Musing on the Climate (In-)Action Bill…

The Prologue

As anyone in Ireland with an interest in climate change is well aware, the present Government promised significant legislation on climate policy already in the programme for government agreed between the coalition parties when they took office:

Climate Change: We will publish a Climate Change Bill which will provide certainty surrounding government policy and provide a clear pathway for emissions reductions, in line with negotiated EU 2020 targets.

That was March 2011.

And funnily enough, we are still waiting.

But sure, that’s only three years. Thirty-eight months. We want to get this right after all. For goodness sake, it’s not like there’s any rush, and this Government has an awful lot of other Very Important Business to sort out. It’s Ireland — you know what they say: “if you don’t like the climate, just wait five minutes and it’ll change anyway”. Or is that weather? Ah but sure it’s all the same, isn’t it?

Anyway: it’s not like there hasn’t been any progress in the meantime. There’s been loads of it. Huge progress altogether. Absolute gobs of it. A consultation. A Roadmap. An Interim Report. A Statement of Progress. A Final Report. A Draft Heads of Bill. Submissions and opening Statements for Oireachtas Committee Hearings. Resumed hearings. Continued hearings. Still more hearings. A Ministerial meeting. Concluding hearings. (Yet another) Report.

But then … yes, well worth waiting for, a real result: Government agreement (yay!) and, wait for it … a revised Draft Heads of Bill. Taa daa!

Oh well. We are where we are, I suppose.

When Physics and Politics Collide …

So, without further ado, here is my entirely personal brain dump of visceral reactions to this long, long, awaited, revised, updated, and thoroughly modern Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Bill (while there’s still maybe a tiny lingering chance to improve it before it finally becomes law).

  • In essence, the primary effect of the Bill is simply to enshrine in national legislation that the State will indeed abide by international agreements that it enters into. On the face of it, this seems to be of somewhat — what shall we say? — convoluted value. Surely, agreements are, and will remain, agreements, regardless of such hyperbolic belt and braces? Indeed, it suggests that the Bill might be cynically read as political posturing designed to deflect attention from a lack of genuine understanding or engagement with the true scale and urgency of the climate challenge.

    But on more mature reflection, maybe this core substance of the Bill does actually say something important — albeit more a possible insight into the Irish national psyche than the existential threat of climate change. In fact, a very literal reading of the Bill would seem to mean that the only thing it actually binds us to is that we will not, in any circumstances, act in advance of or go beyond mitigation obligations that arise through international (EU/UNFCCC) agreement. That is, the Bill seems to propose (accidentally? tacitly? covertly?) to bind us, as a matter of law, to make the minimum achievable contribution to global mitigation. This is hardly a recipe for good faith engagement in negotiations; but I can see that it’s an entirely “rational”, pragmatic, position to adopt. After all, the presumption is always that we are too small to matter either to actual absolute global mitigation, or to diplomatic engagement by the large scale emitters; so the logical thing is to keep our heads down, and just maximise our own scope, at the margin, to continue using the cheapest available global energy sources (i.e. fossil based).

    Ah, ‘twould be a great stroke, altogether.

  • In any case, scientific understanding has moved on even since the initial Heads of Bill were published: the IPCC has now definitively endorsed the finite GHG budget approach to global mitigation policy (see e.g., IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary, Fig TFE.8, pp. 102-5). It follows that the Government now has a number of obvious obligations both to the Irish people and to the global community with whom we share a single atmosphere. Firstly, it should explicitly articulate our claim to a specific share of this finite and rapidly depleting global resource. Secondly it should explain how, in their view, this claimed share conforms with global justice and equity. Finally, given this budget claim, the Government should elaborate a timeline for its prudent consumption: one focussed on putting in place the best measures possible to adapt to the absolutely necessary aftermath of zero — or better, negative — nett GHG emissions.

    Now that would have been a Climate Bill worth waiting for.

  • And for the record: “low carbon development” is simply no longer an option. As a very minimum gesture of political honesty, that phrase should certainly be struck from the title and the text of this Bill. Only “zero carbon”, or, preferably, “negative carbon” development is now defensible.

