September 14th, 2020 by Joe Wachunas
I’ll never forget when the fires first woke me up. It was 2017, and a dumb local teenager threw a firework into a tinder box of dry trees and plants, and in a blink of an eye the beloved Columbia River Gorge was on fire and the City of Portland was covered in smoke for days on end. Ash fell from the sky, like apocalyptic snow, and left an eerie layer of dust on our cars. Many of us sat in front of our computers, continuously refreshing the air quality maps, to see when we might ever go back outside.
— Oregon State Police (@ORStatePolice) October 19, 2017
Up to that point, I had always thought I was doing enough, that I was a “good environmentalist.” Hadn’t I started a compost pile in 5th grade? Hadn’t I gone car free for most of my adult life? Hadn’t I changed every lightbulb in my house to the then–cutting edge CFLs? Hadn’t I bought solar panels even when it didn’t make any financial sense?
Up to that point, I had, notwithstanding the warnings from scientists, deep down, always felt that climate change was a problem we had to solve for our grandkids, something to tackle gradually so that the world of 2100 had glaciers and Florida held onto its shoreline. That mentality, of far off risk, made solving our greenhouse gas dilemma a hobby for me, something down on my to-do list next to running and playing violin.
But the fires of 2017 changed everything for me. Suddenly, global warming was immediate and enormous. Suddenly, all my previous efforts looked like child’s play compared with the urgent task at hand. Suddenly, the glorious climate I’d taken for granted — the perfect Pacific Northwest with summers of no air conditioning and snow capped mountains that fed glacial streams flanked by towering Doug fir forests — a landscape that wasn’t on anyone’s map to be hit hard by global warming, was at total risk, here and now. Suddenly, climate change was at our doorstep, the invisible enemy we had so often been warned about was now barging into our lives, ruining places we lived in and loved.
Perhaps my most sobering realization that year was that this crisis was WWIIesque in its all encompassing immensity. There was no way I could ever again lead my life largely ignoring or immune from this issue. I knew that, going forward, everything in my life — work, family, lifestyle choices — would revolve around climate change whether I liked it or not. I became fully convinced that I had been born into a time of a great worldwide upheaval and that accepting and embracing my own small role in solving this challenge was the only path forward.
Wake-up calls, like mine in 2017, are common in many personal journeys. 2020 has been full of them. We’re waking up to the depth of racial inequities that plague our society. We’re waking up to the real risks of and essential responses to global pandemics. And with this fire season, many of us are waking up to climate change.
It is crucial to wake up. Ignorance is bliss until fire is at your doorstep, and then it’s catastrophic. Thoreau said, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”
But what do we do when we wake up, when we experience “reality” like those of us on the West Coast have this September?
Everyone goes through stages of grief, from denying the seriousness of the situation — “fires have always been a part of life here” (never mind the heat and dryness that set records each summer) — to passively accepting an increasingly awful “normal” (something called, “shifting baseline syndrome”) — “I guess this is just how summers are going to be from now on.” Other coping mechanisms are a naïve belief that we don’t have to change and will simply adapt — “if it keeps getting hotter, I’ll add another window air conditioner to my house.” And then there’s defeatist depression — “it’s too late, and nothing I do matters anyways.”
In my mind, the best response to this rapidly unfolding catastrophe is the Winston Churchill approach — fierce determination with all hands on deck. We need 1) a full acceptance of the severity of the situation — we are in an emergency, and this will not be easy; and 2) a deep well of grit and determination — we can solve this and we must devote our lives to doing so.
Churchill is a controversial historical figure, but when faced with the murderous Nazi regime taking over all of Europe, he chose to fiercely resist them and to commit every resource to doing so. We find ourselves in a time where emulating that mentality is the best course of action.
We must harness the energy of this existential risk and pivot our way of life. We must use the force of this storm to unfurl our sails and navigate toward a better future. Every fire, hurricane, flood, and deathly hot summer should double our efforts to reduce our emissions across every sector of society and our personal lives. Action is the best, the sanest, and really, the only solution to the threat we face.
This Past Week in Oregon
Before I get to what action might look like, let me bring you up to date on what’s happened in Oregon since the fires of 2017. After a relatively mild fire season this summer, no doubt you’ve seen the unprecedented explosion of fires last week in my state. A windstorm, combined with historically dry conditions, created massive fires on the usually “too-wet-to burn” west side of the Cascade Mountains. Many of these fires are enormous and 0% contained. Towns that my family drove through, just two weeks ago, are decimated. Colleagues and friends, who live a mere 20 miles away, have evacuated their homes. The air pollution levels in my backyard are literally off the charts, or in EPA terms, “beyond index.” Close to 10% of Oregonians are now climate refugees, currently evacuated or preparing to be.
Time for Action — Take the Fire Pledge
The disruption of climate change has often been compared to that of a world war. Bill McKibben wrote a great article about how “our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.” Using the world wars as a template for how to act on a massive scale can be valuable analogical thinking and help us rally to meet a type of challenge we’ve rarely, if ever, faced before.
Which brings me back to Churchill. In a speech to the House of Commons, in 1936, he used language which can be repurposed to motivate us to deal with a threat we’ve known about, and largely ignored, for decades,
“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”
For us too, the era of procrastination is ending. We, too, are living with horrendous consequences, and it is past time for action.
May enough of us wake up to this fact and bring emissions down at the necessary rate. May those of us experiencing, first hand, the existential threat of climate change — those of us who can’t go outside, or who have left homes as early American climate refugees — use this awful energy to motivate others.
Until the next severe climatic battle, may we pledge to ourselves, and to others, to fight this monster of our own creation. May we pledge to do one big thing, and many small things, this next year to decarbonize our lives. May we pledge to start electrifying our homes, our water heaters, our furnaces. May we pledge to save energy in small ways like showerheads and hanging laundry. May we pledge to eat less meat, buy renewable energy, electrify our transportation, plant trees, divest our funds from fossil fuels, elect candidates who enact policies to stem climate change, help the underserved to access clean technologies and on and on and on.
May we pledge, in the face of this overwhelming challenge, to take action. May these fires end the era of denial, defeatism, passivity, and procrastination. May we pledge, like Churchill, “not to flag or fail, to go to the end … to never surrender.”
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