Climate trends and adaptation
Safeguarding a sustainable future
By Peter McGuire
For over a century, climate scientists have been researching the effects of carbon and methane on the atmosphere. MU’s ICARUS Climate Research Centre - in partnership with geographers, scientists, artists and mathematicians - are leading the way to inform public policy on trends, adaption and mitigation measures to sustain our future. Peter McGuire asks several of MU’s leading climate experts - from a range of disciplines - just what we can do today to make a difference.
We know that greenhouse gases are now playing havoc with the global climate, leading to high temperatures that will make parts of the Earth uninhabitable, with rising sea levels, floods and water shortages.
For years, the fossil fuel industry contested this science but, today, it is widely accepted – and climate scientists are increasingly speaking out and highlighting the risks for humanity and the planet.
At Maynooth University, academics across a range of faculties and departments are researching climate change and helping guide public policy on the urgency of the adaptation and mitigation measures needed in Ireland and internationally. We caught up with just a few of them.
Prof Peter Thorne, Director of ICARUS Climate Research Centre, advises a move from fossil fuels as soon as possible and major changes to our infrastructure needed.
I’ve worked on climate assessment since the late 1980s, including advising the US national climate assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and, more recently, on Ireland’s national assessment report
I’m proud of the work my colleagues at ICARUS produce, and it’s hopeful because we can see the positive influence our research can have, and how informed experts can influence change. We can also inform and engage communities on this issue, and one of the standout projects from ICARUS is the Línte na Farraige project (pictured next page), which takes IPCC climate data and uses light installations to show the projected rise in sea levels at different points around the Irish coast.
My work in Ireland has involved briefing the cabinet subcommittee on climate action and advising the Citizens’ Assembly on climate action. The Citizens’ Assembly advised that higher taxation on carbonintensive sectors, including farming, would be important. I’ve also advised the World Meteorological Organisation and chaired multiple groups, including some that are connected into the United Nations.
All this work has given me a sense of what needs to change, and I think our single biggest priorities should be to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible and to recognise that we will need to adapt to climate change and make major changes to our infrastructure. Every action that everyone takes to lessen their climate impact makes a difference.”
Dr Samantha Hallam, ICARUS Climate Research Centre urges support for countries most impacted by climate change.
“You may have noticed more storms in your life and, overseas, in the news. This is not happening by chance: The jetstream is moving northwards and increasing in speed, and this is creating more powerful storms.
A stronger and more northerly jetstream could bring stronger storms, more storm surges and more flooding to Ireland. While we will need to deal with this, we should also be supporting the countries most impacted by climate change – which are the same ones that did the least to cause it.
At Maynooth, research by my colleagues and I showed how, between 1871 and 2011, the northern jetstream has shifted northwards by 330km moving across the northern hemisphere.
Our work covered the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans, as well as the North American and Eurasian landmasses.
Our study showed a decrease in temperature between the arctic and the equator, which is consistent with the jetstream moving north. The jetstream flows at about 10 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, which is the same height that planes fly at. This has an influence on storm activity and temperature patterns across the globe and, ultimately, impacts the weather we get on the ground.”
Dr Patrick Bresnihan, Dept of Geography discusses the challenge of data centres’ high energy needs.
“I take a social science perspective to environmental governance, environmental social movements and the various efforts to propose – or contest – more environmentally-friendly approaches.
My research looks at why so many data centres are built here, and what are the contradictions between these developments and Ireland’s plan to reduce emissions.
I look at who the data is for, why so much of it is being generated and whether this is all sustainable, particularly in terms of energy and water consumption: latest CSO figures indicate they consume 14% of Ireland’s electricity.
Singapore has already had this conversation around data centres, and I argue we need more information on these data centres and the limited extent to which I believe they contribute to the economy.
Sea defence sandbags at Clontarf, Dublin
I’ve spoken at Oireachtas committees on this topic and highlighted some of the issues that are unique to Ireland which, with so many tech companies based here, has become Europe’s main data regulator. It’s good to see our work making a difference.
Prof Conor Murphy, Dept of Geography and ICARUS Climate Research Centre, discusses what happens when a community rejects a measure intended to mitigate the effect of climate change?
“Climate adaptation is all about trying to ensure that the systems we rely on can cope with future change, and I work with the agencies responsible for water resource management, flood risk management, and human health and wellbeing. This has involved helping Irish Water to understand which rivers may be most sensitive to climate change; we often think water is so plentiful in Ireland, but we have had significant droughts, including in 2018.
For now, I think the Government’s priority should be to tackle the climate crisis with the same energy that was put into dealing with Covid and the energy price crisis. The State has the resources.
And that wasn’t as bad as a 1970s drought which, if it happened again, would be an enormous challenge, especially given our underinvestment in water and water treatment. Climate change means that drier summers and wetter winters are likely. Because we have built on flood plains, the impacts of this extreme weather for Ireland could be dramatic.
Adaptation is key, but our work has shown that this needs to happen in tandem with communities: a flood wall imposed on a community from above can result in dislocation and can threaten their sense of place, as happened in Clontarf, Co Dublin, where they did not feel listened to. We need to consider the body of evidence showing that a loss of place impacts on health and wellbeing.
The single biggest priority for Government should be to adapt to climate change and bring communities along on this journey.”