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By Dr Paul Bolger
Manager, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork
No. 12 in the Current Opinion Series of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee.

We live in a world that is complex, deeply interconnected, and human health and planetary health are woven into one. So governments need frameworks and ways of thinking that can hold that complexity – that can think about climate and health and jobs and financial stability and inequality in one space.’ Economist Kate Raworth

There has been a clear shift in how we talk about climate change in public over the last half decade. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement we have progressed from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate action.’ In the past two years, the preferred nomenclature amongst activists and NGOs, and more recently policymakers and scientists, has become ‘climate emergency’ reflecting the urgency of the climate challenge. How should our higher education system respond to the requirement for urgent action on not only climate change but also on biodiversity loss, circular economy and a just transition?

Universities have tremendous potential to help understand and catalyse action on sustainability challenges. The extraordinary depth of expertise across the natural and social sciences, engineering, the arts and humanities, and business, can be called upon to examine the causes and consequences of sustainability problems. However, universities often struggle to mobilise their unique capacities in ways that effectively link knowledge with action. The curiosity-driven approaches within academic departments, which form the bedrock of academic research, have worked exceptionally well for problems that are well defined within specific disciplines and technological in nature. However, these approaches may be less-well equipped to provide answers to complex problems that are systemic, interdependent, and multi-faceted. A large proportion of the UN Sustainable Development Goals fall into this category of ‘wicked’ problems.

For many sustainability challenges, additional scientific information about the underlying problem is not necessarily the limiting factor in the development of more sustainable outcomes. An equally important task is to link the production of this knowledge with action where it matters. The transition towards sustainability thus requires not just more novel knowledge but also more usable knowledge. For practitioners wishing to address sustainability challenges, the knowledge within our higher education institutes matters only to the extent that it can be used to construct actions around issues of concern.

To take one example. Poor air quality continues to be a real and persistent environmental problem in our cities and towns and has a significant impact on human health. Solving this problem is a clear win for our society. What would it take to do this? To develop the best possible strategy to address poor air quality would require the integrated expertise and knowledge of many stakeholders including scientists to comprehend the atmospheric chemistry and public health effects, engineers to develop viable solutions, economists to assess best value options, policy-makers to create enabling legislation, local authorities with knowledge of city planning, along with a sustained dialogue and input from business and communities to ensure benefits and impacts are understood. However, even if there was the willingness, and funding, to engage with such a challenge across multiple levels and sectors, we lack the organisational frameworks for building these types of collaborations.

Yet, it is precisely this approach that is being advocated for within the new Horizon Europe programme which focuses on mission-oriented science (big science deployed to meet big problems) requiring the integration of multiple forms of knowledge and the expertise of end users. Guided by the work of Mariana Mazzucato (Mission-Oriented Research & Innovation in the European Union), mission oriented science is conducted to stimulate cross-disciplinary academic work and it requires new forms of partnerships among the public sector, the private sector and civil society organisations. Crucial to the implementation of EU missions will be the need to reinvigorate capacity and competence building in public organisations and institutions.

The co-production of knowledge can be a powerful means to meet the requirements posed by mission-oriented research. Co-production approaches bring actors from outside academia into the research process in order to integrate the best available knowledge, reconcile values and preferences, as well as creating ownership for solution options. Knowledge co-production can enhance research quality and produce more usable knowledge and is increasingly seen as a possibility to foster sustainable futures. One of the most notable recent initiatives in this area in Ireland has been Campus Engage based at the Irish Universities Association (IUA) which has the ambition to promote civic and community engagement as a core function of Irish higher education.

The collaborative co-production of research advocated by Horizon Europe and Campus Engage was the focus of an online symposium organised by the Royal Irish Academy’s Climate Change and Environmental Sciences committee on 3 June 2021. The symposium and white paper explored how the Irish research system can respond to the demand for increased levels of collaboration and interaction amongst scientists, stakeholders and funders to co-produce knowledge from sustainability research, and increase its use in policy, decision-making and practice. In advance of the symposium over fifty case studies on research co-production across the island of Ireland were collected encompassing research across a wide variety of sustainability and environmental research areas. Non-academic partners were drawn from industry, government departments, local authorities, NGOs, community groups, and the public. Some examples of case studies included:

  • university partnerships with local community groups to reimagine restoration of the River Camac in Dublin.
  • creating community maps in Galway City not just to record the city’s social, environmental, economic and cultural assets but also as a tool to work with communities to explore what they value in their city.
  • an innovative multi-partner initiative for Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle Peninsula) working with the local community, schools, businesses, and farmers to enable the broader societal changes emanating from the low carbon transition.

The case studies show that there is a diverse community of academics and researchers in Ireland who are deeply committed to co-producing knowledge with non-academic stakeholders. The key barriers and challenges to research co-production identified within the case studies were: (i) different approaches and goals of partners, (ii) lack of resources for sustained engagement, (iii) long or mismatched timescales required for co-production, (iv) communication and different language and culture of partners and (v) ensuring equality, trust and respect.

Participants within the case studies and RIA workshop proposed that some of these challenges can be addressed by: (i) agreeing goals, roles and processes at the outset, (ii) managing relationships and maintaining trust, (iii) engaging early to co-design and build a shared understanding, (iv) communicating and sharing knowledge regularly, (v) hiring project managers and facilitators and (vi) providing adequate resources and time.

Ireland’s relatively small size and population, our traditionally close connections between academia-policy-industry, and our strong civic base within towns and villages gives us a unique advantage creating knowledge co-production communities. However, there is a need to move beyond individual exemplars of good practices to scale up and build capacity for these multi-actor partnerships to catalyse the necessary transition to a zero carbon and resource efficient society in the coming decades.

A version of this piece was originally published by RTÉ Brainstorm.

Interview with Dr Paul Bolger

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I joined the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee in 2019.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
I am interested in how we can embed inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches at institutional level to create more impactful outcomes for environmental and sustainability research. I am currently principal investigator on a number of research projects on climate change and the circular economy. I am manager of the Environmental Research Institute at UCC where we bring together 400 researchers to work on sustainability and environmental research questions in interdisciplinary teams.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
Addressing the climate emergency is rightly at the top of Ireland’s political agenda at the moment, but we can’t lose sight of other inter-locking environmental challenges relating to biodiversity, water, air quality, and waste. The good news is that, with the right approaches, solutions to one challenge can have beneficial outcomes across multiple issues e.g. introduction of more cycle lanes has better outcomes for climate, air quality, human health, and resource use.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
For climate action it would be investment in public transport and home retrofitting by government.
For biodiversity and water it would be proper compensation for farmers for ‘ecosystem services.’
For waste it would be serious investment in circular economy solutions by business

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
For individuals it would be (a) to tell their local representatives that these issues matter to them at election time (b) to vote with their ‘pockets’ when shopping i.e. choose more sustainable products and (c) start a conversation with their friends and family about environmental issues important to them.

By Professor Fiona Regan
School of Chemical Science, and The Water Institute, Dublin City University
No. 11 in the Current Opinion Series of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee

Water is the most precious commodity in the world, but it is not the most valued. We are wasting water. All of us; everywhere on the planet. In Ireland we might live in a wet climate, but our management of this invaluable resource needs to be improved—urgently—because too much of it runs down the drain.

Looking back

One thousand years ago Pliny [1] outlined guidelines for determining how good water was to drink. Pliny stressed that if there were ‘eels’ in the water, then it was probably clean because it could support life. The idea that people primarily drank beer throughout the Middle Ages is widespread, but it is also wrong. Bad water certainly was a concern, but people knew the difference between what was good and what wasn’t. Food historian Jim Chevallier [2] points out that in the writings of medieval Europe the source of water—a well or fresh stream—was the focal point of a village. In larger towns there were even infrastructures to supply water to citizens. Beer was seen as more nutritious, but it was not a replacement for water.

A cholera outbreak in 1831 provided a powerful incentive to improve sanitation in London. [3] Water closets were adopted by the more affluent households of London in the early nineteenth century. As a result, sewers that had been intended to take rainwater into the Thames now carried raw sewage. The crisis peaked in the ‘Great Stink’ of London in 1858 [4], resulting in the passage of a bill through Parliament to provide money for a massive new sewer scheme for the city.

In the nineteenth century physicians demanded improvements in water supply, drainage and sanitation. This transformed human health. John Gray, Irish physician, surgeon and politician, did really important work in relation to water supply in Dublin [5]. He was elected an alderman of Dublin Corporation in 1852. The issue of clean water was at the top of his agenda. Because of his background in medicine, he recognised that the introduction of clean water for Dublin was essential in overcoming the outbreaks of typhus and cholera responsible for so many deaths. He is recognised by a statue on O’Connell Street in Dublin for his contributions to provision of a water supply.

Historically, doctors recommended that their patients go to the seaside to help with a variety of ills. Doctors would even write a prescription stating how long patients should be in the water and how many times this should be repeated. The practice of using seawater as a medical therapy has a name—thalassotherapy. Richard Russell, an eighteenth-century British physician, encouraged thalassotherapy [6]. Sometimes he recommended drinking seawater as well as bathing in it. The greater mineral content of marine waters helps people with psoriasis and eczema. We know many swimmers take a plunge all year round—not just on the occasional hot day. These cold-water swimming activities are reported to stimulate the release of hormones, which in turn can have very significant long term beneficial effects [7].
Water quality and emerging challenges

‘Wash your hands; save lives’. This has been a critical message during the COVID-19 crisis. But what if you don’t have basic running water? We assume everyone does, But, incredibly, too many people don’t. We have our ‘boil water’ notices on occasion, but millions of people don’t have any safe water or sanitation services [8]. According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, in 2015 91% of the world’s population used drinking water from improved sources (58% from a piped connection in their dwelling, plot or yard, and 33% from other improved drinking water sources), leaving over 660 million people lacking access to an improved source of water [9]. Water, sanitation and hygiene have the potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the global disease burden and 6.3% of all deaths [10]. Globally, the microbiological quality of drinking-water has been implicated in the spread of important infectious and parasitic diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis, giardiasis, guinea worm disease and schistosomiasis.

