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Opinion: 'The youth of this country speak with more clarity than our leaders ever have'

Clodagh Daly of Climate Case Ireland writes about why they are considering appealing yesterday’s case against the government, which they lost.

Clodagh Daly

THE HIGH COURT yesterday ruled against Friends of the Irish Environment CLG’s lawsuit ‘Climate Case Ireland’, which challenged the Irish government to embrace a more ambitious climate policy.

Our case was not radical.

At stake was the government’s National Mitigation Plan 2017. The government’s own Climate Change Advisory Council strongly criticised the Plan, warning that Ireland’s current greenhouse gas emissions and projections of emissions to 2035 are “disturbing,” meaning we are “way off course” in the reductions needed to help avert dangerous climate breakdown.

The advisory council’s alarm bells were ignored, and Ireland is now unsurprisingly set to miss the necessary 2020 reduction by a wide margin.

In drawing up the national mitigation plan, the government disregarded climate science, their own Advisory Council, and increasing public demand for urgent climate action.

And so Friends of the Irish Environment decided it was time to turn to the courts. We asked the High Court to quash the plan, and to require the government to create a new one – crucially, one that would enable Ireland to achieve reductions in emissions that would protect our fundamental rights as citizens.

Essentially, our case simply asked the government to follow through on its legal obligations, and on what it has consistently agreed is necessary to prevent the worst impacts of climate breakdown.

Urgency of climate breakdown

The High Court’s verdict was not what we had hoped for, but there are some significant outcomes. At the time of writing we still haven’t seen a written judgment, but based on what we heard in court the judge recognised the urgency of climate breakdown and accepted that Friends of the Irish Environment had a right to bring the case (which is significant, as the State insisted throughout the hearing that we did not have that right).

The court, however, did not want to intervene in what it saw as a policy issue, referring to the separation of powers.

Although the State insisted that the Plan is a “living document” and that it has taken measures since 2017 to put Ireland “on a pathway” towards a low-carbon economy, none of this means anything to our atmosphere.

Our greenhouse gas emissions have risen significantly over the past three decades. As long as cumulative emissions continue to rise, temperatures will continue to rise and risks and impacts will worsen.

The world’s leading climate scientists, the intergovernmental panel on climate change, have warned repeatedly that we have a rapidly closing window of opportunity to decarbonise and prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

“Plans” and “pathways” aside, the only significant action our government has taken so far is allowing Ireland’s emissions to increase. What we need now is action to reduce emissions very rapidly.

Shift in public attitudes

Since our historic hearing in January, which saw a packed courtroom every day, there has been a huge shift in public attitudes toward climate action.

School strikers may not yet have the right to vote but they are making their voices heard through the biggest mobilisation for climate justice Ireland – and indeed the world – has ever seen. They are out striking today.

Extinction rebels have drummed up the masses and taken to the streets, pledging civil disobedience until our government adequately addresses what they themselves have acknowledged is a climate emergency.

Climate breakdown emerged for the first time ever as a central issue in local and European elections, and 96% of Irish people want to see a rapid deployment of renewable energy, according to the Eurobarometer.

Despite the unstoppable growth of the climate action movement in Ireland, and the fact that the climate crisis is finally a headline issue, our emissions are not falling rapidly. In fact, overall they’ll have risen by more than 10% between 1990 and 2020 when science tells us, and the government has agreed, that they needed to fall by 25-40% over this period to help avert the worse impacts of dangerous climate breakdown.

The costs will be counted in lives. The World Health Organization estimates that 250,000 additional people will die each year from 2030 to 2050 as a result of climate breakdown, based on only a small selection of risks – making this a very conservative estimate.

Coastal inundation will see land and homes lost, with many forced to move. Extreme weather events will worsen and wildlife will continue to decline, including the projected loss of virtually all (>99%) coral reefs if temperatures increase by 2°C compared to preindustrial times (we are currently at 1.1°C and rising). All of this is projected to happen in our lifetimes.

Despite this, the government’s “plans” are not translating into action. Ambitious climate action is now not only necessary, but dangerously overdue. In 2018, Ireland’s performance on climate action was ranked worst in the EU for the second year in a row.

We have the third highest level of carbon emissions per person in the EU and face costs of hundreds of millions of euro for failing to meet our EU obligations – an indefensible waste of public money.

Ireland is a small country but we contribute disproportionately to the climate crisis. The government has repeatedly agreed in international climate talks that developed countries like ours should lead the way in taking ambitious action. We know from the IPCC’s most recent report that decarbonising our economies to keep warming below 1.5°C is technically and economically feasible.

We know that runaway climate breakdown will be more expensive than any national mitigation plan ever could be. Instead of focusing their efforts on the inevitable transition, our government chose to fight our legal case tooth and nail.

Continuing to delay action not only flies in the face of science, but rejects the overwhelming public demand for action too, which is not going to quietly disappear. 18,000 people signed Climate Case Ireland’s petition stating that the case was taken “in my name.”

If we lost, who won?

As teen activist Greta Thunberg says, “you say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Instead of declaring hollow climate emergencies or telling citizens that the problem can be fixed by turning off the tap while we brush our teeth, our government should be resolute in its determination to prevent the worst impacts of climate breakdown.

Friends of the Irish Environment will now consider grounds for appeal. We will strike in the streets today, standing alongside the youth of this country that speak with more moral clarity than our leaders ever have. We may have lost our case, but we haven’t lost hope.

Clodagh Daly is campaign coordinator of Climate Case Ireland and is a research assistant with the Effective Nature Laws project in UCD.

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