Climate change needs ethical discourse involving all - President

Higgins speaks to Royal Society in London during state visit to Britain

 Prince Andrew, Duke of York shows the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins (centre), accompanied by his wife Sabina Higgins and David Rankin-Hunt, Deputy Inspector, Regimental Colours for the Royal Collection (left) the Colours of the Disbanded Irish Regiments in the Grand Stairs at Windsor Castle today. Photograph: Steve Parsons/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Prince Andrew, Duke of York shows the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins (centre), accompanied by his wife Sabina Higgins and David Rankin-Hunt, Deputy Inspector, Regimental Colours for the Royal Collection (left) the Colours of the Disbanded Irish Regiments in the Grand Stairs at Windsor Castle today. Photograph: Steve Parsons/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 13:11

The damage being inflicted on the planet as a result of climate change requires “an ethical discourse” involving all citizens and not just scientists, President Michael D. Higgins said today during a visit to the Royal Society in London.

On the second day of his state visit to the United Kingdom the President said he was honoured to visit the Royal Society which was an institution that had made a profound contribution to the development of Western science and our understanding of the world.

“This first state visit by a President of Ireland to the United Kingdom is a celebration of the relationship between our two countries, in all of its rich dimensions. The vibrancy of this relationship irrigates the circulation of knowledge, the debates of ideas, and the many productive collaborations that bring together British and Irish scientists,” he said.

He said the human and intellectual ties between the two countries carried great significance and historical depth and he pointed out that one of his predecessors as President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

The President pointed out that Robert Boyle, the son of the Earl of Cork and one of the most prominent Irishmen to have made science his vocation was one of the founding members of the Society.

“The experimental investigations, the spirit of discovery and questioning which made Boyle one of the central figures in the scientific revolution of the 17th century, aptly reflect the particular nature of the Irish genius.

“Indeed the most significant products of Irish culture have had as their defining characteristic a tendency to look at the world in novel and unconventional ways and to question prevailing orthodoxies,”he said.

President Higgins said that because some many Irish people had succeeded in the worlds of literature and the arts the contribution to science had been overshadowed.

“Even among the Irish, the names of Swift, Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Beckett or Heaney are of far more renown than that of Ernest Walton who, in 1951, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work on the artificial splitting of the nucleus of the atom.”

The President listed a number of Irish scientists including Robert Boyle, the mathematician William Hamilton, John Tyndall, who explained why the sky is blue; Nicholas Callan, who invented the induction coil; William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, who built the worlds largest telescope and used it to locate new structures in the heavens; George Gabriel Stokes, who investigated the phenomenon of fluorescence and advance the wave theory of light; William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, who contributed so much to the transatlantic telegraph project; John Lighton Synge, who pioneered the study of black holes; George Francis Fitzgerald, whose understanding of the laws of motion provided an essential building block for the Special Theory of Relativity.

“Finally, I am delighted to note that the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1945, was X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, from Newbridge, Co Kildare.”

President Higgins said one great challenge lay in the rapid pace of scientific and technological development, its diffusion on a global scale, which had yet to be matched by the cultivation of critical and informed dialogues within the wider society on the impact of such developments. “This, I believe, calls for some level of reintegration between science and philosophy; it requires the crafting of a wide-ranging ethical discourse in which all citizens not just the most expert, or scientifically literate among them are invited to take part.

“This challenge is all the more pressing as the ethical issues arising from contemporary scientific and technological applications have reached unprecedented levels of acuteness. Recent developments in the life sciences, for example, give new salience to the opportunities and perils encapsulated in the old Promethean myth. The damages inflicted to our planet by climate change also raise novel ethical questions: indeed, the possibility of the total destruction of our world was not a concern of Enlightenment philosophers.

“On all these questions, it is essential that we instigate far-reaching dialogues, not only between the disciplines but also, I would suggest, between Ireland and Britain. It would be so valuable to see these national dialogues expand and mature alongside the strengthening of scientific cooperation between our two countries,” he said.