Our rivers and lakes are major sources for our drinking water supply, so keeping them free from chemical contamination should be a priority. The impact of chemicals is a growing concern. This includes man-made chemicals (such as pesticides, cosmetics, personal and household care products, pharmaceuticals, etc.), which are in use everywhere and are seemingly essential for modern society. Industrial production activities and consumer habits driving increased production are creating growing challenges for the water industry to deal with, including the need to remove chemicals from wastewater before it returns to rivers or the sea, or from drinking water before it reaches our tap.

A sustainable future, if water is valued

In order to manage this current COVID-19 crisis, it is important to realise the role that water plays in protecting people and communities from diseases. Therefore, greater investment in water and sanitation is needed, and economists tell us that water investment is an investment in a sustainable future [11]. The impact of clean water technologies on public health in the U.S. is estimated to have had a rate of return of 23 to 1 for investments in water filtration and chlorination during the first half of the twentieth century [12].

Sixty years ago the classic Silent Spring [13] by Rachel Carson highlighted the significant environmental and human risk of indiscriminate use of manmade chemicals. The world today continues to experience the consequences of uncontrolled development of human activities. The Minamata pollution disaster in Japan and the disease it created in the 1950s [13] was caused by the release of methyl mercury in industrial wastewater. This incident led to the Minamata Convention on mercury in 2013. We now know, however, that the Japanese government has approved a plan to release 1 million tonnes of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea. Experts differ on the damage this may cause, but releasing radioactive waste into the ocean can only have a negative impact on the ecosystem and public health.

With an increasing rate of natural disasters due to climate change, the goal of securing clean water is more challenging and urgent. The solution to solving water quality problems lies with everybody—consumers and producers. As consumers we need to demand a better product, but we also need to value it more. As producers, provision of clean water should be a priority—because the health of the environment and its inhabitants relies on it.

The pace of climate change means we have no time to lose.


[1] Pliny (the Elder), The natural history of Pliny, vol. 5. Translated by John Bostock,(London, 1856).

[2] Jim Chevallier, ‘The great medieval water myth’, Les Leftovers 16 November 2013; available online at: (accessed 19 April 2021).

[3] R.J. Davenport et al., ‘Cholera as a “sanitary test” of British cities, 1831–1866’, History of the Family, 24 (2) 2019, 404–38.

[4] The Great Stink of London and the attempt to improve London’s sanitation is outlined in Stephen Halliday, The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the cleansing of the Victorian capital (Sutton, 1999).

[5] Mary Mulvihill, ‘An Irishwoman’s diary’, The Irish Times 15 March 2003; available online at: (accessed 11 May 2021).

[6] Richard Russell, The Oeconomy of Nature in Acute and Chronical Diseases of the Glands (8th edn). (London and Oxford, 1755).

[7] B. Knechtle, Z. Waskiewicz, C. Vitor Sousa, L. Hill and P. Nikolaidis, ‘Cold water swimming—benefits and risks: a narrative review’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (23) (2020), 8984; doi:10.3390/ijerph17238984.

[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ‘Global WASH fast facts’, available online at: (accessed 19 April 2021).

[9] World Health Organization, ‘1 in 3 people globally do not have access to safe drinking water’, News release, 18 June 2019; available online at: (accessed 19 April 2021).

[10] CDC, ‘Global WASHash fast facts, (19 April 2021).

[11] OECD, ‘Investing in a sustainable future’, available online at: (accessed 19 April 2021).

[12] David Cutler and Grant Miller, ‘The role of public health improvements in health advances: the twentieth-century United States’, Demography, 42 (1), (February 2005), 1–22.

[13] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York, 1962).

[14] Shabnum Nabi, ‘Methylmercury and Minamata Disease’, in Toxic effects of mercury, 187–99 (New Delhi, 2014).

Interview with Professor Fiona Regan

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I was delighted to join the Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee in 2018.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
I am a professor of chemistry and I work specifically in the area of analytical science. This means I am interested in measuring things in the environment. I am based at the School of Chemical Sciences in Dublin City University, and I am founder and director of the DCU Water Institute.
I lead a research group in analytical and environmental research, focusing on chemicals of emerging concern. I work with experts across many disciplines to develop solutions to water-related problems. I am interested in long-term water quality data, and I develop sensor technologies for deployment in the field for water-quality monitoring.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
I think water quality and quantity are a major area of concern in Ireland. Environmental waters are used as sources of drinking water and therefore we must ensure safe water is available for all. Treated wastewater contains contaminants that enter surface waters and impact the ecosystem health.
Climate-change weather patterns mean that changes in rainfall events can impact water quality significantly. Boil-water notices, and other water quality failures, show how Ireland is unprepared to meet the needs of people and is failing in meeting Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) on clean water and sanitation.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
We need to value water.
Significant forward investment in infrastructure, improved water management and a focus on water conservation and re-use is needed. There must be a desire to deliver a safe, secure water supply.
Individuals can make a change at home in reducing usage, but this needs to be facilitated by improvements in water quality and better demand-led management. There is a need for more water reservoirs and improvements in treatment and distribution infrastructure.
There is a real advantage in providing a sustainable, cost-effective, good quality supply of water and wastewater.

By Professor Peter Croot
Earth and Ocean Sciences, School of Natural Sciences and Ryan Institute, National University of Ireland Galway

No. 10 in the Current Opinion Series of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee

Most people when asked to describe the ocean likely start with waves on a beach or headland as this was their first introduction to the ocean and is the critical interface between land and sea. The ocean, however, covers 70 percent of the planet’s surface and most of this is beyond the sight of land. For this reason, perhaps, much of what the ocean provides for us, what scientists term ecosystem services, are also often overlooked in our daily lives. In this context, recent studies have shown that the ocean has absorbed around 9 percent of the excess heat due to rising greenhouse gas concentrations. [1] The oceans are currently acting to offset atmospheric warming due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), as it takes more energy to warm water by 1°C (4.2 kJ/kg °C) than air (1.0 kJ/kg °C) and the oceans also transport this extra heat into the interior of the ocean where it no longer interacts with the atmosphere. [2] The ocean also plays a role in moderating CO¬2 concentrations in the air, as seawater absorbs CO2 from the air, and it is estimated that the ocean has absorbed 30 percent of fossil fuel emissions. [3]

The increases in atmospheric CO2 also directly and indirectly impact the chemistry and physics of the ocean, in what has been described as the ocean ‘warming up, turning sour and losing breath’.[4] Globally, ocean heatwaves are increasing in frequency and impacting marine life. [5][6] As the surface ocean warms it becomes increasing more thermally stratified, meaning a warm less dense layer of seawater forms at the surface. [7] This will slow the ocean’s ability to mix the extra heat from the increasing greenhouse gases away from the ocean surface. The uptake of CO2 by the ocean also leads to ocean acidification [8] with potential impacts on many marine organisms, most notably those that form calcium carbonate (CaCO3) such as corals, shellfish and pteropods, as the lowering of seawater pH results in a decrease in the abundance of carbonate. Reduced surface ocean mixing also makes for sluggish circulation and, along with increased respiration rates due to warmer temperatures, will result in lower oxygen concentrations in the tropical ocean and to an expansion of oxygen deficient zones. [9] These are areas of the ocean where the oxygen concentration may be too low to support many organisms, resulting in changes in their distribution with implications for fisheries. [10] Globally these are increasingly important issues for the ocean. However, around Ireland at present, while sea surface temperatures are increasing, we are yet to experience a major ocean heatwave. Similarly, the impacts of ocean acidification and deoxygenation are currently minimal. But this does not mean we should ignore the risks, as they will increase if greenhouse gases continue to accumulate.

The ability of the ocean to absorb and transport heat and nutrients makes the oceans the heart and lungs of the planet, and so it is vital that we keep a check on the health of this system. To make regular check-ups, marine scientists from around the globe have joined together in a series of international programs to take routine measurements of a suite of climate critical parameters in the ocean and atmosphere around the globe. The GO-SHIP program carries out repeat surveys along transects in all the ocean basins in order to build a global picture of ocean health. In 2017, Ireland led a repeat survey of the A02 line across the North Atlantic for the first time using the Marine Institute’s vessel the Celtic Explorer, showing that smaller nations can make significant contributions to the GO-SHIP program. New technologies also have a role to play and increasingly, near real-time measurements of temperature, salinity and other parameters are provided by a fleet of ocean-going floats and gliders, most notably through the international Argo program.

One benefit of all the measurements being made in the ocean over the last few decades has been an improved understanding of the physical connections between the ocean and the atmosphere and the role of the ocean in climate. As the ocean stores and then transports heat via ocean currents over long distances, it has the ability to influence climate globally and across different time scales. Perhaps the most well studied example of this is the natural climate oscillation known as the El Niño – Southern Oscillation or ENSO for short. During an El Niño, warm water develops in the central and eastern area of the equatorial Pacific and this causes a shift in atmospheric circulation leading to increased rainfall in the eastern Pacific, while reducing rainfall in the western Pacific. The opposite event, known as La Niña, sees cold surface waters returning to the eastern Pacific and warmer waters and subsequently increased rainfall to the western Pacific. [11] El Niño’s have a major impact on the global climate through what is known as teleconnections, where a strong El Niño may alter climate in locations far removed from the equatorial Pacific, affecting rainfall in North America and even Africa for example. At this point in time it is not completely clear how global warming will alter the frequency and duration of ENSO events. However, it is known that as the ocean warms it provides more heat for atmospheric storms, leading to the likelihood of more hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones, and that they will produce greater precipitation, wind speeds and persist longer, causing greater destruction on land. [12]

Less well known than El Niño, but seen as increasingly important, is the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD is an irregular ocean oscillation first identified in 1999, [13] where the western Indian Ocean alternates between warmer (positive phase) and colder (negative phase) sea surface temperatures than the eastern part of the Indian Ocean. During a positive phase of the IOD, the area around the western Indian Ocean sees greater precipitation, while the eastern Indian Ocean region is drier. For 2019-2020 the IOD has been in a positive phase and has seen contrasting weather patterns on each side of the Indian Ocean; for instance, causing extensive drought and intense bushfires in Australia, contrasting with flooding in Indonesia and multiple cyclones in East Africa. In East Africa, high rainfall and warm temperatures facilitated breeding of locusts on a massive scale, resulting in swarms of locusts numbering in the billions seriously impacting people’s lives and devastating agriculture. ( The intensification of the droughts and storms associated with the IOD is likely impacted by anthropogenic climate change and warming, and this is a hot topic of research.

