Heat, wildfires and red skies: The week climate change seized the national spotlight

A moment of reckoning on climate change is taking place in Sonoma County, on the West Coast and around the world.|

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.

Confronted by that same question, at the urging of a relative, UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab biologist Kristin Aquilino said she just doesn’t view leaving the area as a viable option — both because she loves her life here and because, where would she go?

“The entire planet has a changing climate,” Aquilino said. “There are natural disasters that are possible no matter where you live.”

Still, she’s found herself veering between “disaster porn mode” and a desperate search for bright spots during days already made challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic, as she works full time trying to save a species of sea snail from extinction and parents two young children, 2 and 5, shut in at home.

Her daughter, a freshly minted kindergartner, was not quite 3 when Aquilino’s parents lost their home to the North Bay Tubbs fire, so seasonal wildfires have “been her life since she was cognizant.” But Aquilino, whose professional life is devoted to promoting reproduction of scarce white abalones, believes children are extremely resilient, “as long as they’re surrounded by love.”

Like Hopkins, she also has deep faith in the power of human innovation and scientific discovery, if people are willing to come together and invest in meaningful change, politically and financially.

Technology already exists to derive power from sources other than fossil fuels, both said, and there are proven practices to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and help sequester carbon if we scale them up. There also are fuels management techniques and firebreak systems that would help reduce wildfire risks, thus limiting the release of additional carbon into the atmosphere.

“What just boggles my mind,” Hopkins said, “is why are we not treating this like the international emergency that it is? Why is there an inability to act? Why can we not connect the dots?”

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, on CNN last week, laid blame at the feet of government leaders in the nation’s capital, whom he accused of “sleepwalking” amid the world’s suffering.

“Right now, California is giving a graphic picture of where America and the world is going,” Brown said. “So, wake up America, and wake up world.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said the biggest obstacle to addressing the challenges is the current U.S. president — a man who has repeatedly rolled back environmental and climate policies, including those designed to reduce fossil fuel emissions from power plants and motor vehicles and to otherwise address global warming.

“Donald Trump is bad for our climate, and we’re going backward,” McGuire said. “We have an opportunity in about 50 days to make significant investment in our climate by un-electing Donald Trump.”

McGuire said California, “home to some of the brightest minds on the planet,” would remain the nation’s leader on confronting the climate emergency, though even here “we all have to redouble our efforts.”

Ann Hancock, co-founder of the Climate Center, a Sonoma County-based nonprofit dedicated to greenhouse gas reductions, agreed.

She said the climate crisis demands a war-time effort, and said she and her organization are looking to Gov. Gavin Newsom to take command in a way he so far has not.

“We can see that if we don’t take action, we will be overwhelmed, not just how we breathe and, you know, by the heat, but also financially,” Hancock said. “Our economy cannot withstand more of these wildfires, and more sea level rise. We know there’s not enough money to adapt to this. It’s completely untenable. … It’s unsurvivable, actually.”

“This can be a moment of transformation for us,” she said, “where we recognize what’s going on and really put in place the huge solutions that are needed, and that’s what we’re aspiring to, is to frame this moment as an opportunity time for us.”

Local lawmakers are on board, but they also know what frustrations likely lie ahead, given the challenge of partisan politics, generally, and the climate change issue, specifically. It’s not only politically divisive, but also overwhelming in scale and paralyzing to most of the public.

“We need people to embrace change,” Assemblyman Jim Wood said, “and that is the hardest thing for people to do.”

Wood, D-Santa Rosa, said he thought the North Bay firestorm in 2017, the 2018 fire season, which included both the deadly Camp fire and the massive Mendocino Complex fires, were all wake-up calls. The same goes for the 2019 Kincade fire, the largest in Sonoma County’s history.

Yet Wood said he’s found himself, “banging my head,” particularly where wildfire prevention and fuels management issues were concerned, grappling with entrenched interests in the state Legislature and state agencies to look beyond the problems of the moment and address long-term needs.

