Cold comfort

Notes from the Western Periphery

How warm do we need to be this winter?


John Bradley

The war in Ukraine drags on with no immediate resolution in sight. Reporting tends to slip away from newspaper headlines to less-prominent background items on inside pages. War crimes will always be war crimes, a source of horror to civilised people and condemned by all but evil truth deniers. But their repetition gradually wears down our ability to be newly horrified. Inexorably, we turn our minds to more immediate personal concerns. We begin to ask how Putin’s war is affecting ourselves, how we will survive our winter rather than how we would survive a Ukrainian winter, even without a war.
The last time I worried about nuclear holocaust was in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. This spectre has returned as Putin realises that his conventional military forces are being beaten back by determined Ukrainian resistance. The fear of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) has joined global warming as a threat that we have to live with. Are we the first generation to have to face two pressing existential threats to our continued life on earth?
A more modest Putin-associated threat is that we will be colder in our homes this winter than in previous years since the price of energy has more than doubled with no end to inflation in sight and energy rationing likely. We are powerless against a nuclear threat, but we have some say in how we heat our houses. Or not, as the case may be.
There are two elements of this energy crisis that intrigue me. The first is that Putin’s weaponising of energy has been more effective than all the accumulated compelling scientific research on climate change in forcing governments in the developed, oil-consuming world to realise that the oil producers in the Middle East and Russia are not their friends, do not share their values, and the sooner they shift to sustainable energy production the better. Did it take Putin to turn us into energy conservationists?
My second job after graduation was with the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards and coincided with the OPEC 1 oil crisis of 1973-74. Remember that one, precipitated by an Arab-Israeli war, when the price of oil quadrupled? Energy efficiency and energy conservation were forced onto the Irish policy agenda for the first time by high prices and rationing, just as I was learning about them from my colleagues in the Building Division.
Ireland discovered solid-fuel-burning stoves, devices common in Europe since medieval times and about 80 percent efficient compared with the open fire, which is 20 percent efficient – the other 80 percent of the heat vanishing into the outside atmosphere. Central heating at that time was an undreamt-of luxury. Some of my friends in newly built houses had it but could not afford to turn it on. Building regulations still largely ignored the benefits of insulation.
This was about the time when my father retired to Murrisk, and his cottage renovations were not cutting edge. Many years later, I offered him a stove to replace his open fire. He declined, considering that he was perfectly okay as he was. He cut his own turf but, in truth, he got more heat out of the act of cutting it than he ever did from the fireplace where he burned two smoking sods at a time. The temperature indoors on a winter’s day was near freezing point. If there was a hole in the roof, he mended it, but he was indifferent to the fact that he might as well have let the weather in for all the insulation he had. Truth to tell, my offer of a stove was self-serving.
My father did not move with the times. As Ireland became wealthier, we abandoned our indifference to heat and comfort and adopted profligate American customs of heating the whole house and having constant hot water. If we are away on holiday, we use our mobile phones to activate our home heating and arrive back to a warm, cosy house. Who today would even consider moving into a newly purchased house that had no central heating? Unless, of course, the people at the cutting edge who build passive houses. They are to us now what we, with our stoves and all round insulation, were to my father.
The prospect of a potentially frigid winter has brought home to me that my father was better equipped to cope with it than I am. He had central heating in his house in Murrisk, but I don’t remember it ever being used until he was dying, and I insisted on having it on. Even then, I had to justify the extravagance by saying that my computer would not work at low temperatures. Bear in mind that this was in December.
Alas, Armageddon is now upon us. Our brief time basking in cheap and available heat is over. We may have to lower our thermostats a few degrees, don warmer clothing, curtail the profligate use of our cars, and use public transport where possible. But I cannot help thinking that if we were all a bit more like my father, that would be no great hardship and it will have to do until we all have passive homes.
Until then, hopefully, none of our homes will be blown to bits by one of Putin’s guided missiles.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.