‘This is no easy task’: Citizens’ Assembly takes on climate change

99 citizens told that society’s engagement is critical If Ireland is to decarbonise by 2050

Climate science is complicated with many unknowns, especially in predicting how much the Earth will warm by over coming decades.  Photograph: John Giles/PA Wire

Climate science is complicated with many unknowns, especially in predicting how much the Earth will warm by over coming decades. Photograph: John Giles/PA Wire

 

After deliberating on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution on abortion and how to approach Ireland’s ageing population, the Citizens' Assembly has turned its attention to climate change and how the State can become a global leader in the field.

The members have a clear base to work from: climate change is here, human activity is to blame for carbon emissions causing global warming, and the problem must be tackled.

Assembly chair Ms Justice Mary Laffoy told the 99 members of their task: “It speaks to taking definite action . . . to making recommendations which would put Ireland in the vanguard in relation to action on climate change.

“This is no easy task. The challenge of having a comprehensive and robust discussion on such wide-ranging and expansive topic cannot be underestimated.”

The process had achieved remarkable early momentum with “unprecedented participation” in the form of more than 1,200 submissions.

It was striking how many people went to the effort of expressing their concern about climate change and their desire to see Ireland take action and show leadership, said Brian Motherway of the International Energy Association.

Appetite

There is clearly an appetite in Irish society for this issue to be prioritised.

“If that appetite and that energy can be harnessed and focused on concrete tangible actions, then there is no reason why Ireland should not become a leader in tackling climate change,” he said.

Experts who addressed the assembly provided comprehensive and accessible briefings on climate change, and on efforts to keep temperature rises across the world to less than 2 degrees this century.

Inevitably, it entailed vast amounts of data about emissions and how the world is wrestling with more frequent extreme weather events.

Climate science is complicated with many unknowns, especially in predicting how much the Earth will warm by over coming decades – and there is no one silver bullet solution. Members would be forgiven if they felt they were coming down with a distinctly modern condition known as “climate anxiety” and its associated symptom, feeling helpless.

In contrast, they should be assured by a wealth of evidence showing that limiting the rise in global temperatures will help to avoid some of the most dangerous consequences, including flooding due a rise in sea levels and impacts on human health.

‘Overwhelming’

Some speakers suggested “the overwhelming fear of so much to do” should be countered by picking a selected number of areas to start with where Ireland can become a global leader. These included making all public buildings “super low” on energy and carbon emissions; deploying cheap wind resources properly and supporting widespread use of electric vehicles.

Members were given a detailed account of the Government response from Brian Carroll of the Department of Climate Action and Environment; notably its National Mitigation Plan, which looks at how we plan to reduce carbon emissions.

If Ireland is to decarbonise by 2050, engagement of society was critical, he said, “ultimately, it’s people changing behaviour that will get us to the destination of 2050”.

Current reality underlined the depth of immense task ahead. Top of the list is Ireland’s “spectacular failure” in reducing its emissions – they are increasing in spite of legally-binding targets that we adopted ourselves. Next comes the lack of public engagement and change in behaviour; a sense that achieving a decarbonised Ireland by 2050 is aeons away.

In short, there is a big gap to close between what Ireland needs to do and what it is doing now before the State can embrace any kind of global leadership role.