Citizens’ Assembly has spoken on climate change: Ireland must listen

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on June 1st, in which I pitched strongly for the findings of the Citizens’ Assembly on climate change to be taken on board via an Oireachtas committee in the same way the Assembly’s findings on the 8th Amendment had been handled politically. The Green Party pushed hard for this to happen and, lo and behold,  the new Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change met for the first time on July 11th, its remit being to examine the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, consult with the Secretary Generals of government departments, and report on recommended policy actions. Of course, I’d like to claim this article played some minor role in tipping the political scales towards this committee being formed, but in truth, it’s far more likely a simple albeit happy case of serendipity. 

DEMOCRACY, said George Bernard Shaw, “is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve”. For all its many strengths, democracy suffers some egregious flaws. The ability of powerful interest groups, be they political, economic or ideological to “capture” the democratic process and to drown out genuine deliberation in the white noise of spin and fake news represents a clear threat to the healthy functioning of any democracy.

This is where deliberative democracy comes in. The concept that underpins it is the notion that democracy cannot simply be the process of counting ballots after a shouting match. True democracy requires that people make informed decisions, guided by the best available evidence, freed as far as possible from the bullying and badgering of special interests.

It would be naive in the extreme to imagine that such a utopian democratic process could be applied to entire populations. The mob that howled and jeered throughout the recent Claire Byrne Live television debate would quickly dispel any notion that well informed, calm deliberation of complex and contentious issues occurs spontaneously, or is even easy to create.

Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Then taoiseach Enda Kenny in November 2015 made a fateful pre-election promise to convene a citizen’s convention to tease out a number of thorny social and political issues, and to bring forward recommendations for the Oireachtas to discuss and debate through its committee system.

A more cynical view was that this was really about TDs taking the opportunity of offloading political hot potatoes into a toothless talking shop. However, the government’s appointment of the formidable Justice Mary Laffoy, a retired Supreme Court judge as chair was the first real hint that the new Citizens’ Assembly meant business.

The assembly, comprising 99 randomly selected Irish citizens, balanced for age, gender and location, received more than 13,000 public submissions on the Eighth Amendment, from individuals and lobbyists alike. From these, 17 organisations representing the spectrum of views were invited to make presentations.

The assembly was also resourced by a five-person expert advisory panel drawn from legal and medical backgrounds. The citizens then discussed the issues among themselves in a structured round-table format, where everyone’s voice was heard and all views taken into account.

Those who may have quietly hoped the assembly would be an exercise in futility will have been disappointed. The assembly’s radical recommendations on abortion took the media and politicians almost completely by surprise, prompting claims from groups supporting the amendment that the process had somehow been “fixed”.

Even non-partisan observers appeared stunned that a group of completely ordinary Irish people could, having listened to submissions from all sides, and guided by independent experts, come to conclusions so completely at variance with the stated positions of every major political party. Concerted efforts were made by conservative politicians to undermine the credibility of the assembly, including unproven allegations of foul play in how people were recruited.

They got their answer on May 26th last, when the referendum results showed a thumping majority of Irish people were every bit as “radical” in their views on women’s right to choose as the much-maligned assembly members had been. Deliberative democracy in Ireland had finally delivered, on the biggest stage of all.

Early last November, the assembly reconvened in Malahide and set about teasing out the tall task of “Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change”.

Once again, the assembly members were briefed over four intensive days by national and international experts, while a representative sample of members of the public who had made submissions was also invited to present. The back of the hall was thick with industry and agribusiness lobbyists, listening intently but, for once, powerless to shape the agenda.

The lobbyists had good reason to be anxious: the assembly delivered a series of 13 strong recommendations on tackling climate change, with 80 per cent prepared to accept higher taxes on carbon-intensive activities, including levies on high-emissions food such as beef and dairy. And figures published this week by the Environmental Protection Agency paint an extraordinarily bleak picture of Ireland’s absolute failure to even begin to tackle emissions.

