Changing climate? ‘In the last year or so there have been hopeful signs’

Research Lives: Dr Diarmuid Torney, DCU assistant professor in environmental politics

You work on policy and law related to climate change. What sparked your interest in this area?
"It was when I was at the University of Oxford looking for a PhD topic in international relations. Around that time there was a spike of public interest about climate change. Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth had come out a couple of years before, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had recently issued a major assessment of climate science, there was the lead-up to a big UN climate summit in Copenhagen and the UK government had published the landmark Stern Review on the economic impact of climate change.

Climate change was emerging as a significant issue on the global policy agenda, so I did my thesis on how the EU conducted relations with China and India on climate change, trying to convince them to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

How do you carry out that kind of research?
It involves looking at a lot of official documents and also doing interviews with policymakers and other key stakeholders. Those interviews can provide important information that might not be out in the public record. We've also used focus groups in our recent research.

A few years later you started in Dublin City University. What have you been working on there?
A lot of my research has been on how Ireland has responded to climate change, the kinds of policies and legal frameworks we have in place and how we got here. For example, the climate change law enacted in Ireland in 2015 is quite different to other countries in the EU, and my research showed that lobbying by interest groups contributed to that difference. In 2019, Ireland is now looking to revise our climate laws and bring them more into line with other EU countries.

How can your research help to inform climate action in Ireland?
I was on the expert advisory group for the Citizens' Assembly on climate change, and now with my DCU colleagues Prof Pat Brereton, Dr Laura Devaney and Martha Coleman, we are analysing what lessons can be learned from that model of public engagement.

It's interesting to see that France and the UK are now adopting the Citizens' Assembly model for questions around climate change too. Another recent research project, also with Laura Devaney, analysed governance options for Ireland's transition to low-carbon transport, and we presented our findings last June to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport. We have also worked with our students on the MSc in climate change: policy, media and society, to make submissions to public consultations on energy and climate action.

What is the toughest part of your job?
As a field of study, climate gives you lots of reasons to be fearful and anxious about the future. That said, in the last year or so there have been hopeful signs, including the protests by schoolchildren, Greta Thunberg's work and the "green wave" in the Irish local and the European elections. Things are starting to feel different.

Have you changed your own lifestyle as a result of researching climate policy and action?
Yes, I stopped eating meat, I try to avoid buying plastic and I try to buy local food wherever possible, including vegetables grown in the community garden in DCU. In general I have become much more conscious that what is disposable or convenient can also incur a substantial cost in the longer term."