January 18, 2022
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: The Tempest or just a storm in an RTÉ cup?

RTÉ’s newsroom loves a good storm. They have all their regional correspondents out, looking at empty streets or wind-blown beaches and trying, like Dickens’s Fat Boy, to make our flesh creep.

The station was derided for its hysterical coverage of Storm Lorenzo, two years ago, when its reporters across the land spent 24 hours warning that Armageddon was approaching and the next 24 telling us that, really, nothing much had happened.

That experience didn’t chasten the storm petrels of Montrose. They have been  in rehearsal with every small weather event since and they put the whole show on the road  for Storm Barra.

It was a costume drama, with intrepid reporters out in padded jackets, hats, scarves, gloves and, in one case, goggles. They predicted a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. But Storm Barra was not The
Tempest, more Much Ado About Nothing.

Yes, there was some flooding, which was unpleasant for the people caught in it, and power-cuts, which caused disruption in several areas. And,as always when the weather turns bad, there were sad stories of individual tragedies.

But overall, Storm Barra brought nothing unpredictable for Ireland in December, just a couple of wet and windy days. Even the determined newshounds of RTÉ had difficulty trying to present it as anything more than a storm in a tea cup.

It had a reporter on Dun Laoghaire pier whose main revelation was that a rainbow had been seen in the sky over Dublin.

Biblical legend has it that a rainbow was shown to Noah as a sign that the Great Flood had ended. Even RTÉ would not go so far as to make that comparison. Its man in Dun Laoghaire confined himself to the cryptic observation that in one direction he could see dark clouds  over Bray and, in the other, blue skies above Malahide – a contrast that could as easily be observed in June as in December.

The BBC was much less excited about Storm Barra, confining it to a minor slot on most of its bulletins. But it delivered a discussion in which a dubious link was made between Barra and the wider problems of global warming and climate change.

It is tempting to conflate the issues but the link cannot be proven.

No matter how bad the weather may be, records nearly always reveal a time when it was worse. And in many cases that time was long before Arctic ice had shown the slightest sign of melting or any problem had been detected with the rain forests.

Carbon emissions may have encouraged Storms Barra and Lorenzo. But were they also to blame for Hurricane Charlie that crashed like a wrecking ball through much of the country in 1986, bringing death and destruction?

Maybe they were. But what about Hurricane Debbie, in 1961, which ripped up trees, knocked down walls and killed 18 people in Ireland? Nobody had even heard of global warming back then.

Nor is it likely that the burning of fossil fuels contributed to Ireland’s most infamous storm on the Night of the Big Wind. That cyclone, which came blasting in on January 6, 1839, left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. It blew down the chimney of Kilkenny’s new gas works and leveled all the buildings nearby.

And it is hard to see how human activity can be blamed for the savage weather in the 1740s. It was a period when unprecedented amounts of rain were accompanied by storms and extreme frosts. In Ireland it led to a famine that is estimated to have killed almost 40% of the population, a proportionately bigger disaster than the Great Famine a century later.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we should stop polluting our planet with plastic. I think we should stop poisoning the atmosphere with carbon fumes. And I think we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels which, other considerations apart, will eventually be used up.

All these actions are very desirable but I am not sure that they will reverse the course of climate change, because the climate has always been changing.

They certainly won’t bring an end to storms. And that’s good news for RTÉ – every cloud has a silver lining.

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