The assembly demanded that planning for climate mitigation and adaptation be placed at the heart of government, rather than in its current cul de sac under reluctant “climate action” Minister Denis Naughten. There was also strong support for investing in cycling and public transport, retrofitting, community-led renewable energy and climate-friendly agriculture, including organic farming.

This demand for true ambition on tackling climate change is the considered view of a representative sample of our fellow citizens. That it chimes precisely with what every major scientific agency and academy in the world has been saying for the last several decades makes it all the more poignant. The people have spoken. Are we ready, finally, to listen?

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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3 Responses to Citizens’ Assembly has spoken on climate change: Ireland must listen

  1. Pingback: Citizens’ Assembly has spoken on climate change: Ireland must listen | Climate Change

  2. Tony Carey says:

    Dear John, Can you find anything fundamentally unscientific and/or inaccurate in the assessment below?
    Kind regards
    Tony Carey
    Greenhouse gases [GHG’s] need no longer be considered as a planetary threat. This dramatic re-assessment follows from evidence that the peak in global temperatures around the time of the Paris Agreement of 2015 was a natural one, with those temperatures having now subsided back to a 21st century norm – as you can see from the attached graph – thereby invalidating a prime factor leading to that agreement. The evidence for the peak being a natural one is given in a 2017 research paper* by Dr Nicola Scafetta et al. which concludes:
    “that such a temperature peak is unrelated to anthropogenic forcing: it simply emerged from the natural fast fluctuations of the climate associated to the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon.” . Temperature data subsequent to its publication, as shown in the graph, powerfully reinforces this conclusion.

    * International Journal of Heat and Technology Vol. 35, Special Issue 1, September 2017, pp. S18-S26
    “Natural climate variability, part 2: Interpretation of the post 2000 temperature standstill” copy attached

    This finding means that IPCC models seriously over-estimated the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 & other GHG’s, probably due to them underestimating the 20th century warming from natural factors. So the evidence points to the Paris Agreement being based on incorrect assumptions. There is therefore a good case for Ireland and other countries seeking to have the Paris Agreement suspended for sufficient time for either confirmation or refutation of this analysis from further data on global temperatures.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Dear Tony,
    I’m not familiar with the ‘International Journal of Heat & Technology’, mostly as it’s not a journal of climate science. I am familiar with the PNAS (‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US’). As anyone remotely familiar with the field will know, PNAS, ‘Nature’, ‘Nature Climate Change’, etc. are the go-to journals of peer review in this field. (Here’s a handy list of all the top journals: )
    I don’t think you’ll find the ‘International Journal of Heat & Technology’ on the list. I understand also that you’re not a climate scientist (nor am I, that’s why I rely on bona fide ones for guidance, as I suggest you should too) and you attend the ICSF meetings, where deniers and contrarians from a variety of backgrounds come along to ‘preach to the converted’ their assorted (and generally mutually contradictory) hodge podge of ‘theories’ that have been debunked over and over in the serious literature.

    I do however appreciate that you don’t appear to understand how science actually works, and therefore that I’m likely wasting my time pointing out to you, over and over, that plucking strands of ‘data’ produced by fringe scientists and circulated in fringe journals and to Mickey Mouse organisations like the ICSF and suggesting these have somehow overturned a century and more of slowly advancing but meticulous climate science, produced by some of the finest scientists in history and tested, challenged and ultimately verified by thousands of their peers and all the world’s major scientific academies only makes you look, well, ridiculous.

    I expect this won’t interest you either, but Carbon Brief compiled a wonderful Timeline of the History of Climate Modelling, all the way back to Guy Callendar in 1938 to the present day. Anyone with an open mind to actually understanding these complex issues, rather than just making political points, owes it to themselves to see what the real experts in a given field have to say, and how they reached these conclusions:

    Finally, Tony, I’ll make a prediction: rather than reflect on anything said here, instead you’ll find some other obscure claim made by another third tier scientist in another off-topic journal and ask me, once again: ‘Can you find anything fundamentally unscientific and/or inaccurate in the assessment below?’. JG

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