Act: Inspiration

Four scientists, a few small nations, and making unthinkable climate action possible

February 11, 2022

A remarkable mid-January legislative hearing by the Joint Climate and Energy Committees of Ireland’s Oireachtas (legislature) grabbed our attention as we listened from afar, here in the United States. Four eminent climate scientists made blunt, strong, urgent policy recommendations of a sort policymakers rarely, if ever, hear from scientists. Testimony and Q&A went on for three hours (see video for Jan. 12 here).

It wasn’t just the frank discussions of harsh climate realities and hard choices that the scientists put forward that made the hearing remarkable. It was also the desperate understanding that Ireland, as a small nation whose future, in the words of one of the scientists, Prof. Barry McMullin of Dublin City University, “is completely tied up with the actions of much bigger countries,” must itself step up and exert international leadership—leadership that a powerful, high-emissions nations like the U.S. might then become obliged to follow.

“Our ability to influence those much bigger countries is absolutely critical to our future,” he concluded.

That interests the two of us as U.S. citizens, because our government is deadlocked on taking responsible climate action and needs to be jolted into action by leadership coming from unexpected places elsewhere in the world. If there is one thing the U.S. can’t handle it is being left behind; our government wants to be perceived as always out in front.

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McMullin’s idea of such tail-wags-dog leadership is not farfetched. Near the end of November’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Ireland was among eleven other small nations and sub-national governments – led by Denmark and Costa Rica – that announced formation of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance* (BOGA). Their purpose is an immediate one of supporting one another in cutting back oil and gas production within their borders, as a move toward phasing out that production altogether  and trying to influence high-producing nations to do the same.

However, what the four scientists at the hearing (three from Ireland and one from the UK) recommended that Ireland’s government do amounts to much faster action than the steps the country is taking with its BOGA commitment and the carbon budgets the government currently has on the table for consideration and an upcoming decision.

Prof. John Sweeney of Maynooth University sized up the situation in stark terms:

“I think the time [for taking strong action] is now, and we shouldn’t be waiting for something coming around the corner in terms of infrastructure, a silver bullet or whatever. We really have to grasp this by the horns in the next 18 months.”

McMullin added that it is time for “politically risky … leadership”, because “the scale and urgency of our predicament” requires consideration of policies “outside our previously self-imposed restrictions on what is thinkable”. The reason is that climate change physics “just doesn’t bend … just doesn’t care what we [otherwise] regard as realism.” The impacts are already out of hand and getting worse all around the world, long before reaching the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C line in the sand.

Researcher Paul Price, also of Dublin City University, laid out a bottom-line policy necessity: “we really have to be thinking in terms of … how much carbon can come into the country … per year.” This is part of a thread of recommendations that ran throughout the hearing: combine deep, surefire supply-side limits on fossil fuels entering the economy with increasing utilization of renewable energy and demand-side reductions in energy use, and use rationing of some sort to ensure fairness as Ireland’s diverse society adjusts, justly and equitably, to that energy transition.

McMullin stressed that because climate physics is unbending, Ireland must reduce greenhouse emissions very rapidly, at a rate much faster than renewable energy capacity can come on line to replace fossil fuels. And that will mean living on less energy for a while:

“We do need to build out infrastructure as quickly as we can, but in the meantime, we have to reduce our emissions anyway,” and the only way to do that, he said, is simply “to do less.”

That, he explained, means rationing energy “in a particular way that protects fairness and justice in the short term” primarily meaning “wealthier people doing proportionately less of things that are proportionately more intensive in terms of energy emissions.”

Altogether, this implies to us a point that is often missed:  the best role for rationing is not to restrict consumption; it is to ensure sufficiency and equity in times of reduced supply—caused in this instance by a nation’s self-imposed limit on the quantities of fossil fuels entering its economy.

McMullin pointed out that technology buildout cannot keep pace with the necessarily precipitous fossil fuel phase-out. This means that policy must also include a system for allocating fuels and electric power to various economic sectors, and on the back-end, guaranteeing all end users a fair share through price controls and rationing. This ensures that everyone will, at the very minimum, obtain essential services and satisfy their basic human needs, with additional consumption depending on supply.

