President delivers keynote address at Engineers Ireland conference on climate action

Wed 21st Oct, 2020 | 09:00

Wednesday, 21st October, 2020

“Climate Action and the Role of Engineers” Speech at the Engineers Ireland annual conference

21 October 2020

Let me be very clear about the challenge we face: climate change is the most pressing existential crisis facing us all as a global community.

Dear friends, a chairde,

I am delighted to be with you today, even if it has to be from a distance, to address you at the annual Engineers Ireland conference, which has had to be postponed from April owing to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I am very happy indeed that you have seen fit to focus this year’s event on the theme on climate action, a topic that is now of urgent and critical importance.

May I begin by thanking Caroline Spillane and Marguerite Sayers, Director-General and President respectively of Engineers Ireland (2019-2020), for inviting me today, and may I also welcome delegates who are present today to discuss how the engineering profession can play its part in what is the greatest contemporary challenge facing us as inhabitants of this planet in peril.

Engineers in Ireland

Engineers have a proud tradition in this country and have made a significant contribution to the economy and society. All of the great infrastructural projects on which the State has embarked – the Shannon hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha, nationwide electrification, the construction of our canalways, railways and, more recently, motorways, to name just a few examples – could not have taken place without the critical contribution of the engineer.

Engineering is a profession with a profound respect for mathematics, for science, for precision and problem-solving. At its best, your work is the link between scientific discoveries and their applications that meet societal needs. There is virtually no aspect of contemporary life to which engineers cannot contribute their expertise.

Climate Change Is Our Greatest Crisis

To return to your conference theme, in recent years I have made the subject of climate change a priority area of my presidency, addressing the issue in many of my speeches and keynote addresses at home and on the international stage. Let me be very clear about the challenge we face: climate change is the most pressing existential crisis facing us all as a global community. Last year, Ireland became the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency, recognising the critical nature and scale of the challenge facing us all.

We are already witnessing some of the effects of more extreme weather conditions on our island. In recent years, we have experienced a tumultuous period of unsettled conditions and major weather events, with protracted, wet winters, one of the heaviest snow storms in recent memory, then a summer heatwave coupled with rare drought conditions. Just last year, we experienced the aftermath of the easternmost Atlantic hurricane (Lorenzo) since records began, just two years after Hurricane Ophelia set new records for Atlantic hurricanes to land on our shores.

Meteorological models predict that we in Ireland can expect in the future more extreme weather events, such as winter storms and flooding, as well as drier summer conditions, and that the intensity and severity of these extreme conditions will become even greater, with bigger impacts on our people, our society and our economy.

The farming and wider agri-food sector will be particularly impacted by this changing climate. While some models predict increased crop yields resulting from longer, warmer summers, other more recent work funded by the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that drought conditions will pose a larger threat. In addition, season creep – the phenomenon that describes how plants and trees are, on average, now unfurling their leaves several weeks earlier in the season than in previous times – places plants, trees and crops at a greater risk of disease and shock that can result from a late spring frost.

Nature has a fine balance, and scientific models are so sophisticated and precise now that this can be shown empirically. Earth’s ecosystem, the composition of the atmosphere, and the world’s weather – our ecological systems – operate in a stable equilibrium or homeostasis. An ostensibly small change in just one parameter within this equilibrium, such as that brought about by human-sourced emissions of greenhouse gases, results in weather changes that include increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, with catastrophic impacts on sea-level rises. The cumulative effect of this is climate chaos with all its social and economic consequences.

I suggest respectfully that the time has long passed for debate on the science, useless apportionments of blame, or idle comparisons. Action is now needed, and I ask all engineers across all branches of engineering to play their role.

The Irish education system needs to generate many more engineers armed with skills needed to meet the global climate-change challenge and to build a sustainable world. Engineers have a clear role to play to ensure that everyone in the world has access to clean water, sanitation, reliable energy, and safeguarded from climate change’s adverse impacts which are already manifesting.

A recent survey, results of which are contained in the Engineers Ireland report, Engineering 2020, found that almost three-quarters of the Irish public believe engineers have an ethical obligation to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. Engineers are central to sustainable development and are uniquely placed to help the world meet critical Sustainable Development Goals.

