Irish Examiner article, September 14th, 2023

The climate has changed. The devastating weather across Europe this summer, and indeed across the world, is a glimpse of the catastrophic floods, storms and droughts likely to hit Cork’s shores in the not-too-distant future.

Two reports published yesterday described the knowledge base for Cork City’s exposure to climate change risks, and baseline greenhouse gas emissions.

Commissioned by the Council and prepared by KPMG Future Analytics, the ‘Cork City Council Climate Change Risk Assessment’, led by Dr Barry O’Dwyer, estimated how the pattern of extreme weather events already experienced in Cork might change and impact people in the future.

Water is everywhere in Cork. A maritime city, built at the mouth one of the world’s largest natural harbours, Cork derives its name from the Irish word for “marsh”. Water flows under some of the streets, and often pours from the heavens.

It is not surprising then that water is a major dimension of the threat climate change poses to the city. All types of flooding – from the sea, river and rain – will become more frequent and severe.

The word “catastrophic” fails to capture the devastation caused by Storm Daniel in the past week in the Mediterranean. Horrifyingly, thousands of people are reported dead and missing in Lybia, after days of torrential rain triggered landslides and the collapse of ageing dams.

The same storm caused record-breaking rainfall in Greece last week, with 750 mm falling in a single day at one area, the equivalent of about 18 months of rainfall. Rain inundating the fertile plain that produces one quarter of the country’s food, potentially damaging food production for years. This disaster happened just days after Europe’s largest wildfire on record, also in Greece, was brought under control.

Sea level rise is a particular concern for all coastal cities. Because of the warming already caused by human activities, it is now guaranteed that sea levels will rise, and will do so for centuries or millennia, even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases tomorrow. The extent depends on how much carbon we emit into the atmosphere. In the most optimistic scenarios, where the world collectively meets the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C, the sea level will rise by up to 50 centimetres by 2100.

But at sustained warming levels of 2-3C, the path we are currently on, the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets will irreversibly collapse ,which could lead to catastrophic sea level rise by 2300 of 9-15 metres. Entire cities and countries could be wiped out.

The disruption of the Gulf Stream is another “low likelihood, high impact” consequence of climate change that we must better prepare for. The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is a major tipping element in the climate system. A tipping point is a critical threshold where the climate can rapidly shift from its current state to a new and potentially very different one. A recent study projects the likely collapse of AMOC this century, transforming the climate of Ireland into the climate of Iceland – colder, stormier, and with dryer summers.

I could go on: heatwaves, food shortages and mass migration could also cause great instability. Weather events across the world this summer have led climate scientists to believe that the impacts of climate change are more severe and arriving faster than climate models predicted. This has led the UN Secretary General Guterres to declare that we are now in the era of “global boiling”, and that leaders no longer have excuses to urgently cut the use of fossil fuels.

We are only at the beginning of understanding what these dynamics mean for the future: Can our infrastructure withstand such floods and storms? Can we produce food in the same way? How can we protect the most vulnerable from these severe impacts? Do we have the expertise and the institutional capacity to adequately prepare for the threats?

Human societies, and the infrastructure, cities and agriculture we all depend on to survive, were developed at a time of low and stable global temperatures - a “goldilocks temperature”. But we have already pushed the climate beyond this window: This July was the hottest month ever recorded, probably the hottest month in over 120,000 years. To put this in context, humans developed agriculture only 12,000 years ago.

To feel alarmed by this is an entirely appropriate response. Surveys tell us that Irish people overwhelmingly accept that climate change is happening and caused by human activities, and feel very worried about it.

It is essential that we don’t become immune to the threat, like frogs in a pot. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless, and turn away. We must channel this concern into collective action to cut greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, as part of the global response, and ensure that our city’s leaders are taking long-term, prudent and precautionary approaches to the development of the city, that takes account of the changing climate.

The good news – and we badly need it – is that just as climate impacts are hitting faster and harder than expected, the global energy system is also transforming much faster than expected. Just this week, the chief of the International Energy Agency declared the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era, as clean energy solutions, like wind, solar, electric cars and heat pumps, are accelerating at an unprecedented pace.

We don’t have time to wait for these solutions to trickle through slowly. For Cork to meet its commitment to becoming a net-zero carbon city by 2030, it will need to eliminate virtually all fossil fuels used in the city. This is certainly possible, and can bring major benefits to the city. But it requires transformative change, dramatically intensifying efforts now, financing, and careful policy design to make sure no one is left behind. Political bravery will be necessary to take unpopular choices, like removing parking and banning fossil fuelled vehicles from the city.

Individual action to cut emissions - like driving less, installing solar panels and eating less meat - is very valuable. Every tonne of carbon matters, and the actions of leaders in society carry great weight. But climate change is a collective action problem: we are often locked into using fossil fuels or a carbon-intensive agricultural system as a result of policies and infrastructure. The City Council has an essential leadership role, and communities must be empowered to advocate for fair and rapid climate action.

Even though there are very many other priorities facing society, like housing and health, we simply don’t have the time to wait to make these changes.