Hating Democracy: Climate Change Legislation in Northern Ireland

The consociational power-sharing/power-dividing system of devolved government at Stormont is a technical fix to a way of thinking about Northern Ireland – a solution to the problem of two incompatible (ethno-religious) traditions. It’s unsurprising that the resort to institutional schema remains the go-to of politicians.

However, forcing public debate down pre-prepared channels and, therefore, delimiting the sites (both discursive and physical) where deliberation occurs has profound democratic implications. These implications entail an elitist neutering of debate through agenda-setting. The institutionalization of the public realm, furthermore, forecloses oversight, scrutiny and participation in politics by transferring access to information and the right to discuss to the political class.

The enclosing of the public commons (for instance, by the removal of voice and agency in regards to the environment), is a deeply anti-political tendency motivated by fear and suspicion of the public and driven by what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière terms a hatred of democracy.

Setting the climate agenda

The configuration of the public realm in favour of legislators is not simply about representative democracy entailing a handing-over of trust to politicians at elections. For this kind of anti-politics properly to work, it needs to involve a forestalling of public input. The two new proposals dealing with climate change in Northern Ireland are emblematic of these efforts.

Firstly, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) held a consultation on a Climate Change Bill over Christmas and into the New Year. It set out two options: a. Northern Ireland to move to net zero carbon emissions (in line with UN advice) by 2050; or b. Northern Ireland to contribute proportionally to the UK’s move to zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The second intervention is a Private Member’s Bill given to the Speaker’s Office in October 2020 but only introduced to the Assembly on the 21st March 2021. (Quite why a relatively short document (28 pages) (on an existentially urgent matter, which the Assembly had agreed to legislate on) would be held up six months leads one to wonder about the communications between that office and the Secretary of State, whose job it is to sign-off on motions of legislative competence).

Claire Bailey’s Bill is a more substantial and serious piece than the department’s. It aims to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2045. The Bill provides for the Executive to produce Climate Action Plans (CAPs) to build incrementally to that target. The first CAP would cover first three years after the passing of the Act followed by one every five years. A Climate Commissioner and Climate Office would monitor and review the CAPs and advise the Executive as to progress. If targets were not being met, the proposed legislation would require the Executive to amend the CAPs subject to Assembly approval.

The Bill is sponsored by all the parties apart from the DUP and the TUV.

The worst-case scenario

Writing on these pages, Daithi McKay, suggested that the Green Party proposal ‘is undoubtedly one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever introduced at the Assembly’. The hyperbole is, arguably, justified. But, if so, then on the principle of futurorum malorum præmeditatio, it ought to be subject to serious questioning.

I would suggest that platforms such as Slugger facilitate that because, in the first instance, the Bill aims to depoliticize an issue that not only impacts us all, but our children and future generations.

Certainly, it is a mistake to view climate change as an issue for individuals, but it is interesting that Bailey proposes to hand over legislative competence (the amending of the CAPs) and oversight to the Executive. The Commissioner is to be independent (schedule 6 of the Bill), but the experience of Commissioners in Northern Ireland does not fill one with confidence as to chances of enacting real change.

In effect, what the proposals mean is that climate change action and activism will become routinized and based on the cyclical CAPs. Despite claims that the Bill will promote multi-level climate action’, the politics of climate change will fall within the parameters of the Climate Office. A cynical reading might conclude that out-of-sight-out-of-mind will be combined with sinecures for bourgeois climate activists and academics.

Net Zeroes

Extinction Rebellion, of which, full disclosure, I am a member, has repeatedly argued that net zero needs to be reached as soon as possible. James Hansen, the NASA scientist whose testimony to Congress in 1988 revolutionized the climate debate (and was largely instrumental in introducing the term ‘greenhouse effect’ into the public consciousness) has stressed: we have already passed tipping points: ‘Promises like [the 2015 Paris Agreement] don’t mean much, it’s wishful thinking. It’s a hoax that governments have played on us since the 1990s’. It is for this reason that Extinction Rebellion advocate 2025 as a necessary target for cutting carbon emissions.

In that regard, the 2045 date seems rather quaint and twee. The Green Party proposal is also outwith changing discussions on climate. In part, this is perhaps a product of the hold-up in the Speaker’s Office alluded to above. However, it is probably also indicative of the Bill’s narrow focus that ‘ecology’ does not appear anywhere in the text. This is a massive oversight that is even more glaring in the light of the recently published Dasgupta Report, which details the inextricable links between climate change to ecological destruction.

The Bill will come back to the Assembly for Second Reading debate sometime after Easter. Perhaps the DUP will (in)directly lend its support, or perhaps some kind of fudge involving the DAERA and Bailey proposals will be mocked-up.

Despite the anti-political, de-democratizing impulses of the elected representatives and governmental departments to ring-fence and delimit the terms of the debate, perhaps the irony of the long wait for governmental intervention will to stimulate scrutiny and criticism of the ways and means by which Northern Ireland will attempt to tackle the climate emergency.

Climate Change” by garlandcannon is licensed under CC BY-SA