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Climate and society in modern Ireland: past and future vulnerabilities

In today’s blog on Climate and Society in Ireland, John Sweeney considers the challenging interaction between climate and society from the nineteenth century to the present.

Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 13, John Sweeney (Maynooth University) argues that while throughout most of its history, Irish society was a prisoner of climate as mediated through the necessity of a harvest surplus, the relationship is now reversed: in a global context, climate is now the prisoner of people.

Sitting astride the main storm tracks of the North Atlantic, Ireland’s location has historically rendered it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of weather and climate. Throughout the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, the imperative of achieving a food, fodder and fuel surplus meant agrarian Irish society was a greater hostage to climate than many other parts of Europe where the Industrial Revolution had enabled the worst effects of the Little Ice Age to be mitigated.

Closer examination of society–climate relationships has been facilitated by documentary sources and by direct observations from the nineteenth century onwards, which have provided new insights into Irish climate hazards such as storms, floods and droughts. As Ireland modernised, new concerns such as urban flooding emerged, and new ways of managing climate risks were devised. Ultimately though, as more benign climatic conditions in the mid-nineteenth century gave way to more instability and rapid warming in the twentieth and early twenty first, the need for adaptation and mitigation of climate change became evident. Improvements in global and regional climate modelling and forecasting were instrumental in assisting with this.

However, Irish society has been slow to react to climate change concerns and only through a series of catalytic extreme events has public and political attitudes shifted, induced by both ‘bottom-up’ activism and ‘top-down’ international agreements. Accordingly, Ireland is now on the threshold of taking the radical steps necessary to shed its ‘climate laggard’ status and embark on the road to a post-carbon society.

To continue reading, purchase Climate and Society in Ireland.