An Inside Look at the Personal Costs of Climate Change

Trinity News speaks to Trinity Students from California and Italy about the effects that climate change has had on their lives.

Recently, there has been a surge in consumer and aesthetic interest in climate change. With Instagram reels telling people the trendiest charity shops they can go to and popular fast food chains offering vegan burgers, it can be hard to remember where all this originated. Trinity News spoke to two people who have felt the effects of climate change first hand. This July feels like a reckoning of sorts. In Ireland, it has rained more than it has not rained. While this may seem like a minor observation, living in a country with notoriously bad weather means that for many, the ‘summer’ sun of July and August is a lifeline. Many people in this country cannot afford to leave it for a holiday. To fully comprehend  how important good weather is for Irish people, go to any beach on a slightly overcast 19 degrees Celsius day, and you will still see people sunbathing, barbecuing and gathering together to soak up the few rays of sun the country gets. Trinity News spoke to a Canadian-Italian woman about this summer phenomenon and she said; “I just love Irish people, y’all are so happy about the weather when it’s literally just not raining”. 

In fact, Ireland gets so little sun that multiple medical studies by scientists from around the world have been carried out on our high levels of vitamin D deficiency. So for most, this July has been heartbreaking. Not least because it’s really hard to leave the house and not spend money when the weather is bad. Parents can’t take their kids to the beach, teenagers can’t drink in fields, no one can enjoy their infamous “Irish summer salad” outdoors. Don’t underestimate the effect that this has on people. After a year of energy crises, a war in Eastern Europe, housing crises, cost of living crises and bad weather, to be looking at absolutely no let up, no moment of respite, is devastating. And it disproportionately affects people with less money.

“Homes lost, schools lost, hospitals lost, everything has just been destroyed”

The situation in Italy and California is much worse. Trinity student Jeffrey (Seathrún) Sardina, from San Diego, explained the devastating effects of the wildfires; “homes lost, schools lost, hospitals lost, everything has just been destroyed”.

“California is a tinderbox,” he said, after describing how he and his family were forced to evacuate their area after a wildfire burnt away part of a school near his house. “This is not a coincidence”  he warns; having evacuated from three fires so far, he knows there is more to come. 

When talking about the first time he had to evacuate he said “this was the first wake-up moment for how bad the situation was in California”. Jeffrey moved to Ireland for college before the wildfires became commonplace and has found a community here, but he still worries about those he left at home and thinks about the prospect of having to leave California all together.  He explained that “the only reason climate change would cause me to leave California would be if the wildfires got too severe […] and with the way things are going, for a lot of people, that might be the case”.

When he is in California, his daily life has been hugely impacted by climate change. Jeffrey explained that he constantly watches the news, looking for where the wildfires are, asking himself “do you have family there, do you have friends there? […]”, while also warning that  “you have to be aware of the fact that at any point you might just have to leave your house.”.

Stella (name changed for anonymity) from Italy, says she’s noticing that what were previously exceptionally hot days are now “becoming more of the norm”. Because of the unbearable heat, Stella doesn’t think she will go back to Italy next summer and will instead stay in Dublin. Last week, her dad had to sit in his car on the side of the road for two hours whilst waiting out a hailstorm because it was too dangerous to drive or get out of his car. Prefacing that she doesn’t mean to be dramatic, she told Trinity News that she genuinely worries about her parents, “I don’t want them to die of climate change.”.

One of the largest sources of discontent from those living the effects of climate change is how the primary perpetrators of environmental damage are facing very few consequences for their actions. “Big companies are not being affected in the slightest by this,” Jeffrey emphasised. Instead, he asserted that local people and small businesses are being impacted the most. 

This raises the key question that has loomed large over the past few years: if those with all the power to improve things are not the ones feeling the consequences, who is going to stand up for the victims of this crisis? “They’ve invested millions in changing the dialogue to personal responsibility not corporate and governmental responsibility” Jeffrey said. And it’s true; what other societal problem today has been left up to the people to fix?  People who work for cigarette companies aren’t asked to quit their jobs; instead, the government regulates the industry and rolls out educational campaigns. So why is climate change treated like a matter totally outside of the government’s hands? 

Discussing this idea, Stella also finds this frustrating; “It’s so unfair”. She knows people who live near her whose houses have been almost totally destroyed by the massive hail storms, which were previously unimaginable in the part of Italy she is from. “They were 10 centimetres in diameter” she said, yet the government is “doing absolutely nothing”. In fact, one of Stella’s friends, a climate activist, was put on trial last year for being a threat to national security. It seems that the Italian government seems  more worried about the protestors than the actual problem being protested.

Interestingly, both Jeffrey and Stella dismissed the impact of small (perhaps somewhat performative) actions for the environment that are drilled into the heads of students in primary school; for example, turning off the tap while you are brushing your teeth. Instead, they both argued that an institutionalised, systemic paradigm shift must occur. Recycling, for instance, feels redundant when, in the past 50 years, 18% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost for good directly because of the decisions made by large corporations such as Walmart and Ikea.

When asked what he does to try and reduce climate change, Jeffrey said; “if you want to stop climate change, you have to stop the companies, you have to stop the governments who are enabling those companies”.  He added that “we have to act today, yesterday was too late but the best we can do is today”.  Jeffrey emphasised the importance of criminalising the over-emission of fossil fuels and added  that putting the blame on individuals, especially in California, where people are forced to drive due to poorly designed cities and underfunded public transportation, is to “abuse the victims of climate change.”.

Stella went vegetarian two years ago for the climate, yet she still feels “like I could be doing a lot more”. However, according to a recent New York Times article, becoming vegetarian reduces an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions by 75% compared to those who eat meat.  

For those overwhelmed by the urgent and dangerous reality of climate change discussed in this piece, giving up meat might be a good personal first step to combat the climate crisis. There are also many climate activists you can reach out to and volunteer with who can provide further advice. Another suggestion is to borrow all of the books you need to read for college from your local library, instead of buying them – both an environmentally-positive and money-saving switch.  As Jeffrey and Stella explained, the government needs to fix this problem, but that doesn’t mean we should just give up.