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Irish winters could drop to -15 degrees in ‘runaway climate change’ scenario, reports find

Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan details the particular risks for Ireland based on latest scientific evidence

Irish people have to face up to the reality “we’re heading towards a 2.5 degree [hotter] world that has huge risks attached to it”, Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan has said.

Speaking after he briefed the Cabinet on the latest scientific evidence of global warming, Mr Ryan said trends including more extreme weather events were accelerating quicker than anticipated, with heightened risk of tipping points which would be unavoidable.

“Runaway climate change [that] you can’t stop” posed particular risks for the country, he said.

Melting polar ice sheets, decline of the Amazon rainforest and changes to Atlantic currents, which normally give Ireland its benign climate, were interlinked. “They’re all connected. And we have to act fast. We have to go really strong to reduce emissions as part of our contribution to avoiding that horrific eventuality.”

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The memo on climate tipping points pulls together latest research from the EU Copernicus Climate Observatory and World Meteorological Organisation, as well as the EPA’s Ireland’s Climate Change Assessment, which shows Europe is warming twice as fast as the global average with an estimated rise of over 2.48 degrees – “way in excess of the tipping point to keep global temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees”.

Exceeding a global average temperature rise of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels is predicted to lead to irreversible impacts while a 2.5 degree rise will make parts of the Earth unlivable.

The memo confirms “for Ireland, the greatest risk is that the circulation of water flows from South to North to off our Atlantic coast (the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) which gives Ireland its temperate climate could weaken or collapse this century. Ireland is on the same latitude as Labrador in Canada. If we lose the temperate protection of the Amoc, we could be looking at winter temperatures like -10 to -15 degrees, and summer temperatures no warmer than 10 degrees”.

The world’s poles are experiencing temperature extremes with knock-on consequences for Ireland, it says. In March 2022, an ice shelf in the Antarctic, bigger than Co Dublin (stretching over 1,100 km2) collapsed within days of soaring temperatures. Ice cap melting is directly contributing to an acceleration of sea level rises, from 2.1mm a year 3 decades ago to 4.3mm a year over the past decade, the memo adds.

“Rising [sea] levels, storm surges and extreme waves pose an ever-increasing threat to our coastal cities and towns, and will require significant investment, potentially diverting large amounts of Government resources from health and education.”

In outlining how Ireland was not immune to climate disruption, it says “2023 was our warmest year overall on record and in June an extreme marine heatwave occurred off our west coast where sea surface temperatures reached 5.5 degrees above normal, which resulted in tropical and freak rainfalls and damaging flash flooding”.

Warmer than usual temperatures and excess moisture brought persistent and damaging rainfall throughout the winter and spring with a risk that this would be a recurring pattern.

While the memo is sobering, Mr Ryan said if the Government accelerates climate strategies and policies it has in place and detailed in its National Energy and Climate Plan, “Ireland can meet the challenges of climate head on and ensure that our economy and communities are prepared and protected”.

Welcome indications of progress were not contained in the latest EPA projections on emissions, he said. “Retrofitting targets continue to be broken month on month. Over 700 homes are going solar every week. Public transport numbers are higher than ever. We are producing more of our energy from renewables. However, we have to do more. Not to do so will cost the exchequer, jobs, competitiveness and industry, and will have the greatest negative impact on the most vulnerable in our society.”

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