In Ireland, anthropogenic warming will likely impact the frequency and severity of winter storms due to the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and increase the chance of extra-tropical cyclones making landfall in Ireland. [14] Thus, it is increasingly clear that the frontline for climate change is everywhere; it is a global issue to which we are all connected via the health of the ocean.

Interview with Professor Peter Croot

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I joined the committee in 2018.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
I am predominantly a Blue Ocean Marine Chemist, based in the discipline of Earth and Ocean Sciences at NUI Galway. My primary research focuses on what factors control primary productivity in the ocean and how this is changing due to Climate Change. My main speciality is in chemical speciation, that is trying to determine how the abundance, distribution and reactivity of specific chemical complexes affect their bioavailability to plankton and other organisms. To do this I develop analytical chemistry techniques to determine elements such as iron and titanium at the extremely low levels found in the open ocean ( As sunlight is a major influence on primary productivity, my research group also makes many bio-optical measurements of the hyperspectral light field in the ocean. We extend the data we obtained on sea going expeditions by comparing and combining with remote sensing data obtained from satellites ( , Argo floats ( and very shortly using Gliders (

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
Ocean ecosystems support life on earth but right now they are under multiple threats from human activity. The list of such threats continues to increase; polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), microplastics and other emerging pollutants along with the “warming up, turning sour and losing breath” that I wrote about in the blog. In an Irish context, the most pressing environmental issue is the challenge of reducing our carbon footprint as it is the increase in greenhouse gases that is the single most important issue at present.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
In Ireland we are lucky to have a wide range of potential solutions available to us in moving to a low carbon economy as switching from fossil fuels to wind, wave, geothermal and solar energy is becoming cheaper and more efficient with each passing year. It is also important that the agriculture and forestry sectors in Ireland are included in the range of solutions examined as they are critical to the economy and there are innovative solutions available to reach net zero carbon (carbon neutral) emissions for these sectors.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
Individual activities are also very important, Actions such as using low energy light bulbs, improving household insulation and using public transport all make a difference towards net zero carbon emissions.

1. Zanna, L.; Khatiwala, S.; Gregory, J. M.; Ison, J.; Heimbach, P., Global reconstruction of historical ocean heat storage and transport. 2019, 201808838.
2. Cheng, L.; Abraham, J.; Zhu, J.; Trenberth, K. E.; Fasullo, J.; Boyer, T.; Locarnini, R.; Zhang, B.; Yu, F.; Wan, L.; Chen, X.; Song, X.; Liu, Y.; Mann, M. E., Record-Setting Ocean Warmth Continued in 2019. Advances in Atmospheric Sciences 2020, 37 (2), 137-142.
3. Gruber, N.; Clement, D.; Carter, B. R.; Feely, R. A.; van Heuven, S.; Hoppema, M.; Ishii, M.; Key, R. M.; Kozyr, A.; Lauvset, S. K.; Lo Monaco, C.; Mathis, J. T.; Murata, A.; Olsen, A.; Perez, F. F.; Sabine, C. L.; Tanhua, T.; Wanninkhof, R., The oceanic sink for anthropogenic CO2 from 1994 to 2007. Science 2019, 363 (6432), 1193-1199.
4. Gruber, N., Warming up, turning sour, losing breath: ocean biogeochemistry under global change. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 2011, 369 (1943), 1980-1996.
5. Holbrook, N. J.; Scannell, H. A.; Sen Gupta, A.; Benthuysen, J. A.; Feng, M.; Oliver, E. C. J.; Alexander, L. V.; Burrows, M. T.; Donat, M. G.; Hobday, A. J.; Moore, P. J.; Perkins-Kirkpatrick, S. E.; Smale, D. A.; Straub, S. C.; Wernberg, T., A global assessment of marine heatwaves and their drivers. Nature Communications 2019, 10 (1), 2624.
6. Smale, D. A.; Wernberg, T.; Oliver, E. C. J.; Thomsen, M.; Harvey, B. P.; Straub, S. C.; Burrows, M. T.; Alexander, L. V.; Benthuysen, J. A.; Donat, M. G.; Feng, M.; Hobday, A. J.; Holbrook, N. J.; Perkins-Kirkpatrick, S. E.; Scannell, H. A.; Sen Gupta, A.; Payne, B. L.; Moore, P. J., Marine heatwaves threaten global biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services. Nature Climate Change 2019, 9 (4), 306-312.
7. Li, G.; Cheng, L.; Zhu, J.; Trenberth, K. E.; Mann, M. E.; Abraham, J. P., Increasing ocean stratification over the past half-century. Nature Climate Change 2020.
8. Doney, S. C.; Busch, D. S.; Cooley, S. R.; Kroeker, K. J., The Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Ecosystems and Reliant Human Communities. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 2020, 45 (1), null.
9. Stramma, L.; Johnson, G. C.; Sprintall, J.; Mohrholz, V., Expanding Oxygen-Minimum Zones in the Tropical Oceans. Science 2008, 320 (5876), 655-658.
10. Stramma, L.; Prince, E. D.; Schmidtko, S.; Luo, J.; Hoolihan, J. P.; Visbeck, M.; Wallace, D. W. R.; Brandt, P.; Kortzinger, A., Expansion of oxygen minimum zones may reduce available habitat for tropical pelagic fishes. Nature Clim. Change 2012, 2 (1), 33-37.
11. El Niño.
12. Li, L.; Chakraborty, P., Slower decay of landfalling hurricanes in a warming world. Nature 2020, 587 (7833), 230-234.
13. Saji, N. H.; Goswami, B. N.; Vinayachandran, P. N.; Yamagata, T., A dipole mode in the tropical Indian Ocean. Nature 1999, 401 (6751), 360-363.
14. Mölter, T.; Schindler, D.; Albrecht, A. T.; Kohnle, U., Review on the Projections of Future Storminess over the North Atlantic European Region. Atmosphere 2016, 7 (4), 60.

By Dr Olga M Grant
Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.
Current Opinion Series (number 9) of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee

Globally, our climate is changing, and the rate of change is increasing.[1] Climate change is already ‘locked-in’ to the climate system—due to past and current levels of greenhouse gas emissions—and will continue even if international efforts to reduce these emissions are successful. The impacts of human-induced global warming of 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures are already being felt, in the intensity and frequency of some weather extremes.[2] Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C. These impacts will be more severe if warming reaches 2°C. The Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that without adaptation, climate change may depress growth in global agriculture yields by as much as 30% by 2050; increase the number of people who lack sufficient water at least one month per year from 3.6 billion today to over 5 billion by 2050; and push more than 100 million people in developing countries below the poverty line by 2030.[3]

While some of these impacts may seem remote, observations show that Ireland’s climate is also changing, at a scale and rate consistent with regional and global trends.[4]. (See Ray McGrath’s opinion piece on retrieving and using weather observations to better understand our climate). Recent climate projections for Irelandshow how the magnitude of future climate change will vary considerably across the country.[5] The most immediate risks to Ireland from climate change are mainly those associated with changes in extremes, for example changes in the frequency or intensity of storms or of heavy rainfall leading to flooding.

In 2020 alone, we have seen forest fires in Australia early in the year, and in the western states of the USA and in Brazil in more recent months. As highlighted in this Current Opinion Series, in Ireland a dry spring resulted in considerable soil moisture deficits and risk of drought in June. Two months later, and again in October, flooding hit the headlines. Storm Alex caused floods and landslides in France and Italy early in October. While it is still often difficult to attribute specific weather events to climate change, these examples indicate the extent of the damage that extreme weather conditions cause. We need to prepare for an increased frequency of such events.

Climate adaptation policy: international to local

The Paris Agreement of 2015 established a long-term goal to increase the ability to adapt to, and foster resilience to, the adverse impacts of climate change. Strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity is also a target in Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action.

European policy on adaptation to climate change is set out in the EU Adaptation Strategy. Following public consultation this year, a new EU Adaptation Strategy will be published early in 2021, as part of the EU Green Deal.

An analysis of Ireland’s preparedness for climate change adaptation was conducted by the European Commission in 2018. The commission found that Ireland had made good progress in terms of coordinating adaptation policy nationally and putting in place systems to assess current and projected climate change, impacts and vulnerability. On the other hand, it indicated insufficient progress in the identification of adaptation options; in the monitoring and evaluation of adaptation activities; in mainstreaming adaptation across key national policy instruments; and in the development of systems to monitor and report on climate change adaptation, including adaptation-related expenditure. Since this assessment, considerable advances have been made; in 2018, Ireland’s first statutory National Adaptation Framework was published.[6]

The National Adaptation Framework sets out Ireland’s policy to ensure local authorities, regions, and key sectors can assess the main risks and vulnerabilities of climate change, implement climate resilience actions, and ensure climate adaptation considerations are mainstreamed into all local, regional and national policy. With twelve priority areas and a wide range of supporting objectives, it has led to a number of developments in addressing how Ireland responds to climate change. This includes the launch of sectoral adaptation plans designed to build resilience across the following sectors: seafood, agriculture, forestry, biodiversity, built and archeological heritage, water quality and water services infrastructure, flood-risk management, health, transport, energy and gas networks, and communications networks. Also, each council of the 31 local authorities in the country adopted an adaptation strategy for its administrative area. Each strategy includes an assessment of risks as a result of climate change to that sector or geographical area.[7] For example:

  • Water quality: Heavy rainfall may lead to flooding, which in turn will lead to mobilisation of pollutants, reducing water quality. On the other hand, dry phases will result in low river flow, with reduced dilution of contaminants in water bodies. That in turn will reduce water quality. Dry weather may also lead to the drying of peatlands, resulting in the reduction of natural filtration of pollutants—leading, again, to reduced water quality.
  • Water services infrastructure: During heavy rainfall, increased surface and sewer flooding may lead to pollution, and also to interruptions to water and wastewater services. When rainfall is limited, conversely, flow will be reduced, leading to reduced availability of water resources. Hot weather will increase the demand for water, which could lead to water shortages.

