Citizens’ Assembly can help turn Ireland from ‘climate laggard’ to leader

Published by Niall Sargent on

August 11th, 2017

The Citizens’ Assembly can help turn Ireland from climate laggard to leader by calling for a referendum to give a constitutional right to environmental protection, says the country’s leading environmental coalition.

The Environmental Pillar – a coalition of 26 national environmental organisations – outlined its view in a submission for the Assembly’s upcoming session on “How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.” 

In its submission, the Pillar said that the Assembly has an opportunity to use its unique position to propose an amendment to the Constitution to provide a “protected right to live in a healthy environment” to the people of Ireland.

This would encourage politicians to take real long-term actions and ensure that those actions are “not diluted with the change of guard at Dáil Éireann every five years”, the Pillar said.

Ireland is currently one of only a handful of EU members not to have some form of environmental protection in its Constitution.

According to Attracta Uí Bhroin, Facilitator of the Environmental Law Implementation Group at the Irish Environmental Network, the Assembly has an opportunity to create a “paradigm shift in Ireland’s approach to climate change.”

“The Constitution is the people’s law,” she added.  “The Citizens’ Assembly has really reclaimed the Constitution as the People’s law, and has an incredible opportunity to shape it, and all of our futures and those of future generations across the planet, and for all species on earth, by ensuring Ireland plays its part and lead on climate change action.”

According to Pillar spokesperson and former cardiac physiologist, Donna Mullen a constitutional change will also “yield benefits to our economy, society, and most importantly, health.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 1,200 people die prematurely from air pollution in Ireland each year, with the UN attributing 150,000 deaths across the globe to climate change every year. “During my career in medicine I witnessed first-hand the effects of air pollution on my patients, and it is heartbreaking to see,” said Mullen.

In a joint submission with Stop Climate Chaos, a coalition of civil society organisations campaigning for Ireland to do more to tackle climate change, the Pillar outlined 18 additional practical actions to tackle climate change that would begin to take Ireland from being “a laggard to a leader” on climate action.

Actions include setting an end date for peat burning and coal-fired electricity generation, putting concrete support in place for small-scale community renewable projects, and providing significant funding for deep retrofitting of Ireland’s housing stock.

According to Oisín Coghlan, who represents both groups, our climate policy to date has been “marked by dithering and delay”. The Friends of the Earth Director is adamant that the Citizens’ Assembly can “shake up Irish climate policy”.

“So far, our political leaders have failed us on climate change. The Assembly now has the opportunity to mandate our politicians to act urgently and decisively to cut climate pollution,” he added.

Leading climatologist Professor John Sweeney agreed that action is “needed now more than ever” as Ireland looks set to face the impacts of climate change, such as increased flooding, sea level rise, increased storm intensity, and summer drought.

He added, however, that despite every Irish government since 1990 endorsing the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the State has “failed to deliver a meaningful response”.

The Emeritus Professor at the National University of Ireland Maynooth pointed to the “weak and inadequate” Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, which, he says, either partially or explicitly exempts a number of semi-state bodies in power generation, fossil fuels, aviation, and public transport.

The Citizens’ Assembly consultation closes today, Friday, at 5pm. The Assembly will discuss climate change when it next meets on September 30th and, following the second weekend of debate, will vote on recommendations to Government on November 5th.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London