  • Moving on. In a context where effective global mitigation will require approximately 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground, the Government should clearly declare a moratorium on exploration for new fossil fuel resources in the national territory, whether conventional off-shore resources, or unconvenional on-shore resource extracted by so-called “fracking” techniques, and an explicit plan to ensure winding down of extraction from currently licensed deposits (including peat and off-shore gas).

  • But yes, Ireland is a small country, and its emissions are, in absolute terms, a relatively small part of the global challenge. It follows that Ireland’s climate and the welfare of its people in a globalised economy are now, in practice, at the absolute mercy of mitigation decisions by the large scale GHG emitters. Therefore, it is absolutely central to our national interest that we engage in intensive and sustained diplomatic effort to facilitate and encourage collective agreement to radical mitigation on a global basis. I can’t conceive of any higher national priority in the unique historical predicament in which we now find ourselves. Of course, that would require a commensurate allocation of dedicated, highly qualified, diplomatic resources. In fairness, in comparison to just about every other area of state expenditure, this would represent a tiny absolute investment in the interest of literally incalculable returns: what price a livable planet?

  • Of course, the credibility, and hence effectiveness, of any such diplomatic effort would depend completely on a willingness to show good faith: which would surely mean proceeding with aggressive unilateral mitigation ahead of global agreement. It seems to me that such “leading by example” represents the only significant leverage we might still have remaining under our own control that could be effective in mitigating the intensity of future global climate disruption. And without such mitigation, all efforts at effective adaptation will surely be rapidly overwhelmed.

  • To be clear, our own entirely selfish long term national interests absolutely rely on effective global action to bring nett global GHG emissions to zero with extreme urgency – within the next 20-30 years at the very most. (And yes, I’m painfully aware that the three years already squandered on this pitiful legislative tokenism already represents a tenth or more of that time period — just thrown away!) This points precisely at an overwhelming argument for unilateral local mitigation (ahead of EU/international agreements): it is the only way to achieve credibility in our diplomatic efforts — essentially trying to “shame”, or at least “embarrass”, the big emitters into the scale and urgency of action that we desperately need them to achieve.

    Now realistically, I don’t really believe that that sort of “short term sacrifice for long term security” approach is — yet — a “saleable” political proposition in this country. To the extent that we collectively think about the problem at all we either hope that maybe all those pointy-headed scientists have got it wrong after all (i.e., they are just all “over-alarmists”); or else that other “small nations” will take on the fight in our place (Costa Rica? Denmark?) and we can then simply be “free riders” on their early “sacrifice”. (An important irony here: this presumed “sacrifice” may be largely imagined anyway: facing reality, transcending denial and division, can be empowering for societies as well as individuals.)

    So is free-riding really the national vision of ourselves that this generation of Irish political leaders wishes to bequeath to their children and grandchildren? As we approach the centenary of the sacrifices of 1916 — which, regardless of any other judgement, were certainly selfless, idealistic, and dedicated to achieving freedom from tyranny — was it really for this kind of choice that those founders of this nation fought and died? Shall we really now fix forever the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood at the level of aspiring to be “the best small country in the world for business” — while that very world is being recklessly degraded around us?

    An Béal Bocht was intended as satire, not a policy manual.

  • But back to practical national and local policy action. Even with the most optimistic view of the prospects for urgent, radical, global GHG emissions reduction, we know that serious, disruptive, climate change is already committed to. While there will be significant regional disparities in the particular speed and severity of these impacts, Ireland will certainly not be immune. Accordingly, all Irish infrastructural investment should now be reviewed and prioritised to focus on building maximum resilience to unpredictable climate shocks, including the real possibility of abrupt regional climate regime shifts. The government should lay out their projected 50-year risk assessment scenario of “worst case” climate change impacts for Ireland — including international conflict, global food shortage, disruption of trade etc. — as a basis for gauging the adequacy of adaptation investment.

