As a climate scientist, I try to walk the talk. I no longer eat meat. I don’t own a car (which is easier now that I live in Europe). Most significantly, I’ve cut my flying over 90 percent since I let my frequent flyer card expire in 2012.
But when my sister texted me last summer that my hospitalized father back home in California had tested positive for COVID-19, I wasn’t thinking about the sky-high carbon cost as I frantically booked my plane ticket home. Even if I couldn’t get closer than six feet to my mom, who was home alone while my dad lay isolated in the hospital, that distance would be better than the 6,000 miles separating us now.
For my journey from Sweden to Sonoma, I wore an N95 mask left over from my Christmas 2019 contributions to my family’s fire safety go bags. I hadn’t imagined the mask I purchased for smoke particles would be used for a pandemic. My family evacuated in the 2017 fires. Thankfully, they were able to eventually return safely home, though many friends were not so fortunate. Every autumn since, my loved ones in California are choked by the smoke of another devastating fire season.
After an anxiety-wracked fortnight, my father made an excellent recovery and came home from the hospital. I spent a lengthy quarantine in a friend’s vacant house to protect my mom, then, after a negative COVID test, I masked up and ventured into my parents’ house. Waves of gratitude hit me as I played bedside honeymoon bridge with my dad. Finally, I started to believe he was really okay.
I also found unexpected comfort. On this visit home, at least, summer felt like I remembered from childhood: warm, sunny days perfect for reading by the pool and dinners al fresco; evenings chilled by fog rolling in off the Pacific Ocean, banking the mountains to the west and pouring through the Petaluma Gap; an astounding chorus of crickets at night, a sound baked into my soul.
But increasingly, every time I go back to California, my eagerness to hug family and friends and eat real tacos is tinged with dread. I fear that the place I love so dearly will not feel like the home I left a decade ago.
I know the data about how fast the climate of California is changing, and how intimately everything I love about California is connected with its climate: the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains I grew up climbing, the unique flavor of the Pinot noir wine I studied for my PhD, and all the ecosystems providing the air, water, and food that keep everyone I love healthy and alive.
When the fires started on my emergency visit home in August 2020, the latest edition of the catastrophic burns that have recurred each year since 2015, I felt in my heart that the California of my childhood was dying. Climate change is killing it.
Fire has always been a part of this landscape, but the scope and severity of these fires are not normal. Human-caused climate warming is making summers longer and hotter, drying vegetation to kindling and doubling the days of extreme fire risk since my childhood. Under these more dangerous conditions, the steady creep of humans settling into wildlands—combined with a century of fire suppression building up fuels—creates bigger, deadlier, longer-raging fires.
One week after my dad came home from the hospital, I saw a massive cloud of wildfire smoke looming above the hills behind my parents’ house. I was overwhelmed with blind panic. My dad could not yet walk. If we had to evacuate, I wasn’t sure my mom and I could carry him up the uneven, narrow stairs from their front door to the car by ourselves.
This time, my family was spared direct threat: The fire burned east and south, across Napa and towards Vacaville. But along with the rest of the Bay Area, we were enveloped in choking smoke under an unholy, apocalyptic orange sky. People as far away as Minnesota breathed the remnants of my beloved oak woodlands and the houses and wineries owned by our neighbors.
Still, I tried to enjoy this precious time with my family. I took my nephew for a hike in the hills I grew up exploring. He was on his phone a lot. When I made a snarky comment about teenagers nowadays, he told me he was texting his best friend, who was evacuating from his home in Vacaville. His friend was driving around with his parents and all the earthly possessions that fit in their car, looking for a place to stay the night. As evening fell, they hadn’t been able to find a hotel room anywhere in the Solano or Napa counties. They didn’t know if they would have a home to come back to.
In town, I watched people enjoying outdoor dining at one of the wonderful restaurants on the Sonoma Plaza while a server regularly wiped down the tables to remove the fine powdery ash settling on everything. I know the smallest particles we can’t even see are the ones that get the deepest in your lungs and do the most damage. No one else seemed to pay any mind.
Later, a friend called on my parents’ landline. I took the phone outside so I could take off my mask, but the air was hazy and I felt it burning my throat. I grew desperate. It’s not safe outside because of the smoke, and it’s not safe inside because of coronavirus. It’s not safe anywhere.
Living through climate change as we are right now, we have a mix of three choices: We can prevent, prepare, or suffer. Preventing climate pollution gets to the root of the problem. Preparation deals with the harms from warming we already face. Suffering is what’s left: what is not possible to avoid or plan for, plus everything we could have done that we simply fail to do.
California leads the United States in preventing climate pollution. The state met its 2020 emissions reduction goal four years early, but it must reduce four times faster to meet its tougher 2030 goal. Globally, only 30 percent of countries were reducing their carbon pollution before the pandemic; to meet the Paris Agreement aims, the world needs ten times this recent level of climate action every year this decade, starting now. Current policies are headed for nearly three times as much warming as we’ve already experienced.
California is also doing some preparing. Since these catastrophic fires began, cities are planning early warning systems and evacuation routes. There are better maps. Communities that have been through fire are better prepared for next time. Some new building codes make homes more fire-resilient. Fire researchers know what further adaptation needs to be done, like shifting from the impossible goal of complete fire suppression and control to instead reducing risk. Risk reduction strategies include removing fuel in prescribed burns, and creating defensible space to reduce the likelihood of homes burning through removing flammable materials like dead vegetation around the home.
But the overwhelming response to climate change that I see in the richest state, in the richest country on Earth, is neither prevention nor preparation. It’s suffering: the suffering of firefighters exhausted and traumatized by fire on a scale they cannot hope to quench; of people who see their homes burned to the ground; of wildlife whose shrinking habitat is destroyed; of kids growing up in a place where they can’t play outside during fire season, which is getting longer every year. Northern California was declared a Presidential Major Disaster area on August 24, 2021, as over 42,000 people have fled their homes from ongoing fires. Many times more are facing hazardous air and gnawing despair.
Climate suffering is not unique to California. Communities and ecosystems across America are already feeling the harm of climate impacts, from rising seas forcing parts of New Orleans to be abandoned to gorgeous Hawaiian honeycreepers getting squeezed off mountaintops towards extinction as warming brings malaria-infected mosquitoes to higher elevations.
The climate emergency is not the problem of future generations. It is here for us, for me, for you, right here and right now.
The science is clear: Climate heating will not stop until humans completely stop adding carbon pollution to our atmosphere.
The most urgent priority to stop warming is to stop investing in, incentivizing, producing, and consuming the fossil fuels causing it.
But knowledge is not enough. The climate only cares about action.
On my visit home, I was struck to the bone by a fear that goes beyond the terrifying fires. My biggest fear is that not enough of us who have the power and possibility to shut down fossil fuels fast and fairly will do so on the heroic timescale needed to stop climate breakdown.
Until we completely replace fossils with clean energy, every car and power plant and factory still burning carbon is fanning the flames devouring the world we love.
Humanity is at a crossroads. Those of us alive today are the last humans with the chance to stop climate heating before it becomes truly catastrophic. We must walk the talk. We must leave fossil fuels in the ground.
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