The local authority plans and strategies also identify actions to address such risks. For example, solutions to risks posed to the water quality and water services infrastructure sector include:

  • improving treatment capacity and network functions for water services infrastructure;
  • water-resource planning and conservation; and
  • including climate measures in monitoring programmes and research.

Adaptation actions can be grey—relating to technical or engineering solutions; green—relating to nature-based solutions; or soft—for example, influencing policy or behaviour.

The Climate Change Advisory Council, in its latest Annual Review, recommends that all of us—individuals, businesses, local and central government, etc.—need to be involved in building resilience to climate change. Researchers can play a key role in addressing gaps in our knowledge as to how best to develop resilience. The National Adaptation Framework outlines some areas where improved understanding is still needed, such as

  • impacts under different emissions scenarios;
  • impacts on the marine and coastal environment; and
  • financial costs of climate impacts and of adaptation responses.

Some of these areas are being or will be addressed through national research programmes. In addition, ‘Adaptation to climate change including societal transformation’ will be one of the five mission areas in the EU’s next research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe.

Both in Ireland and internationally, Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of our society and economy when faced with disturbance. As we address this public health crisis, we have become more aware of the need to ‘build back better’. We must build resilience to a range of challenges, including that of climate change. Individuals play a critical role in our combined path to a resilient economy and society. Individual actions on the issue of climate change adaptation can include implementing temporary flood-protection measures for homes and businesses; reducing water use during drought; protecting our health during a heat wave; or helping to protect natural areas for river water to disperse, for instance by participating in community conservation projects. We can start now to consider whether our choices will hold up in a changing climate.

[1] World Meteorological Organisation (2019), United in Science: High-level synthesis report of latest climate science information convened by the Science Advisory Group of the UN Climate Summit 2019.

[2] IPCC (2018), ‘Summary for policymakers’. In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

[3] Global Commission on Adaptation (2019), Adapt now: a global call for leadership on climate resilience. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

[4] Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment (2018), National Adaptation Framework.

[5] Nolan, P. and Flanagan, J. (2020), High-resolution climate projections for Ireland: a multi-model ensemble approach. EPA Research Report no. 339.

[6] These plans and strategies are available from

Interview with Dr Grant

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I joined this committee in 2018: it has been a great opportunity to keep in touch with policy-relevant research across the wide range of disciplines that address climate change and the environmental sciences.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
I developed research expertise in the area of plant responses to the environment, including, for example, how plants respond to limited water availability, and how we can use this understanding to improve irrigation-use efficiency or select plant varieties that will be more tolerant of future growing conditions. More recently, however, working in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, I have applied my broad environmental sciences background to understanding the range of issues that the government needs to address in relation to the environment and climate change.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
I was asked this many years ago, as an Environmental Sciences undergraduate! I said ‘attitude’. At the time, I felt that we perceived Ireland to be a green country, where it wasn’t necessary to worry too much about the environment. Ireland has changed a lot since then, but I still think attitudes need to change in order to address the climate change and biodiversity crises.

In your opinion, what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
Adaptation to climate change is a good example of how to solve the issue of complacency to environmental issues. First, the relevant sectors need to understand the impacts of climate change. Then, they need to plan what needs to be done in order to address these issues. And finally, the plan needs to be implemented, monitored and revised as new understanding emerges. So: understand, plan, implement, monitor and revise.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
There is now abundant information available regarding the environment and climate change. I would advise that individuals seek out reputable resources, become informed and work out how they can change their own behaviour to help protect the environment, conserve biodiversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

Photo by Irish Defence Forces at

Blog post content and statements are proprietary to the authors. Each author represents only themself and their own opinion

Burdens of Consumption

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the first widely shared Earth Day celebration around the world but our growth in population and modern lifestyles does not reflect a celebration for the planet’s health. Humankind is placing ever increasing burdens on our Earth’s ecosystems and finite resources [1] . We are testing the limits of the planet’s systems to provide resources for basic human needs and for economic development. We also expect the ecosystems to adsorb the negative inputs (pollution) of our human behaviour throughout our lithosphere (land), pedosphere (soils), hydrosphere (water), biosphere (organisms), and atmosphere (air).

Humans began reshaping our environment almost as soon as our ancestors began migrating out of Africa well over a million years ago. Global archaeological data show that human transformation of environments began at different times in different regions and accelerated with the emergence of agriculture. By 3,000 years ago, much of the planet was already transformed by hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists [2]. Two hundred years ago, there were fewer than one billion people on Earth. Today, there are 7.8 billion people. According to the United Nations, there is likely to be 30% more of us by 2050, and 11 billion people by 2100. We are in what many scientists now call the Anthropocene Epoch, a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. It includes, but is not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.

If we want to cohabit sustainably on our Earth for many generations ahead, we need to ask ourselves deep questions regarding how this can be achieved. Do we have any obligation to Earth’s future human generations and biodiverse habitats? Are we prepared to deal with the ever-increasing challenges of assessing and managing complex global risks [3] ?

COVID-19 – An Opportunity?

Globally, our shared COVID-19 pandemic experience has sharpened our perspectives for our common interconnected futures. It has exposed the fragilities of our present globalised societal norms and focused public attention on the interconnectivities of people and places across the globe. It has also sensitised us to understanding critical interdependencies in our global supply chains.
This pandemic episode will likely be a lost opportunity if we do not reset our present societal principles. Bold and far-reaching creative designs for our refreshed values are being actively progressed during this hypersensitised time and the Circular Economy model is gaining traction as a replacement to the prevailing Linear Economy model [4] . The skillsets of scientists, engineers, planners, medics, cultural caretakers, artists, educators, religious bodies, financiers, and stewards of the natural environment can all be applied to help the circular economy take hold. Circular thinking can help safeguard intergenerational equity for our shared planet. In my own field of environmental sustainability for industry sectors, a simple but captivating example of circular principles is in turning a waste stream into a valued resource. An example is in bread or dough which would be otherwise considered waste is collected from a bread manufacturing process (bakery), where it becomes a valued substitute resource (bread grain replacing beer malt) for a beer manufacturing process (brewery); while the spent grain (used in brewing) returns to the bakery as a valuable nutritious ingredient for baking another type of bread. Such innovative, creative thinking and collaboration among organisations helps us to consider valuable possibilities for building our better sustainable future.

Thinking in ‘Systems’

The megatrends of a rapidly changing world require that we view growth through a sustainability lens. The ability to understand how parts influence one another within a whole, and the relationship of the whole to the parts, is crucial. This is systems thinking and describes evolving conditions and cause and effect situations within earth and environmental sciences. It considers that our systems should work like organisms, processing nutrients that can be fed back into the cycle. Whether biological or technical, ‘closed loop’ or ‘regenerative’ terms are associated with a circular economy model. The model also describes real-world systems which are non-linear, feedback-rich, and interdependent. As envisioned by the originators, a circular economy is a continuous positive development cycle that preserves and enhances natural capital, optimises resource yields, and minimises system risks by managing finite stocks and renewable flows [5] . This is regenerative sustainability at its best.

Transitioning to a Sustainable Circular Economy

For society to transition to a circular economy we need to embrace all the concepts of the circular economy rather than just bending the workings of a linear economy (the take-make-waste model [6] ). For example, in the industrial model a circular economy designs out waste as far as feasible and designs in modularity and adaptability. The biological and technical components of a product are designed by intention to fit within a biological or technical materials cycle, or loop, to feed back into the system for sustained reuse.

An integrated farming example

Energy from the sun, and water from rainfall naturally powers agricultural production in Ireland. Fossil fuels are used in fertilisers, farm machinery and throughout the supply chain. In a circular economy a more integrated food and farming system would reduce the need for fossil-fuel based inputs. Value creation around biological materials lies in the opportunity to extract additional value by cascading materials safely as substitute inputs through other farming needs. And in an effort to fuel more sustainable production, the lost value of neighbouring farm’s biological by-products and manures would be captured and shared through applying industrial symbiotic practices (exchange of energy and materials among processes in an effort to create value and reduce environmental impact). Additionally, more sustainable, decarbonised and non-air polluting supplies of energy would be introduced to run the farms through switching to renewable forms of energy such as wind, solar and wave.

A COVID-19 industrial example

We are learning from our COVID-19 experience that well governed decentralised and diverse production systems having more localised supply chains and giving more control to local stakeholders, are proving to be more resilient to external shocks than production systems built simply for centralised efficiency around economies of scale. Decentralised systems are proving to be more agile and adaptable to shock events. A recent example of a production system that could not adapt quickly enough to increased demand was in the global supply of assisted breathing ventilators [7]. A global shortage of ventilators for Intensive Care Units prompted innovators worldwide (engineers, doctors, and researchers) to develop and manufacture emergency ventilators in many countries. A worldwide community of professionals is helping to redesign ventilator components where circularity principles of modularity, versatility and adaptivity of the produced items have become prioritised features for a world in crisis.

Rethinking sustainable progress through a Circular Economy

Companies from all sectors are having to confront and adapt to the range of disruptive systemic forces already mentioned. These disruptions are challenging the business models of many sectors while forcing all companies to be more accountable to, and transparent with, their stakeholders.