  • And what, you ask, of the “Expert Advisory Body” to be established under the new Act (when finally it arrives)? Surely that, at least, is worthwhile progress? Surely that, at least, will ensure that this, and future, Governments can have their policies informed by the best available, completely objective, scientific evidence, decoupled from denial, vested interests, and wishful thinking; and further, will be continuously held to independent account?

    Well, I hope so. I dearly wish so.

    But … a truly independent Expert Advisory Body would not contain any members who are constrained — by their employment — in commenting on government policy. And all appointments to the body would be made manifestly free of political influence through rigorous and transparent public scrutiny. For the moment at least, this Bill offers none of that. But yes, if there is still scope for something meaningful and useful to be recovered from this dismal and seemingly interminable legislative process then that is probably still the one aspect where it might be achieved.

The (Still) Open Future

They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now. — Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

The climate change challenge is unprecedented and affects all aspects of government and societal well-being. It represents a “long emergency” of indefinite duration and severity. We are sleepwalking our collective way into a genuinely existential challenge for human civilisation. Merely passing an Act of the Oireachtas was never going to be an adequate response. But still: it could have been symbolic, it could have put down a marker. It could have said clearly that we recognise that it is no longer any use saying, ‘we are doing our best’: we have to do what is actually necessary.

So let me put my cards fully on the table at last: I long since gave up seeing this legislation as important in itself. To me, it has manifestly been a device to delay, procrastinate and deflect attention from any need to actually do anything at all — and it has served that purpose extremely well. I don’t see any scope at all for it to be somehow reformed, at this eleventh hour, into anything meaningful or effective. At the risk of repeating myself, it seems to me that the unpalatable truth remains that, neither at political or societal level is there remotely the degree of understanding or engagement with the climate issue that would allow serious debate about the steps that might now be physically necessary (as opposed to “politically possible”).

So: where are we in the end? Shall we just resign ourselves to a fatalistic acceptance, a prospect of hopeless inaction in the face of overwhelming fate?

Of course not. First, it is possible that the new Expert Advisory Body will confound my doubts and skepticism, and deliver firm, unflinching, truth to power; and further, that power will listen, will digest, and will, ultimately, act. But secondly, of course, this predicament is not going away. The laws of physics don’t compromise, they don’t listen to reason, they don’t do negotiation or engage in brinksmanship. So climate change impacts will grow, in both clarity and severity. This will be discontinuous — but inexorable. So, action will also grow. Tragically, it will be later than necessary, and much less effective for that. But there are good tipping points as well as bad. There will certainly be tipping points for progressive societal and political recognition of the reality of our situation, and the conviction that planetary boundaries are real and tangible forces constraining — but never dictating — our collective future. The future is open: and we can, always, choose how we engage with it. If politics truly is the “art of the possible” then political leadership can and must be the art of changing the politically possible to encompass what is actually necessary.

In the meantime, here and now each of us has the chance, the opportunity, and yes, even the moral obligation to do whatever we can to bring those good tipping points forward in time. So, honestly, pragmatically, knowing that our knowledge is always imperfect, yet knowing still that we must act anyway, let us speak the truth as best as we can know it, and plead for what is collectively necessary. Right now, the facts of the climate change threat are so stark that, in truth, the only rational response is to raise a commensurate, honest, alarm that can start to fuel truly effective action. By facing reality squarely we can still take a first great step.

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.” “It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.” “The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk,–”taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.” — Phineas Finn (Anthony Trollope, 1868)


Barry McMullin is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University. He is also the Chair of the Climate Committee of An Taisce.

However, he rants (and occasionally tweets) on an entirely freelance basis!

Special thanks to Paul and Lizzie, and John G. for very helpful comments and improvements on the original draft: responsibility for the remaining excesses (grammatical and otherwise) rests, of course, with the author.

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  • econroy

    No comments yet by others…. Well done Barry on a heartfelt response to
    the climate crisis. It is amazing that it is getting no traction in the
    media and political arena, on election programmes and among the public.
    What do we have to do to get attention on climate change? Or are we
    environmentalists just delusional about it and should head off to a
    mental home? I’m writing this as RTE reports about the massive &
    unprecedented floods in the Balkans……….

