Paradise Lost

by Laura Barley

Climate change is a globally felt human experience that recently hit home for California native Laura Barley. Here, she reflects on the wildfires in her home state and takes a look at some policy tools aimed at climate mitigation.

California is on fire. Needless to say, the past two months have been a terrifying series of events. The Thomas Fire has devoured almost 275,000 acres, granting it the all-too dynamic status of the largest wildfire in California’s recent history. It wraps up the most destructive wildfire season California has on record, capping off at over 500,000 acres burned—more than double the total acreage burned in 2016. To add insult to injury some of those acres, charred of all vegetation by the Thomas Fire, bore the burden of a flash flood that killed 21 people in Montecito.

Even though the Friedman School pulled me to Boston, California is and always will be my home. For the most part, I watched the coverage of the Thomas Fire from afar. Tucked away in the icy confines of my Somerville apartment and Jaharis 118, I checked my phone every few hours to see who of my friends had been evacuated, which of my sun-streaked memory lanes had been destroyed. I couldn’t believe what I saw—apocalyptic images of scrubby hillsides swallowed by flames, plumes of orange clouds encompassing the whole sky. Each picture I saw boomed the same message over and over: that nothing would ever be the same again.

Photo credit: CNN.com

Photo credit: CNN.com

The frequency of large-scale devastation speaks for itself: California’s climate is changing. It appears that the massive strain on the state’s agricultural and urban water resources, fueled by the longstanding lure of its eternal growing season and illustrious vision of paradise, have come to a reckoning. Years of prolonged drought followed by a sporadic year of intense rainfall have created ecosystems irresilient to the rapid shifts—groundwater and river basins have all but dried up, leaving forest and chaparral ecosystems as little more than tinderboxes. The euphoric agricultural and commercial boons of the twentieth century have lurched into a twenty-first century defined by scarcity, uncertainty, and dramatic change.

So, what’s really at stake here? Climates change, they have for eons. Species perish and adapt in the great equilibrium of life. And we—Californians, Americans, humans—will adapt too, hopefully in a timely manner. But much of the world finds itself in the middle of a cycle that feels beyond our control, where the climate interventions we make barely seem to break even. The tons of carbon dioxide emissions from a single large-scale wildfire, like the Thomas or Napa Fires, are estimated to equal the annual emissions of all motor vehicles in the state, and definitively offset much of the progress made by the state’s cap-and-trade program.

For the foreseeable future, California and much of the American West will continue to battle climate change on multiple fronts—greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, flash flood and wildfire mitigation, to name a few. Encouragingly, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration has made significant headway towards a baseline system of climate accountability across the state. In addition to the emissions cap-and-trade program, since 2009 the Safeguarding California plan has established a template for large-scale climate change adaptation strategies, and continues to convene action plans across multiple state and municipal departments. Additionally, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 has finally enacted groundwater monitoring protocol in a state that will continue to rely almost exclusively on subterranean water stores for agricultural production. These are positive signs of political responsiveness, and hopefully yield noticeable impacts in the years to come.

But at the heart of climate change, there exists a loss more worrisome than any policy analysis or statistics could project. For me, for now, the loss is purely psychological. The sense that all of us feel to some extent, which is felt especially strongly in California and the developed world at large, the sense that nothing bad can ever happen to us—that’s gone now.

Enduring the human experience of losing the places we’ve built from scratch, places with cultural and spiritual significance, places we call home—this is the global price many of us will have to pay in the coming decades. The stories of devastation and loss are the stories we should be paying attention to, the stories that make the numbers real. More importantly, they’re the stories that motivate us to action, out of fear and compassion that nothing so terrible should ever happen to us again. Because every time it happens, it shouldn’t.

Laura Barley is a second-year AFE Master’s student, who grew up in the Bay Area and lived in Southern California while attending UC Santa Barbara. She is a member of the Water Systems, Science, and Society research program aimed at mitigating water constraints to healthier diets. Most importantly, she strives to be a climate optimist.

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