The world’s future economic development is expected to depend on low carbon technologies to help decarbonise our economies through electrification, digitalisation, and automation. However, these advanced technologies have made us dependent on relatively small quantities of specific elements and materials. Governments have used the term critical materials for defence purposes and economic purposes. But in the context of the circular economy the focus is on the rarer elements which are critical for many of the new advanced technological developments in low carbon energy and electrical storage or communication technologies [8]. The EU Commission has identified several lists of materials based primarily on the threats to the security of their supply and their economic significance.

A fundamental point is that while technology and innovation speed up, the supply of critical materials plays a potentially limiting role for all technology development. Causes of these limitations may be if the minerals/materials cannot be sourced due to resource scarcity, the uneconomical viability of mineral ores, or unacceptable sourcing methods (human rights). As an example, the German technology giant Siemens uses over 10,000 materials in the manufacture of its products and provision of services. Decisions regarding which materials to employ in technological design and the developments of products have far reaching implications, from potential threats to availability, to environmental footprints, and to the consequences of their long-term use. Circular thinking and sustainability principles are therefore embedded in the ‘Product Eco Excellence’ programme which aims to reduce or completely replace eight critical materials. This effort aims to reduce associated risks in the production of its technology [9].

The potential for successive waves of this COVID-19 pandemic to recur brings a climate of economic uncertainty for all societies. A circular economy challenges us to consider how with creativity and innovation we can build restorative economies. Rethinking progress explores how, through a change in perspective, we can redesign the way our economy works; by designing products that can be ‘made to be made again,’ and by powering the energy systems of production with renewable and sustainable forms of energy.


Geraldine Ann Cusack

Sustainable Manufacturing, Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR)
Current Opinion Series (number 8) of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee

Interview with Geraldine A. Cusack

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I was delighted to join the Climate Change and Environmental Science multidisciplinary committee for the 4-year term 2014-2018, and subsequently was invited to continue for this present term 2018-2022.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
My study area has been in geological engineering/ environmental hydrogeology/ energy & environmental economics and legislation, and my professional career is rooted under environmental sustainability and circular economy themes. I am presently based at Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR) working in the Sustainable Manufacturing division in Dublin, Ireland.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
Our human induced pollution in many of its forms affecting our air, water, and soil. It can be understood as an indicator of system losses in our economy and an unbalancing within our ecological systems (biosphere).

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
Circularity thinking (circular economy) designs out the language of ‘waste’ and helps innovators to discover methods for capturing losses (waste streams such as chemicals, organisms, materials, energy). Leakages of valued waste streams are thereby captured for reuse so that pollution can be prevented.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
Think about how much value you place on your natural environment. Choose to be an informed and concerned citizen who helps to protect the areas you call home. Become an actively aware and engaged member of your local community helping to prevent pollution while enhancing the ecosystems; and demand and elect leaders to represent your values. Act locally, think globally, and don’t waste. And as an individual consumer begin where it is feasible, possible and within your budget to:

  • Choose service over product purchase,
  • Seek out recycled and non-toxic products,
  • Choose modular designed items that enable parts to be easily and safely replaced,
  • Choose local/regionally produced sustainable goods and food.
  • Our positive actions and choices trigger positive cascading effects for a shared healthy future. Earth is our home, our habitat and we need to urgently reconnect with it, respect it and cherish it.

I think the NASA astronomer Carl Sagan’s inspiring commentary (Feb 14th, 1990) titled the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ puts earth into perspective for us now and into the future. As the spacecraft Voyager left our planetary neighbourhood for the fringes of our solar system Carl Sagan asked the engineers to turn it around for one last look (earth’s selfie) at our home planet. Voyager was about 6.4 billion km away:
‘…Look again at that dot. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… every saint, every sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’

Blog post content and statements are proprietary to the authors. Each author represents only themself and their own opinion.

Is it a seven or a nine? It’s not obvious at first glance, but by carefully scrutinising a few of the pages it’s possible to identify the handwriting style of numerals. It seems to be a nine, although the ink has faded slightly and the observer appears to have corrected his first entry. At least it agrees with the seven-day average temperature the observer was required to estimate at the end of the period so we can be confident we are reading the figures correctly.

With a few clicks on the keyboard the data are ‘lifted’ from the frayed pages of the journal (actually, a PDF copy) into a digital format accessible by all. Henry Carlton, the man recording the data at Kilkenny Castle in 1884, would have been amazed that in 2020 someone would be carefully examining his not quite copperplate writing to extract what was then grandly titled “Agricultural Statistics of the Weather”, although in reality it contained rather limited information: daily rainfall, the maximum and minimum temperature, and a one line description of the weather.

Today, you may also be surprised to learn that there are many such paper records from the nineteenth century containing handwritten weather observations from various sites around Ireland. Those with a professional interest may be further surprised that some of these records are still ‘non-digitized’ and therefore largely inaccessible for number-crunching analysis.

But why bother with these old records in the first place since the data quality, compared to modern observations, is often questionable? It’s inspired by the recognition that our climate is not fixed either today or in the past before the Industrial Revolution introduced us to greenhouse gas emissions.

‘Worst in living memory’ is a phrase we often hear when some extreme weather event occurs, suggesting that such a time-frame, although ill-defined, is a suitable yardstick for measuring the climate. Indeed the World Meteorological Organisation loosely follows this approach by recommending rolling 30-year periods (the current one is 1981-2010) for gathering statistics.

Unfortunately, such periods are very short if we want to put an extreme weather event in context. We really need a long record so that we can appreciate just what the ‘normal’ climate can throw at us before we factor in the influence of greenhouse gases on our current and future climate. It’s particularly important for rainfall as this can be highly variable from year to year; a few years of data may give a false sense of the risks of severe flooding or drought, for example.

Does it really need to be done manually? Surely, with today’s advanced AI and pattern recognition software it could be automated and delivered more speedily? Sadly, the software is not quite up to the task and for some ‘messy’ data sheets it falls well short of what a human can achieve in terms of content and, more importantly, accuracy.

Data are usually entered into modern spreadsheets, which often presents its own problems. For example, a popular software package does not excel in handling dates pre-1900; if you want to check automatically that dates align with tabulated days of the week (the previous year’s calendar sheets were occasionally used for the next year by Mr Carlton, increasing the risk of date errors) you need to be inventive.

A vital issue is the reliability of the records. What size was the rain gauge? Did the site have good exposure or was it compromised by nearby growing trees and vegetation over the years? Was the thermometer calibrated? How was the temperature measured? This type of information “metadata” is vital if the records are to be acceptable for climate work.

Rescuing old Irish weather observations is actively pursued by Met Éireann, with recent work enabling Irish temperature data to be extended back to 1831 (Mateus et al., 2019). The source material mostly comes from well documented archives but it’s possible that there are privately held datasets that could also be used; if you are aware of any of these Met Éireann would be delighted to hear from you.

Sometimes, the source material is not primarily meteorological. An excellent example of this, and which also emphasises the importance of metadata, is highlighted in a study (Labbé et al., 2019) of grape harvest dates 1354-2018, from Beaune, France; the authors correlated the data with a subset of air temperatures to draw conclusions about the past and present climate over the 664-year period.

Data rescue can be a tedious task, but occasionally, there are comments in the archives that enliven an otherwise dry document. For example, during the Irish Civil War in 1922 the observer decided it would be prudent for a short period to adjust his schedule (see the commentary in the image below).

Looking back at Henry Carlton’s handwritten notes and figures, and the general untidiness of some of his work, you wonder what kind of a person he was. Sometimes his signature appeared to be written in a hurry. Perhaps he was under pressure every Tuesday: the printed text at the bottom of seven-day summary sheet solemnly instructed:

This paper should be enclosed in an envelope and posted AS SOON AS POSSIBLE after the Tuesday morning reading, in order that it may reach London by the FIRST POST on Wednesday.

No computers in those days but Express Post was available!

Weather data recorded at Markree Castle, Co. Sligo, for July 1922

The busy handwritten entries highlight the difficulties encountered in digitizing such records. Here, the “Additional Notes” section in the bottom right corner of the page allowed the observer to comment on the disruption of the work arising from the Irish Civil War. Image provided by Mary Curley, Met Éireann

Ray McGrath
Current Opinion Series (number 7) of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee

(Blog post content and statements are proprietary to the authors. Each author represents only themself and their own opinion.)


Labbé, Thomas, Christian Pfister, Stefan Brönnimann, Daniel Rousseau, Jörg Franke, and Benjamin Bois. 2019. “The Longest Homogeneous Series of Grape Harvest Dates, Beaune 1354–2018, and its Significance for the Understanding of Past and Present Climate Discussions.” Clim. Past, 15, 1485-1501.

Mateus, C., Potito, A., Curley, M. 2020. Reconstruction of a long-term historical daily maximum and minimum air temperature network dataset for Ireland (1831-1968). Geoscience Data Journal. 00:1–14.

Interview with Ray McGrath

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I became involved when I was working in Met Éireann and leading a regional climate modelling project.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
My background is in weather and climate research in Met Éireann. I am now based in UCD.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
The erosion of biodiversity. There is a linkage with climate change but it is not the only driver: besides our carbon footprint there are other damaging ‘footprints’ our lifestyles are leaving on the environmental landscape.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
Government policy supported by effective legislation.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
‘Reduce, reuse and recycle’ – the 3Rs are still highly relevant.

Article image: Weather data recorded at Markree Castle, Co. Sligo, for July 1922. The busy handwritten entries highlight the difficulties encountered in digitizing such records. Here, the “Additional Notes” section in the bottom right corner of the page allowed the observer to comment on the disruption of the work arising from the Irish Civil War. Image provided by Mary Curley, Met Éireann.

