This past Thanksgiving, I visited family in Western North Carolina. My grandmother’s home is in Saluda, a tiny town close to the South Carolina border and a little ways east of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. My great grandfather ran a camp in this area, and my dad and his brothers spent their summers there, exploring the green, wet Blue Ridge Mountains. I started traveling down alone to stay with my grandmother in the Saluda house when I was four, and her back porch, overlooking the mountains and some of the world’s greatest sunsets, remains one of my favorite places in the world.
For a good part of this visit, however, neither mountains nor sunset were visible. The smog extended to the trees lining my grandmother’s yard, about 100 feet in front of the porch. The air smelled half like a campfire and half like burning plastic, presumably from the manmade debris caught in over thirty wildfires that had been burning in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee for the past month. We first heard about them through a second cousin, a chef at a lodge that evacuated completely when the fire started pouring down the mountain directly across the lake. He also told us that much of Sevier County, Tennessee, childhood home of Dolly Parton and site of the amusement park Dollywood, had burned down.
What’s most worrying about these fires is that the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains area is a temperate rainforest – it’s known for being cool, damp and rainy even in the summer months. The fires followed two months without rain and a year of drought, as well as the third warmest October since 1963 and second warmest January-October period in the last 122 years, according to the NOAA. It’s believed that the majority of the fires were manmade – it can be easy for a hiker to drop a cigarette and start a huge blaze when conditions are this dry. The Sevier County fire, which was reportedly started by teenagers, killed fourteen people, injured 191, damaged or destroyed over two thousand structures and forced over 14,000 people to evacuate. The mayor of Gatlinburg referred to it as a “fire for the history books.”
Our area of North Carolina was not impacted as drastically, but the fires severely affected air quality. When the wind blew the smoke toward the house, the air smelled so toxic we had to keep all the windows closed. Each morning I coughed up globs of yellow gunk. We weren’t even in the towns closest to the large fires, where it must have been very difficult to breathe. Since we couldn’t be outside on several days, I took the opportunity to do some Climate Stories Project reporting and talk to friends about what was going on.
I interviewed Chris Price, a family friend, homestead farmer and naturalist, about his experience of the wildfires, as well as other ways he’s observing climate change in the area and on his farm. Listen to Chris’ story below. I also spoke with my friend Steven Norris, a climate justice organizer, who reminded me of what had been happening on the other side of the state – while western North Carolina was crying out for water, the eastern coast was being drenched by Hurricane Matthew. In addition to organizing to support for communities affected by Matthew, Steve is also organizing to stop a piece of natural gas infrastructure bound to exacerbate climate catastrophes like these ones – the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Steve recently helped organize the Walk to Protect Our People and the places We Live, a along the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. I’ll be posting his interview soon, including a reflection on that experience.
Update: The Southern Appalachian wildfires aren’t the only ones wreaking destruction around the world this year. Read here about the wildfires currently afflicting Chile.
Since I began collecting climate stories, I’ve started to notice them everywhere I go. I visited family in England this past Christmas and got to travel to parts of the country I'd never seen before. In each region we visited, we heard climate stories.
When my uncle returned from visiting friends in Sussex, southern England for New Year's, he reported that they have decided to turn their property into a champagne vineyard after learning that the region’s climate has become similar to that of Champagne, France two hundred years ago.
My mother and I visited my great aunt and uncle in Sheffield, in the north, and got into a conversation about the winter weather. My great aunt mentioned that it wasn’t nearly what it used to be – several decades ago, they’d spend the winters shoveling piles of snow. The past few winters, there have been infrequent sprinklings of snow, never enough to shovel.
We headed further north to the Lake District to visit my cousin's girlfriend's family for the first time, and they told us that severe floods last year destroyed a bridge that had just celebrated its 200th anniversary.
Toward the end of our trip, I went to see a friend in Cambridge, and he fondly recollected ice skating as a child on the area’s fens, or marshes, which used to freeze through each winter. Now, he said, they’re no longer frozen consistently enough for kids to skate safely.
Below is a map of England, with pins placed on the areas mentioned. I am always surprised by the diversity of ways climate change appears in different places. The more I do this work, the more I see that climate change is showing up everywhere.
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Remember when most news stories about climate change included a sentence like, “By 2050, scientists predict that a global temperature rise of 2 degrees will cause a large range of disruptions to the earth system”? Well, it’s 2017 and many of these disruptions, such as a drastic reduction of Arctic sea ice, record-breaking Australian temperatures, and extreme flooding in California, are happening decades ahead of schedule. However, it’s not always clear when we can link unusual weather and unexpected changes in our environment to climate change. For example, how do we know when a freak ice storm in May is influenced by global warming?
The work of climate scientists has allowed us to more confidently tie our observations of unusual weather to climate change. Until recently, scientists did not have sufficient data to conclusively link a weather event, such as a severe drought or an unusually strong hurricane, to global warming. In the past, news stories about huge calving icebergs or massive forest fires often included a statement by a scientist stating that there was “no evidence” that climate change played a role in the event. However, in recent years scientists have become more adept at detecting the “fingerprint” of climate change, following concerted efforts to determine if individual weather events can be attributed to global warming. To grossly oversimplify, scientists have harnessed enormous computing power to establish the likelihood of an severe hurricane or drought not occurring without human-caused elevation of greenhouse gas levels. In many cases, they have concluded that the current intensity of many weather events would be extremely unlikely without elevated greenhouse gas levels. In other words, equipped with reams of data, scientists are increasingly confident that these events are exacerbated by human-caused climate change.
