The social impact of extreme weather

What our increasingly erratic weather means for the more vulnerable

Front Square during Storm Emma                                                                                                                 Photo Credit: Michael Foley/ Trinity News

As the pictures of snow and related hijinks flooded my timeline last week, I was filled with a certain amount of envy as I was stuck on what was an ironically cold and wet Gran Canaria during a field trip. The novelty of this kind of weather and the fun of it when you have somewhere warm to retire to is undeniable.

However, there are dangers with extreme conditions which I, for one, rarely contemplate. No, I’m not talking about the danger to Lidls around the country, that is a danger I fear we all must come to terms with. I’m speaking about the most vulnerable people in our society. The ease at which I settle into an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality disturbs me.

In Ireland the homeless population, which has been steadily growing, were the worst affected by the “Beast from the East”. Fortunately, beds were provided for them and preparedness seems to have avoided any unnecessary deaths over the week. In Dublin, the numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets has risen from 104 in the winter of 2007 to 184 this winter. But as extreme events like this become more common as a result of climate change, and if the homelessness issue continues to get worse, how long until more people die?

So, with the disclaimer, that it is difficult to assign any one weather event to climate change. It is certain that the number and severity of extreme events are increasing. Though sometimes difficult to see what those exact results will be, living in a less predictable climate is mostly negative. This recent cold snap, for example, was a result of a changing of the thunderstorms in the tropical Pacific that created warming in the atmosphere.

This warming then affected the jet stream, which moves weather around the world, which resulted in the extremely cold weather we experienced. These kinds of surprising weather events are happening increasingly around the globe. The number of compounding factors of this really makes you respect the ability of meteorologists in predicting the weather we had over the last week. Different extreme weather events around the world may seem to be unconnected as different areas are vulnerable to different risks, but extreme cold in Ireland and years of drought in Syria are both connected by climate change.

The homeless here in Ireland are not the only ones being affected by extreme weather. All over the world certain demographics are more vulnerable to climate change than others. Women are disproportionately so. This is because in a lot of countries in the world, women have less ability to move from an area, and less opportunities if they were to move to another.

Nations with less money, much like people with less money, have less ability to mitigate the results of climate change. In many cases, on top of climate change issues, financial hardship and corruption causes countries like Nigeria bow to pressure from companies and allow the extraction of valuable resources which often leaves them with areas so polluted that in some cases acid rain eats through corrugated rooves.

Ireland did well in its response to this crisis, even though I’m not in the habit of complimenting the Irish government. But 200 beds added back before Christmas helped to alleviate the difficulty of putting up the homeless, those in squats and those in places without heating. It is important to remember these are all short-term fixes though and if we are to respond appropriately to extreme weather conditions in the future we need to be willing to pay.

This blizzard alone cost Ireland close to 160 million euro. Controlling snow in Canada is a billion-dollar industry but at least they are able to mitigate that cost with winter tourism. I don’t see people booking ski holidays to Ireland just yet.

In short Ireland and the world are going to have to find a way to better prepare for unexpected weather because that is the world we live in now. Part of that is paying more, that is an inevitable result of climate change. We may see ourselves as separate from those bearing the brunt of the problem but even in our mild location, there are consequences to climate change.

Two weeks ago Danny Healy Rae made an argument I have heard a lot. Ireland is too small to matter, we need to leave it to others, but I can assure you that is not the case and unless everyone plays ball, the victims of climate change will no longer be out of sight out of mind.