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When Climate Change Is Too Close To Home

Last week was a tough one. On Tuesday afternoon, I called my family to check in and heard my mom say, “We’re evacuating. There’s a fire.” 

IMG_0917Growing up in San Diego county, one gets used to fire season, which stretches from late summer through the fall due to the hot and dry Santa Ana winds from the desert. But I was taken by surprise that a fire was moving so quickly in May.

By the next day, one fire had become six and then nine as northern San Diego county became an inferno. My Facebook wall chronicled former teachers, babysitters and childhood friends with fires outside their windows. By Thursday night, I knew people who had evacuated from five of the nine fires. So, after a couple of fitful nights waking up to check Twitter to get the latest news, I was exhausted by Friday.

Unfortunately, that morning I was awoken to an emergency alert warning me about flash flooding in D.C. Now, it would be easy to simply dismiss this as a bad weather week. But I work on environmental communications issues, so that’s not going to happen.

The Associated Press wrote about the reaction of the Carlsbad fire chief (one of communities threatened by last week’s fires):

“The city's fire chief said the blazes were unprecedented in his 27-year firefighting career because they are so early in the year. ‘This is May, this is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October,’ Chief Michael Davis said. ‘I haven't seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May.’"

That quote and my experience sound an awful lot like the National Climate Assessment released a couple of weeks ago:

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present… Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours… Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage.”

We are experiencing climate change. This isn’t a distant story of the polar bears or ice caps. It’s about our neighborhoods and communities. There are both pros and cons to this new reality. The cons are obvious, but the pros are that as environmental advocates, we have new momentum to connect for people what’s happening in their communities to what’s happening to our planet.

Comedian John Oliver did a great segment on the absurdity of mainstream news showing so-called balance in covering climate change recently. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch, but the gist is that he brings out 97 scientists against 3 deniers to emphasize that that would be a fair balance for news to cover the differences of opinion on this.

I appreciated the humor, but I’d rather see 100 people who’ve been impacted by climate change already. Those who’ve lost their homes in fires and floods or whose business has been destroyed by decreased snowpack, drought or more intense storms. We are in a unique moment, where politicians still score political points by denying the reality of climate change while businesses and communities are in the process of climate resilience planning. A missing link is people’s personal experiences and tying them to the larger reality.

Speaking for myself, I know I feel a deeper sense of urgency after the last couple weeks. I hope we can seize on others’ experiences to convert that urgency to action.



Alison Omens, Vice President 

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