When Climate Change Comes Home

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[Michelle Levinson, ERG Graduate Student]

Image Source: East Bay Times

This has been a terrifying year. Earthquakes, hurricanes, heat waves, and floods — the news sounds like a chapter from the Book of Revelation, or a scene from the dystopian future that Octavia Butler envisioned 25 years ago. We know that these traumas and calamities are experienced first and worst by those with the fewest resources and means for resilience, and this truth has played out in the varied impacts of storm flooding in HoustonPuerto Rico, and Bangladesh.

I have read articles and “reacted” to posts on social media; I have donated (grad-school-budget-sized amounts) to causes; I’ve traded updates and insights with family, friends, and random strangers. Yet while these disasters have caught my attention, I have primarily managed them on the rational side of my mind — acknowledging all of this loss, but also wondering what I would have for lunch and whether the 6-bus would be running on time. This is to say, the remote traumas of others stayed emotionally remote to me, and I think to many others as well.

Disaster elicited a very different and emotional reaction this week, after landing so much closer to home. On Sunday morning, I woke up to a string of texts among my family. My aunt and uncle had been evacuated from their home at 2 AM the night before. They awoke to a loud banging on the door and saw the hills above them glowing orange. Now they are with my family in Oakland, still waiting to learn the fate of their home. Many have not been so lucky.

This tragedy reaches deep into the ERG and Berkeley communities, though the fires rage two counties away. It is not just the immediate loss of life, home, and community that we mourn, but also the little things we take for granted. For me, this is my bicycle commute.

Wednesday morning I checked the air quality and decided that 73 AQI was good enough to ride my bike to school. Maybe I would go a bit more slowly than usual, but I had my inhaler in my backpack (as always) and was desperate for some exercise to release some of the stress of midterm season. After all, I make this ride multiple times a week and am in pretty good shape. On a normal day, I don’t even need to puff my inhaler before going on a jog.

But five minutes into my forty-minute ride, I knew something was wrong. There weren’t many other cyclists on the street, which was abnormal. I pedaled past an unusual number of babies and children waiting with their guardians to cross the street to the pediatrics unit of Kaiser Permanente. By the time I was two miles into my five-and-a-half-mile ride, I was very short of breath.

For me, an asthmatic episode comes on slowly, straining my breathing and then constricting my chest in the way you might feel right before you start to cry. Yet the instinct to take a deep breath to calm myself and reset leaves me even more scarce for air. In these moments, it is hard not to let your thoughts rush and fear mount, but nerves are far more hurtful than helpful. In fact, it is because my asthma is so well managed that I am unfamiliar with handling the symptoms when they do arise. I am privileged to always have had access to quality healthcare, but my experience is common among children that grew up in Oakland.

I would rather that experiences like this stay rare, but I am not deluded. The effects of climate change are projected to increase prevalence of asthma triggers, like longer pollination seasons and ground-level ozone. As this week’s tragic events in the North Bay attest, fires are another awful face of these threats, driven in part by climate change. Whether it is the asthma attack of a cyclist in Oakland or the tragedy of losing your home in Santa Rosa, the havoc of climate change has come home.

I am proud to be a member of the ERG community. We have the opportunity, and the obligation, to apply our training, knowledge, and skills to this great challenge whose consequences are known too well, both near and far. Today, we also urge you to consider volunteering or donating to support the communities in the North Bay, and throughout California, that have been ravaged by fire this October.

Thanks to Jesse Strecker for his thoughtful comments on an early draft of this post.
Note: The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.

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