The case for stopping the cutting and burning of turf is unanswerable, and before long the practice will almost certainly be all but extinct.
The bogs are a precious natural resource and cutting them up for fuel is like burning the Amazon rain forest, except there’s rather more of the Amazon. This isn’t a criticism of the turf cutters; we didn’t know this stuff before. But we do now.
I’m as partial as anyone to the Gaelic smell of a turf fire Gaelicly blazing in the hearth of a Gaelic home. It’s true that it’s an important source of fuel, albeit for a relatively small number of people, though it’s hardly the only source. And despite being familiar from childhood with the back-breaking nature of work on the bog, I know that some people regard it as part of their cultural patrimony.
But that’s not as important as preserving the bogs, and stopping the burning of a dirty fuel, especially coal, on a large scale. Just because something is a tradition, doesn’t make it worth preserving. We don’t have to start instancing all the undesirable things that were traditional in this country to make that point.
Meanwhile, the effects of climate change become increasingly less deniable. This weekend a heatwave is worsening across northwestern India and Pakistan – a month earlier than normal and subjecting about a billion people to excessive heat, CNN reports. Yesterday researchers at Maynooth said the sea level rise in Dublin Bay was twice the global rate.
And remember: the problem is not just the changes to the climate we are seeing now, it’s what we will see over the coming years and decades. Sure, climate activists have been guilty of making breathlessly doom-mongering predictions for years. (How many times have we been told we only have a few years to save the world?) But the effects of climate change are now everywhere. Faced with this reality, governments have agreed to try and stop them getting worse. As the climate heats up, that push will intensify.
So the question that transfixed political debate this week – would we give up the God-given right of every freeborn Irishman and woman to slave on the bog and burn turf in the winter? – has already been answered. The days of burning turf – in significant quantities at least – are numbered; everyone knows it. All that remains to be sorted out is exactly how that happens, and over what timetable.
If we can't do turf, what are our chances of doing the retrofitting programme? Or changing the transport fleet to electric vehicles? Or pricing out carbon from our energy mix?
So here’s what’s likely to happen, in the blunt words of one Government insider: “They will be given a load of money to stop cutting turf.”
This is what happened a decade ago, the last time there was a political controversy over turf cutting, when the Government tried to ban the practice (at the behest of the European Commission) on designated special areas of conservation. Turf cutters were offered €1,500 a year to abandon the practice.
This is the way these things tend to get done – expensively and incompletely. But eventually, if politicians do their job well, they get done.
This is the interface of politics and policy, and the indispensable job of politicians: to craft a compromise that achieves the policy goals but maintains broad public acceptance. Polls show Irish people are broadly (if not very deeply) in agreement with climate action. Not turning them against necessary changes is imperative.
But look at it another way, and the Myles na gCopaleen quality of the debates this week disguised the fact that this may be a revealing moment in our politics. If we cannot agree to stop stripping and hacking away the bogs and burning turf, then what hope do we have of implementing the wider climate action agenda?
There comes a point, on every issue, where you have to decide if you’re really going to do something meaningful about it; this may the moment on climate action. In other words: if we can’t do turf, what are our chances of doing the retrofitting programme? Or changing the transport fleet to electric vehicles? Or pricing out carbon from our energy mix? Or dramatically expanding renewables, especially wind energy?
Very often Ireland looks like a country that is committed to tackling climate change – unless, that is, it causes some inconvenience or cost to anyone
All these things require political leadership. But there are two parts to that: the courage to pursue policies that may be right but are unpopular; and the skills to bring enough people along to make it work. Ministers in all three Government parties need to figure out the right balance of these two.
But it's not solely down to the politicians. Very often Ireland looks like a country that is committed to tackling climate change – unless, that is, it causes some inconvenience or cost to anyone.
Just as Ireland looks like a country that wants to solve its housing crisis – unless the housing is going to be built near anyone else.
This makes Ireland in many respects a difficult country to govern. Tough: this is the politics we have and the Government needs to figure it out.
That’s not going to be easy. What the turf wars demonstrate, I think, is just how difficult the implementation of the climate action agenda will be. Figuring out how to stop cutting and burning turf, and working the politics to get public buy-in, is about 1 per cent of what’s going to have to be done if Ireland’s carbon emissions are going to be halved by the end of the decade. The political and administrative system is only beginning to grasp the scale of the changes that decarbonising the economy and society entail; the public is probably farther behind. Everyone is going to get a very rude awakening in the not-too-distant future.