One thing that this crisis shows us is how fragile our economies actually are, from both an environmental perspective and from economic shock. Many commenters have equated the urgency of action to respond to the pandemic with the urgency of action to respond to the challenge of climate action. In my view the comparison is not so simple. At the time of writing, it is hard to forecast the full impact Covid-19 will have in the near term. Quick action led us to close our schools and many businesses in mid-March and Covid-19 caused a short-lived drop in CO2 emissions, perhaps as much as 20% globally. Our energy economists do expect emissions to rebound but not automatically. But economists are sometimes error prone: Bloomberg New Energy Finance observed that, even after many countries had implemented response plans, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (on March 19) was still talking about global growth of 2.4% for 2020. Leading financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Moody’s followed suit and were all still forecasting 0.9% to 1.5% growth.

Much attention is focusing on the EU Green Deal (Dec. 2019) organizing our recovery and greening our investment to build productive economies. We now have a great opportunity to build greener, environmentally friendly and more equitable societies. However, we must recognize the magnitude of the global collapse in terms of output, employment, consumption and demand. Rebuilding confidence in consumers and investors, while reflating our economy, is the first step.

The European political discourse is to place energy, transport and smart infrastructure at the heart of any longer-term stimulus. The European Commission’s Green Deal chief, Frans Timmermans, said every euro spent on economic recovery measures after the COVID-19 crisis would be linked to the green and digital transitions. While investment in a ‘brown recovery’ is futile, significant investment in technologies such as electric vehicles and wind or solar plants is also not so realistic. While a complete system overhaul requires scaled up investment it also needs clearer market signals, plans for resilient infrastructure, and pricing support policies such as fast-tracking or buying down the closure of aging fossil fuel plants. We should begin with addressing our structural issues, such as electrical grid reinforcement, interconnection and market coupling, system flexibility and looking after our natural capital and environment. Once the foundations are in place we can move to enabling such transitions that include building electric road and rail, redesigning new cities, and wider efficiency. This does not mean reducing ambition nor promoting inaction in terms of climate change and biodiversity.

The recent Petersberg Climate Dialogue (2020) reinforced how the European Commission is on track to present, by September 2020, an impact assessed plan to raise the EU’s 2030 ambitions and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50-55% compared to 1990 levels. Yet the rulebook structures are not in place: The rules around Paris Agreement implementation, the major challenges and barriers to be overcome by end 2020 are not agreed. Carbon accounting loopholes in terms of Paris implementation are not closed and countries can veto or block progress in the name of self-interest, retrenchment, economic advantage and geopolitics. Agreeing such an accounting rule book was the major challenge facing the UK Government and the Convention in terms of meeting its decarbonisation objectives at the COP26 in Glasgow. This is now postponed to November 2021 due to Covid19.

Explicitly, the reference case to this Paris rulebook lies in Article 6 of the Convention. This Article is only nine paragraphs and is the last piece of the Paris Agreement to be resolved. It sets the path to significantly raising climate ambition or lowering costs, while engaging the private sector and spreading finance, technology and expertise into new areas. By default, it is the core component that glues the Agreement ‘implementation’ together.

Article 6 refers to internally transferred mitigation actions, most commonly known as carbon markets or a sustainable development mechanism. In Ireland, we have recently become very familiar with carbon taxation as one of many market based and ‘command and control’ instruments that also include cap-and-trade, voluntary agreements with industry, subsidies, credits,-performance standards, fossil-fuel subsidy reductions. Such policies can be developed by any country seeking to be policy progressive on climate action that involves linking with policy systems where such permits and carbon allowances are internationally recognised. It also includes non-market approaches focusing on cross-border co-operation.

So let’s return to the idea of transformation to a new form of growth and development post Covid19. Individual countries can establish their own rules for carbon trading and connect these rules with policy systems without requiring any UN agreement language of increased ambition. Indeed, many progressive US states [1] have implemented such trading mechanisms and renewable energy portfolio standards. The accounting mechanisms and cross-border co-operation arrangements (Article 6.2) is where countries link actions in their carbon markets to their climate commitments (also known as Nationally Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans). Agreeing this Article will enable parties to fulfil their commitments and avoid double counting of greenhouse gas emissions.

Failure to agree on Article 6 will jeopardize the required system overhaul and makes the achievement of net-zero emissions and overall economic transformation very difficult. In the meantime countries should mobilise the private sector and develop their own carbon markets that are connected across different jurisdictions. This will deliver real action and, in doing so, will build productive and resilient economies.

Dr. Matthew Kennedy
Arup, Ireland and University College Cork (Tyndall National Institute).
Current Opinion Series (number 6) of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee

(Blog post content and statements are proprietary to the authors. Each author represents only themself and their own opinion.)

Interview with Dr Matthew Kennedy

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I have been involved with the Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee since 2013

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
I have spent over 15 years investigating low carbon solutions in the energy sector. My specialization is mitigation technologies and, more recently, I collaborate with least developed countries to help them to transform their economies and societies through sustainable energy and transport measures that work best in their own jurisdictions.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
The obvious issue is our transport system. It needs to transform into a modern, sustainable and effective one, curbing emissions growth while empowering the creation of new businesses. The hidden issue, and one that could have catastrophic impact, is our unwillingness to protect our own natural capital and environment.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
Cross-party action to invest in the development and implementation of policies that address our structural issues, and action that delivers resilient infrastructure accessible to all citizens.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
Every individual is an agent of change. Each Irish citizen should be at the centre of our climate action and should demand change, inform discourse and drive action to achieve our successful transition.

[1] California Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont as part the RGGI ( With the Renewable Portfolio Standards in place in 29 of 50 U.S. States.

Article image courtesy of UN via

Issues relating to climate change have increasingly come before the courts around the world, most notably in the Urgenda case where the Supreme Court of the Netherlands upheld an order directing the Dutch State to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% in 2020 compared to 1990 levels.[2]

Background to the appeal

In 2017 Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) – an NGO – brought judicial review proceedings in the High Court with the aim of securing more ambitious and more urgent Government action on climate change. It maintained that the approval by the Government of the National Mitigation Plan[3] (the Plan) in July 2017 was unconstitutional and in breach of human rights obligations and that it also failed to comply with the requirements of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 (the 2015 Act).

Simply put, FIE alleged that the measures included in the Plan fail to ensure the necessary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to enable Ireland to meet its climate obligations. It is contended that the Plan is an inadequate response and particularly so as regards the urgent need for emissions reduction in the short term.

The Government argued that the making and adoption of the Plan is not justiciable – in other words, being a statement of Government policy, the Plan is not subject to review by the courts.

The High Court recognised the scientific consensus on the threat posed by the effects of climate change. It also accepted that the need for action is ‘undoubted’. However, FIE’s challenge to the legality of the Plan was unsuccessful.

In its judgment delivered on 19 September 2019,[4] the High Court found that the Government enjoys ‘a considerable margin of discretion’ as to how it should achieve the transition to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by the end of the year 2050 (the ‘national transition objective’ set down in the 2015 Act). It was not part of the court’s function to ‘second-guess’ the opinion of Government on such issues.

The High Court determined that, even if the Plan is justiciable, the 2015 Act concerns ‘matters which have a significant policy content’ and the obligations that it creates are articulated in terms which confer ‘considerable latitude’ on Government. It followed, therefore, that the Government ‘enjoys a considerable discretion’ in its preparation and approval of the Plan.

The Plan is to be interpreted as being ‘a living document’. The various measures it prescribes are ‘not set in stone’ nor intended to be the State’s ‘once and for all response’ to the urgent need for climate action. The Plan ‘is but one, albeit extremely important, piece of the jigsaw’. Furthermore, on the High Court’s interpretation of the 2015 Act, it did not prescribe or impose on the Government a statutory obligation to achieve particular intermediate targets.

Mr Justice MacGrath concluded that FIE had not established that the Plan itself, or the decision to approve it, breached the provisions of the 2015 Act. The High Court also ruled against the NGO on the alleged breach of constitutional rights. FIE had alleged breach of the right to life, the right to bodily integrity and the right to an environment consistent with human dignity. The court was not convinced that the making or the approval of the Plan had the effect of breaching constitutional rights. It also rejected FIE’s arguments concerning alleged breach of rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (the ECHR).

Permission to appeal

On 13 February 2020 the Supreme Court granted FIE permission to bring a direct appeal from the High Court’s decision.[5]

In granting permission to appeal, the Supreme Court noted that the parties accept that there is ‘a degree of urgency in respect of the adoption of remedial environmental measures’. Neither is there any dispute as to the science underpinning the Plan and the likely increase in greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime. The parties also accept the gravity of the likely effects of climate change.

What is at issue in this appeal?

Essentially, the Supreme Court will consider whether the Government acted unlawfully and in breach of fundamental rights when it adopted the Plan in July 2017.

The appeal raises a number of important issues of constitutional law, human rights law and climate governance including:

Is the Plan subject to review by the courts?

This concerns the doctrine of the separation of powers under the Constitution which dictates that the courts should avoid interfering with the exercise of discretion by the Legislature or, as in this case, the Executive, when it is implementing Government policy. A key issue here is the extent to which the State must have regard to fundamental rights in making and adopting the Plan.

If the making and adoption of the Plan is indeed justiciable as matter of law, what standard of review should the court apply?

This issue includes consideration of the role of the doctrine of proportionality where it is alleged that fundamental rights have been infringed, and particularly where environmental protection is at stake.

Whether FIE, as a company, has standing to invoke the fundamental rights alleged to have been breached?

The standing point is an important preliminary issue for the Supreme Court to consider in the appeal. The High Court accepted that FIE had standing in the particular circumstances of the case. Mr Justice MacGrath took the view that FIE sought to litigate ‘important issues, including those of a constitutional nature, affecting its members and indeed the public at large.’ The High Court also took account of the fact that FIE raised ‘significant issues in relation to environmental concerns’.

The constitutional rights asserted by FIE and their application in the context of the making and adoption of the Plan

Among the constitutional rights asserted by FIE is the ‘unenumerated’ – or ‘unspecified’ – constitutional right to an environment consistent with human dignity. The High Court was prepared to accept, for the purposes of the particular case before it, that there is indeed such a right. The appeal provides the Supreme Court with its first opportunity to consider the status and scope of this particular right.

