“The Laws of Nature Need Not Apply Here” – Ophelia is a sign of things to come


The Northern Ireland administration’s late and confused hurricane warning to school children and young people parallels local political attitudes to climate change. By failing to take climate change seriously even when the evidence is hitting us in the face we are disregarding the rights of our children and young people.

The late, confused and inefficient warning on Sunday evening to students and parents is like a metaphor for the slow, confused and ineffective response that government has made here to climate change – probably the greatest security threat that our up and coming generation will face. Northern Ireland is still the only territory across the islands that has yet to adopt local and binding climate change targets with an accompanying implementation strategy. The former hurricane known as Ophelia is just the latest indication that climate change scientists and their computer-generated climate models are getting it right. Ophelia – one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes recorded – is consistent with predictions that warming Atlantic Ocean surface waters extending eastward and creating the breeding ground of tropical cyclones, will yield more frequent and intense hurricanes following pathways directed toward Europe. This was predicted in a 2013 paper in Geophysical Research Letters by Haarsma et. al. entitled: ‘More hurricanes to hit Western Europe due to global warming’.

Ecological justice is – above all – about an ethical command to act in a responsible, timely and effective way on behalf of children and young people who will inherit this earth. The ecological imperative is one of inter-generational justice: a call on the current generation of political and civic decision-makers to act now or stand aside on issues such as climate change and environmental protection. Perhaps that’s why it’s kids who are leading ground-breaking public trust litigation in the United States calling for effective political action from the Trump Administration. 

One of the biggest lies about environmental destruction is that we ‘adults’ can leave it to the future generation to resolve it. How many times have politicians and others lauded the environmental awareness of children and young people, in rhetoric that only serves to conceal and cover up for those who have the power and the responsibility to act today? I sometimes wonder if our Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People at NICCY – together with her children’s panel – should have their mandate extended and resourced, in line with other European countries, to incorporate the protection of future generations. This might, at last, provide an independent voice for children and the environment. Who else will hear the cry of the earth?

For the moment, when it comes to climate change and our environment, local political elites have consistently treated the North as a state of exception. It’s as if the DUP’s flat-earth brigade and their fellow bystanders in the farming and agri-food industry, believe that the laws of nature do not apply here. The same self-deluding sectarian mind-set that once believed that civil, employment and human rights would never apply universally across ‘our wee country’ now lies behind another piece of public policy hubris from the DUP: “The laws of nature need not apply here.” Climate change and environmental rights are for others to tackle.

Of course those who deny local responsibility for climate change – in fact or by degree due to our relatively small contribution to overall GHG emissions – are also those who are first to celebrate our historical giant-beating role in pioneering the industrial revolution: a revolution that helped set the earth on a path that has seen atmospheric carbon concentration exceed any levels witnessed throughout human history.

While decision-makers in some of the poorest and most under-developed countries in the world turn up to United Nations summits to plea for ‘climate justice’ and effective domestic and international action, parts of our own political establishment – elected and unelected – continue to behave as if the North is not subject to the laws of nature. While Christian and other religious caucuses step up at such conferences and in their home countries to mobilize the faithful in defence of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, the spiritual and cultural debate about the meaning of climate change here is mooted to the point of defying belief. The notion that no economic development debate can now take place anywhere on earth without fully considering the environmental and social consequences of our assumptions about ‘prosperity’ and ‘growth’ has barely registered in our local public debates.

Dangerous climate change and other ‘planetary boundaries’ or thresholds are already being crossed and there is growing evidence that recent weather patterns are consistent with predictions of accelerating climate change modelled on sophisticated computer systems.

This peculiar sense of exceptionalism lies behind a political and multi-agency failure to effectively police environmental standards, continuing resistance to the creation of an independent Environmental Protection Agency, and our status as the only territory across the two islands that has not legislated for local climate change targets and measures.

Clientelism is a Climate Change Issue Too

A recent BBC TV Spotlight programme on the Northern Ireland Executive’s Social Investment Fund (SIF) went into considerable detail about a series of questionable decisions and actions. But the underlying issue is one that we have all been slow to name: clientelism. It is a toxic form of politics and governance that puts evidence, integrity and the wellbeing of our children and young people second to the cultivation of special interests.

Clientelism is so deeply embedded in politics – North and South – that it is often conflated with politics per se. There is often an assumption that the essential role of politicians is not so much leadership in ideas and policies, but merely to act as aggregators of special interests and special pleading The associated behaviours are difficult to call out because they are so familiar: ranging from the seemingly innocent to the outright corrupt. Clientelism begins with the innocent signing of a passport photo or a politician’s well-intentioned intervention with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to inquire about social housing points….but can lead in some cases all the way through to the brown envelope culture that played no small role in bringing the so called ‘Celtic Tiger’ building and credit splurge to a shuddering halt. NAMA, Red Sky, and now SIF have generated unwelcome comparisons between the DUP and Fianna Fail and their modus operandi.

Clientelism is a threat to our nascent democratic institutions and to a transparent, evidence-led public policy environment. When it leads to the suppression of effective environmental regulation and action on global issues as far-reaching as climate change, clientelism also poses a special threat to our coming generation of children and young people.

For the Democratic Unionist Party the future wellbeing of children and young people who will inherit the wrath of their non-decision-making, comes a distant second when it comes to protecting short-term economic interests and the conversion of those interests into political staying power.



I am a lecturer in sustainable development and governance at the School of Law, Queens University Belfast. I also conduct work at United Nations negotiations on the environment for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

My book on the attention economy and mindfulness as commons was published by Routlege in June 2017. See A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons (Routledge Studies in Sustainability)

My research interests include consumerism, green politics and the economy. I locate myself firmly to the left of the political spectrum. I write in a personal capacity.

Born in Donegal, I was raised in Derry and now reside in Belfast with my family.