OPINION: Our short-termism is short-changing our future generations: A Constitutional change is the way forward

Published by Niall Sargent on

August 12th, 2017

Climate change is unequivocally one of the most pressing international concerns of our time. It comes then as no surprise that the Citizens’ Assembly will next examine the question: How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.

The task of trying to answer this question is quite formidable, with the Assembly – 99 randomly selected citizens representing the Irish electorate – being asked to consider multi-layered sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture.

The Chair of the Citizens’ Assembly has now justifiably called for an additional weekend to “truly do justice” to one of the “most complex topics facing Irish society”.

While two weekends is little time to get to the bottom of the issue, our State has shown only a superficial statement of intent to tackle climate change since first endorsing the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change way back in 1990.

We are now being presented with an opportunity to fill the gap left by Government inaction through the Citizen’s Assembly, putting power in the hands of the Irish people to push our politicians for a meaningful and binding change as to how we deal with climate change.

The conclusions and recommendations of the Assembly will be turned into a report to be presented to the Government, while it is also in the unique position of being able to propose amendments to the Constitution. And this role is crucial.

This is a moment for the people of Ireland to decide the constitutional basis for a framework that reflects the significance of climate change and its impacts, as well as our commitment to safeguarding an environment that supports our well-being both for now and for future generations.

Giving the people the constitutionally protected right to live in a healthy environment would encourage politicians to take real long-term actions and ensure that those actions won’t be done away with or diluted with the change of guard at Dáil Éireann every five years.

Environmental and civil society groups have long sounded the alarm bells about our changing climate, campaigning for the Irish State to take practical action and become a leader on the global scene.

Coalition groups such as the Environmental Pillar and Stop Climate Chaos have been pushing the State to change – year after year after year. In a joint submission to the Assembly, both coalitions outlined 18 practical actions 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, supporting small-scale community renewable projects, and providing significant funding for deep retrofitting of Ireland’s housing stock.

But still the State is unwilling to take action to decrease our emissions, and it is quite clear that we will miss our 2020 and 2030 targets. A decarbonised society by 2050 now seems little more than a lofty ambition at this stage, especially as our Government lobbies hard in Brussels to water down our emission reduction targets.

On top of that, the State’s leading legal and policy mechanisms are paper thin. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 is overly bureaucratic, confusing and largely unenforceable, while the National Mitigation Plan is laughably ambiguous, lacking any meaningful targets to tackle our runaway greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only is this an embarrassment for our nation, it also ensures a future in which concrete climate policy is but an abstraction and genuine environmental protection a distant dream. This short-term approach is short-changing our future generations.

We need a constitution that recognizes the fundamental right of all citizens to live in a healthy environment and give the people the right to hold our Government and public authorities to count when they fail to act to protect the public from the impacts of climate change.

This shift is needed now more than ever. Without action today, Ireland will soon suffer the impact of climate change, such as increased flooding, sea level rise, increased storm intensity, and summer drought.

Already 1,200 are dying prematurely from air pollution in Ireland each year, with 150,000 deaths  attributed to climate change across the globe every year.

The Citizens’ Assembly now has the opportunity to shake up Irish climate policy. With government inaction for so long, a constitutional amendment is the only way to ensure we drop our embarrassing moniker of climate laggard and move up the international leaderboard.

Our leaders’ inactivity to tackle the problem has left us listing toward the two-degree threshold. If we reach that mark, there is little chance of keeping us afloat.

The time for action and leadership is now – for us, for our children and for future generations to come.

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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