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Beast from the East and climate change

So like most people, I’m not working away at my office desk today but instead on my laptop at home, wrapped under about five blankets, while Storm Emma brews outside. Red weather warnings and stories of the worst snowfall since 1982 is no joke (‘snow joke’). The destruction of Storm Ophelia still seems fresh which begs the question – are these angry, abnormal weather conditions actually becoming the norm? I’m no meteorologist but something is definitely amiss, especially when we consider last year was one of the hottest on record globally. Things are getting more extreme, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.

Melting ice caps have serious consequences on animal life and ocean levels.

This is, of course, a trend we’re seeing all over the world, particularly in the low-income countries where VSO runs programmes. In the last year alone, news reports of cyclones, hurricanes, flooding, forest fires, drought, mudslides and other natural disasters have seemed endless. We’re seen first-hand the destruction and devastation such conditions bring, particularly on our projects in India, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and Nepal, where heavy rainfall resulted in the tragic deaths of thousands of people.

A bleak outlook

There is a clear correlation between the rise in the Earth’s temperature, about 1 degree Celsius since 1880, and such flooding. This may not sound like a massive increase but the significance is stark, and sadly the world’s poorest people are shouldering the biggest burden. As countries in the Global North like Ireland consume more fossil fuels, clear trees and are generally a lot less kind to the environment, it’s the poorest countries that suffer the most damage. Flimsy houses, lack of secure infrastructure and inadequate healthcare frequently make natural disasters deathly in a way that they would never be in more developed nations.

Chatting with Seán Fitzmaurice recently, an education volunteer from Dublin who is currently working Malawi, brought this home to me. As a country with an ever-increasing population, predicted to jump from 15 million to 26 million in 2030, deforestation and drought mean that there is less food than ever before, a trend that’s not set to stop any time soon. The outlook for many countries like Malawi is fairly bleak.

Sustainable Goal 13 is all about combatting climate change.

How does climate change affect Ireland?

The link between climate change and hot weather shocks is clear. But could the Beast from the East and Storm Emma also be a sign of climate change? A little internet digging this morning tells me that may well be the case. Cold snaps like this are not unprecedented in Irish history (the brutal winter of 1962/63 saw 45cm of snow fall on New Year’s Eve) and, while this could be a one-off event, some scientists worry it may indicate a weakening of the polar vortex. The polar vortex is a set of strong winds that act as a buffer around the Arctic Circle, keeping cold air mass in and warm out. Scientist Jeremy Mathis has compared it to the Earth’s refrigerator – “But the door to door to that refrigerator has been left open and the cold is spilling out, cascading throughout the northern hemisphere.” The climate in the Arctic Circle is undoubtedly changing, with temperatures soaring above those in London, Paris and New York at various points over the last couple of weeks alone. This is all very worrying for our beloved planet.

If this is indeed the case, then climate change is not the sole problem of the Global South but something that is affecting, and will continue to affect, each and every one of us. This has already been recognised by cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz and, just last month, New York City who sued five of the world’s largest oil companies for damages related to recent climate change-induced storms. The catastrophic implications for our health, infrastructure and economy go without question. As things come to a complete standstill around the country this week, our inability to deal with these kinds of extreme weather conditions is also obvious. And if we’re being affected in such a negative way, then how are poorer, more marginalised countries expected to cope?

What VSO is doing to help

Climate change is one of VSO’s Core Approaches and considered on every health, education and livelihoods programmes for this very reason. Volunteers like Miriam Alonso from Dublin, currently in Malawi, are working with VSO country offices to ensure our projects take temperature increases and changing precipitation patterns into account at all times, paying special attention to sustainable agriculture and energy systems. Another of our Core Approaches is Resilience. We work with local communities to strengthen their ability to anticipate, prepare for and reduce the effects of natural disasters, deforestation and so on.

Irish volunteers like Michael Palmer from Cork are sharing their skills with farmers in marginalised communities to help them withstand the negative effects of climate change.

VSO volunteers and local partner organisations are doing what they can on the ground but, ultimately, political action to reverse deforestation and eliminate fossil fuels is urgently needed. That doesn’t mean the rest of us should sit idle. We can all do our bit to reduce the amount of plastic we use, waste we produce and become more environmentally friendly. At the moment, Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions per person are the eighth largest in the world according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Irish charities like Friends of the Earth and ECO-UNESCO are best placed to advise on how we can change this but we’ve also talked about simple ways to up your environmental game in previous blog posts on the Sustainable Development Goals.

How to spend your snow days

If you’re looking for something to help pass the hours this snow day, this film by Trocáire looks at how Ireland fits into the global picture of climate change. There are also dozens of interesting TED talks on the subject, and films, including Al Gore’s critically acclaimed An Inconvenient Truth which looks at the causes of global warming and Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, a documentary that delves into the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. Check out Friends of the Earth’s blog for lots of interesting articles too.

The Irish snow will melt away and we’ll all be back to our normal routines next week no doubt, but it’s definitely worth thinking about the effects climate change has for our planet and country in the long run. For now though, keep warm, stay safe and make the most of time spent with loved ones.

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