More than half of the world's GDP depends on nature, and climate change and global biodiversity loss are considered by the World Economic Forum to be two of the top five risks facing the global economy. In a landmark study, over 400 experts from 50 countries cautioned that transformative change is needed to reform and protect nature.

Climate disruption is a global issue, a national issue, and a local issue, for which the window of opportunity to act is closing worryingly fast. We as humans must take responsibility now for our role in this crisis, a crisis in which the origins can be traced back to the onset of the Anthropocene era at the start of the industrial revolution in the 1860s when an insatiable, unrestricted consumption of the Earth’s finite natural resources began.

In recent decades, as consumption has intensified, we have experienced an accelerated period of the Anthropocene, and the impacts on the Earth’s dwindling natural resources are now all too apparent: rapidly declining biodiversity and accelerating climate change impacts brought about by global warming. In short, we are at the precipice of a global ecological catastrophe.

Furthermore, dangerous shifts in climate are placing stress on global communities, where ecosystems can no longer support populations, leading to a decline in, and ultimate lack of, resources for living and human flourishing. This, in turn, contributes to conflict, violence and forced migration and exile. The greatest impacts will be borne by Small Island Developing States whose very existence is at stake.

Unless we collectively take action to prevent catastrophic climate change, together with a real commitment and transfer of resources towards assisting communities to prepare for, and adapt to, changing climates, these population flows, driven by climate shifts, will take place in a context of old and emerging conflicts that will undoubtedly be exploited by extremists.

Our basic human morality suggests that it is indefensible that another 100 million people be doomed to extreme poverty by 2030 should we fail to honour the commitment to tackle climate change. The need for collective action addressing the climate crisis becomes more evident every month. The defence of previous generations that ‘we did not know’ is no longer available to any of us.

An Ecological Precipice

We must not ever forget that policies – economic, social, environmental – are sourced in assumptions and ideas as to how economies function, and are connected with change and society. Over the last four decades, the theories of those such as Friedrich Von Hayek and Milton Friedman, have gained strength to create a paradigm of unrestrained, unregulated market dominance, a communications order with a discourse that ‘privileges’ aggressive individualism without social responsibility within and beyond borders. It is a model that is the source of the exponential, insatiable growth of commodity production, consumption, accumulation and despoliation of the planet.

Professor Wendy Brown, in her 2019 book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, describes how, from its inception, neoliberalism flirted with authoritarian liberalism as it warred against robust democracy, repelling social-justice through appeals to market freedom:

“Neoliberalism has sought to de-democratise the State, the economy, and society, and re-secure the patriarchal family”.

It has attacked the value of society and fetishised individual freedom, re-defining the concept of freedom in a reductionist manner to ‘market freedom’, as part of its legitimation of inequality.

Above all, Brown argues, neoliberalism’s intensification of nihilism, coupled with its accidental wounding of white male supremacy, generates an apocalyptic populism willing to destroy the world (through, for example, war and aggression, ecological obliteration) rather than endure a future in which this supremacy disappears.

Our prevailing economic model is, of course, unsustainable from economic, environmental and social standpoints. It is a model that privileges the insatiable accumulation of the few at the cost of the many and their children’s future, the very future of the planet itself in terms of lost biodiversity. Karl Polanyi, quite prophetically, identified as far back as the 1940s that such a self-governing model would have catastrophic consequences for society and its relationship to nature.

Then, too, there is the real problem of ‘short-termism’ that pervades modern political economy, as has been noted in a 2013 report by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, an interdisciplinary research community focusing on global challenges. Future generations, or those not old enough yet to vote, do not currently have large political or economic influence, the Commission correctly notes. A lack of political capital is a major impediment to securing policy change. That is why it is so heartening to see the youth of today – personified by individuals like Greta Thunberg – spearheading a new movement with courage and assertiveness.

