We need to talk more about Storm Ophelia

Ireland has had its wettest winter and its stormiest winter in 150 years, but will miss its 2020 emissions targets. We are not learning our lesson fast enough, says Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik

Earlier this week, for a brief blip of time, Ireland and the British Isles faced the acute threat of climate disaster.

Closed schools and courts. Cancelled ferries and flights. Power cuts to thousands of homes. The first severe weather alert across the whole of Ireland in the country’s history. Breached coastal defences. Vulnerable water supplies. Three lives lost. The Irish Organisation for Geographic Information’s annual conference, which was meant to focus on climate change, postponed.

Newspapers invoked the Great Storm of 1987 and 1961’s Hurricane Debbie. Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney described it as a ‘weather event the likes of which we have never seen before’.

But as the winds and rains eased, Hurricane Ophelia folded into neglect. The pattern of disaster coverage settled: frenzied attention, urgent political warnings, rapid amnesia.

Climate change means the end of predictability. Atmospheric history is no longer a reliable guide for the future’

Politicians and the media typically treat disasters like novelties, bouts of abnormal weather, which are rarely worthy of deeper analysis. But such superficial discussions casts silence around three things: the increasing centrality of climate change to extreme weather, political responsibility, and the international scope of the problem.

It didn’t come out of the blue

Ophelia’s pathway marked the furthest east that a major Atlantic hurricane has been observed, signalling a new era. So unprecedented was Ophelia’s location that it broke some of the US National Hurricane Center’s graphical displays; they had simply never planned for a hurricane to be observed so far east.

As climate scientist John Sweeney noted, in just the last few years, Ireland has experienced both its wettest winter and its stormiest winter in nearly 150 years.

Behind Ophelia lay familiar conditions: warmer than average ocean temperatures, a common signature of climate change, were present in the North Atlantic. Ophelia drew energy from these waters, which are usually far too cold for tropical storms.

This historic development corresponds to published scientific warnings. A 2013 study at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute predicted a significant rise in major storms facing Western Europe. One of its models indicated that the oceanic conditions that nurture tropical cyclones could move 1,100km to the east.

As atmospheric scientist Michael Mann explained: ‘[with] sea surface temperatures continu[ing] to warm, the region of the Atlantic Ocean that can support the genesis and strengthening of tropical storms and hurricanes is expanding eastward.’

Some nations, particularly the wealthiest and most distant from the historic paths of extreme weather, continue to believe in their immunity. But accelerated climate change means the end of predictability; atmospheric history will no longer be a reliable guide for the future. Western Europe is no exception.

The red sun caused by Saharan dust drawn north by Storm Ophelia in October 2017
The red sun caused by Saharan dust drawn north by Hurricane Ophelia in October 2017. Wikimedia Commons

Political responsibility

Ireland and Britain are among the highest carbon emitters in the world. Ireland is the third highest per person emitter in the EU and is set to miss its own 2020 reduction targets.

Just days before Ophelia made landfall in Ireland, Irish Minister Denis Naughten visited Brussels to lobby for loopholes in the EU climate agreement.

Despite warnings from national social movements and scientific publications, Ireland’s political establishment is largely indifferent. Even public bodies established to address climate change have demonstrated short-sightedness. Economist John Fitzgerald, chair of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC), said, ‘Action on climate change involves an appeal to altruism on the part of voters – there is little in it for people living in Ireland today.’

Ireland’s absence of environmental leadership is not remarkable. In spite of spiralling climate impacts, states across Europe, from Britain to Germany, are entrenching fossil fuel infrastructure, failing to meet past emission targets and actively delaying transitional solutions to the climate crisis.

The ‘cosmopolitan imperative’

Ophelia threw the interconnectedness of our global climate system into focus. The strong winds and heat dragged by Ophelia helped spread destructive fires across northern Portugal and Spain, destroying rural communities and claiming at least 39 lives.

But the way we imagine the relevance of climate change does not reflect this: it is parochial, skewed towards the national. As sociologist Ulrich Beck noted, global risks like climate change ignore borders, carrying a ‘cosmopolitan imperative’.

The last weeks alone pay testimony to the scale of the challenge. Guatemala, South Africa, Nicaragua, Germany, the Philippines, Israel, Romania, Japan and Vietnam have seen fatal rains and storms. Four major hurricanes – Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate – barrelled across the Caribbean. St Maarten, Puerto Rico, Antigua and Barbuda remain stalled in endless recovery, abandoned by authorities.

The price of silence

The increase in frequency, intensity and range of extreme weather is exposing our inadequate strategies to prevent and protect against climate change.

The silence following Ophelia exposes the first impediment to tackling any problem: acknowledging there even is one.

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik’s new book In Defence of Life, a freshly written guide to our ethical crisis, will be published by New Internationalist in May 2018.