‘The whole place feels wrong’: voices from across America on what the climate crisis stole
In the six years since the Paris agreement, the climate crisis has rapidly accelerated. From catastrophes to slow transformations of familiar landscapes, lives everywhere have been upended
The jubilation of the Paris climate agreement, where delegates from around the world triumphantly declared the climate crisis would finally be tamed, will have felt very hollow to many in the US in the six years since.
Following the landmark 2015 deal to curb dangerous global heating, the US has experienced four of its five hottest years ever recorded. A drought of a 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 been caused by climate change, scientists have found.
Between 1980 and 2020 the US has 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.
In those five years, within the span of the Paris climate deal, the US has experienced more than $600bn in damages from climate change-fueled disasters, a new record. With governments gathering again in Scotland for crucial UN talks intended to further the progress made in Paris, Joe Biden is representing a country wounded like never before by the escalating emergency.
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.
Beyond the financial loss, these cascading disasters have caused huge pain and suffering, mental anguish, displacement and bewilderment among Americans. We asked a number of writers from around the country to share what the climate catastrophe looks like from their vantage point. Along with submissions from Guardian readers, their stories are below. – 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 five-knot wind blew; my little jacket thermometer read 39F.
That was May 1979, when I first arrived in Alaska. It changed my life and set me free. It taught me how to survive, and more – to be fully alive.
Fast-forward 40 years, to July 2019. My wife Melanie and I have made our home in the little town of Gustavus, next to Glacier Bay, where we have moose in our driveway and ravens in the treetops, and where our 20-year-old nephew, Tanner, comes to visit. Record high temperatures break everywhere. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, hits 90F, five degrees more than its previous all-time high.
When I take Tanner up the bay to see the sights, something stuns me: a warm wind off the glacier. The cold is gone. The whole place feels wrong. It’s eerily quiet. No kittiwakes or terns. Not a single harbor seal.
Tanner has no reference point. But I do, and am alarmed.
That summer, salmon die in river mouths. Whales wash up dead. Permafrost melts and threatens infrastructure across much of the northern part of the state. As it melts, it releases methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Add to that a warming north Pacific that’s roughly 30% more acidic than it used to be.
Now, in 2021, the six warmest years on record have been the last six. The first Gustavus snow that used to arrive at Halloween may not appear until January. And soon thereafter, wrath-of-God rains wash it away. Floods happen much more often than they used to. Last year, in the nearby town of Haines, heavy rains caused a landslide that killed two people. Up north, Native villages are washing into the sea.
What will happen to our livelihoods, futures and homes?
Gustavus has built a new community center to house townfolk during emergencies. Soon, a new root cellar will be finished. One day we may all gather there with our children and guitars to eat potatoes for every meal.
In Glacier Bay, many glaciers no longer reach the sea. 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 as the architects and finish carpenters of Alaska; how they shape entire landscapes, and have shaped me as well. 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
Driving through Terrebonne parish, you can see how the trees have bent or snapped; the root systems upturned. There are always questions after the storm of whether deeply rooted residents will be able to stay. Outsiders ask why they’d even want to.
After Hurricane Ida, I was displaced for 50 days from my home in Houma in south-east Louisiana. It is a strange experience to work as a reporter and face disaster as an individual. More than 60% of my apartment complex was deemed uninhabitable. I don’t reject disaster relief meals or cleaning supplies for the sake of objectivity and neutrality.
For two and a half weeks after the hurricane, I drove four hours most days from Lafayette to Houma to report. I’d ration gas each day to make sure I had enough for the trip and back. There was no gas in Houma.
I covered Indigenous communities down the bayou who took recovery efforts into their own hands. “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 said that it was time to get a fresh start in Mississippi. The gulf had reached the bayou, he said. “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 am very fortunate to have housing again in Houma. But many of my neighbors are still houseless, sleeping in tents, cars and hotels hundreds of miles away.
I have watched state and federal agencies fail my neighbors every day. Last year was the most active hurricane season on record. Residents in Lake Charles still have blue tarps on their roofs, waiting for recovery relief. Scars from the oil and gas industry leave abandoned canals that exacerbate land loss. Louisiana loses a football field of coastline every 100 minutes. The dead oak trees that line the Pointe-aux-Chenes marina serve as a graveyard.
What can you do when you watch your community erode, when the first signs of temporary housing appear more than a month after the storm?
Why are we treating these spaces as expendable?
Sonoran Desert, Arizona
‘The desert cannot possibly hold us all’
By Debbie Weingarten
We left our home in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona at the end of May, just as it was getting too hot to sleep at night, and moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. In a way, leaving southern Arizona was a pandemic decision. But in larger part, it was a climate one, a response to years of mounting anxieties that reached a fever pitch.
I love the heat and the sun, 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 in certain months, midday hours are better spent mimicking the sleeping desert creatures than attempting errands or productivity.
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.
In 2020, a measly 4.17in of rain fell in Tucson. In contrast, the 2021 monsoon season swept in like a monster, causing flooding and overwhelming stormwater systems. This summer, Lake Mead fell to its lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s, triggering water cuts that reduce Arizona’s supply of Colorado River water by 18%. Meanwhile, 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.
Several Arizona counties could become uninhabitable in the next 20 to 40 years, according to one study. And still, somehow, the human population continues to explode. 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. The desert cannot possibly hold us all. How long will the water last? When is it time to leave?
