Our Lost World: On Wildfires and Climate Grief

I’m writing this on Monday morning, before President Trump lands in California today to exploit the tragedy of the wildfires and scold Californians for not “cleaning the floors” of the forests or whatever mental toilet water he ends up spilling in the Golden State. You can be sure there will be no sympathy for the 33 lives that have been lost in wildfires on the West Coast, no human feeling for the vast suffering and devastation that the climate crisis has wrought on the west. Nor will there be any awareness of his own role in accelerating a crisis that will cause so much devastation for decades to come. “As an historic figure, he is one of the most culpable men in America contributing to the suffering and death that is now occurring through climate-related tragedy,” Jerry Brown, the former California governor who made climate change his signature issue, said in an interview on Sunday.

As a fourth-generation Californian, just imagining Trump in California makes me growl like one of the grizzly bears that used to inhabit my home state. I love California. I lived there until I was 25 and still don’t know why I left. My grandfather palled around with John Steinbeck. I’ve surfed in Shark’s Cove, dove in the kelp forests of Monterey, climbed Yosemite’s Half Dome a dozen times, spent many holidays at my mother’s house in the far north of the state, near the Oregon border. I grew up in Silicon Valley and watched the apricot orchards be replaced by high-tech office buildings. I wandered around the hills of Palo Alto with Steve Jobs and had a long dinner with Elon Musk when he was just a crazy rich dude pitching me his idea for an electric-car company named after an eccentric turn-of-the-century inventor named Nikola Tesla.

In short, I’ve always considered myself a Californian, even though I haven’t lived there in decades. It was part of me, who I am, what I am, the deepest part of me.

Nevertheless, this week, as I watched the fires burn, I’ve realized it is time for me to say goodbye to my home state. Not because the entire state is going to burn to the ground. But because the California that I knew and loved – my California – is gone. And I mean this both metaphorically and literally: The camp I went to in the Santa Cruz mountains as a kid has burned to the ground. The forests around the lake in the Sierra Nevadas where my grandparents had an old cabin has gone up in flames. In 2018, the entire town of Paradise, only a few miles from where my mother lives, burned to the ground. Eighty people died during the Camp fire, the most deadly in California history.

I know fires have been happening in California for a long time, and that all of this can be rebuilt. But this is not just a bad wildfire season. Every year is going to be bad. By midcentury, annual burned areas in the west are projected to increase by up to a factor of six relative to today.

And it’s not just fire that is changing California. Rising seas are eroding the coastline. Changing precipitation patterns are messing with the snowpack in the Sierras and throwing the plumbing system for water distribution out of whack. Marine heat waves are devastating the kelp forests off the coast. All these changes will accelerate. Forests will be replaced with grasslands. Deserts will expand. Fish will migrate north to cooler waters. The fog that nurtures coastal redwoods will vanish. Farmers in the soil-rich Central Valley will have to deal with extreme heat, new pests, less water.

In short, the California that I grew up in, the California in my mind, is already gone.

“[The wildfires in the west] shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told the Los Angeles Times. “Maybe [climate scientists] underestimated the magnitude and speed” at which these events would occur, Gerrard said, but “we’ve seen this long freight train barreling down on us for decades, and now the locomotive is on top of us, with no caboose in sight.”

Still, it’s one thing to see temperature charts and read scientific papers and quite another to see places you love go up in flames.

Judging from the outpouring of grief and loss from Californians and Oregonians on social media, I am not the only one feeling the profound impact of these fires, and what they represent about the future of the west. Grief and loss, I fear, are going to be the defining emotions of the climate crisis. If you haven’t felt them yet, you will. Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht even coined a word for this sense of loss of place — “solastalgia” — an awkward neologism that combines the words nostalgia, solace, and desolation. Solastalgia, as Albrecht defined it in a 2004 essay, is “manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.”

The hardest part of this sense of loss to grasp is that, because of the way the climate crisis works, places are gone long before we can see it with our own eyes. Just as these wildfires in California were long predicted by scientists, the fact that the wildfires and heat will get worse in coming summers is already a done deal.

Let me say that again, just to make it clear: Even if we cut global carbon pollution to zero tomorrow – which is not going to happen – because of the fact that CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for centuries, temperatures will not decline for a very long time. There is no going back to the gentle California climate of the past (in the 19th century, ranchers used to call what is now Silicon Valley “The Valley of Heart’s Delight” because the climate was so mild and the soil so rich that virtually anything would grow there). And every additional ton of CO2 we dump into the air – and the way things are going, we’re going to dump plenty of it — will make the west a hotter, more flammable place.

There are two big implications of this. The first is, every action we take today matters. Every ton of CO2 avoided slows the rate and degree of warming. It’s very simple: The quicker we get off fossil fuels, the better chance we have of preserving something like a hospitable planet.

But it’s also true that future changes are locked in (at least until we build machines or engineer super-trees that can rapidly suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere). As long as we keep burning fossil fuels, a hotter, more flammable west is not a speculation or a hypothesis. It is a sure thing.

Ditto with sea level rise. The last time CO2 levels on Earth were above 400 parts-per-million (it’s 415 ppm today), sea levels were 50 to 65 feet higher than they are today. That doesn’t mean that seas will rise 50 feet tomorrow, but it does mean that unless we stop carbon pollution fast and figure out a way to suck a massive amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere quickly, a significant amount of sea level rise is already baked into the climate system. Which means that Miami, New Orleans, Charleston, and many other low-lying coastal cities around the world are already goners. We just haven’t admitted it yet.

The big question is: Can we adapt to these changes that are coming? Can we build a fire-resistant California? Can Miami be re-imagined for 10 feet of sea level rise? The short answer is, yes. It won’t be the same California or Miami that we know today, but human beings are remarkably adaptive creatures. As climate scientist Peter Kalmus and fire ecologist Natasha Stavros put it in an op-ed last weekend, “This is a crisis entirely of human making, which means we can solve it if we want to.”

The key phrase here is “if we want to.” We know President Trump doesn’t give a shit about solving this crisis.

The real question the apocalypse in the west raises is: Do we?

 

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