An inability to plan for the long-term, or incorrect, myopic or narrowly focused planning, will have devastating consequences for future generations. The choices that we make individually or via the apparatus of the State through policies that we develop and adopt on areas such as energy, water, greenhouse gas emissions, cities, planning, models of business – all areas of importance to engineers – will determine the options that will be available to the generations to come.

Role of the State

The State has a huge and potentially very positive role to play in all of these policy decisions. We must, therefore, reclaim the State and reassert its constructive, and potentially transformative, role in our lives, acknowledging that the State has suffered heavily, has been ravaged, as a result of decades of attack from an orthodox laissez-faire economic narrative asserting that the State’s role needs to be minimal, and the private sector should lead in all aspects of life, including the response to climate change. The State has been so maligned through a constant and consistent attack from the Right, an undermining of its competence and legitimacy, and a disregard or ignorance of its success in wealth creation and improving the broader quality of life of citizens.

Unfortunately, it has taken the tragedy of COVID-19 to demonstrate the State’s positive role in managing such crises, of how it can play a transformative role in our lives for the better. The erosion of the State’s role, the weakening of its institutions and the undermining of its significance for over four decades has left a less just and more precarious society and economy ill-prepared for seismic shocks such as COVID-19. But I believe there is now a widespread, recovered recognition across the streets of Europe, and indeed beyond, of the State’s benign and transformative capacity.

As Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated so brilliantly in her book, The Entrepreneurial State, government investment and the State more generally has played a central, often critical, role in driving innovation and technological developments, including in the areas of climate change, sustainability and environmental protection – imagine a world without environmental protection agencies?!

I see the State leading in climate action, setting an example on climate mitigation, resilience and adaptation. The Irish State must lead by example if it is to have any credibility, any realistic hope of bringing its citizens with it on the difficult journey to a decarbonised future.

Government Departments and State Agencies must be exemplars in climate mitigation given the whole-of-Government approach needed to curb our carbon emissions, as well as in climate adaptation given the State’s pivotal role as owners of land and infrastructure which is likely to be impacted by climate change.

Move to an Eco-Social Model

The neoliberal model of economics that has dominated policy for almost 40 years has been shown from the perspective of its social outcomes, empirically researched, to have deepened inequality, impacted negatively on the poorest, but also, from an ecological perspective, it makes achieving sustainability near impossible. It is built on an assumption of exponential growth – and leaves existing consumption models unrevised.

I am not alone in arguing this thesis. Scholars such as Paul Burkett, John Bellamy Foster and James O’Connor have examined the nature, variability, flexibility and reformability of capitalism in the context of transitioning to sustainable wellbeing, and all have concluded that the mere placing of a new ‘green’ lens on the existing orthodox growth model will not suffice: paradigm shift, not reform, is urgently required.

There is an alternative paradigm which is gaining acceptance as our only realistic alternative to avoid the continuation of yawning inequality and ecological devastation. This new paradigm is one based on a steady-state model in which an economy is comprised of a stock of physical wealth (that is, capital) which remains proportionate to its population size. Populations can continue to rise in this paradigm without the need to further exploit and destroy natural resources because of the positive role that technology and resource decoupling (such as improved energy efficiency) can contribute to improve the productivity of our capital stock, our natural endowments.

A steady-state economy does not necessarily result in economic stagnation and falling living standards. Economic stagnation is the unexpected and unwelcome failure of uncritical use of a growth economy concept, such as that which we witnessed as a result of the financial crisis in 2008 and the resulting so-called ‘Great Recession’ that impacted so disastrously on our country. Rather, what I propose is established as the result of deliberate political action recognising the inherent flaws of our current model of growth ad infinitum.

I argue, therefore, that a radical paradigm shift is required in the connection between ecology, economics and society, one that combines the radicalism that is in the consciousness of climate activism, with the consciousness of egalitarianism and the programmes of inclusion activists.

I support calls for a new ecological-social paradigm, such as that being advocated by scholars including Professor Ian Gough of the London School of Economics, Kate Raworth of Oxford University, and others. Their approach offers a new, recovered version of political economy, and I would suggest that all third-level institutions and places of education should facilitate it being taught across the social sciences and, thus, enable such an integrated, sustainable paradigm become available to inform policy.