With energy supply constricted for a time, rationing simply ensures that everyone plays by the same fair, equitable rules. This enables every individual and household to, in McMullin’s words, “figure out how they can best now pursue their normal goals.” He said, “You don’t tell people how to do this. You leave it up to people to have the freedom to figure out how to best pursue their goals.” It means “doing less of certain kinds of things.”

Elaborating on that, UK scientist Kevin Anderson noted that because “most people [are] below-average emitters” and because “emissions align very closely to income, … policies have to be tailored” mainly to changing how higher income people do things and what they do. Rationing, in combination with a falling cap on fossil fuels, will guide the necessary reforms of higher income people.

Limiting resource use won’t necessarily narrow a nation’s horizons. By spurring an innovative evolution, limits will enable society to function better, on less energy and fewer resources. Paul Price made that crucial point:

“We…have this assumption that efficiency measures somehow result in emissions reduction. But that’s actually the wrong way around. Most of the examples we have are that when you impose a limit, you effectively create a rationing situation that the market can sort out,” through efficiency improvements and other innovation.

All of this was music to our ears. For three years, we have been advocating a climate policy framework we call “Cap and Adapt” through which we believe nations can ensure a sufficiently rapid and just phase-out of fossil fuels. It packages the same policy recommendations the scientists advocated at the hearing into a discrete policy framework, and we think could serve as an example of how to safely put into practice the swift, sweeping emissions reductions they urged as vital at the Oireachtas hearing.

Guaranteeing sufficiency and justice during a decarbonization transition also requires some adaptive economic policies that weren’t discussed at the hearing. These are ones already being widely advocated elsewhere: universal basic income, universal public services (including health care), robust social safety nets, racial and Indigenous justice, greater equality of income and wealth, and more.

As the scientists discussed several times during the hearing, the governmental action they are calling for is “not easy” and is “politically risky”, because “none of it is palatable” to the public, at least at present. But the climate physics and the now all-too-apparent and rapidly escalating climate impacts show that the only “realistic” course is for politicians, scientists and activists to strive – paraphrasing the words of the four – to make unthinkable policy thinkable, and the unpalatable palatable. There are no easy choices left; the easy choices evaporated years or decades ago.

We have found that among climate scientists and politicians, advocacy for a direct fossil fuel phase-out with adaptation through resource allocation and rationing, is very rare indeed. That’s why we found the Oireachtas hearing so encouraging. We hope that the views of McMullin, Price, Sweeney, and Anderson will emanate through the world climate community.

What intrigues us most is the potential of small nations to lead the world out of the climate predicament. BOGA is a brave and encouraging first step, but because its agreements address only within-nation oil and gas production, it leaves open a perverse incentive to offset reduced national production with imports. Implicitly recognizing that problem, the scientists pointed to the need for Ireland, for example, to also cut back deliberately on fossil imports.

Because policy-setting opportunities arise infrequently and can lock in inadequate policy for a decade or more, we hope that in its current deliberations, Ireland will seize this opportunity to implement the scientists’ recommendations, setting a stellar example for its BOGA colleagues and the whole world – especially the United States.

* BOGA’s “core members” are Denmark, Costa Rica, Ireland, France, Sweden, Wales, Greenland and Quebec. “Associate members” are New Zealand, Portugal and California. Italy is a “friend of BOGA”.


Teaser photo credit: By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID ppmsc.03428.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain,



Stan Cox

Stan Cox began his career in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is now the Ecosphere Studies Research Fellow at the Land Institute. Cox is the author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) and Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine. He is also the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (2020) and the The Path to a Livable Future: Forging a New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic (2021), both from City Lights Books. He is starting the second year of writing the ‘In Real Time’ series for City Lights. See the evolving ‘In Real Time’ visual work at the illustrated archive; listen to the ‘In Real Time’ podcast for the spoken version of this article; and hear a discussion of it on the Anti-Empire Project podcast.

Tags: climate change responses, Ireland, powering down, rationing