I remember waking up on my birthday to a dark red sky. Even though it was daylight, the world was cast in ombre. I thought, well, it’s finally here. Even though I first heard about climate change over thirty years earlier. Even though my colleagues and I endured three days of thick, grey, almost flaky smoke during a conference in San Jose. Even though my daughter and I drove past barely contained fires on the interstate through Oregon. Even though I’d read the dire warnings and predictions — of the world burning, of water shortages, of mutant microbes released from koo lollipops and melting glaciers, of acidic oceans, of stronger hurricanes, of destroyed infrastructure, and of many deaths –
it was not until I looked out my bedroom window that day that it seemed real.
I grew up in a place saturated by rainfall, surrounded by glaciated mountains, and full of deep, fast flowing rivers originating in the Cascade Mountains and emptying into the Puget Sound. One of the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforests extends from the west side of the Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean. The area grew rich with logging, Boeing airplanes, Microsoft, and Starbucks. As a child, I listened to “The bluest skies I’ve ever seen are in Seattle” (by Bobby Sherman) and moved into adulthood listening to Kurt Cobain and the grunge music scene.
It was impossible to fathom a time where drought loomed, the trees would become dry and brittle, and the weather so hot that acres and acres of trees would erupt in fire, defy attempts at containment, and create weather patterns of their own.
As a twenty-something year old hopeful, I listened to my brothers-in-law, mother, cousins, aunts, and sisters dismiss climate change. They filled their giant, shiny black Escalades with gas and drove away; I filled my Nissan Sentra and drove back to my own social, ideological, and perspectival enclave. I’d like to say that I successfully changed their minds about climate change, convinced them that drastic change was needed, and/or made them believe that what we did impacted the climate and our future — all of our futures. But like any complex social problem, it’s not that easy.
“Turn the water off when you brush,” my Algerian friend said. The thought was foreign to me, verging on the edge of absurdity. “There’s water everywhere here,” I said. “Turn the water off when you brush. It’s a waste,” he repeated.
I thought across many bodies of water to a desert where a woman I knew (and dearly loved) waited with her neighbors for water to get pushed up the hill and through a hose so that they could fill their containers. Other, less fortunate women in Ajmer (Rajasthan, India) waited for a turn at the handpump down below. A decade earlier, I’d lived near the Negev Desert where water was as valuable as oil or wine. Yet I still thought that water in Western Washington would flow endlessly.
We can live longer without food than we can without water.
I drove miles across the desert — through the Central Valley of California to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Flagstaff, Arizona, Flagstaff to Albuquerque, and then Albuquerque to Santa Fe, New Mexico — absorbing its vastness. I sped through micro variations of dry, arid land and past “washes” and then “arroyos” — important enough to be indicated by a sign, but without a drop of water in sight. The book, “Cadillac Desert,” by Mark Reisner and published in 1986, describes how beginning in the 19th century, Whites sought, attained, and then sold water to build the California dream. Water was rerouted and diverted, attracting people to the Los Angeles valley. Even today, and in spite of the fact that most of the West is a desert where water has long been a scarce resource, the population continues to boom in places like Palm Springs or Phoenix. One of my aunts moved to Arizona last summer, following her son and his family. In search of a better life, we manipulate the landscape, not realizing that this attempt at a better life denies others, especially the next generation(s), a chance of their own.
My former husband has long understood the threat of climate change and has focused his career on the complexities involved with the creation and distribution of electricity. Early on in his career, he, a lifelong environmentalist, had to testify for a solar farm in California, confronting establishment environmentalists who sought to protect the spotty toad and other desert wildlife. Fully recognizing the tradeoffs and compromises that must be made to push forward any kind of change in the country that produces the second largest amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the world, he works to incorporate renewable energy sources onto the electric grid, while keeping issues of reliability in mind.
The power lines that run from the Navajo Nation to Los Angeles conceal the costs associated with the largest coal fired power plant in the West and with the numerous coal, uranium, oil, and fracking operations scattered throughout their land. Despite the abundance of energy production, 14,000 people still live without power (Cameron Olgesby, “The Navajo Nation…” in The Grist, March 05, 2021). Many do not have running water. And cancer in adults and children continue to rise.
