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Citizens’ Assembly offers our final chance on climate change

We are the last generation who will be able to protect our children’s legacy

In a study published in medical journal the “Lancet Planetary Health”, a death toll in Europe of 150,000 people a year from heatwaves 80 years from now was projected should global climate change not be arrested. Photograph: Reuters

Summer 2017 will be long remembered as the season of catastrophic weather-related extremes. The problems started early in June when 64 people burned to death in the forest fires in Portugal. The searing heat that fostered the spread of these fires would return in August in an event covering large parts of southern Europe. “Lucifer” was Europe’s deadliest heatwave for over a decade with temperatures reaching the mid-40s centigrade. The significant death toll from this heatwave will presumably emerge over the next few months. But in a study published in medical journal the Lancet Planetary Health, a death toll in Europe of 150,000 people a year from heatwaves 80 years from now was projected should global climate change not be arrested.

Yet, how quickly we forget extreme events as the media attention-span wanes. The horrors of the August floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, which claimed 800 lives, have already faded from our consciousness. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma (the most intense Atlantic hurricane in over a decade), Jose and the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, are still fresh in our minds. But these too will fade as new extremes command headlines. Psychologically, we frequently find it easy to be dispassionate observers, becoming blasé about such events and to dismiss them as happening in “faraway places”.

Ireland will become increasingly prone to extremes of flood and drought as global and Irish climate changes

But what of Donegal where a month’s rainfall happened in two hours? This shocking event brought home to many the fact that Ireland also is vulnerable to an atmosphere exceptionally laden with water vapour from a nearby warmer Atlantic; an Ireland where everywhere has warmed by 0.5oC over the past 30 years and where annual rainfall has increased by approximately 5 per cent. We cannot ignore the fact that Ireland will become increasingly prone to extremes of flood and drought as global and Irish climate changes. Indeed over the last four years we have had the stormiest winter for 143 years and the wettest on record over almost all of Ireland.

Extreme events

The atmospheric scientific community is now definite that increased frequency and severity of extreme events is the price we will pay for our greenhouse gas emissions. It is these events, and not the small increments in annual Irish temperature or rainfall that will increasingly signal the shape of things to come. Every extra tonne of Irish emissions shortens the odds against an extreme event occurring and shortens the timescale before the release of carbon dioxide and methane renders dangerous climate change inevitable.

It’s not just people who will be affected. The scientific consensus is that the Earth is currently on course to see 20-40 per cent of all biodiversity wiped out by the end of the 21st century. This generation has a decade or two of “burn” left and, failing radical measures in the meantime, we will then consign all future generations for the next century to coping with a most expensive, and potentially dangerously unstable, legacy. We are the last generation to be able to change the future in this respect and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

The harsh reality is that some polluters don’t pay their pollution costs but amass profits on the back of the ordinary taxpayer instead

Proud record

Ireland has a proud record of being a champion of humanitarian assistance in the developing world. But when it comes to getting our own greenhouse gas emissions in order it is among the worst laggards of the developed world. We emit more greenhouse gases than the poorest 400 million people on the planet. Almost unique in the EU, Ireland is failing to meet its obligations and is increasing its greenhouse gas emissions. We are a very long way from being a champion in climate change. Indeed, we are, behind the scenes, currently begging for concessions on every available front at EU negotiations for the period 2020-30, something that is damaging our previously good international reputation. The reason for this unseemly performance is that the people of Ireland have lost political control of climate-change policy to powerful vested-interest groups. Our negotiating position is determined not by the needs of our children and grandchildren but by the short term needs of those who can exert most influence. The harsh reality is that some polluters don’t pay their pollution costs but amass profits on the back of the ordinary taxpayer instead.

A small price

The opportunity to take back democratic control of this vital national interest is now on offer through the Citizens’ Assembly. This innovative opportunity has unleashed the inherent creativity and overwhelming sense of justice that most Irish people possess. More than 1,200 submissions have been made in the build-up to this weekend’s hearings. They suggest so much that can be done if the short-term interest groups can be faced down. In an outpouring of great ideas designed to break the policy paralysis, suggestions range from ceasing to burn peat and coal to fostering practical ideas in energy generation, housing, transport and agriculture, many of them already in place in other countries. The eminent economist Lord Stern estimated that addressing climate change would cost less than 0.1 per cent of GDP a year. Surely this is a small price to pay for our children’s future?

The assembly is a chance to reset the dial and for ordinary people to take charge of their children’s future. The assembly has shown itself to be fearless in its deliberations on other issues and to be willing to lead where politicians have failed to go. A historic responsibility rests on their shoulders. On this vitally important opportunity to reset the founding principle of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” the Citizens’ Assembly must have the fortitude to see beyond the smokescreen of greenwash and make the radical recommendations necessary to make Ireland a leader in climate change, and not an international embarrassment.

John Sweeney is professor emeritus in the department of geography at Maynooth University