  • johngibbons

    I would second Eric’s comments Barry, well said and well done. Watching Prof Kevin Anderson’s

    http://137.205.102.156/Ms S J Pain/20111124/Kevin_Anderson_-_Flash_(Medium)_-_20111124_05.26.31PM.html

    chilling online presentation last night reminded me of the sheer folly of thinking we can somehow pick and choose when and if we may feel like beginning to seriously engage with climate change. Every year’s delay, and the hole we are digging for the next generation gets ever-deeper.

    Leave it just a little longer, as our politicians, most lobby groups and the same old handful of climate curmudgeons suggest, and we’re looking at the utterly impossible scenario of trying to achieve net annual reductions in GHG emissions in the range of 10-20% in order to stay below the agreed Copenhagen 2C ‘red line’ of avoiding very dangerous, most likely irreversible interference in the global climate systems.

    Small wonder the air of unreality that clings to every discussion on “solving” climate change. I suspect people know full well that any serious attempt at avoiding catastrophic temperature rises would pretty much torpedo the current growth-dependent globalised economic orthodoxy of ever-increasing consumption. And replace it with, what exactly? Few people have even begun to imagine how we might operate a zero or carbon-negative society. Maybe the prospect is just too scary, too unfamiliar, to seriously contemplate?

    Be that as it may, it’s still a hell of a lot less scary than waiting until civilisation is thrown into chaos and free fall as a result of resource depletion, extreme climate disruption, coastal inundation, etc. etc. So, fair play to Barry for an honest, frank assessment.

    Finally, like Eric, I sometimes wonder why so few visitors (and we do get lots of visitors every month) bother to comment – leaving the comments section on sites like this flooded instead with the neoliberal gibberings of the likes of Tony Allwrong. To anyone reading this, please do have your say. Don’t just leave it to the Flat Earthers and furious knuckle-draggers!

  • CoilinMacLochlainn

    Eric, – I actually complimented Barry via
    Twitter shortly after his article appeared here, but here’s a few more words.

    Barry, your piece very effectively exposes the
    Dept of Environment’s foot-dragging on the climate issue and its seeming determination
    to do as little as possible for as long as possible. Your arguments are
    devastating in their impact and, paradoxically, are an entertaining read. If
    your essay doesn’t shame Minister Hogan into action, nothing will. Or maybe
    Bill McKibben’s idea would….

    As Bill McKibben writes in the current issue of
    Rolling Stone magazine (and I paraphrase), “You can have your climate websites
    and write letters to your local representatives, but nothing will change until
    we fill the streets with protesters.” He is calling on the American people to
    march on New York in September in their hundreds of thousands. I presume other
    nationalities are welcome too.

    Maybe a similar protest in Dublin on the
    same day would be worth a try. But we are way behind the curve here and I’d say
    it would be easier to fill the streets with anti-wind turbine and pylon protesters; this
    is mainly because the mainstream media for decades have been giving only scant
    and often deliberately misleading coverage of the climate crisis.

    We are beginning to see RTÉ take the
    problem seriously, at last, apart from the odd hiccup like recently when Eddie Hobbs
    managed to convince Prime Time to devote most of a programme to Ireland’s
    imagined treasure trove of offshore oil and gas, even though 85% of all known
    hydrocarbon reserves must be left in the ground if we are to avoid irreversible
    climate chaos and collapse of the Earth’s life-support systems. I’m wondering
    how much the effort to phase-out fossil fuels in Ireland was set back by that
    one programme. Hopefully, people could see it for the utter nonsense it was.

    The arguments put forward by those against
    windfarms and pylons seem largely spurious and it is hard to understand how they have
    gained traction, but maybe what really motivates the campaign is the hope of
    winning a piece of the action or even outright ownership of windfarms and some compensation for allowing pylons across their land.

