Two Irelands, One Planet: Thinking Like an Eco-System Can Help Bind New Executive

While the North continues to languish as one of Western Europe’s ecological backwaters a gap has begun to open up with the Republic of Ireland when it comes to policy innovation. Two recent developments may prove to be tipping points in legislating for climate justice and environmental rights in Dublin. The most recent came just last week in the Oireachtas with the successful passage to Committee Stage of an opposition-sponsored initiative, the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) Climate Emergency Measures Bill, that aims to stop the issuing of any new licences for the exploration of fossil fuels. While opposed by Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael-led Government on energy security grounds, the Solidarity-People Before Profit-sponsored Bill cleared the first legislative hurdle with critical support from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour, the Greens and others.

If the Bill goes all the way and becomes law it would make the Republic of Ireland only the fourth country in the world to fall into line with the global scientific consensus on climate change, which suggests that thirty per cent of known oil and 50 per cent of known gas reserves must remain where they are (are unburnable) if we are to meet the UN’s Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature increases to below 2.0 degrees celsius by the end of the century. The legislation would force the Government to ensure regard is had to national and global environmental considerations, including greenhouse gas concentrations, when issuing licences, undertakings and leases under the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development Act 1960. More to the point, the legislation would have the effect of accelerating implementation of the Republic’s Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act (2015) and the decarbonisation of the economy.

In a second development, at the Dublin High Court, Mr Justice Max Barrett ruled that Irish people enjoy a Constitutional  “right to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens at large” and that this ” is an essential condition for the fulfilment of all human rights. It is an indispensable existential right that is enjoyed universally, yet which is vested personally as a right that presents and can be seen always to have presented, and to enjoy protection, under Art. 40.3.1 of the Constitution. It is not so utopian a right that it can never be enforced.” He called for an urgent consideration of the implications in the context of the present environmental crisis noting the “greater public awareness that the quality of our life as a nation, and as members of the wider human community, is threatened by the processes which have yielded the very quality of life which we presently enjoy”.

These developments stand in stark contrast with the well documented and systemic failures to prioritise environmental protection as a core economic imperative in Northern Ireland where the overarching requirement that we protect the environment (‘environmental justice’) in order to underpin all other rights barely registers in the public discourse on rights. Two developments underline a sense that the North’s administration is on a very different direction of travel compared to the Republic. In recent evidence to the RHI Inquiry, the local energy efficiency entrepreneur, Janette O’Hagan, described how she told civil servants that she had been “surprised people weren’t putting radiators on the outside of buildings”. This was a measure of the extent to which the RHI had been turned into a massive and perverse incentive to turn the intention of the scheme on its head: so that instead of serving to enhance energy efficiency in pursuit of limiting greenhouse gases, many users were encouraged to waste heat. It is unthinkable that such a turn of events could have unfolded if climate change and the environmental integrity of the RHI scheme had been a priority at all levels of political and public sector decision-making.

The RHI Inquiry will report in time but it is already clear that contributory factors to the debacle that will cost tax payers in excess of £700 million over the next twenty years include a combination of fragmented and broken decision-making chains within the civil service combined with an absence of in-house specialist knowledge and capacity, including the capacity to weigh up and take responsibility for external consultants’ inputs. These weaknesses were undoubtedly amplified by the silo’d nature of Executive decision-making during the last Executive mandate.

There is a tendency to view the nexus of poor decision-making as a local difficulty. When it comes to climate change and related governance failures the financial, environmental, health and wider well-being costs are not only transferred to the population in Northern Ireland. The stakes are much higher. Take, for example, the extraordinary power of the farming lobby (Ulster Farmers Union), a sector that for all intents and purposes falls within the public sector (87% percent of  farm incomes in Northern Ireland come from the public purse, notably EU subsidies) and which should be our  ‘public servant’ primus inter pares, at the service of the common goodInstead, the Northern Ireland citizen picks up the cost of farming at least twice: through direct payments made from our taxes to the farming industry, and through the externalities or liabilities that result in the form of environmental and health impacts from farming practices. Take nitrates pollution for example. As reported by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, in an email dated 18 November 2017, Mark Livingston, NIEA, states: “Critical levels of ammonia are exceeded at 95% of our designated sites in NI. NIEA are not encouraging any increase in the total volume of Nitrogen spread across NI. Manure and inorganic fertilisers applied to soils already account for 44% of all ammonia emissions (34% and 10% respectively)”. In the meantime, the Ulster Farmers Union celebrate their success in lobbying for a loosening of proposal to tighten up the local nitrates compliance regime while our per capita Ammonia emissions are over four times those of other parts of the UK, and most of the excess is geographically clustered around areas with high density livestock farms.

