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Fintan O’Toole: Urbanites have no right to preach to those who burn turf

Atmosphere does not care if its carbon overload is from an Offaly bog or a BMW in Dalkey

It is, for city people, all too easy to raise their eyes to heaven when rural TDs are roaring and posturing in defence of the claim of their constituents to burn as much turf as they want.

But the pretence that climate change is not happening is not exclusive to uncouth bogmen and bogwomen. The sacred right to be blinded by turf smoke has its parallel on the gold coast of Dublin: the inalienable right to an unimpeded view of Dublin Bay.

Last week, research led by Amin Shoari Nejad of Maynooth University and published in Ocean Science showed that the level of the sea in Dublin Bay has been rising by 6 to 7mm a year between 2000 and 2016 – double the global rise in mean sea levels. Current estimates are that these changes put 23,435 properties – 21,513 homes and 1,922 commercial properties – at risk in Dublin.

Most of us do now know that we are on the path to self-annihilation. But this knowledge remains sunk in that great swamp of passivity

Five years ago, Dublin City Council approved the spending of half a million euro to lower a stretch of the sea wall at Clontarf, on the north side of the bay. This is not a misprint – I do mean lower, as in reducing the height. To put the story beyond satire, the money for the works was taken from a fund ring-fenced for the alleviation of the threat of flooding due to global warming.


This was actually a new wall. It had been built as part of the development of a cycleway. It did not block the view of the bay for anyone walking or cycling along the seafront. There are no houses facing this stretch – so no residents have their vistas stolen either.

What was the problem? As The Irish Times reported, “the council warned if the wall was not lowered motorists would have restricted views of the sea”.

So, as you were driving along, you would not be able to gaze at the waters that are rising because of the emissions created by, among other things, your own car. Never mind that motorists are surely not supposed to be contemplating the waves, this was an imposition up with which the denizens of the north bay area would not put.

These motorists had clout and, so far as I recall, no TD or local councillor dared to suggest that maybe the mitigation of the effects of climate change might be more important than the view from the driver’s seat. This was not quite a Ronald Reagan “tear down that wall” moment, but the council crumbled faster than East Germany did.

The not-so-great wall of Clontarf was decapitated. The effect was to reduce the effectiveness of the flood defences by 50 per cent.

Burning our bogs is insane and immoral. They are our equivalent of the Amazon rain forests, the great carbon sinks whose destruction is our self-destruction.

But urban dwellers have no right to preach to those who cut and burn turf if they do not themselves accept that we cannot hope to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic unless we are all prepared to accept some inconvenience now.

The problem, perhaps, is that because Ireland has, so far, been spared the worst effects of global warming, we still wrongly regard it as a possible future rather than the clear and present danger it really is.

We are already living in the future that scientists told us was coming. I am 64. I was seven years old when the American Association for the Advancement of Science warned then US president Lyndon Johnson that the burning of fossil fuels was increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to levels that were rapidly becoming unsustainable.

Every molecule of carbon we are emitting today will remain in that atmosphere for at least 300 years

We have been, as individuals and a species, astonishingly slow on the uptake. Most of us do now know that we are on the path to self-annihilation. But this knowledge remains sunk in that great swamp of passivity: somebody, somewhere should so something.

If you live in the city, the farmers should stop their cows from belching out deadly methane and stop burning the bogs. If you live in the country, them up in Dublin should stop whining about their views being spoiled by wind turbines 10km out to sea.

But the somebody is us, the somewhere is here and the sometime is now. We are already experiencing the worsening consequences of decades of inaction. We used up all the time we had to waste and then wasted the time we didn’t have.

The atmosphere doesn’t give a damn whether its overload of carbon and methane comes from a bog in Offaly or a BMW in Dalkey. It is indifferent to the populist politics of the urban-rural divide.

But every molecule of carbon we are emitting today will remain in that atmosphere for at least 300 years. The irony is that, unless we act collectively now, it will surely be, for humanity, a posthumous testimony to the depth of our folly.

There will be no one left to dig the turf. The sea view will be from the bottom of an ocean that has engulfed our former cities. But the gas we sent up as an offering to the gods of consumption will still be there – our sad last legacy to Earth.