Rising Tides: Ireland’s Future in a Warmer World - Kills off myth we are among small states with minor emissions

Television: Rising Tides, one of RTÉ's biggest budget nature films, does not sugar coat the rate of climate breakdown and what is in prospect

There is a school of thought that says photos or footage of polar bears sitting on mini icebergs about to collapse into the sea is not the best way to illustrate the climate crisis. In spite of this grim illustration of a warming world, it does not prompt the scale of response warranted on people’s doorstep.

There is a behavioural disconnect, it contends, compounded by failure of scientists to adequately explain what is immediately facing the planet and humanity – and yet RTÉ 1′s three-part series Rising Tides: Ireland’s Future in a Warmer World presented by Philip Boucher-Hayes adopts a global canvass, jumping hotfoot between Greenland, Bangladesh, Miami, sub Saharan Africa and Australia, taking in more places in between.

What is one of RTÉ’s biggest budget nature films ever made (costing €750,000) overcomes that difficulty cleverly by constantly highlighting risks such as disappearing ice sheets, melting permafrost and climate-induced migration, and the consequences for all of humanity – and then brings all that back to home.

Ireland cannot escape the consequences of the sea-level rising (a five-metre surge baked in for coming centuries); the release of vast amounts of CO2 and methane from thawing Arctic tundra (exacerbating warming); and the unlivable parts of the planet forcing millions to relocate.

The series is notable for absence of reprimanding scientists pointing frantically to what the models are projecting. That approach somehow has let big carbon polluters off the hook (especially fossil fuel producers) and heaped guilt on individuals. Instead, real-time data comes from key locations, and suggests this is happening far quicker than anticipated.

It is pitched at those who believe what they are being told by climate scientists but have not yet fully understood the need for the kind of radical action that science demands. It is the classic “show, not tell” approach, though the presenter gives his sombre verdict at the end of each episode.

It succeeds in showing the rate of climate breakdown and what is immediately in prospect. There is no sugar coating. It is not doom laden as there is much material to help people understand there is a lot of emissions reductions (mitigation); adaptation (preparing for the inevitable, such as extreme weather events); and nature restoration that can be immediately pursued to tip the balance of the Earth in the right direction. But we are the generation that has to get it done.

The camerawork under direction of Marcus Stewart in Earth Horizon Productions reveals a planet in terrible distress, though the resilience of humanity invariably asserts itself. The drone footage of normally brilliant white snow-topped glaciers now overcome by dullness and grey streaks, due to release of black carbon from unrelenting melting, provides the starkest of backdrops – another accelerant operating in the same way warming oceans contribute to planetary overheating.

The second part focuses on adaptation, which must happen in parallel to moving to net zero carbon emissions in the coming decades. As Rising Tides demonstrates, it is rarely a top priority for politicians, policymakers and local authorities, even though all major Irish cities have a one-in-20 chance of experiencing a devastating two metres of sea level rise this century. The big exception the series features is the Netherlands; the Dutch being masters at adaptive planning as opposed to emergency planning.

And it does not have to cost trillions, as much cheaper nature-based solutions are remarkably effective, confirmed by the approach of Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest and most climate vulnerable countries. The global adaptation challenge is portrayed full on, going beyond curtailing flooding to include famine risks arising from worsening droughts and rampaging wild fires.

Rising Tides: Ireland’s Future In A Warmer World:  Jessica Gilman Ernakovich, associate professor at University of New Hampshire with Philip Bouchier-Hayes. Photograph: RTÉ

Rising Tides kills off the myth that Ireland is among small states with minor emissions, and should not be unduly worried about direct hits as the world breaches climate tipping points with the destabilisation that brings and inability to fully control our destiny.

Wrong on both counts: such countries, when added together, make up one-third of global emissions, it highlights, while the evidence is now so indisputable that “climate breakdown will be the story of the rest of our lives” – the one certainty amid inevitable chaos if we do not have decisive leadership, collective action in the interest of humanity, clear roadmaps and help for the vulnerable.

The programme makers say they minimised their carbon footprint, opting to take lower carbon alternatives to flying where possible. They used a three-person crew, resulting in fewer people flying and lower emissions. For Irish location shoots, they travelled by car – “electric where possible” – and train. Where possible, local crews were used but “it was impossible to avoid flying altogether and still tell a global story of climate change”.

Rising Tides: Ireland’s Future in a Warmer World airs on RTÉ 1, Wednesday, at 9.35pm.

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