Here in North Carolina, we live on a mountain, everything soft and moss-covered and fog-laden and damp. My desert children, who have never experienced true fall before, are fascinated by the concept of leaves piled high enough to kick 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 cleaved in half. I love it here, and I am also homesick. The desert is a permanent stone in my chest, a heartsick ache. I miss the alleyway prickly pears growing like weeds, the mesquites with their crowns of thorns, saguaros bursting with fruit, palo verdes dropping yellow flowers over the sidewalks, those wily coyotes hunting stray cats, all the rusty human treasures washed and buried in the arroyos, the smell of creosote just before it rains, heat like a hairdryer, the Windex-blue sky that goes on forever.
Grass Valley, California
There is a heavy grief that many of us in affected regions feel when special and sacred places burn, friends and strangers are displaced, animals perish and the sun is an eerie blood red in the sky. It’s jarring and sad, watching precious things being lost.
The upshots, though, are true testaments to our community: neighbors checking on neighbors, friends rushing to help evacuate livestock or chainsaw and rake and pack trucks, strangers opening up their homes and guest bedrooms, and people showing up to help without ever 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 the Penawahpskewe (Penobscot Nation) and raised in a culture so deeply entwined with the Penobscot River that there was no clear point where the river ended, and we began. Our people see the river as a beloved member of our community. In fact, the Penobscot River is recognized as the first citizen of the Penobscot Nation, to acknowledge that we all draw our lives from her waters.
My grandfather brought me to those waters at a very young age, teaching me to paddle a canoe before I learned to ride a bike. There, I learned my place in creation, in connection to the subsistence lifestyle that had supported our people for millennia. Our way of life is not measured in economic terms, but through sustained relationships with our local environment. For more than 500 generations our people lived in relationship with the plant and animal species living in and along the river, relying on them for food, medicine, ceremony and our overall wellbeing. Over the last five generations, industrial pollution has ravaged that relationship.
Paper mills arrived on our shores in 1901. The pulp and paper industry has some of the highest fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emission rates on the planet. They locate along waterways, create hydro dams and then dump wastewater in the form of hot leachate into the water, increasing both water and surface temperatures. This and other industrial activity exacerbates global warming, causing upset to ecosystems that are integral to our cultural survival. Warming and damming in the river brought the Atlantic salmon and other fish to near extinction. And the damage is not limited to the river. A 2018 study, for example, showed that approximately 70% of new moose calves had died from winter tick disease, a direct result of a warming climate.
Each year the water gets warmer. As a child, ice-out was one of my favorite annual events. I loved to watch the river shrug off her winter layer and signal the shift toward spring. But twice in the last five years the ice has gone out in the middle of winter. This should concern everyone. The Penobscot River is one of the last refuges for cold-water fish in the United States. Changes in our water temperature have a devastating impact on all eastern fisheries and the surrounding ecosystems. Yet, even as I write this, a new paper mill is legally dumping mass amounts of steaming wastewater into the river.
People write about climate change as though it were a specter looming on 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 to a dawn blazing red beneath the haze of smoke and the terrible smell 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. Early last spring a wildfire passed within a mile of our sheep and cattle ranch in South Dakota, and now the soot rises up every time the wind starts to blow. 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. Probably exactly the same: hills, valleys, a few trees, a lot of dried-up grass. This region has been rehearsing climate change for 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 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.
For the past few thousand years, these hillsides have been classified as steppe, with an average annual rainfall of 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. The rhythm that the Arikara, the Hidatsa and later the Lakota and Dakota followed when they used these lands as their summer hunting grounds, following herds of bison.
Will we be able to learn this new rhythm?
I walk all the way to the farthest draw and stand beneath a thick-trunked cottonwood. Her yellow leaves rustle loudly; it is impossible not to hear laughter in the sound. She already knows almost everything I am trying to figure out. 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. In their place are greater numbers of tropical storms with heavy rainfall and sustained high winds, causing flooding and tree damage fairly regularly during spring and summer months. 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, California
‘What is it to be well in sick times?’
By Mekdela Maskal
I came back to the land that raised me in June of 2020 and the changes screamed of drought and fire threat. The crunch of the leaves under my feet were louder than I remember, and I could no longer fully submerge my body in the stream in the valley below.
The season of smoke and flames started in August last year, with dry lightning that ignited 650 wildfires across northern California overnight. I didn’t have a full day of deep breaths outside until November. My thoughts were occupied by what home was before this. I was homesick while I was home.
This year, I told myself that preparation would ease my nerves. I started my fire-ready list once Dixie ignited in July. Dixie is still not contained and is now the second largest fire in California history, with almost a million acres burnt.
My nearest fire sparked the afternoon of 4 August. I was working at my desk upstairs. I stared away from my computer towards the floor and noticed a rectangle of orange sunlight coming in from the skylight above. I checked Twitter for updates as I ran outside to see for myself. It was a new flame, the River fire, eight miles from home and burning towards me.
My legs walked me down the hill. I stood on a familiar rock, watching ash fall around me. 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 be well in sick times?
The fire was contained within a week and my area never moved from evacuation warning to mandate, so I stayed home and unloaded my car just a few days after filling it up. I realized it wasn’t just the preparation that made this season feel different. I feel connected to the life here now, not only 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.
7 November 2021