Just as scientists are becoming more confident in their attribution of extreme weather events to climate change, the rest of us are becoming more certain that our own experiences of our changing local environments are linked to these global trends. As we increasingly share our observations of how the weather is "getting weirder" in our communities, we build a worldwide network of climate change stories. We gather more and more “data” in the form of these stories, and become increasingly convinced that our individual experiences are evidence of global change. In this way, we do human-scale climate change research, using the scientific evidence to bolster our own observations, rather than simply showing real-world manifestations of change expected from climate change models.
Some may balk at this approach, arguing that it is impossible to use “anecdotal” evidence to attribute extreme weather events to climate change. Critics rightly point out that climate change deniers have taken a similar tack to "disprove" global warming, for example by claiming that an unusually cold winter in Washington D.C. demonstrates that climate change is just a hoax. We should be wary of, for example, blaming climate change for an isolated warm day in January. A much more effective approach is to recognize that, for example, this year there were 15 unusually warm days in January, compared with two or three 10 years ago. In addition, if you live in New York, speak with people in Toronto (or Stockholm, Moscow, or Tokyo) about the number of unusually warm days they observed in January.
Many people are convinced about the urgency of climate change based on scientific findings and models alone. However, many others are not. The rapidly growing network of climate stories quite literally brings global warming “down to earth.” Sharing these stories is perhaps the most effective way to engage people around the world with this planet-wide crisis.
Those of us teaching students about climate change have a conundrum: How do we teach the extensive “bad news” – rising temperatures, erratic weather, flooding, and wildfires – while encouraging our students to engage with climate change rather than retreating into despair and denial?
There isn’t an established way to do this. Many of us take the advice of communication specialists, who encourage us to establish the scientific basis for global warming and the problems that it causes, and then quickly segue to solutions that will stop it, or at least slow it down. This approach is grounded in an understanding of human psychology, which argues that being told about a big problem without a ready solution leaves people feeling afraid, hopeless, and discouraged from taking action.
While emphasizing solutions is better than just dumping a hopeless apocalypse in the laps of young people, it limits the potential for students to engage with climate change. Why? Most importantly, climate change really isn’t a problem, and doesn’t really have a solution. I don’t mean that bad things are not happening as a result of climate change. I don’t suggest that these things cannot be made better with better technology or energy conservation. And I don’t argue that teaching solutions won’t encourage our students to engage with climate change.
My point is that climate change is different from “normal” environmental problems which can be solved in some way that can be observed on human time scales. Hole in the ozone layer? Phase out CFCs. Acid rain? Install smokestack scrubbers. Endangered species? Protect habitat. In contrast, regardless of what we do or don’t do about climate change it will be a defining feature of life on Earth for thousands, and maybe millions, of years. The usual “solutions” to climate change, such as electric cars, more renewable energy, and reduced carbon footprints, will at best slow down the trajectory of global warming. If we are honest with our students, we will explain that actually stabilizing the climate will entail drastically reducing fossil fuel use while simultaneously reorienting the economy away from endless growth. The latter are not solutions, they are multi-generational processes which will fundamentally transform human society.
Crisis and Opportunity instead of Problem and Solution
So if we don’t emphasize climate solutions, what do we teach our students? A better framing than problem/solution is crisis/opportunity, which recognizes that both the threat of climate change and the rewards for adaptation and transformation are much greater than we typically imagine.
Rather than a mere problem, climate change is a crisis which threatens the stability of the biosphere, and by extension, human civilization. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix - global warming is not an epic drama with that will be resolved at the end of the movie, and conditions on Earth will not, on human time scales, ever be the same as in the past. With this understanding, we acknowledge the urgency and the transformational force of climate change and can let go of the illusion that once it is solved, things will continue pretty much as before, only with renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
The crisis/opportunity frame also expands our vision for how the future could be better than the present. In fact, climate change presents some tremendous opportunities for improving our quality of life. To name a few: drastically reducing the pollution and destruction of ecosystems that are caused by mining, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. Slowing down our way of life to a humane pace. Reconnecting with local communities and the natural world. Reorienting our economy away from endless growth and towards a system that improves human and non-human life. I argue that our students will be motivated by these opportunities much more than by looking at climate change as a problem that should be solved in order to maintain the status quo more or less intact.
What do we do when a student asks, “so what can we do”? The bottom line is that we can teach our students about climate change without offering neat and tidy solutions. Encourage them to talk about climate change with family, friends, and members of their community. Introduce avenues for climate activism. Illustrate the ways in which communities around the world are responding to climate change through adaptation and creativity. Certainly renewables and carbon footprints should be part of the discussion, but only in the context of the wider transformation that we are undertaking. Empowering our students to be an active part of this transformation should be our most important goal.