Editor’s Note: Jamie Beck Alexander is director of Drawdown Labs at Project Drawdown, a nonprofit dedicated to using existing solutions to stop global warming. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
It was the trees that my family loved most about California: the coast redwoods, Monterey cypress and giant sequoias that have stood watch and borne witness to the passage of time for a million years. And it was the trees, now parched and burning in a world radically altered by the accelerating buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, that drove us away.
California’s forests are some of the most awe-inspiring places on earth – as much for their grandeur as for the carbon dioxide that they absorb from the atmosphere and store away in their trunks and roots. But the past few years have seen the most horrific wildfire seasons on record in California. 2018’s Camp Fire killed 86 people and burned so many buildings that the metal particles released into the air caused lead levels to spike to 15 times higher than normal in the Bay Area, according to a report from California Air Resources Board. Last year broke records when more than 4 million acres burned, and this year, according to data from Cal Fire, is so far on track to be even worse. This is all fueled by an ongoing drought emergency in 41 of the state’s 58 counties, worse than any experienced in recorded history. Water has run out in rural towns in the Central Valley.
In California, many are now considering what only a few years ago was unthinkable: In a time of accelerating fossil-fueled climate impacts, how much longer will we stay? And as ever more human beings are forced to navigate the dual emotions of grief about all we’re losing and anxiety about how we keep ourselves and our communities safe, how do we also maintain a focus on stopping the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions that are causing this catastrophe in the first place, and keep it from getting worse?
First, if you are considering uprooting your life because of climate change, let that sink in. Let that reality, a scenario that was likely inconceivable to you just a few years ago, radicalize you to the all-encompassing scope, scale and urgency of this existential, all-encompassing crisis.
Take this moment to align your life with this new reality. Become an activist. Get political. Educate yourself and others on the solutions that already exist to address this crisis. If you buy a house, electrify it – meaning replacing technologies that depend on fossil fuels with ones that use renewable energy. Identify the leverage points you can tap in your life in every sphere of influence – as an individual, an employee, a community member, a citizen – to make an outsized impact wherever you can.
Process the emotion of it all: that in the year 2021, the climate crisis changed your life personally, fundamentally and permanently. Let the emotion fuel the ferocity of your action. For my family, San Francisco, the place that we loved and built community – the place where my daughter was born and my son learned to ride a bike – brought health impacts from smoke that in the end were too much for our set of circumstances. The only useful way that I have managed to deal with that grief is to use it to remind myself and others of the reality of this crisis and all that’s at stake.
Second, like it or not, you’ll represent what the future may hold for whatever town you may choose to move to – an early warning for communities that have yet to experience the direct and devastating effects of the climate crisis.
Use your climate story to sound the alarm to others about the urgency of our unfolding planetary emergency. Don’t make this move in silence. Broadcast the reality of it to mobilize everyone you can. Do it loudly. Do it everywhere.
Signal the urgency and gravity of the issue through your behavior. Show up at city council meetings. Encourage your city or county to declare a climate emergency. Get involved in local issues – for me, that means joining the growing community of Water Protectors and allies to oppose the Line 3 pipeline. Focus on deepening community ties and building resilience, because both will be essential elements in an era of chaos and change.
Third, ensure that your climate-related move doesn’t exacerbate existing inequity. Climate migration risks deepening class divides, disrupting local culture and furthering a history of colonialism. When my family relocated to Duluth, Minnesota, the most valuable advice we received came from Karen Diver, the former tribal leader of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa – the original caretakers of the place we now call home. “Don’t let your climate solution result in our spiritual and cultural genocide.” Learn about the history of the land you’ll call home. Stand for the rights of indigenous people. Support public programs and community groups. Tread lightly.
And remember that climate change is first and foremost a crisis faced by people far less privileged than us. Global warming has been an existential crisis for communities around the world for decades, from Bangladesh to Madagascar, from Syria to the Central Valley; often those who have done the least to contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions but for whom the impacts and implications are far more dire. The ability to worry about or work on climate change is a luxury that many can’t afford.
Ultimately, we’ll all realize that there is no such thing as a climate-safe place, only places with different climate-related impacts, unfolding on different timescales, to differently-equipped people, interconnected in ways we can’t begin to fathom.
I write this from the city that welcomed my family when we left California, (a city that has been called a “climate safe haven”), under a red sun setting in an orange sky, as smoke from forest fires in Canada cause unhealthy air quality even here. There is no “away” from climate change. Wherever the forest fires are raging, the heat domes are suffocating, the levees are breaking, the famines are starving, the infrastructure is melting, the living things are dying – it’s happening to us all.
At this pivotal moment in human and planetary history, the question for us cannot only be, “Where might I be safe?” but also, “Where might I be of most use?” This is no time for the most privileged among us to insulate ourselves inside our climate havens. This is a time to open our arms wide, contributing and engaging in every way we can to the global effort to reimagine everything about the way we inhabit this planet. A time to find a way, despite the odds, to come back into balance with the earth’s exquisitely interconnected – and still living – natural systems.