I try to absorb the cost of my daughter’s treatment: the energy taken and required to create those machines, those medicines, those systems, and those networks of people that sustained her. On some level, she benefited from its profitability. Research goes where dollars will flow. Children, seen as innocent and uniquely vulnerable, benefit inadvertently. Although she was only an infant and a toddler when diagnosed, she understands the physical, emotional, and actual energy involved in keeping her alive. She has a certain way of knowing, deep and rooted in the body, and a determination.
“We’re just living on the edge of life. We’re always nervous, we’re always afraid,” writes my daughter, quoting a Syrian mother of nine in her 8th grade project, “A Call of Human-ity: To be Human Means to Be Civil and Kind. How Climate Change Affects Human Immigration and What We Can Do about It.” She explains that hundreds of thousands of people die each year due to illnesses caused by contaminated water, heat waves, immigration, and air pollution. She argues that natural disasters, climate disruption, water scarcity, and related wars have created an exponentially growing number of refugees and internally displaced people. Worldwide, more than three quarters of those affected are women and children. Half are under eighteen. She relays stories, illuminating the ways that climate change has impacted people across the globe.
She talks about Enestina, who is nine, and her mother, Eliyeta Muyeye, who live in Kanyera, in the Sahel, at the center of the worldwide water crisis. They must walk a kilometer at five in the morning to get water. They return two hours later, carefully carrying the water so as not to waste a drop. They need enough water to get through the day. “I don’t like carrying water,” says Enestina. “It’s very far and very heavy to carry. I have neck pains. When I have to get water in the morning, there is a queue so I wait and I am late for school. I love school, but didn’t do well on my exams. I’ve been failing because I didn’t know how to read and write. The time I spend getting water would be better used to study.” This water is often contaminated and sickens them.
As residents drill deeper and deeper to get water in Mexico City, the Grand Canal is sinking and collapsing in on itself at faster and faster rates. Intensified by heat and drought, this collapse split an entire street open. A crack in the sidewalk pulled a teenager to their death.
When Yasin was ten years old, he and his family tried to immigrate across the Sea of Bengal, when they were forced to jump off the boat into the Malacca Strait. Yasin got pulled out of the water onto a plank and watched as his family drowned and was pulled away by the current.
My daughter’s paper also criticizes those who perpetuate false beliefs about climate change, shift efforts away from any kind of mitigation, and repudiate efforts to form a global alliance. Despite powerful efforts to dismiss climate change, she writes,
Many people care about our planet, and these actions will not stop us, when we have put so much work into helping the planet and the people on it. If everyone believes that climate disruption really exists, and wants to do something about it, we can create change.
And she marches.
Over dinner the other night, my son asked when I learned about climate change. “From your dad,” I said, “thirty years ago.” “Back then, did they say it was going to be in 30 years? And that seemed like a far-off time?”
Thirty years ago, even though 99% of the scientific research had already demonstrated that human action was a primary contributor to climate change, the media gave equal amounts of time to what was referred to as “both sides” of the climate debate. Even today, when an intensive heat dome over Washington and parts of Idaho killed 68 people, many don’t “believe” in climate change. Unlike others, I can’t do a New Yorker-esque dismissal of climate deniers, Trumpites, or Fox News acolytes because many of the people I love and respect think like this. They refuse to accept that human action has caused climate change. Even my trainer, here in liberal San Francisco, says that climate change has to do with fluctuations in the sun and will right itself. Meanwhile, fires burn so hot and fast that they are uncontainable. They cut off people fleeing their homes, incinerating them in their cars.
I try to imagine what it would be like to be a teenager today and watch their beloved camp burn to the ground, to await evacuation from the place they’ve spent a week every summer since they can remember, and/or to have their annual backpacking trip in the Sierra Mountains (which run along the eastern border of California) cancelled because of fire. No more Okizu, no more Leonard Lake, no more Loon Lake — at least not this year. So privileged, so impacted.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle,” inform and educate, live small, walk to the pharmacy, grocery store, and hardware store is what we individuals are told to do. I imagine children fleeing drought and war. I fight to replace despair with hope. A hope for the future.
In August, I drove my daughter to college in Washington state. We passed reservoirs unfathomably low and just barely skirted fires in Eastern Oregon. She will study biology and environmental science. My son talks about becoming a firefighter. Their generation is savvy to the changes that need to happen. Their generation (and the next) will pay the price. It’s a hard thing to live with, but today, it is raining in San Francisco.