Steve August 17, 2020
lessons-from-the-frontlines-of-global-warming

Ronnie Scott lost his wife when she tried to to
rescue their dog and cat from floodwaters in West Virginia in 2016. Carole
Duncan almost lost her 83-year-old father during Australia’s massive 2019 bushfires,
the firefighters finding him just in time. KerryAnn Laufer returned home days
after the 2019 Kincade Fire in California to find only her fireplace still
standing, while Dave Mackey saw nearly every house in his neighborhood on Grand
Bahama island washed away, pummeled by raging waters and 200-mile-per-hour
winds from Hurricane Dorian. 

Storms, wildfires, and other such disasters
are getting more common and intense as climate change accelerates. Scott,
Duncan, Laufer, and Mackey, who survived these extreme weather events, are among
the lucky ones. But each of them found themselves changed by the experience. 

What would you do if your house burned down or
your neighborhood washed away in a flood? How would you respond if a
cataclysmic weather event killed someone you love or forced you to abandon,
perhaps forever, the place you call home? And how would it change the way you
think about the world? 

These questions are at the heart of a new “Voices
from the Future”  interview series a small group of journalist, researchers, and I have developed at the Julie Ann
Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University. We have
collected the stories and insights of nearly three dozen survivors on five
continents, eight of which will be published in these pages over the next few
weeks.

We were interested in what these survivors
could tell us about the new era we are all about to face. As the climate crisis
expands and intensifies, many people will soon be confronting similar choices
and realities. While data-driven evidence gathering and
analysis are critical to understanding the policy and scientific challenges ahead,
personal stories offer different and often emotionally resonant insights,
particularly when it comes to the lived experience of climate change.

While each story is personal and individual, the
collective findings depict a painful, more tumultuous reality in the coming decades–exacerbated by inequality, accelerated by governmental inaction and leadership failure, and intensified by dislocation and economic hardship. Unsurprisingly, many of us
have resisted envisioning what that future might look like; others have refused even to accept that climate change is upon us now rather than a distant
possibility.

Yet the emerging themes also provide glimmers
of hope: of neighbors helping neighbors, of communities thinking about how to live
more sustainably, of growing numbers grasping that materialistic values and
consumerism may be antithetical to living better. With change comes
not just survival but sometimes even well-being. 

The Kincade Fire burned down not only Laufer’s
two-story, northern California house but also all of the work she had produced
as a professional artist–her pottery collection and her mementos. It left her
traumatized with a deep sense of instability. “We are all on the leading edge
of becoming climate refugees,” she said, noting the experience has changed her
thinking about material things. At 62, she’s questioning whether she should
rebuild or move away and start over somewhere else. 

Floridians Tom and Linda Cianos, newly terrified
of storms after being trapped in their house for 10 hours as Hurricane Irma pounded
their walls, are also thinking about moving away. They increasingly feel,
though, that the scale and impact of climate change mean “there’s nowhere to
run to.” They used to think climate change was decades away. “I’m
very, very, very scared and concerned,” Tom told the project. “I’m almost glad
that we’re near the end of our lives. I really don’t think we’re going to fix
this one … I think maybe what we need to talk about is how we’re going to live
with it.”

Moving to a better place isn’t an option if you’re struggling
to survive day to day. Wedding photographer Anjali Ponni Rajkumar saw that when
record monsoons and devastating floods hit slum dwellers in Chennai, India.
When the more fortunate arrived with pizzas, those living in huts got angry and
threw them back, resentful of the inequality that leaves them so exposed. While
Rakjumar’s family can store a truckload of water at home, poor residents stand
in lines each day to buy a single bucket of clean water. Rakjumar blames
government corruption and mismanagement.

Instability, dislocation, and disproportionate devastation
for poorer populations are growing. But these climate-induced jolts are also
spurring survivors to rethink their priorities and assumptions. After the 2018 Woolsey
Fire near Los Angeles burned down his family’s house, architect Greg
Kochanowski was stunned by the level of community support, both from neighbors
and strangers. “Everywhere we turned,
people were offering something—money, clothing, food, a place to rent,” he said,
acknowledging that his family is still grieving over the loss. “You start
believing in the human race again.”

Carol Duncan was touched when locals contributed $13,000 in
one day to the GoFundMe campaign she started for her father, who lost
everything to the Australian wildfires. Angry with the Australian government’s
inaction and increasingly aware of life’s precariousness, she decided to quit
her communications work in Sydney, focus on her family, and volunteer with fire
survivors and other relief organizations. “We are at a tipping point,” she
says. “My future is open; I do anything I can to help people and to prevent
future devastating fires from happening.”

Others, too, have
responded to instability by trying to help. After Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria
in 2017 and the failed response from the federal government, Glorynel Ojeda Matos decided to move her
family and work on a Ph.D. studying sustainability, water management, green
infrastructure, and behavior change. Sylvia Watchman, a Navajo Nation farmer facing
extreme drought in northeastern Arizona, has urged local authorities to make
changes that can protect scarce water resources; she also finds solace in
trying to recall balance between people and nature through Navajo stories.

Scott, who turned
to religion and got baptized after losing his wife in the flood, moved to a
home on a hill where he now feels safe. He’s also become increasingly aware of
the changing temperatures, motivating him to drive less, plan for solar, and
worry about a local manufacturer’s tree cutting. “I tell everybody,” Scott said.
“We are going to have to educate
people, to change their ways of living, to make a change because of the climate
and how we treat each other.” 

It’s a message we heard from many of these survivors: They did
not choose to become “voices from the future,” cautionary tales from the
frontlines of global warming. But they hope their stories might convince others
to start making changes now before their world is turned upside down. 


Voices From the Future is a series from the frontlines of climate change and extreme weather in collaboration with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University.

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