The triumphant celebration of the Paris climate accord, where delegates from all over the world celebrated their victory Many Americans will feel hollow that the US declared the climate crisis would be finally tamed in the six years since.
The landmark 2015 agreement to curb dangerous global warming has seen the US experience four of its five hottest ever years. A drought of extreme severity unprecedented in modern civilizationIt has tightened its gripThe American West’s drought-prone cities and farms fuelled the eight largest wildfires on recordCalifornia, smothering much the rest of the country in a choking pall of smoke.
The rising heat has triggered yet another torrential storm that devastated Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast. Many of these calamities are extremely likely to have occurred. Climate change has caused these changes scientists have found.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US has suffered at least $1bn annually from seven natural disasters between 1980 and 2020. The average for the most recent five years, 2016 to 2020, is a huge leap – at more than 16 such disasters a year.
The US has suffered more than $600bn in climate-related disasters over the past five years. This is a new record. Joe Biden represents a country which is being affected by the escalating crisis like never before.
Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University who grew up in New York City, said it was “personally wrenching” to see dead bodies floating in basement apartments in the city after Hurricane Ida crunched into Louisiana with 150mph winds in August and then continued an extraordinary journey as a tropical storm northwards to New Jersey and New York.
“That people can’t go to sleep in the richest city in the richest country and feel safe from drowning is abominable on so many levels – we are far, far behind in assuring safe habitation for poorer people, including safety from a climate gone rogue,” Oppenheimer said.
These disasters have caused enormous pain and suffering, bewilderment, and mental anguish among Americans, in addition to the financial loss. We asked several writers from across the country for their views on the climate catastrophe. Below are their stories, along with submissions from Guardian readers. – Oliver Milman
Glacier Bay, Alaska
‘The cold is gone’
By Kim Heacox
I remember the cold.
I remember standing on the shore in Glacier Bay, thinking this is the wildest and most beautiful place I’d ever experienced. Bear tracks the size of pie plates in the low tide mud all around me. Giant icebergs stranded on shore, luminous. Birds speaking in dialects of kittiwake and tern. Harbor seals patrolling the frigid waters, their obsidian eyes taking my stare and turning it back on me.
And the glacier itself, only half a mile away, whispering echoes of the Pleistocene. Not just any river of ice, but a tidewater glacier that descended all the way from tall, snowy mountains down to the sea where it calved blue minarets into a rock-ribbed fjord.
A steady wind of five knots blew. My little jacket thermometer read 39F.
It was May 1979 when I arrived in Alaska. It changed my entire life and gave me the freedom I sought. It taught me how to survive, and more – to be fully alive.
Now, fast forward 40 years to July 2019. My wife Melanie, and I have made Gustavus our home. It is right next to Glacier Bay. There we have moose on our driveway and ravens high up in the treetops. Tanner, our 20-year old nephew, also visits. All over the country, record high temperatures are set. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, hits 90F, five degrees more than its previous all-time high.
Tanner and I are taking Tanner up the bay for the sights. But then, something surprises me: the warm wind off of the glacier. The cold is gone. It’s all wrong. It’s eerily quiet. There are no kittiwakes and terns. A single harbor seal.
Tanner doesn’t have a reference point. I do have a reference point, and I am alarmed.
That summer, salmon die in river mouths. Dead whales are washed up. Permafrost is melting and threatening infrastructure in large parts of the northern region of the state. It releases methane as a greenhouse gas, which is more potent than carbon dioxide, as it melts. Add to that a warming north Pacific that’s roughly 30% more acidic than it used to be.
In 2021, the six most recent years have been the six warmest. The first Gustavus snow, which used to arrive on Halloween, may not appear until January. Soon after, the wrathful-of-God rains sweep it away. Floods are more frequent than ever. Two people were killed last year in Haines when heavy rains caused a massive landslide. Native villages up north are being washed into the sea by heavy rains.
What will happen with our homes, futures, and livelihoods?
