Irish Times Column, February 1st, 2024

In the past, climate scientists faced persistent attacks, often stemming from the fossil fuel industry’s tactics of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, which sowed public confusion about climate science.

Now, outright climate change denial is rare.

Climate records toppled like dominoes in 2023, confirming long-standing warnings from climate scientists. One silver lining of living with the tangible consequences of an overheated planet is the eradication of any legitimate doubt that climate change is happening, or that it is human-caused and profoundly damaging.

This confrontation with the realities of a warming planet has stripped traditional climate denial of its credibility, albeit at a great cost: It’s now impossible to deny the evidence of a changing climate that is directly observable.

Yet, there is a new, widespread form of denial – one that focuses on delaying action on climate change, rather than attacking the science itself.

One example is undermining confidence in solutions, such as renewable energy. A recent report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that YouTube videos promoting climate denial downplay solutions, rather than question the science itself.

A distinct form of this discourse is prevalent among high-carbon industries in Ireland. This narrative suggests that restricting their growth isn’t part of the solution to address climate change. Astonishingly, some of Ireland’s most carbon-intensive industries claim they need to grow, not shrink, in order to become more sustainable, defying rationality.

For instance, Kenny Jacobs, Chief of Dublin Airport Authority, claimed before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications that increasing airport passenger numbers is necessary to improve the airport’s sustainability. However, it’s absurd to suggest that increasing passenger numbers by 25 per cent – 8 million each year – is necessary for the airport to install solar panels or improve operational efficiency.

In a similar line of reasoning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has supported new roadbuilding because the roads are required for “sustainable development”, without acknowledging that under the Climate Action Plan, a reduction in car transport is necessary to meet our carbon budgets.

It is clear that this use of the word “sustainable” in these cases has little to do with ensuring a liveable planet for our descendants, and is more about ensuring economic growth. If this is the case, then the concept of sustainability has lost all value.

The dairy industry has made similar arguments. The National Dairy Council, a farmer-funded representative body that works to promote and protect the sector’s reputation, was recently criticised for its advertising campaign that claimed “meeting growing international demand for dairy by producing it in Ireland is the best way of tackling the global climate change challenge”, and that Irish dairy has the lowest “hoofprint” in the world.

The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland upheld complaints against these claims for lacking solid evidence. Misleading narratives about the sustainability of Irish livestock – Ireland’s highest-emitting sector – are common, but rarely challenged.

Aviation and dairy are not alone in this reasoning. Fossil fuel interests have claimed that more gas exploration and LNG infrastructure are necessary to decarbonise our energy supply. This contradicts evidence from the International Energy Agency: to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the world has more than enough oil and gas reserves, some of which will have to remain undeveloped.

Another example comes from the data centre industry, whose substantial and growing electricity demand is increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, the managing director of Equinix, a data centre operator, recently claimed that growing the industry is required to support Ireland’s decarbonisation efforts.

A common thread among these examples is an emphasis on efficiency, rather than absolute emissions, and an implicit assumption that “if we don’t do it, someone else will”. There’s also a reluctance to acknowledge that the urgency of reducing emissions to keep climate change at a safe level requires high-carbon sectors to contract, or undergo radical change.

There is now an unavoidable conflict between growth of some sectors and climate action – a fact that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, but few are willing to. We have simply left climate action too late for marginal or technical solutions alone to be sufficient. Careful planning is necessary to minimise disruption from measures to reduce the size of these sectors, for example to workers; delaying action increases the risk of more severe disruption in the future.

As we navigate the complexities of decarbonisation, it’s crucial to remain vigilant about narratives that may seem comforting. The idea that expanding high-carbon sectors can help us decarbonise is not just paradoxical – it’s a barrier on the path to genuine sustainability.