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.


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 by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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7 Responses to When our leaders won’t lead, can Citizens’ Assembly step up?

  1. Pingback: The Citizens have spoken: no more excuses, time for climate action | ThinkOrSwim (the Climatechange.ie Blog)

  2. Pingback: The Citizens have spoken: no more excuses, climate action now | Climate Change

  3. David Vale says:

    Hello, what percentage of “climate change/global warming” is attributable to Ireland?

    And, what percentage of “climate change/global warming” can Ireland avert if your policies are implemented?

  4. John Gibbons says:

    Hello Dave. Two interesting questions. Answers as follows:

    Ireland is, per capita, the 3rd highest carbon emitter in the EU. Each Irish citizen accounts for 12-15 tonnes of GHGs per capita, per annum. This is more than 10 times higher than per capita emissions in the ‘developing world’. So, Ireland contributes vastly more carbon pollution per capita than the world average. Assuming you agree that every human being is equal, then our contribution to climate change is grossly unequal, and imposes huge costs on people living in the Global South, the people who did least to create this crisis. Is that fair?

    Assuming you accept that climate change is (a) real; (b) deadly serious and (c) must be reined in at all cost before it triggers a global calamity, then the question is slightly different: who should NOT act to do their full and fair share, to prevent this disaster? BTW, I don’t personally have any “policies” but there are plenty of expert online resources from reputable sources to assist you in calculating just how big a problem we face, and just how radical the global response is going to have to be if catastrophe is to be averted.

    In saying this, that doesn’t mean I necessarily think we will be successful. Every effort may well be in vain. The die may already be cast. But, as long as there is even a remote chance of reducing devastating harms to future generations, as well as to our fellow creatures and the wider natural world (all of which have every bit as much right to continued existence as we do), then I’ll keep plugging away.

    What is your Plan B: is it to either just give up, or to deny the extent and nature of the predicament we face? Everyone has to live with their own conscience. I choose to keep on fighting, no matter how poor the prospects of success. And you?

  5. In Norway safety officers are known as “Vektere”.

  6. David Vale says:

    Thanks for replying, I the missed notification so I’ve subscribed with a different email.

    Wouldn’t it have been simpler if you’d just said we don’t know?

    They are, to my mind at least, crucial questions.

    If Ireland is going to attempt to successfully defend any case brought against it for allegedly “failing to avert climate change”, surely the percentage of climate change Ireland is in a position to avert is going to be central to any case?

    Ireland clearly cannot be responsible for 100% of climate change, therefore it should be demonstrable exactly how much climate change is attributable to Ireland, and also by how much any actions we take may avert it.

    -That’s not to say that I have no interest in the moral issues you’ve outlined.

  7. David Vale says:

    Hi again, Maybe you haven’t had the time to moderate or respond to my reply, which alluded to the fact that if Ireland is to successfully fight any potential court cases brought by eco activists alleging that Ireland is failing to avert climate change/global warming, it will be useful if both Ireland’s alleged contribution to climate change/global warming can be quantified; and similarly the percentage of climate change that Ireland can potentially avert.

    Looking forward to hearing from you on this matter of national importance, and, taking a screenshot of this for posterity, 20/1/18


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