“I think we all know we need to change behaviors and to do things differently, but I don't know that anybody knows exactly what that is,” Wood added. “I think that's what makes it really hard to tackle this issue. There are a lot of great initiatives that are working out there, but it kind of feels like we’re nibbling around the edges.”

McGuire expressed a greater degree of optimism and confidence in the state’s leadership, but conceded more was needed.

“California is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change here in America,” he said. “I’ve stopped saying that we’re having an unprecedented fire season. Until we act boldly on the climate, we should not be surprised to see the same thing each and every year.

“Look,” he continued. “Ask a climate scientist if they’re surprised about the record-breaking year we’re having, when it comes to fire. They’ll all tell you they’re not surprised. They’ll tell you their predictions on the early wave of climate change are coming true.”

For Park Guthrie, a sixth grade teacher at Salmon Creek Charter School in Occidental and co-founder of the Schools for Climate Action, a youth-adult campaign dedicated to engaging schools and school organizations in the fight for clean energy and commonsense climate policies, the state of the planet represents a profound betrayal.

As a “mandated reporter,” someone legally required to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect, he said the refusal so far to deal seriously with the issue is a form of neglect.

“We’ve literally abandoned generations of our children as a cohort of adults,” said Guthrie, who has three teenage kids of his own, ages 13, 16 and 17. “We’ve known the harm, and we’ve had legitimate tools to limit the harm, and we’ve simply chosen not to protect our children from this.”

He pointed to his recent focus, trying to persuade CalSTRS, the state teachers’ retirement fund, to divest from the fossil fuel industry, as another instance in which “trusted elders that are supposed to nurture and help young people create great futures” have failed.

“Everywhere we turn, we just uncover this silent witnessing of child neglect,” he said.

A much more hopeful Heckman said that, despite his nonprofit’s name, Daily Acts, he and his colleagues recognize that however important individual actions are, they aren’t enough. They have to be linked to collective action and policy that can have wide-ranging, lasting impacts.

So the key is working at different scales, focusing in three areas, he said:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out fossil fuels.
  • Drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in forests, through soils management and agricultural practices
  • Investing in adaptation and resiliency for climate impacts that can’t be prevented, he and others said.

“It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by all the crises and point out all the things that are wrong and broken,” Heckman said, “but a lot of times, an inspiring hopeful collective vision of what’s possible is missing … You need to hold the complexity. We absolutely have to embrace the truth of the climate emergency and let our hearts break and feel the grief, and I think that’s essential. But when we do that, rather than be fearful of going there, it can connect us to nature, to each other, to the bigger purpose in a way that’s incredibly powerful.

“There’s still a lot we can do, but the clock is ticking,” he said.

Seventh-generation Bodega Bay rancher Che Casul, chief executive officer at The Center for Social and Environmental Stewardship, said there was a moment as he watched the lightning storm last month with his 1-year-old son that he recalls for its poignancy.

He didn’t yet know the lightning siege would spark devastating wildfires around California, but as Casul watched the sky turn red, “there was an element of being terrified, of what are we leaving that next generation?” he recalled.

“We’ve been on this land for 160 years, and what’s that next 60, 70 going to look like for him? We don’t really know,” Casul said. “In west county, you have your liberal or conservative friends, but none of the conservatives are saying climate change isn’t real anymore.”

Casul has worked intently to manage the fuels on his family’s property and reduce the threat of wildfire through grazing and other means, and has made other efforts to reduce his reliance on fossil fuels, as well.

He also leads a nonprofit that provides skills and career training for at-risk young people focused largely on land management, including fuels management and, recently, wildland firefighting.

He also knows there is a need for longer-term, collective vision.

“I think we, as a society and as a community think about, in the moment, what we need and how can we fix what’s going on, but we really struggle with the idea of generational benefit,” Casul said. “I have the experience of growing up on this place and knowing what every generation did before, what the benefits are. We as community members can effect change that’s going to have repercussions later on, and have that rolling perspective of what’s going on two and three generations from now.

“Right now we’re living in the moment, and that moment is not working.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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