Consideration of a new ecological-social paradigm recognises the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as the role that unrestrained greed has played in creating the climate crisis. In his book, Heat, Greed and Human Need, Professor Ian Gough outlines how this alternative paradigm is rooted in the concept of human need over greed, moving away from models that take insatiable consumption and unrestricted accumulation as inevitabilities.

The paradigm advanced by Professor Gough and others is framed around the three implicit goals of welfare States: redistribution, social consumption and social investment. Gough advocates for gender equality, income redistribution, a reconfigured social consumption and, crucially, for an investment strategy that transfers resources and technology from rich countries to developing countries; these are the key means by which to achieve versions of an eco-social welfare State.

How can we achieve a fair distribution of wellbeing while staying within environmental limits? Our overriding goal must be to remain within what Kate Raworth has described, “a safe and just space for humanity”. This means we can improve human wellbeing on a global level while simultaneously preserving the preconditions for a safe, healthy planet and the future wellbeing of its peoples.

Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics captures the essence of this new paradigm:

“a social foundation of wellbeing that no one should fall below, and an ecological ceiling of planetary pressure that we should not go beyond. Between the two lies a safe and just space for all”.

A key element of Raworth’s argument relates to economic growth: if GDP is to continue growing in high-income countries, its associated resource use must fall not just relatively or absolutely, but “sufficiently absolutely” to stay within planetary boundaries. Failure to achieve this level of resource decoupling implies that de-growth remains the only sustainable strategy for planetary survival. 

Professor Ian Gough correctly identifies that welfare States will need to forge new policy instruments – eco-social policies – that underpin such an economic paradigm. These must simultaneously pursue both equity/social justice and sustainability/sufficiency goals within an activist innovation State, with substantial public investment and greater regulation and planning. Investment functions of social policy must be enlarged, therefore, to become more closely integrated with climate action investments. The important role that investing in nature can play in achieving a more sustainable, resilient, and healthy world must be recognised by governments.

This may, as Professor Gough has stated, “require tipping the balance of the economy from private to State investment”. This is now occurring as a consequence of COVID-19, and it is so critical that any COVID-related State bailout or investment is ecologically sustainable, and that funding to business is conditional on a greening agenda, as Mazzucato has advocated.

This is a central point: we need the State to lead, to be activist, interventionist and innovative, but also to demonstrate ecological responsibility. This requires substantial public investment and greater regulation, enforcement and planning. Subsidies and other incentives to private investment in climate action should not necessarily be seen as deadweight by default.

In much the same way that the best welfare States in the world promote universalism as a core principle, the move to an eco-social paradigm requires a universalist mindset, as well as additional, targeted measures to mitigate against any regressive impacts of decarbonisation policies on lower income groups, or cohorts who will be impacted most adversely by the shift to a low-carbon economy and society (such as, for example, those losing jobs resulting from the closure of legacy industries).

In Ireland this will mean that those impacted by the closure of unsustainable carbon-intensive electricity production, for example, must be offered re-skilling opportunities to enable them to find suitable jobs in other areas, such as the green economy, or upskilling opportunities that can achieve sustainable incomes in other parts of society. A model for such a just transition has been made available to us by the National Economic and Social Council, whose recent Report #149 provides a framework within which the transition to a new political economy may be a just transition.

Intergenerational Equity

Intergenerational equity, that is fairness between generations, is key, too.

Back in 1987, the Brundtland Report asserted that,

“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Such a conception of intergenerational equity is entirely consistent with a climate justice approach which links human rights and development to achieve a human-centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable, and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its resolution equitably and fairly.

The Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice argues that intergenerational equity can serve as a unifying theme that connects developed and developing countries, young and old, to advocate for bold action on climate change.

It is this awareness of the implications of our actions, or inaction, on future generations that increases the demand for an urgent response to the climate crisis. The onus, the moral imperative, is on us all now to make the necessary changes to our lifestyles – some may be costly and difficult, others relatively painless – if we have any sense of intergenerational climate justice, and if we are to have any hope of avoiding the bequeathment to the next generation of a hostile and volatile Planet Earth.