Nitrates loads are no local matter. In fact Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans  are one of four ‘Planetary Boundary’ thresholds that are a cause for grave concern about the conditions for human life on earth. Together with climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, and land-system change,  these biogeochemical cycles – to which our local farming community contribute (subsidised by significant public funding transfers) –  are four of nine Planetary Boundary conditions that have now been breached or exceeded carefully measured thresholds. The planetary boundaries approach, developed by Johann Rockstrom and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Institute, is based on a concern that increased human perturbation of critical Earth System processes increases the risk of destabilizing the Earth System and changing the environmental framework within which human societies have developed.

Thinking Like A System: Notes to an Incoming Executive 

The challenge for any new incoming Executive will be to move beyond a transactional and trade-off approach to policy-making. Historically, fractious relationships between ministers (some even ending up in court in challenges to decision-making) has compounded an absence of ‘systems thinking’ across departmental briefs, which can deliver multiple wins in terms of financial savings and outcomes across, for example, public health, food, environmental protection, and agriculture. The absence of a collegiate style across the Executive can render the entire system of government vulnerable to the entrenchment of a clientelist style of governance, and hyper vigilant to special interests and lobbyists who, by definition, are often working against a more complex set of public goods. At a more fundamental level, fragmented and transactional processes in ethnically divided political settings – where competing politicians are tempted to work from a starting point defined by a perception of ‘scarcity’ – also reinforces a default neoliberal worldview. [This is not to deny the ongoing Tory attack on public finances and the parallel attempt to devolve responsibility to local parties in the absence of the means to deliver].

In the face of so called wicked issues and complexity, traditional analytical tools and problem-solving methods no longer work nor produce their intended purpose. The OECD (2017) has noted that government leaders across the world are asking: how do we manage increasing complexity while accounting for uncertainty and still deliver public services that adapt dynamically to produce viable solutions?  Part of the answer lies in public policy makers making decisions in such a way that leads to adaptive and collaborative structures that incorporate, rather than filter out, complexity. This means a transformed civil service, cohering in what must become a ‘learning organisation’ and capable of operating in a transparent and contested public policy environment. Early plans for an Earth Law centre will make a significant and timely contribution to a transformation of local thinking about the meaning of sustainable prosperity, growth and quality of life.

Systems are defined by the OECD  as elements joined together by dynamics that produce an effect, create a whole or influence other elements of a system. Changing the dynamics of a well-established and complex system is not easy. This requires not only a new way of examining problems but also bold decision making that fundamentally challenges public sector institutions. Traditionally, public policy makers have addressed social problems through discrete interventions that are layered on top of one another. However, these may shift consequences from one part of the system to another, or address symptoms while ignoring causes.

The all-encompassing system – and the chief metaphor for ‘systems thinking’ – is the global eco-system. Traditionally, policy makers (and BBC Radio Ulster) have treated the environment on a par with  ‘Any Other Business’. Such thinking is increasingly out-dated and regarded as an affront to environmental justice and a risk to the long-term sustainability of the means of life, including our economy.

If Not Love, What?

Ecological- and Climate Justice are the indispensable signatures of love for and dedication to our landscapes, rivers, mountains, seas and to the legacy we leave up-and-coming generations of children and young people. One thing binds the vast majority of politicians in this place: a declared love of country. There has, until now, been a glaring gap between those declarations and the comprehensive policy commitments designed to honour them.

If decision-makers do not rehearse love and a passion for our place, what is government for? Responding to the question – “what is our greatest hope for the young people we teach?”, Rainer Maria Rilke responded to a young poet with these words: “To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this is what [young] people need…With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward heart, they must learn to love.”