Election 2016: Citizens’ convention urged on climate change

Open letter from academics calls on parties to back establishment of countrywide forum

Academics have called for the next government, regardless of make-up, to establish a citizens’ convention on climate change.

In an open letter signed by 29 academics all parties and candidates in the general election are asked to support the establishment of a national forum, which would operate for up to three years across the State.

One academic at the launch, Dr Pat Brereton of DCU, said people could not think long term and so they view issues around climate change as “vague”. Efforts had to be made to get them to act in their own self-interest on the problem.

The letter stresses that the challenge is stark and fundamentally a challenge of governance. “What will people locally and globally choose to do?”


It adds that “unfortunately to date, our political systems have found it very difficult to engage effectively to formulate pathways towards a post-carbon future that are at once commensurate with the challenge yet also win widespread support from citizens”.

Instead “there has been a temptation to minimise the problems, tacitly suggesting that hard choices might still be postponed and that today’s greenhouse-gas-addicted economy can simply continue with only incremental, cosmetic, changes”.

The authors from seven universities state that a vision for a new Ireland is urgently required that “can both inspire and sustain our radical transformation to a post-carbon society”.

And they warn that that the scale and urgency of the problem meant that hard choices would have to be made, “difficult, inter-generational, trade-offs between diverse social goals and aspirations”.

Speaking at the launch of the letter in the Royal Irish Academy, Prof Barry McMullin of Dublin City University said that in the Fianna Fáil-Green Party administration a commitment was given to spend €15 million on communicating the message around climate change.

He said a proper citizens’ convention operating across communities would cost about that much.

In Ireland there is a “default of waiting for things and then reacting” like what happened in the flooding this winter.

He said the convention would be a “conversation about the future”.

Emeritus professor of Geography at Maynooth University John Sweeney said election candidates were not going to be asked about climate change at the doorstep. "How many of them were asked about banking regulation . . . 10 years ago?"

He said the cost of doing nothing was going to be a lot more than the cost of doing something. “The fodder crisis cost this country €500 million. The floods last winter will I suspect cost a similar amount.”

They wanted “to sensitise people to the reality that doing nothing will cost them in the medium term and will cost their children seriously in the long term. And the cost of taking action now is minuscule compared to the possible damage costs down the road.”

He said “we need the leadership to bring the realities of those kinds of economic consequences on board and not hide behind a five-year horizon and hope that if we do nothing it might work out”.

Dr Cara Augustenborg, a climate-change lecturer in UCD, described it as strange the climate-change conversation in Ireland "always goes to agriculture".


She said there were issues that could be changed much more quickly. “Our quick wins are we could retrofit our building stock right away and create loads of jobs and reduce our need for energy.”

Liam Breslin of Good Energies Alliance suggested at the launch that people needed much more direct language, that they must do something “or your grandchildren will fry”.

However Dr Augustenborg said she taught secondary students a lot on climate change “and I’m very apprehensive to use that negative and emotive imagery”.

She believed a better approach was to look at the positive messages, the benefits of climate solutions. “If we had safer cycle paths, we would be healthier, we wouldn’t be breathing in air pollution from fossil fuels.”

Prof Peadar Kirby said politicians attending a recent public meeting in the eco-village of Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, said it was the only place where they were asked about climate change.

The emeritus professor of international politics and public policy at University of Limerick said Cloughjordan “has the lowest carbon footprint ever recorded in Ireland” and this showed it could be done elsewhere.

He said government departments drawing up white papers have public consultations and engage in widespread discussion and there had been a constitutional convention.

“We would like to take elements of those to educate the population about the urgency of the issue” and get a “national conversation going about the trade-offs that are necessary”.

Then he said it would be up to the politicians and political parties to legislate.

The letter can be read at: postcarbonireland.org/data/uploads/postcarbonireland-public.pdf

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times