Even as Washington, in a surreal, almost Hollywood way, girds its loins to repel some of America's more strident citizens two reports dominated the week. One was a harrowing reflection on how cruel, hypocritical, and unspeakably unloving this society could be. The second was predictive, warning of the consequences of failure to realistically confront the practices that ensure devastating, human-driven changes in weather patterns and how we live — and die.
Those three pressing issues — America's incendiary divisions, the shameful legacy of our mistreatment of our most vulnerable sisters, and climate collapse — are joined by a critical fourth, maybe even a fifth issue that must be confronted. Those issues, in a pandemic year, generate a sense of powerlessness that challenges even the most optimistic individuals. So much so that it is tempting to look away, to disengage. This may be reflexive and comforting but it may be a betrayal on a par with the mother and baby home outrages - especially as there are indications that real, long-term, small-step-by-small-step change is not only possible but is being delivered.
That Bord na Móna has formally announced that it has ended peat harvesting seems one such moment. It may be belated and the only option the company had after a 2019 High Court judgment but it is nevertheless a symbolic Rubicon. Peat harvesting was one of the foundation industries of this economy — and a creator of jobs where and when there were very few — so recognising its unsustainability, and acting on that realisation, has an air of poignancy about it. There can be a positive response too because hard, culturally difficult decisions were taken. The decision to end harvesting peat is just one of many ahead of us all — and the next decisions are unlikely to be as painless.
One decision that should be painless and immediate is a ban on imports of peat products filling the gap left by Bord na Móna. There hardly seems any point in restoring Irish bogs only to subcontract destruction to Baltic peat extractors. The carbon and economic costs of transporting peat from, say, Latvia to Ireland make such a ban a no brainer even if there are negative implications for sections of the horticulture industry.
The warnings in the United Nations' environment programme’s Adaptation report 2020, which was published on Thursday, put the prospect of living without peat in context. The UN pointed out, once again, that millions, invariably the world's poorest, face disaster from flood, drought, heatwaves or other weather catastrophes. That dog-eared warning, no longer contested but hardly absorbed either, also included the now-standard warning that spending to prepare for extreme weather has not kept pace with the rising need. Around $30bn is provided each year in development aid, to help poor countries face the climate crisis, less than half of what today's best estimates suggest is needed. Those costs, no more than an unavoidable investment in humanity's survival, are set to increase, up to $300bn by the end of this decade.
Our choices narrow, our time is limited, the consequences clear enough but as our decision peat shows albeit in a minor way, we can change.