Gustavus built a new community centre to accommodate townfolk during emergency situations. Soon, a new root cellar is planned. We might all meet there one day, with our children and guitars, to eat potatoes for every meal.
Glacier Bay is home to many glaciers that no longer reach the ocean. As such, more of the bay’s waters are ice-free, and harbor seals must go elsewhere to find icebergs on which to give birth to their pups, safe from predation.
I think of glaciers like architects and finish carpenters for Alaska. How they shape entire landscapes has shaped me. I grieve their passing, and try to find hope among my neighbors that despite all of humanity’s wrongdoing, we have a remarkable capacity to learn and to change, and that when we do – if we do – it won’t be too late.
‘If you do move, you scatter the people’
By Kezia Setyawan
Terrebonne parish is a beautiful place to drive through. You can see how the trees have snapped or bent; the root systems are upturned. After the storm, there are always questions about whether residents who are deeply rooted will be able stay. Outsiders ask why they’d even want to.
I was forced from my home in Houma (south-east Louisiana) for 50 days by Hurricane Ida. It is strange to work as a journalist and then face disaster as an individual. My apartment complex was declared uninhabitable by more than 60%. I don’t reject disaster relief meals or cleaning supplies for the sake of objectivity and neutrality.
I drove four hours a day for two and a quarter weeks from Lafayette to Houma, reporting on the hurricane. I’d ration gas each day to make sure I had enough for the trip and back. Houma didn’t have any gas.
I was able to see the recovery efforts of indigenous communities in the bayou. “Everybody wants to come back,” one mother said of the people displaced by the storm. “Our ancestors have lived here for generations.”
One disabled fisherman stated that it was now time to make a new start in Mississippi. He said that the gulf had reached bayou. “You see how the road shakes when cars drive over? There’s no land here any more.”
You think about what’s lost when people leave. “I know it’s dangerous to live on the bayou because it can happen again,” one woman told me. But “it hurts to pull your roots out. If you do move, you scatter the people.”
I feel very lucky to have housing again here in Houma. However, many of my neighbors still live in poverty, and sleep in tents, cars, or hotels hundreds of miles from me.
Every day I have seen my neighbors get ripped off by state and federal authorities. Last year was the most active hurricane season ever. Residents in Lake Charles still have their blue tarps covering their roofs while they wait for relief. Oil and gas industry scars leave abandoned canals that contribute to land loss. Louisiana loses a football field worth of coastline every 100 minutes. The Pointe-aux-Chenes marina is lined by dead oak trees which serve as a graveyard.
What can you do if your community is eroding? When temporary housing appears more than a year after the storm?
These spaces should not be considered disposable.
Sonoran Desert, Arizona
‘The desert cannot possibly hold us all’
By Debbie Weingarten
We moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina after leaving our home at the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona at May’s end. It was too hot to sleep at night. In a way, it was a pandemic decision to leave Arizona. It was, however, a climate decision, a response in large part to years of mounting anxiety that reached fever pitch.
I love the heat, the sun, and the dry, unapologetic desert. We’ve fried eggs on the sidewalk since my kids can remember, baked cookies and cakes on the dashboards of our closed-up summer cars. We know that during certain months, it is better to spend midday hours mimicking the sleeping desert creatures rather than trying to do errands or be productive.
But at some point, the scale tipped – too many triple-digit weeks in a row, summer nights that would not cool, bone-dry weather forecasts, wildfires licking at the horizon, and predictions of more extreme conditions to come.
2020: A measly 4.17inTucson was hit with rain. The contrast is the 2021 monsoon seasonThe stormwater systems were overwhelmed and flooding ensued. Lake Mead experienced a severe drought this summer. lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s, triggering water cuts that reduce Arizona’s supply of Colorado River water by 18%. In the meantime, increased groundwater pumpingLand subsidence has been a result. earth fissures – giant irreversible cracks that spider across roadways and private property, one of which was reported to have swallowed a horse.