As to society, there is a powerful, new sociological literature emerging that supports this change in theory, practice, policy, and indeed life itself. Professor Hartmut Rosa of Jena University builds on the paradigm, arguing for the need for society to move away from ‘consuming’ the world to ‘experiencing’ it and ‘resonating’ with it.

Professor Rosa argues that quality of life cannot be measured simply in terms of resources, opinions, and moments of happiness; instead, we must consider our relationship to, or resonance with, the world, or as Rosa puts it in his book, Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World:

“from the act of breathing to the adoption of culturally distinct worldviews. All the great crises of modern society – ecological, democratic, psychological – can be understood and analysed in terms of resonance and our broken relationship to the world around us”.

This requires facilitating the transformative appropriation of every dimension of the world – how we are to exist, the relationships between ourselves and others and indeed with the natural world itself, how we may be transformed from consuming the world to resonating with it. 

This, I believe, is a valuable contribution to the inter-disciplinary task of understanding the complex sources of, as I would put it ‘belonging in the world’, eschewing the modern-day preoccupation of being ‘consumed with consumption’.

I believe this “catastrophe of resonance”, to quote Rosa, which we have witnessed in modern times, is related to a growing narcissism, aggressive individualism and an emphasis on insatiable consumption and wealth accumulation, all of which is such a far cry from the social justice, solidarity and fairness principles that underpin the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

In their recent book, Nurturing Our Humanity, Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry demonstrate how we can build societies that support our great human capacities for consciousness, caring, connection and creativity, revealing links between climate change denial and regressions to a so-called ‘strongman’ rule, assessing where societies fall on what the authors describe as a “partnership-domination scale”.

On one end of this scale is the domination system that ranks man over man, man over woman, race over race, and man over nature. On the other end is the more peaceful, egalitarian, gender-balanced, and sustainable partnership system. A more equitable and sustainable way of life is biologically possible and culturally attainable: we can change our course. Understanding that most of our intractable global challenges can be tied to the dominator worldview is a starting point for a sustainable and humane world, a point overlooked in much of the discourse on the climate crisis.


All of us, individuals, communities and professions alike, are asked to take ownership of the commitment to tackle climate change if we are to succeed in our low-carbon transition for our economy and our society. This is not optional. We, all of us as citizens, have a moral obligation to play our part in this great societal challenge. 

We in Ireland need to continue to insulate our energy inefficient buildings, upgrade our heating systems to renewable sources such as heat pumps, switch to electric vehicles, build more public transport, and, overall, ween ourselves off our fossil fuel-dependent lifestyles. We also need to put in place the critical infrastructure that will enable the country to adapt and be resilient to climate change that is already occurring. Many of you here today will play a critical role, as engineers, in the design, construction and upkeep of such infrastructure, and I commend you in your endeavours to provide positive contributions in this regard.

However, we cannot continue with the mere placing of a green lens on economic policies any longer, policies that have failed manifestly and are continuing to cause damaging ecological impacts. A post-capitalist, eco-social future that I, and others like Professors Peadar Kirby and Ian Gough advocate, will entail difficult choices and pursuing policies of, potentially, de-globalisation, de-commodification, even de-growth should the required resource decoupling not be achieved, if we are serious about achieving the carbon mitigation that is required for a sustainable, equitable life on the planet.

A sense of justice not only for now but for the future requires that the capacity and power of our residual sense of a shared humanity be invoked to give us the energy to reconnect our lives through a balanced relationship between ecology, ethics, economy, culture and a lived experience of fulfilment.

We should never underestimate the strength of the resources and the influence of those who will oppose a paradigm shift, such as that of which I speak, to what is sustainable in all its forms, redistributive, more inclusive, empathetic, humane.

The time to act is now. The longer we wait, the more we intensify and perpetuate the injustice of climate change, and we run the risk of correctly being regarded by future survivors of our planet as having been in collusion with the destruction of the lives and life-worlds of some of the most vulnerable peoples of our human family and the biodiversity on which our planetary life depends.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir, is beir beannacht.

Thank you.