It is notable that the right to an environment consistent with human dignity was first recognised by the High Court in November 2017, in another case brought by FIE concerning a challenge to the extension of the planning permission for a proposed new runway at Dublin Airport.[6]

The rights asserted by FIE under the ECHR and their application in the context of the making and adoption of the Plan

FIE asserts that the inadequacy of the Plan, in terms of failing to deliver the necessary emissions reduction, infringes the right to life (Article 2, ECHR) and the right to respect for private and family life and home (Article 8, ECHR). One of the issues in contention here is the interpretation of the ECHR by domestic courts.

Since the decision of the High Court there have been significant developments on the political side, including the (non-statutory) Climate Action Plan 2019[7] and the various commitments to increased climate action made in the proposed Programme for Government. However, the issues in the appeal remain of great importance and resonate far beyond the specific context of Climate Case Ireland.

Looking ahead

Given the significance of the complex legal issues that arise in this appeal, there is an enormous level of interest in the case, not only in Ireland but around the world.

Climate litigation is now a well-established feature of the legal landscape globally. The appropriate role of the courts, where it is alleged that Governments have failed to do enough – or quickly enough – to reduce emissions, engages difficult questions concerning the separation of powers. A key issue in the appeal is the extent to which the courts are entitled to judicially review Government measures, such as the Plan, where they are alleged to interfere unlawfully with fundamental rights.

The potential of environmental constitutionalism as a means of advancing implementation and enforcement of environmental human rights continues to gather pace internationally. The appeal in Climate Case Ireland provides the Supreme Court with the opportunity to bring certainty to a range of key legal issues concerning the State’s response to the threat posed by climate change, including the impact of climate change on fundamental rights.

Whatever is the ultimate outcome in the Climate Case Ireland appeal, there is no doubt that the courts will continue to be called on to adjudicate in litigation aimed at securing more ambitious and more urgent climate action.

By Dr Áine Ryall, Co-Director, Centre for Law and the Environment, School of Law, University College Cork
Current Opinion Series (number 5) of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee
(Blog post content and statements are proprietary to the authors. Each author represents only themself and their own opinion.)

[1] Friends of the Irish Environment CLG v Government of Ireland, Ireland and the Attorney General, Supreme Court, Appeal No: 205/19.

[2] The State of the Netherlands (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy) v Stichting Urgenda ECLI:NL:HR:2019:2007.

[3] National Mitigation Plan, Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment (July 2017).

[4] Friends of the Irish Environment CLG v Government of Ireland, Ireland and the Attorney General [2019] IEHC 747.

[5] Friends of the Irish Environment CLG v Government of Ireland, Ireland and the Attorney General [2020] IESCDET 1

[6] Friends of the Irish Environment CLG v Fingal County Council [2017] IEHC 695.

[7] Climate Action Plan 2019: Tackle Climate Breakdown (Government of Ireland, 2019).

Interview with Dr Áine Ryall

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
This is my second term with the Committee; I first joined in 2014 and was delighted to be reappointed in 2018.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
I am based at the School of Law, UCC where I am Co-Director of the Centre for Law and the Environment. My research explores the legal response to the climate challenge, including the impact of climate litigation. I have a particular interest in climate governance. I was a member of the Expert Advisory Group to the Citizens’ Assembly for the climate change module of its work. I am Vice-Chair of the UN ECE Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee, a quasi-judicial body which oversees implementation of environmental human rights across 47 States. My research draws on my experience with the Compliance Committee and examines, in particular, the development of standards within environmental human rights; implementation of environmental human rights in practice; access to justice in environmental matters; and environmental law enforcement more generally.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
Climate breakdown and biodiversity loss – both issues are interlinked.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
A human-rights based approach holds the potential to deliver the transformative change needed urgently to tackle environmental damage, climate change and biodiversity loss. Litigation such as Climate Case Ireland servesto highlight the impact of climate change on human rights. This is something that has not yet received the attention it deserves in Ireland. Where Governments fail to vindicate human rights, including in the context of environmental protection and climate change, the courts must act to ensure the rule of law. Of course the fact that environmental rights may be recognised formally within a particular legal system does not guarantee that those rights will always be vindicated fully in practice. Everything turns on the availability of affordable access to justice to ensure that rights are respected and, where they are not, that there is an effective enforcement mechanism in place.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
Keep well-informed about planning and environmental issues. Participate in environmental decision-making, especially at local level. Make your views and concerns known. Public participation in decision-making gives the environment a ‘voice’. It is one important mechanism by which to highlight your concern about environmental protection, climate breakdown and biodiversity loss to decision-makers.

Article image: Four Courts, Dublin by kieranlynam Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Droughts: not as simple as you might think

Drought is a deficit of water relative to normal conditions. However, such simplicity is deceptive. Droughts are complex, slow-onset hazards that affect multiple natural, social and economic sectors in different ways, and at different time and spatial scales. Unlike floods, which tend to be more confined spatially, droughts can affect large regions, sometimes entire countries and continents simultaneously.

Under natural conditions, reductions in precipitation can drive soil moisture deficits and in time lower runoff, streamflow, groundwater, reservoir and lake levels. How a drought evolves depends on the magnitude, timing and duration of the precipitation anomaly (or deviation from normal), the type of soil and land cover, dominant runoff pathways, geology and other variables. Recovery from drought is also determined by these parameters. Moreover, the impacts of drought are conditioned by the vulnerability of the receiving natural (e.g. habitat), social (e.g. people, cities) and economic systems and how human activities have modified the hydrological cycle (Van Loon et al., 2016).

This complexity has prompted scientists to categorise different types of drought, including; meteorological, agricultural, hydrological, socioeconomic and ecological droughts (e.g. Wilhite and Glantz, 1985).

Meteorological drought typically refers to the degree of dryness relative to normal and is characterized by the intensity, timing and duration of the dry period, often on daily, monthly, seasonal, or annual time scales.

Agricultural drought links meteorological conditions to agricultural impacts and is a delicate interplay between soil moisture deficits, plant water demand and the stage of crop growth.

Hydrological drought is associated with surface and sub-surface water availability, often defined at the catchment scale. Hydrological droughts can lag meteorological and agricultural droughts. Depending on catchment characteristics, it takes longer for precipitation deficits to emerge in streamflow, groundwater and reservoir levels. They can also last long after meteorological and agricultural droughts have ended.

Socioeconomic drought occurs when demand for a product or service exceeds supply as a result of a meteorological, agricultural or hydrological drought.

Ecological droughts create stresses across ecosystems

Given these complexities, it is impossible to offer a single, all-encompassing definition of drought. It is therefore crucial that we measure and track droughts in integrative ways that are meaningful for all stakeholders – from water managers to farmers, beer brewers to anglers and local communities. To do so requires spatially representative, long-term, quality assured meteorological and hydrological observations, remotely sensed and satellite data, weather forecasts ranging from traditional timeframes to longer-term seasonal outlooks, together with understanding of vulnerabilities in natural and socio-economic systems (e.g sectors, businesses, production chains) to link scientific metrics to real world impacts.

In Ireland, a drought is defined as a period of 15 or more consecutive days, for which no one day records 0.2 mm or more of precipitation. While such strict definitions may have value meteorologically, they are limited in assessing and characterising the myriad aspects of drought in complex reality. Indeed, such limited metrics may actually work to downplay drought risk in multiple and vulnerable sectors.
Better, but by no means perfect, drought metrics exist. These allow the anomalous nature of droughts across multiple variables to be characterised based on local climate, periods of interest and the magnitude, timing and duration of precipitation deficits. By accumulating precipitation deficits over time meteorological droughts can be linked to agricultural, hydrological, socio-economic and ecological droughts and impacts. For instance, deficits accumulated over 1 to 3 months are closely associated with agricultural droughts and the formation of soil moisture deficits. Deficits accumulated over longer durations, such as 6 to 12 months, can be associated with hydrological drought.

The changing experience of drought in Ireland

Until recently drought has been somewhat of a forgotten hazard in Ireland. For instance, few hydrological droughts with all island-wide impact have occurred since the mid-1970s. Agricultural droughts have been more common, but spatially variable and not always problematic. The forgotten risk of drought is also reflected in policy. We are awaiting Ireland’s first National Drought Plan and have no integrated, publicly available, national scale drought monitor or warning system. The recent establishment of Climate Action Regional Offices (CAROs) to lead climate change adaptation among local authorities gave specific regions the lead on distinct climate hazards. Drought did not feature.

However, recent experience and research are beginning to change the perception of drought in Ireland. Noone et al. (2017) developed a historical drought catalogue for the island of Ireland, showing that we have had intimate past experiences of drought with diverse impacts. Murphy et al. (2020) report on a major drought from 1765-1768 that impacted across the British and Irish Isles, dwarfing many subsequent droughts in the record. Forthcoming research from the JPI funded project CrossDro on multi-century tends in drought across Europe shows that Ireland has amongst the strongest trends to greater precipitation deficits in summer.

The year 2018 revealed the vulnerabilities of Irish society to drought across multiple sectors, particularly water supply, agriculture and ecology. In the context of multi-centennial historical records, the 2018 drought was not very remarkable. However, this should alert us to how vulnerability to drought has grown in Ireland over recent decades. It should prompt us to ask how we could have been better prepared.

At the time of writing, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, another drought is brewing. Following a wet winter, an exceptionally dry spring has resulted in precipitation deficits comparable to (and in places exceeding) 2018 in the east and southeast, but this time even earlier in the year. Soil moisture deficits are considerable. Seasonal forecasts from multiple international modelling centres point to a hotter and drier than normal outlook for the coming summer months. If realised, they raise the prospect of more serious impacts ahead. The importance of water as a first line of defence for public health in a pandemic adds a new vulnerability, while the post lockdown re-opening of the economy in the coming weeks is likely to increase water demand even further. The situation will need careful monitoring.

