Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action
Examination of the Third Report of the Citizens' Assembly (Resumed)
The Senator is quite correct. There are two timetables in play. the political timetable, encompassing the mandate of four or five years, and the climate change timetable, which is a continuous battle we are fighting. We are trying to win the war on that front. It is true that politicians are concerned to make an immediate impact, which is perfectly understandable. Science-based policy is very important, and the UK Government, in terms of listening to scientific evidence, has improved considerably. It was not nearly as good at taking it on board 20 years ago when I was a minister, except in specific areas. It is difficult because it is always possible to find one rogue scientist with a different opinion from the general view. It is also the case that some of the conclusions are very unsettling. The vice chancellor of the Senator's university has been the leader in food safety, and is a man of huge strength, in my view. We relied on him enormously. He is a thoroughly nice man as well.
The scientific advice in terms of diet is largely ignored, and the UK Government is totally unable to deal with the problem of obesity. It is good at telling other people what to do, but it is not enacting its own advice in the NHS or in all sorts of other areas, even though the science is so clear. The Senator is correct to say that the situation with scientific advice is getting better. It is better than it was, but it has to get better still. So many of the measures we want to take to mitigate climate change have other important advantages as well. In the taxi on the way to this meeting Mr. Stark and I were talking about the issue of soil fertility. Not only do we have to return fertility to soil so that it can sequester carbon, but also because at the moment it is so diminished, not only in the UK but elsewhere too, the trace elements in the vegetables and fruit we are supposed to be getting our five a day from are not as good as they were.
We need to improve the fertility in order that the fruit and vegetables will actually hand on what we need. The same applies to obesity and the amount of meat we are eating and all of those things come together. That is important.
We have no claim on the public unless we get the science right. This is not a matter of opinion or campaigning and it is why I have to be really tough about the difference between the Committee on Climate Change and the NGOs. I very often disagree with NGOs because I have to keep the science right. The fact that I am not a scientist is helpful, in a sense, because I ask the difficult questions - in other words, the stupid questions. It is very helpful to ask scientists what they mean and ask how I would explain a certain bit of science if I was speaking on a platform. One thing we must say to scientists is that they are not always very good at explaining what they mean. Politicians have an important role in getting scientists to speak a comprehensible language that resonates with the public and connects to the way people live. We want to try to do that.
Ireland has a special role to play because Northern Ireland has not been as good as the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland is doing best, Wales is doing second best, England is third, but I am afraid Northern Ireland has not done well and that is partly because there are still people in politics in Northern Ireland who do not believe climate change is happening. They are the same people who believe the world was created 86,000 years ago. There is a real problem there and Ireland has got to show it. Ireland has done a great deal for encouraging Northern Ireland to understand the realities of the world and it is tremendously important that Ireland helps. This is a co-operative matter and Ireland and Northern Ireland can do an enormous amount of work together.
One of the great advantages we have with climate change is that it is not the old argument. The Church of England and the Catholic Church are working together on these issues because there is no history of argument, we never fell out on this. Catholics like me can sit together with people who have a different view and we can do a lot of these things. The same is true about the North and the South. It is possible to do some work here because there is very little baggage so we have to try very hard.