Waking up to climate change

Wed, Mar 6, 2013, 00:00

Sir, – The long-awaited heads of the Climate Action and and Low-Carbon Development Bill 2013 and the report Ireland and the Climate Change Challenge by the secretariat of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) have finally been published on the Department of the Environment’s website.

For some time, the public has been seeing commentary in the media on these important documents, while the ongoing drafts have been in preparation. The advance comments reported in The Irish Times have included criticisms of the NESC report as “gutless” and “toothless” by sources outside the Oireachtas and the media who, apparently, have had privileged access to the drafts.

As a climate professional, I hesitate to comment on the draft bill or the NESC report without giving them detailed study. I would, however, like to make some observations at this point.

First, it seems to me it is unjustified to subject an expert group such as the NESC secretariat to the harsh criticism that has been reported in the media. Expert groups can provide information to legislators to guide the decisions that have to be made in relation to climate change, but these decisions are ultimately political.

Having said that, I believe the NESC secretariat, and more widely the Oireachtas, can be faulted for the process they have used to gather expert information in relation to the science of climate change in the lead-up to the present draft bill.

An example of a process that, I believe, can be considered exemplary was that used by the Oireachtas Health Committee in their public hearings on abortion legislation held in early January. There, the Oireachtas members spoke directly to, and cross-examined, the leading experts. The expert sessions, legal and medical, were strictly separated from the advocacy sessions and the presentations of the religious denominations. Within the expert sessions, any expert witnesses who ventured outside their professional specialties were quickly reminded that what they were then presenting was not evidence but advocacy.

Nothing remotely resembling the Oireachtas hearings on abortion legislation has ever been undertaken in Ireland in relation to climate change legislation.

The NESC report contains a list of the people consulted in the relevant areas. This contains many distinguished names. However, in the specific area of climate science, it is notable, for example, that none of the four climate scientists in this country who have attained the distinction of being elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy on the basis of their scientific achievements appear on the list. Neither do any of the highly qualified climate experts at Met Éireann.

I believe the public interest requires that, in considering a Bill that will influence this country for decades to come, our Oireachtas members be in a position to be able to distinguish clearly between what is evidence and what is advocacy. While paying close attention to both forms of input, I suggest that they attempt to see to it that the line between these two forms of input is drawn more clearly than it is at present. – Yours, etc.

RAY BATES,

Adjunct Professor of Meteorology, Meteorology and Climate Centre,

School of Mathematical Sciences, UCD,

Belfield,

Dublin 4.