Many counties in Arizona could be made into uninhabitableOne predicts that the next 20-40 year will be the most important in human history. study. Yet, the human race continues to grow. Between 2010 and 2020, Maricopa county – which contains the city of Phoenix – grew by nearly 16%. Conversations with family and friends have taken on pre-apocalyptic tones: we’re living beyond our means. We can’t possibly keep all our belongings in the desert. How long will the water stay? When is it time for you to go?
North Carolina is home of a mountain. Everything here is soft and mossy, damp and fog-laden. My desert children, who’ve never experienced true fall, are fascinated at the idea of leaves being piled high enough to allow them to grow. But of course no place is immune to climate change – in August, Tropical Storm Fred dropped as much as 17inThree days of rain, causing our county’s emergency declaration.
I feel like someone has cleaved in half. It is a wonderful place, but I miss home. The desert is a permanent, heartbreaking stone in my chest. I miss the alleyway of prickly pear trees, mesquites with their crowns made of thorns. The saguaros that exploded with fruit, the mesquites hunting stray cats. All the rusty human treasures washed away in the arroyos.
Grass Valley in California
Many people in affected areas feel heavy grief when sacred and special places are destroyed, friends and strangers are forced from their homes, animals are killed, and the sun turns an eerie red. It’s jarring and sad, watching precious things being lost.
The results of these actions are testaments to the community: neighbors checking on their neighbors, friends rushing for help to evacuate livestock or chainsaws and rake and load trucks, strangers opening their houses and guest bedrooms, people helping without being asked.
– Amie Ferrier
Penobscot River (Maine)
‘The Earth is not composed of resources to be endlessly exploited’
By Sherri Mitchell
I was born to Penawahpskewe (Penobscot Nation), was raised in a Penobscot River culture, and the river was always at our feet. Our people consider the river a beloved member in our community. The Penobscot River is the first Penobscot Nation citizen to recognize that we all draw our life from her waters.
My grandfather took me to these waters when I was very young, teaching me how to paddle a canoe and how to ride a bicycle. I learned my role in creation through the subsistence lifestyle which had sustained our people for millennia. Our way of living is not measured in terms of economics, but in sustained relationships with the local environment. Our people have lived in close relationships with the river and the animal and plant species that live along it for more than 500 years. We rely on them for our food, medicine, and overall well-being. This relationship has been ruined by industrial pollution in the last five years.
In 1901, paper mills arrived in America. The pulp and papers industry has the highest fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions rates on the planet. They build hydro dams along waterways and then dump the wastewater as hot leachate into the waters, increasing surface and water temperatures. These and other industrial activities contribute to global warming. They disrupt ecosystems that are essential to our cultural survival. The river was flooded and heated, causing the Atlantic salmon and other fish near extinction. The river is not the only victim of the river’s destruction. A 2018 studyA study by the University of Minnesota showed that around 70% of new moose calves were suffering from winter tick disease. This is due to a warming climate.
Each year, the water becomes warmer. Ice-out was an annual event that I loved as a kid. I loved watching the river shed her winter layer and signal spring. The ice has melted twice in the winter in the last five year. This should concern everyone. The Penobscot River is one last refuge for cold-water fish in the United States. Changes in water temperature can have devastating effects on eastern fisheries as well as the ecosystems around them. Yet, a paper mill is illegally dumping large amounts of steaming wastewater into a river.
Climate change is often portrayed as a specter that is looming over the horizon. Yet, when we look closely, we see that the specter is human, a species that would benefit greatly from the simple truth that my grandfather taught me on the Penobscot River – that the Earth is not composed of resources to be endlessly exploited; it is filled with beloved relatives that must be cared for and respected.
Perkins county, South Dakota
‘We’ve been on fire watch for almost nine months’
By Eliza Blue
We wake up to a dawn that is bright red under the haze of smoke, and the horrible smells of burning. “Near or far?” I wonder.
