Ophelia lashed the coasts of England and Ireland with hurricane-force winds, the strongest storm to hit the United Kingdom in 50 years. Photo credit: Matt Cards/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

In the wake of Hurricane Ophelia—the strongest storm to hit Ireland in 50 years, which killed three people, caused widespread flooding and power outages—a network of citizens has filed suit against the Irish government for not adequately combatting climate change.

The suit was filed by Friends of the Irish Environment (FiE), an all-volunteer network that works on issues related to sustainable planning and environmental justice, in October. Inspired by climate cases in the United States and the Netherlands, FiE alleges Ireland’s National Mitigation Plan doesn’t live up to the promises the country made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. FiE also alleges the Plan violates the country’s Climate Act, the Irish Constitution and human rights obligations.

“The suit is long overdue, “ said John Sweeney, a climatology professor at Maynooth University who has contributed to the work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Ireland has failed to take effective action to meet its internationally agreed upon obligations,” said Sweeney.

Ophelia, which lashed the island nation with hurricane-force winds although it did not hit the island at hurricane strength, is the latest in a trend of extreme weather. The winter of 2014 was the stormiest in at least the last 147 years, Sweeney said, and the winter of 2015 was the wettest since recordkeeping began.

“Over the last 30 years or so rainfall amounts have increased by approximately five percent and there is some evidence of an increase in the number of days with heavy rain in the west and northwest,” he said, adding that the average daily temperature is also increasing.

Ireland’s first National Mitigation Plan was published in July, mandated by the country’s Climate Act, passed in 2015. The plan is required to specify how the country plans to meet its emissions goals. In its commitment to the Paris agreement, Ireland said it would reduce emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels.

“Formally, we’re asking the Court to quash the National Mitigation Plan published by the Government in July 2017 and send the Plan back to the State,” said FiE director Tony Lowes, in a recent email. He said the plan did not specify the policies that would result in the emissions reduction target and should be redone.

He also said the minister failed to consult with the Climate Change Advisory Council when creating the plan, something Lowes said the law requires and did not consider the council’s Periodic Review Report, which assesses Ireland’s progress toward meeting emissions targets.

In the 2017 report, the council calls for a “concrete commitment to new measures” and warns that at its current pace, Ireland will miss its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions by a substantial margin.

Keith Flanagan, spokesman for Ireland’s Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment, said the government fulfilled its obligations under the law when creating the plan.

“The plan will be subject to formal review in accordance with the 2015 act at least once every five years and will become a ‘living’ document which will be updated on an ongoing basis as analysis, dialogue and technological innovation generate further cost-effective sectoral mitigation options,” said Flanagan. He said the plan provides the Ireland with a roadmap to achieve its 2050 objective and meet a long-term goal of decarbonization.

The suit has been compared to the successful suit against the government of the Netherlands by the Dutch environmental group Urgenda, but according to  Rónán Kennedy, a law professor at the National University of Ireland Galway, said there are stark differences between Dutch and Irish law.

In the Urgenda case, the Dutch government was ordered to take more effective action to reduce emissions at least 25 percent by the end of 2020. The Dutch government has appealed. The case is significant because it was first time human rights were used as a legal basis to protect citizens against climate change.

“Unlike the Netherlands, where the Urgenda case was successful, there is no right to a clean, safe, or healthy environment in the Irish constitution,” said Kennedy, adding that Irish climate change law and policy is not at all sufficient to address the transformations needed.

“The Irish State has no strong duty to protect citizens and has no concept of ‘Hazardous Negligence’ in its tort laws,” he said.

Kennedy said the Ireland case hinges on whether the courts are willing to find that there are clear obligations in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act to compel the country to produce a plan consistent with Ireland’s European and international obligations.

Kennedy said that although he thinks the case is warranted, he is not optimistic it will succeed. He said Irish courts do not like to decide policy questions and cautioned that the suit has only progressed through a very initial procedural step, with its first substantive hearing probably still  months away.

“The suit may not ultimately be successful but it does help to shine a light on Ireland’s poor performance on climate change issues, and the reluctance of the government to properly deal with its legal obligations,” said Kennedy.

Sweeney said nothing in the court system is certain.

“Access to the courts in Ireland is not something lightly contemplated by non-governmental organisations in Ireland,” said Sweeney. The costs are high, running  several tens of thousands of Euros per day for a case which may last a week or more. Losing could wipe out an organization’s finances and stifle further actions indefinitely.

For Lowes, who compared the case to David vs. Goliath, that’s a risk worth taking.

“The extreme impacts of climate change are beginning to hit home—we need to act urgently to ensure this is not the new normal for us and for our children and grandchildren,” he said.