Heat, wildfires and red skies: The week climate change seized the national spotlight
California’s record-breaking, Labor Day heat wave, with sustained temperatures of 110 degrees and above, might have been enough. So, too, might have been the weekslong stretch of eye- and throat-burning air now all too familiar to North Bay residents. Or perhaps satellite imagery showing millions of acres ablaze up and down the western United States, razing whole towns and sending masses of dense smoke into the atmosphere off the Pacific Coast.
Any of these could have made September 2020 the jolt that was needed to unite Americans in a battle for the planet’s future.
But it was instead the eerie red sky that arrived with the dawn Wednesday and left much of Northern California and other fire-afflicted regions tinged a sickly yellow thereafter that seems to have done the most to get the nation contemplating the urgency of the climate crisis.
Even those unmoved by the rising incidence and severity in recent years of hurricanes, floods, wildfires and droughts seemed to have found the shock of Bay Area landmarks in a dystopian-looking world too conspicuous to ignore.
Terms like “apocalypse,” “doomsday” and “Armageddon” flooded social media and the airwaves amid the awe and grief that ensued, as once abstract projections of climate change too extreme to imagine became glaringly real to all.
The New York Times declared “a climate reckoning.”
“The future has arrived,” the Guardian news site announced in a headline above a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge on some red Mars-like planet. “These explosive fires are our climate change wakeup call.”
Even here in Sonoma County, where successive years of extended drought, increasingly frequent flooding and destructive wildfires have long insinuated themselves into regular life, there is renewed fear and anxiety about the future of the world.
“I had a kid ask, ‘Is this what it was like when, 65 million years ago, the asteroid hit the earth and blocked out the sun and killed all the plants and animals?’ “ Piner High School science teacher Kurt Krueger said, recounting a student’s query last week, on what one Washington Post columnist dubbed “Bladerunner Day,” given its likeness to the red-orange atmosphere depicted in the science fiction film.
“We’ve never had smoke and fire events in my first 50 years on the planet in Sonoma County like we do in the last five years or so,” said Krueger, 59. “And it’s changing right before our eyes.”
We’re definitely in a moment, one with profound potential for the kind of collective, decisive action necessary for the human race to survive, activists and public officials said.
But, they said, it requires courage, leadership, long-range vision, substantial investment and the commitment to do right by future generations, even if sacrifices are needed now.
It also means getting beyond the frustrations and “what ifs” of what could have been done 10, 20, 30 years earlier had the political will and public support existed, said Trathen Heckman, executive director of Petaluma-based Daily Acts, a nonprofit educational and civic agency devoted to building resilient, sustainable communities.
“There’s no way through this unless we embrace the really cold reality we’re facing,” Heckman. 49, said, “and there’s all kinds of things that should have been done ... We could have had an easier path.
“But that’s not where we’re at anymore. And it’s a steep, difficult path that requires transformative change at all scales, and we just have to embrace the hurt, embrace the grief, embrace the truth, and from there claim our power as a people to nurture community and to reclaim our future.”
Parents, and prospective parents, find motivation — and anguish — in their recognition that the consequences of human industry and consumption befalling the planet are only going to worsen, a point made over and over by those interviewed for this story.
Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose three children are all younger than 8, was among them.
“I refused to leave my children this kind of world without fighting like hell to make it better,” she said. “To me it just really provides this sense of urgency for working on climate mitigation, as well as adaptation. We need to do both of those things, as hard and as fast as possible.”
Given recent history and the immediate threat of wildfire, Hopkins confessed, however, to having Googled best places to live as the climate shifts, though it’s not clear how serious was her intent.
“I just hear my other friends, even if they're not planning on imminently moving, having those same thoughts of, ’Can we really raise our children here, if this is what life is going to be like every summer and fall?’ ” she said.