What role can citizens play in the future of environmental governance: A Northern Ireland perspective

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Northern Ireland’s Causeway coastline Milo, G. (2015)

With the impending cliff edge of Brexit looming ever closer, concerns regarding the future of environmental governance in Northern Ireland continue to grow. Questions about how the country’s environment is managed are nothing new, of course, but rarely has apprehension appeared so vehement. While there is scope to consider the potential opportunities that may arise in the coming months, it is the many threats and challenges which are dominating the current thoughts of most environmentalists. And, as with most things in the realm of politics, there isn’t much time to play with.

How will the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) be replaced? Will environmental standards and targets set by the EU continue to be followed? Without access to the European judicial system, will appeals against severe environmental malpractice fall on deaf ears? And what long-term effects will the fallout of leaving the European Union have upon the funding designated for environmental matters? Such questions, like most issues regarding Brexit, remain unanswered.

It is apparent, then, that what is needed is more discussion, more debate and, ultimately, more action by those within the environmental sector. Unfortunately, it is far from an easy sector to operate within. Despite the environment constituting the base of all human action, its preservation has rarely appeared as a central concern for government in Northern Ireland. Worryingly, it is hard to see how this will change in the near or distant future. Unless, of course, it suddenly appears economically attractive in the eyes of the powerful to do so.

To counter this distinct lack of engagement and willingness of those in government to seriously tackle the degradation of Northern Ireland’s environment, persistent and justified calls have been made for changes in the structure of environmental governance. Primarily, these have advocated for the introduction of an independent audit service, focused on enforcing compliance and accountability. Michael Gove, Theresa May’s current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, recently addressed such calls by outlining plans for a post-Brexit environmental watchdog. Aimed at maintaining standards and holding ministers to account, the proposed watchdog — which Gove ensured will be backed by law — will require ministers to “have regard to” core environmental principles.

Environmentalists remain skeptical of the plans. Tony Juniper, advocacy director of the WWF, said it needed “stronger jaws and bigger teeth” and called for targets on air, water, plastics and soil quality to be included in the legislation. Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, similarly dismissed the plan as lackluster, emphasising its clear lack of meaningful proposals. If ever needed, it seems to have provided further evidence of how the government’s progressive discourse on the environment is little more than political spin.

Members of Northern Ireland’s environment sector have been clear that any proposed watchdog or ombudsman service must act independently from government. Here, a non-political advisory body, at arm’s length from departments and those with political influence, would ensure genuine conformity with carefully constructed environmental standards. By bringing deterrents to justice and striving for innovative and practical approaches to environmental change, the complex issues preventing a sustainable future for Northern Ireland may appear more approachable. Building on such calls, this blog seeks to widen discussion by querying what role can citizens play in the future of environmental governance.

With the impacts of global warming becoming almost unavoidable across the planet — highlighted this week alone by wildfires in Athens and California, and heatwaves in Japan and the UK — there is a growing awareness of environmental issues amongst members of the public. Building awareness, of course, is an important first step in the process of bringing about action. For instance, the impact of David Attenborough’s widely publicized Blue Planet II series, where marine litter and plastic pollution were devastatingly documented for millions of viewers, has made many citizens realise that they must act individually and collectively to ensure the conservation of their surrounding environments.

Already, this has culminated in increased participation in marine litter campaigns, wildlife monitoring surveys and community engagement projects focused on environmental matters. While these actions involve relatively small portions of the population, they show the potential practical impact of citizen engagement with environmental injustice. This surge of interest is also beginning to influence prominent global brands, forcing them to consider their policies regarding plastic use, and it is interesting to consider how engaged citizens can similarly influence the decision making of governments. Can local engagement play a genuine role in changing power balances in the realm of environmental governance? Can it help to shape a new, more progressive regime? Perhaps this is the ideal time to explore such potentials. Could Brexit provide opportunities to rewrite how citizens engage with government over environmental issues?

Countering power inequities, as discussed in social movement theory, involves using and producing knowledge in a way that affects popular awareness and consciousness of the issues and power relations that affect the lives of the powerless. There are countless examples of how the transformation of consciousness has contributed to social mobilization, be they in the civil rights, women’s, sexual rights or other social liberation movements. Feminist theory, in particular, has long dealt with the issue of how awareness building can be used as the basis for empowerment and social change.

There appears to be scope, then, to link the increase in environmental awareness amongst citizens — stemming from the wide-spread production and dissemination of knowledge regarding climate change — and the general disengagement between citizens and government as a result of Brexit, as a means of instigating an environmental rights movement, aimed at changing the way local environments are governed. After all, as citizens, surely we should be able to have a say on the direction of environmental policy. This could be practically operationalized via protests, questioning of local and national representatives, replying to consultation processes, participation in citizen science, environmental education programmes or the creation of a citizen assembly.

Such approaches give greater weight to a concerned citizens’ voice on environmental issues. And, most importantly, they imply the necessity for further investigation of reality, in order to change it, not simply to reflect the reality of the moment. The ultimate goal of action in this perspective is not simply to communicate new voices or categories, but the radical transformation of social reality and improvement in the lives of the people involved. “Solutions are viewed as processes through which subjects become social actors, participating, by means of grassroots mobilizations, in actions intended to transform society” (Selener, 1997: 19–21).

While much of this argument may appear hypothetical, it presents a more outward looking approach to tackling the inevitable environmental challenges created by Northern Ireland’s departure from the European Union. If engaged citizens can be given the platform, by NGOs or otherwise, to turn their interest into critically conscious environmental action, surely there is hope that they can become a legitimate component of future governance regimes. Whether this is genuinely feasible is evidently questionable. Perhaps, to some degree, it is already occurring. But surely now, more than ever, it is viable to explore the idea that Brexit can radically change how members of the public shape governance regimes.

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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