    I actually believe that windfarms should be
    owned and run by local communities, and I would welcome any government initiative
    that made it easier for them to set up such enterprises or at least have a
    stake in their development. That might speed up the process in many parts of
    the country, though the turbines need to be restricted to where they have least
    visual and environmental impact, such as on big cutaway bogs. I expect the
    protests would melt away if this were made possible. The future of all energy
    generation will be local, whether it be wind, solar, hydroelectric or biomass.
    I just cannot see nuclear as being affordable for Ireland.

    I would agree with John, in above, that
    people probably already know that climate catastrophe can only be avoided by abandoning
    our growth-dependent economy for a zero-carbon or negative-carbon model and are
    fearful of facing into that unknown future.

    Yes, few people have begun to imagine how
    this might work, but one author who has given it a lot of thought is Dmitry
    Orlov, who delivered a Feasta talk in Dublin a few years ago. Reading his books
    and essays is depressing as he doesn’t expect a smooth transition to some sort
    of green utopia; he thinks it more likely that societies will break down almost
    completely as climate chaos, food and water shortages kick in. He has a book
    coming out soon called ‘Communities That Abide,’ some sort of guide to survival
    after the collapse.

    Another writer I discovered recently is
    Gail Tverberg, who blogs at Our Finite World. Oddly enough, she is sanguine
    about the climate problem as she believes greenhouse gas emissions are likely
    to plummet sharply very soon, not because of any efforts by national
    governments to control carbon emissions, a prospect she thinks unlikely, but
    because she anticipates an oil crisis brought on by the increasing costs of
    extraction.

    My layman’s interpretation of her argument
    is as follows: high oil prices precipitated the global financial crisis of
    2008, which sent most developed countries into recession. The oil producers
    lowered their prices so that the global economy could continue functioning and keep
    paying for their oil. However, it is becoming increasingly costly to extract oil, as
    all the easy-to-get-at stuff is gone. Oil prices will have to rise again if
    production is to continue, but in a sluggish economy the banks will not finance
    expensive extraction of oil from tight shales and tar sands. Credit will dry up
    and oil supplies will slump. Gail Tverberg believes this could very well mean
    the end of oil extraction for good. That is why the Arctic Circle is now being
    targeted by oil companies; it is probably cheaper to extract oil from its
    shallow but freezing waters than from tar sands and other difficult sources.

  • CoilinMacLochlainn

    Nafeez Ahmed, in yesterday’s Guardian, makes the same point as Gail Tverberg, predicting a looming oil crisis: see http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/jun/10/inevitable-demise-fossil-fuel-empire

    The need to transition to permaculture so that everyone can be fed after oil, and to transition to renewable energies while we still have the means (the oil) to do so, is now paramount. It makes no sense to continue building new motorways that we will not be able to maintain after oil; it would be better to put all that construction money into developing self-sufficient communities across the country, starting now, to avoid a sudden calamitous collapse and inevitable famine.

    After oil, it will rapidly become impossible to maintain centralised renewable energy systems or a national grid. An oil supply is crucial for mining the metals, building the turbines, the access roads, pylons, etc. So future power generation will be local, with hydro, biomass and wind. Windmills will again be small and made largely of wood.

    There is that other small problem of human evolution which, over the last one million years, left us with big brains but weak teeth and small stomachs, because we’ve been cooking food over fires for all that time. This means we will need external or extrinsic energy simply to continue living, and where is that going to come from? I believe all of our standing timber will be targeted after an oil crisis, and there is only a few years’ supply in that for a population of our size (assuming no other energy sources are developed quickly, which is unlikely).

    All this means we need to start planting trees on a truly colossal scale, on at least fifty per cent of the land, to prepare for this future. And rather than planting simply for wood fuel, to plant a wide variety of trees and shrubs that can be developed as forest kitchen gardens, with food crops sown within. These will produce a great variety of fruits, nuts and vegetables as the trees mature, with the biomass being used to generate heat and power. If we don’t develop along these lines, we will not be ready when the energy crisis comes, and that could be in the next five years, or the next twenty. I wouldn’t bet on having a twenty-year cushion, though.