more cynicism, yet the optics of such gestures can be more important than they first appear.
The report earlier this year from the all-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) represents a potential sea change in Irish political engagement, building as it does on the ground-breaking work of the Citizens’ Assembly module on climate change.
From a media standpoint, one of the JOCCA’s more intriguing proposals was the idea of imposing formal quotas of climate-related content on all licensed broadcasters, as well as requiring the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to draft guidelines on the clear and accurate communication of climate change before the end of 2019.
The media landscape regarding environmental coverage is now almost unrecognisable to that of a decade ago. In many conversations, both public and private, that I’ve had over the years with mainstream journalists, I can honestly say 2019 is the year that, for many, it has moved from being an interesting niche story for a quiet news day and become instead a visceral experience.
Many reporters are, I believe, for the first time beginning to experience for themselves the sense of low-level panic that has been widespread throughout both the scientific community and environmental activists for years. And, in the words of Greta Thunberg: ‘I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act.”
As more and more journalists, civil servants, business leaders and politicians come to understand that their own children’s lives are also on the line, then this crisis becomes personal and so, becomes real. Then perhaps radical changes that today seem unimaginable could, in a relatively short time become inevitable.
Two examples of the rapid shift in media focus with whom I have first-hand knowledge are comedian and broadcaster Mario Rosenstock and veteran broadcaster Eamon Dunphy. Both appear to have had personal and professional environmental epiphanies. While neither have any background in environmental or science reporting, they are I believe clearly shaken and disturbed by what their enquiries into the state of climate and environmental science have revealed, and both have found ways of working coverage of crunch eco issues into their respective outlets.
In turn, this takes key messaging to audiences who have heretofore little or no exposure to these topics being discussed in a forensic, systematic way. I’ve been pleased to have been asked to repeatedly explain the science and its implications to these new audiences, with hosts who are open-minded, keen to learn and willing to admit that they themselves have been well behind the curve on these issues.
After years of being inveigled into faux media ‘debates’ with deniers masquerading as sceptics, it’s a blessed relief that many editors and producers in Ireland have moved beyond the lazy formula of offering false balance in lieu of the more editorially demanding fact-based reporting and analysis. What’s depressing is just how long it has taken for this penny to drop.
Having for years done almost nothing constructive on climate coverage, RTE this autumn is giving a special editorial focus to climate issues over a one-week period. While this is of course welcome, albeit overdue, it remains to be seen if this is simply a once-off RTE stunt to cash in on what it sees as the eco-zeitgeist or really signals a sea-change in editorial priorities. As a long-time media watcher, I remain firmly sceptical.
And while we wait for signs of the massive societal shift that will be required in order to have even a fighting chance of staving off ecological immiseration in the decades ahead, the global climate system, so stable for millennia, is showing alarming signs of growing ever more restive.
In just the last three decades since 1990, we have released as much emissions as in all of human history prior to that date. Changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that would be expected to take at least a century are now occurring around every 16 weeks.
The sight in recent weeks of the once-mighty Amazon rainforest in flames has caught the public imagination but I see no evidence whatever to indicate that our societies are anywhere close to accepting that we live in a carbon and resource-constrained world, and that we are going to have to effectively shut down the current version of globalised smash-and-grab consumer capitalism before it kills billions.
As I write, a glossy 32-page guide to the ski slope of Europe drops out of my daily newspaper, while every other ad on the radio is busy selling cars. It will take something quite extraordinary to make a dent in this paradigm, and I frankly shudder to imagine just what that might be.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator