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‘The Whole Place Feels Wrong: Voices from America on What the Climate Crisis Stole

‘The Whole Place Feels Wrong: Voices from America on What the Climate Crisis Stole

A man sits inside his house which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ida in Houma, Louisiana.

The six-year-old US will remember the hollow feeling of the Paris climate accord, where delegates from all around the globe declared the climate crisis would be finally under control.

The US has now experienced four of the five hottest years since 2015, thanks to the landmark 2015 deal to reduce dangerous global heating. A drought of extreme severity unprecedented in modern civilization has tightened its grip upon the American west, parching cities and farms, fueling the eight largest wildfires on record in California and smothering much of the rest of the country in a choking pall of smoke.

Enormous storms, again spurred on by the rising heat, have ravaged Puerto Rico and the Gulf coast. Many of these calamities are overwhelmingly likely to have beencaused by climate change, scientists have found.

Between 1980 and 2020 the USHas been struck by an annual average of seven disasters that caused at least $1bn in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 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 sustained more than $600bn of climate-related damages in the five years since the Paris climate agreement was signed. This is a new high. 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 cascading disasters have not only caused financial loss but also immense pain and suffering, mental anguish and displacement, as well as bewilderment among Americans. 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.

My jacket thermometer read 39F with a steady wind of five knots.

It was May 1979, when my first trip to 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 settled down in Gustavus, close to Glacier Bay. There we have moose on our driveway and ravens high up in the trees. 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 go up the bay to see the sights when Tanner is surprised by the warm wind from the glacier. The cold is gone. The entire place feels strange. It’s eerily quiet. There are no kittiwakes nor terns. A single harbor seal.

Tanner does not have a reference point. But I do have a reference point and I am alarmed.

That summer, salmon die in river mouths. Dead whales are washed up. Permafrost thaws and threatens infrastructure in much of the state’s northern part. 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. Then, the wrath of God rains will wash it away. Floods are more frequent than they used to be. Last year, two people were killed in a landslide in Haines, which was caused by heavy rains. Native villages up north are being washed into the sea by heavy rains.

What will happen with our homes, livelihoods, and futures?

Gustavus built a new community centre to accommodate townfolk in emergency situations. Soon, a root cellar will be completed. One day, we will all gather there with our kids and guitars to enjoy 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.


Houma, Louisiana

‘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 to leave my home in Houma, south-east Louisiana for 50 days after Hurricane Ida. It’s a strange experience to be a reporter and also 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.

Two and a half months after the hurricane, I drove for four hours every day from Lafayette to Houma. 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 with Indigenous communities along the bayou, who took responsibility for their recovery efforts. “Everybody wants to come back,” one mother said of the people displaced by the storm. “Our ancestors have lived here for generations.”

A man sits inside his house which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ida in Houma, Louisiana.
Credit: Andrees Latif Alamy

One disabled fisherman stated that it was now time to start afresh in Mississippi. He said that the gulf had reached a 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.”

It is very good to have housing in Houma again. Many of my neighbors live in tents, cars, and hotels hundreds of kilometers away, and are still homeless.

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 of Lake Charles still have blue roof tarps and are waiting for relief. Oil and gas industry scars leave abandoned canals that contribute to land loss. Louisiana loses one football field of coastline every 100 minute. The Pointe-aux-Chenes marina is lined by dead oak trees which serve as a graveyard.

What do you do when your community begins to crumble?

These spaces are not worth our time.


Sonoran Desert, Arizona

‘The desert cannot possibly hold us all’

By Debbie Weingarten

Just as it was getting too hot to rest at night, we left our home in southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert at the end May and moved to western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. In a sense, the decision to leave southern Arizona was a pandemic one. 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 4.17in of rain fell in Tucson. However, the 2021 monsoon season swept in like a monster, causing flooding and overwhelming stormwater systems. Lake Mead was flooded to the point that it could no longer be sustained. 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 pumping has led to land subsidence and earth fissures – giant irreversible cracks that spider across roadways and private property, one of which was reported to have swallowed a horse.

Many Arizona counties could be included in this list. uninhabitable in the next 20 to 40 years, according to one study. Yet, the human population continues its explosive growth. 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, mossy, damp, and fog-laden. My desert children, who have never seen true fall, are fascinated by the idea of leaves piled high enough for them to break through. But of course no place is immune to climate change – in August, Tropical Storm Fred dropped as much as 17in of rain in the span of three days, causing our county to declare a state of emergency.

I feel like a person who has been cut 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 with the mesquites and their crowns of thorns. The saguaros with their yellow flowers, the coyotes chasing stray cats. All the rusty human treasures washed up in the arroyos.


Grass Valley in California

Many of us feel a deep sadness when sacred and sacred places are destroyed, friends and family are forced to flee, animals die, and the sun turns a strangely reddish-purple color. 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 in Maine

‘The Earth is not composed of resources to be endlessly exploited’

By Sherri Mitchell

I was born to Penawahpskewe (Penobscot Nation). I was raised in a Penobscot River culture that was so intertwined with the river that there was no obvious point where it ended. Our people regard the river as a beloved part of our community. The Penobscot River is actually the first Penobscot Nation citizen, to acknowledge that all of us draw our lives from her waters.

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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 to live is not measured by how much we make, but how well we interact with our 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. Over the last five decades, industrial pollution has destroyed this relationship.

In 1901, paper mills were established in the United States. The pulp and papers industry has the highest fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emission rates. They build hydro dams along waterways and then dump the wastewater as hot leachate into the waters, increasing surface and water temperatures. Global warming is exacerbated by this and other industrial activity, which causes disruption to ecosystems that are vital 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. 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.

Every year, the water gets warmer. Ice-out was an annual event that I loved as a kid. I loved watching the river shake off her winter layers 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 to the water temperature have a devastating effect on all eastern fisheries, and the surrounding ecosystems. Even as I write this, a paper mill is legaly 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 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. A wildfire broke out within a mile from our South Dakota sheep and cattle ranch. Now, the soot rises every time the wind blows. 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’s probably exactly the same: hills, valleys and a few trees. There is also a lot of dried-up lawn. 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.

This drought is different. 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 classified steppe for the past few thousand year. They receive an average of 13 inches of rain per year. 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. This was the rhythm that the Arikara and the Hidatsa followed, as well as later the Lakota & Dakota who used these lands to hunt bison and their summer hunting grounds.

Were we able to learn the new rhythm?

I walk all of the way to the end and stand under a thick-trunked, cottonwood tree. It is hard not to laugh when her yellow leaves rustle. She knows almost everything I am trying. 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.


Hamden, Connecticut

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 of smoke, flames and dry lightning began in August last year. ignited 650 wildfires across northern California overnight. I didn’t have a full day of deep breaths outside until November. Before that, my thoughts were occupied with what home was like before. I felt homesick when I was at home.

Preparation was what I did this year to ease my nerves. 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.

Flames are seen near homes off the 71 freeway at the Blue Ridge Fire in Chino, California, October 27, 2020
The Blue Ridge Fire in Chino (California). Credit: Robyn Beck Getty Images

My nearest fire started on the afternoon of August 4. 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 see for my self. It was a new fire, the River fire, eighteen miles from my home, and it was burning towards me.

My legs carried 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 is it to feel well in sick times.

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 just a few weeks after filling it. I realized it wasn’t just the preparation that made this season feel different. I feel connected with the life now and not to what was before. 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.

This story first appeared in The Guardian and is part of Climate Coverage NowA global journalism collaboration that strengthens coverage of the climate story.

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