Over the coming decades our experience of drought is likely to become more frequent. Human driven climate change will be super-imposed on natural variability. Climate models tend to project reductions in summer precipitation for Ireland, though the magnitude of decreases is uncertain. Warming temperatures will also likely increase evapotranspiration, potentially increasing drought severity and the more rapid generation of soil moisture deficits. The persistence of blocking anti-cyclones – the atmospheric conditions often linked to droughts are anticipated to increase. Winters are expected to become wetter, but also more variable, with potential impacts on drought timing and duration.

Learning lessons

So how do we build resilience to drought? There is much to do and much ongoing. To assist planning and preparedness Ireland needs to establish a publicly accessible drought monitor and hydrological outlook for Ireland. Such tools are widely deployed for the public good in other countries (see UK examples of a drought monitor and hydrological outlook). A dairy farmer or water manager can access this information and make informed decisions. The success of such platforms are predicated on being relatable to stakeholder needs, representative of different drought types and based on real-time, spatially representative data. We have much of the hydro-climatic data necessary to realise such a vision. That data needs to be made publicly available in near real-time. Ongoing research at the Irish Climate Analysis and Research UnitS (ICARUS) at Maynooth University, funded by Science Foundation Ireland, is benchmarking approaches to seasonal hydrological forecasting nationally. Seasonal and extended range forecasts are continually improving. Insights from this work could inform the development of hydrological outlooks in Ireland.

Water resource systems in Ireland are often old, brittle and have limited headroom due to historic under-investment in infrastructure. Irish Water is in the process of upgrading water supply systems and developing new sources. New (and existing) infrastructure should be stress tested against the most extreme historical droughts, rather than single season droughts which are extreme in the context of recent decades, but unremarkable in the context or our understanding of historical events. How would the water supply of our major cities perform if the drought of 1765 were to replay? How would ecology and aquatic environments fare? Our river catchments are sensitive to drought in different ways – flashier, fast onset droughts where there is little groundwater storage, and longer droughts where there is large groundwater storage. It is not a simple east/west divide.

Resilience to drought will not be built by climate science and modelling alone. Social science insights are essential and drought needs to have greater visibility in national policy. While reductions in public water consumption were critical to avoiding more serious impacts in 2018, we are not, on the whole, conscientious in our use of water. In the post-Covid world our relationship with water will need to be re-imagined to view water as an important public health issue.

Building resilience will also mean co-producing science with stakeholders and understanding the nature of vulnerability at individual and community levels teasing out the experiences and the coping mechanisms of those affected. As part of an IRC Coalesce project Dr. Arlene Crampsie is using oral history as a way to refresh memories of past droughts and gain insights into these issues. This is crucial work. Drought resilience will also mean having joined up policy. How, for example, do national strategies on afforestation and food production influence drought risk and vice versa?

Given these vulnerabilities, gaps, and open questions, much important work remains to be done on drought. It is beyond time we remembered this forgotten hazard.

By Dr Conor Murphy and Dr Simon Noone, Irish Climate Analysis and Research UnitS (ICARUS), Department of Geography, Maynooth University.

Current Opinion Series (number 4) of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee
(Blog post content and statements are proprietary to the authors. Each author represents only themself and their own opinion.)

Wilhite, D.A.; and M.H. Glantz. 1985. Understanding the Drought Phenomenon: The Role of Definitions. Water International 10(3):111–120.
Van Loon, A.F., Gleeson, T., Clark, J., Van Dijk, A.I., Stahl, K., Hannaford, J., Di Baldassarre, G., Teuling, A.J., Tallaksen, L.M., Uijlenhoet, R. and Hannah, D.M., 2016. Drought in the Anthropocene. Nature Geoscience, 9(2), p.89.
Murphy, C., Wilby, R.L., Matthews, T., Horvath, C., Crampsie, A., Ludlow, F., Noone, S., Brannigan, J., Hannaford, J., MacLeman, R. and Jobbova, E., 2020. The forgotten drought of 1765–1768: Reconstructing and re‐evaluating historical droughts in the British and Irish Isles. International Journal of Climatology,
Noone, S., Broderick, C., Duffy, C., Matthews, T., Wilby, R.L. and Murphy, C., 2017. A 250‐year drought catalogue for the island of Ireland (1765–2015). International Journal of Climatology, 37, pp.239-254.

Interview with Conor Murphy

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
September 2019

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
I am most interested in hydro-climatology – the interface of hydrology and climatology and am based at the Irish Climate Analysis and Research UnitS (ICARUS) at Maynooth University.

What is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
I would say climate change, but I think this is where need to see things differently and try to view the many environmental challenges we face in a more integrated way. Addressing challenges in isolation, as science tends to do, can lead to blind spots and an inability to see cascading risks. I guess that is the geographer in me talking.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
Solutions is a big word. I think we are beyond ‘solving’ some of the environmental challenges we face. For example, we are committed to climate change even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions now. The emphasis has to be on limiting the most extreme changes and developing resilience and the capacity to adapt to the changes that are happening. If Covid-19 teaches us anything, it is that we need to be ready for uncertainty and surprise.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental crisis?
Transformation begins with the individual. It takes commitment and persistence, so if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement, negotiated in 2015, represented a Grand Bargain aimed at meeting mankind’s two major longer term challenges how to feed a world population of some 10 billion by 2050 while moderating the rate of increase in global warming so that life on the planet can continue.

The food/health/climate nexus

Building on the two agreements, interconnected policies on food, health and climate must develop synergies. Food systems should actively encourage nutritious and healthy food and tackle the rapidly increasing overweight and obesity crisis. To meet climate targets, the agri-food sector should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase its carbon sequestration through changes in land use and renewable energy generation, and promote diversification and biodiversity. Climate policy must sustain food security through limiting the number of severe weather events leading to droughts and flooding.

The world since 2015

But in the years since 2015, most countries are not delivering on their SDG and Paris commitments while the challenges have become more complex.
Malnutrition in its broad sense – undernutrition and obesity – has increased. A combination of conflict and climate change has pushed the number of hungry people to 821 million (about 9 per cent of world population). Overweight and obesity has grown rapidly, in almost all countries, to reach over 2 billion people.

It is ironic to take the United States, one of the world’s richest countries, as an example of the malnutrition problem. While coronavirus has claimed the lives of over 60,000 people there, with many more losses to come, poor diet causes more than half a million deaths annually. The prevalence of obesity in the US adult population is over 40 per cent and total healthcare expenditures, dominated by diet-related chronic health conditions, cost 18 per cent of gross domestic product.

The world since 2015

The years 2015-19 have been the warmest on record. To achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the increase in global warming to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, more ambitious targets need to be set and delivered.

Momentum for policy change

Momentum for more decisive and urgent ambition in food, health and climate policies has been building at European and international level.

In December 2019, the EU Commission proposed the European Green Deal aiming to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Central to this Green Deal will be a Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and a Farm to Fork strategy for sustainable food. The next iteration of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform in 2021/22 will propose that 40 per cent of the CAP budget will be spent on climate actions. A Nutrition for Growth Summit was planned for Tokyo in December 2020 but has been postponed until 2021. A Food Systems Summit aimed at accelerating progress towards the SDGs is also planned for 2021.

Impact of COVID 19

The impact of coronavirus pandemic greatly magnifies the short and long term challenges.

The hunger problem will soon get worse. The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that an extra 265 million people are at risk of acute food insecurity. As economic lockdown proceeds the loss of formal and informal employment has increased poverty and hunger. If poor countries, with practically non-existent public health systems, are badly impacted by the virus, this problem will be exacerbated. And all of this when the aid budgets of traditional donor countries are under serious pressure as a result of their own pandemic induced economic problems.

The longer term impact will lead to a reassessment in political priorities and in policies. More investment is necessary in planning and contingency arrangements for systemic risks, of which the coronavirus pandemic is just one. Many countries recognise the need to invest more in public services and health systems, and to properly value the people working within them. We will see a greater emphasis on food and nutrition security, at local, national and regional level. More attention will be focused on local production, shorter supply chains and the circular economy. The issues of sustainability and resilience in our food systems and the wider economy will become more important.

Implications for Ireland

The incoming Irish government and the wider political system will have to decide on where the food/ health/climate policy agenda fits within a national recovery programme. Decisions are also required on what role Ireland wishes to play in influencing European and international policy on these issues.

The Irish agri-food sector will have a critical role in our economic recovery, as it did in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. The Agri-Food Strategy Committee started work in January on developing a strategy for the sector to 2030. Their draft report will assess the full implications of the pandemic for the sector. A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) will examine the environmental implications of the Committee’s recommendations. The draft report of the Strategy Committee and the associated SEA will be published for public consultation and approximately two months later, a final version of both will be published in the second half of the year.

Ireland played an international leadership role in finalising the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. If the current talks on government formation can agree on that important balance between the urgent short term and the important long term policy, that experience may be relevant for many other countries. Ireland could again influence European and international policy on issues central to the welfare of mankind and the future of the planet.

By Professor Tom Arnold
Chair of the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee.

Current Opinion Series (number 3) of the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee
(Blog post content and statements are proprietary to the authors. Each author represents only themself and their own opinion.)

Interview with Tom Arnold

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?

In September 2019.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?

During my work with Concern Worldwide, from which I retired in 2013, I was deeply involved in policy issues relating to nutrition, mainly undernutrition. In recent years, I have been working on food systems and their wider implications, through my membership of such bodies as the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (GloPan) and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

What is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?

Given our poor performance in environmental policy up until recently, we need to implement the Climate Action Plan agreed last year in a decisive and sustained manner.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?

I am chairing the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee. My hope is that the Committee will produce in its final report clear policy proposals on how the agri-food sector can both reduce emissions and increase its contribution to carbon sequestration.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental crisis?

Think about the realistic options as to how I, as an individual, can contribute to tackling the crisis and then do it.