Citizen engagement central to combating climate threat

People must see themselves as agents of change and put pressure on politicians

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton:  departments and State agencies must be given resources to roll out climate policies and actions with sufficient ambition. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton: departments and State agencies must be given resources to roll out climate policies and actions with sufficient ambition. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

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It has been a worrying autumn for the human race. The alarm bells rung by climate scientists are growing ever louder. While Ireland’s past record has earned it the title of climate laggard – accepted even by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – there are growing signs that the Irish public want their politicians to do more on climate change.

Last month, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spelled out in unequivocal terms the risks of allowing warming to exceed 1.5 degrees. These risks include more extreme droughts and floods, as well as severe effects on ecosystems and the human communities that depend upon them.

Although these effects will be felt more severely in some parts of the world, no region will be left unharmed. These effects won’t be felt only by future generations. The effects of climate change are already obvious, and the IPCC made clear they will become much more severe within the lifetime of current generations.

The IPCC report also stated unequivocally that, to have a reasonable chance of the 1.5-degree limit, we need a radical change of direction that will bring us to zero net greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. The costs of the transition will be significantly less than the costs of doing nothing.

This week, the European Commission published a long-term strategy for decarbonisation. It set out eight pathways ranging from 80 per cent decarbonisation to full carbon neutrality, and urged member states to opt for the most ambitious pathways.

Policy ambition

At present, however, we are far off track. The UN Environment Programme reported earlier this week that the world needs to increase the current policy ambition by roughly a factor of five by 2030 to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming. Just a day earlier, US president Donald Trump said he did not believe the findings of a comprehensive study commissioned by his own government reporting that the cost of unmitigated climate change would run to billions of dollars annually.

Last year, Ireland was the worst-ranked European country in the annual Climate Change Performance Index. Compared to an EU greenhouse gas reduction target of 20 per cent by 2020, Ireland is projected to – at best – reduce emissions by a mere 1 per cent. While we may be able to buy our way out of these targets, delaying action will only make the transition more costly in the long run.

With the annual UN climate change negotiations kicking off in Poland next week, we need to reflect on Ireland’s response to climate change and ask how we can shed the “climate laggard” label.

Our system of governing climate change here in Ireland is weak by international standards. Although no country or government has all the answers, there is nonetheless much that Ireland could do better.

First, we need a strong mechanism for co-ordinating action across government departments. Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton’s announcement that he intends to set climate targets for all departments and State bodies last week is welcome, but we need to see further details about how it will function. Climate change needs to be embedded much more centrally within the work of all departments. It will be important to build robust reporting and accountability requirements into the system, and departments and State agencies must be given resources to roll out policies and actions with sufficient ambition.

Second, we need strong parliamentary oversight of the executive’s performance on climate change. This could be provided through a permanent Oireachtas committee. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, chaired by Deputy Hildegarde Naughton and due to report by the end of January, is an important first step. It need not be a flash in the pan. Such a permanent committee should be staffed and resourced properly.

Stakeholder involvement

Third, we need greater citizen and stakeholder involvement in the transition to a low-carbon future. The Citizens’ Assembly illustrated a clear will on the part of ordinary citizens for urgent action. It could be used as a model for how citizens can be better involved and empowered to be part of the transition. The ongoing National Dialogue on Climate Action also holds significant potential. A wider variety of stakeholders and interested parties also need to be engaged.

Citizen and stakeholder engagement is important because of the all-of-society scale of the challenge facing us. Citizens need to believe they are a part of the transition and feel empowered to take action. Communicating the scale of the challenge but also the opportunities involved – such as cleaner air and healthier communities – will be crucial. The media has an important role to play here.

Fourth, we may need to revisit Ireland’s climate law. Enacted in 2015, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act is weak by international standards. The law differs from most other similar laws by not having any targets for emissions reductions, not even for 2050. When I tell audiences abroad about it, I am met with incredulity.

The 2015 climate law established a Climate Change Advisory Council, chaired by Prof John Fitzgerald, which has done important work to date. However, without targets for decarbonisation, the council doesn’t really have a benchmark against which to measure Ireland’s progress. Ireland’s climate law has put the council in a much weaker position than the UK’s climate advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change.

Finally, we need leaders who are willing to spend political capital on climate change. History will not look kindly on politicians of this generation who talk a good game but fail to deliver.

Dr Diarmuid Torney is an assistant professor in Dublin City University

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