When our leaders won’t lead, can Citizens’ Assembly step up?

Below, an article I ran in a well-known magazine earlier this month in the light of what we learned from the first weekend of the Citizens’ Assembly. I wasn’t able to attend the session in Malahide, but spent much of the weekend following the excellent live-streaming coverage of the event. Regular ThinkOrSwim visitors will know I’m not prone to irrational exuberance, but it did feel like something different was taking place.

I’m not sure who dreamed up the title: ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’, they may perhaps have done so with tongue in cheek. A more accurate way of framing it might have been ‘Dragging Ireland kicking and screaming into grudgingly doing the absolute minimum in tackling climate change’. We are, after all, international laggards when it comes to climate change. Our unfortunately named ‘Climate Action’ minister Denis Naughten is just back from his latest foray at the EU pleading an béal bocht and demanding that the goalposts be shifted – yet again – to allow Ireland to wriggle even further from the very commitments we signed up to as part of the Paris Accord in 2015.

The Citizens’ Assembly meets again over the weekend of November 4-5th to conclude its deliberations. I aim to be in attendance and will be following its Recommendations closely and hope to be reporting on them for an international audience.

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WHEN politicians want an issue to go away, a favourite ploy is to bury it alive in a talking shop. If that was the real motivation behind the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly, then they appear to have made a major miscalculation.

Last weekend the assembly discussed how to deliver on the tall order of ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’. What was so unusual about the proceedings, chaired by Ms. Justice Mary Laffoy, was the absence of the usual suspects from the room. The 99 citizens representing the people of Ireland were spared the parade of politicians mouthing empty soundbites scripted by their civil servants about climate change.

They were also free to weigh up the issues without having to unpick the doublespeak of lobbyists and contrarians explaining how climate action was too costly, or too inconvenient for Ireland to play even its legally mandated part. All in all, it may have been a bad weekend for Official Ireland, but it was a ringing endorsement of the value of direct democracy as an antidote to the capture of politics by special interests.

Earlier this year, the Citizens’ Assembly sent shockwaves through the political establishment with its recommendations on abortion. These revealed a staggering gulf between the (surprisingly tolerant and liberal-leaning) views of a cross-section of ordinary Irish people when compared with their elected representatives.

Even pro-choice Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell was so taken aback by the open-mindedness of her own electorate on the political hot potato of abortion that she had to query Justice Laffoy into asking if assembly members were “somehow misled into voting as liberally as they did” (they weren’t).

One of the most eye-catching presentations at the Citizens’ Assembly weekend on climate change came from Marie Donnelly, formerly of the European Commission. She pointed out that, astonishingly, you can get a grant to install a new gas or oil boiler, but there are no subsidies for installing renewable technologies, such as heat pumps and geothermal systems.

What’s more, Ireland, almost uniquely among EU states, refuses to pay people who produce clean electricity from, say, solar panels and upload it to the national grid. There is no technical reason for this, she added, it is simply a matter of politics.

More politics is at play in peat burning. Taxpayers are being forced to transfer vast subsidies via the PSO to prop up the burning of peat for energy, which is a dirty, ecologically damaging activity. EPA director general Laura Burke described peat burning as “a triple negative hit”, and damningly pointed out that, per megawatt of electricity, peat receives four times more subsidy than clean wind power.

This is what happens when you leave ‘climate policy’ to our political classes and semi-states. Joseph Curtin of the IIEA noted how Ireland had “failed spectacularly” on addressing climate change, pointing out how the massive recent expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd is causing agricultural emissions to spiral. This policy, called Food Wise 2025, was written by the food industry and simply adopted as national policy by the government.

A low point of the weekend was the presentation from Met Éireann, an organisation that is fast becoming a national embarrassment on climate change. It was in stark contrast to the no-nonsense delivery by Dr Peter Stott of the UK’s Met Office

A mantra of ‘climate action’ minister, Denis Naughten is that it isn’t his job to tell people what to do. What in fact emerged from the Citizens’ Assembly is that leadership, vision and courage is precisely what the public desperately wants from their politicians. Who would have guessed?

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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