It’s far – 500 miles to the west in Montana, but we’re still on edge because it’s autumn and we’ve been on fire watch for almost nine months. The wildfire that erupted in South Dakota was within a mile radius of our cattle and sheep ranch. The year-long drought that’s cracked the earth and stopped the grasses from growing means the ash from all that the fire destroyed hasn’t had a chance to integrate with the soil and nourish new growth. Some days, when my husband comes in from fixing fences, he looks like he’s been working in a coalmine, his face tanned dark brown, the circles of his nostrils lined with black.
Even with the soot, even with the haze, I go out walking most evenings – movement is the only thing that seems to keep my anxiety in check. It is easy to imagine what the view would have looked like 100 years ago, when my husband’s great-grandparents arrived here and started building their home. It is almost exactly the same: hills and valleys, a few tree, a lot dried-up grass. This region has been practicing climate change for many generations. The boom and bust cycle of drought is scrawled on the DNA of the grasses whose roots reach deep and don’t mind being dormant for a few years.
But this drought is something else. It has lasted longer and it’s more widespread. We can’t put up hay to feed our animals through winter, and the cost of hay is at a record high because the land is just as dry or drier for hundreds of miles in every direction.
These hillsides have been referred to as steppe over the last few thousand years. The average annual rainfall has been 13 inches. After most early homesteaders lost everything trying to farm this land, the majority of those who remained learned through trial and error to follow our ecosystem’s ancient rhythm, a rhythm that requires large ruminants to graze, nourishing the soil as they go. These were the rhythms that the Arikara, Hidatsa, and later the Lakota, and Dakota, followed when they used these lands for their summer hunting grounds. They also followed bison herds.
Were we able to learn the new rhythm?
I walk all the distance to the farthest draw, and then stand under a thick-trunked cottonwood. Her yellow leaves rustle so loudly that it is difficult not to hear laughter. She is already familiar with most of the things I am trying to explain. Deep roots, branches that bend and don’t break. “As long as you have, that’s how long it will take,” she tells me. And I wish I could learn these things faster, because I feel like we’ve already run out of time.
Early in the decade, there were heavy, heavy winters with lasting snowfalls, and since about 2014 we haven’t had winters much like that. There are now more tropical storms with high winds and heavy rainfall, which cause flooding and tree destruction quite frequently during spring and summer. In the three years that my wife and I have owned our home, we’ve seen two tornadoes and hurricanes and tropical storm events easily in the double digits.
– Adam Matlock
Grass Valley in California
‘What is it to be well in sick times?’
By Mekdela Maskal
In June 2020, I returned to the land that raised my children and the changes made in the land screamed drought and fire danger. I couldn’t submerge my entire body in the stream below the crunch of the leaves beneath my feet.
The season for smoke and flames began in August last, when there was dry lightning. ignited 650 wildfires across northern California overnight. I didn’t have a full day of deep breaths outside until November. Before this, my thoughts were consumed by the idea of home. I felt homesick even though I was at home.
I decided to prepare for this year. Once Dixie was lit in July, I began my fire-ready checklist. Dixie is still not contained and is now the second largest fire in California historyWith almost a million acres of forest burned.
The afternoon of the 4th August was ignited by my nearest fire. I was upstairs at my desk. I looked up at my computer and noticed orange sunlight hitting the floor from the skylight. I checked Twitter for updates, and ran outside to check for myself. It was a new flame, a River fire, eight miles away from my home and burning towards I.
My legs led me down the hill. I stood on a familiar rock and watched the ash fall around my feet. I felt at home. I thought of teacher Dr Bayo Akomolafe’s words: “The times are urgent, let us slow down.” The intensity and proximity of the fires have only increased, so why do I feel lighter amid the grief? What does it mean for you to be well when you are sick?
The fire was contained within one week. My area didn’t move from evacuation warning or mandate. So I stayed home and unloaded the car only a few days after filling up. I realized it wasn’t just the preparation that made this season feel different. I feel connected to the present and not just to the past. I understand that the “change” in climate change includes us as humans. There isn’t necessarily going to be an “end” to this crisis, but many ends, and many beginnings.