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A Local Climate Change Disaster: Coming to a Town Near You

Oregon’s heatwave is a living nightmare. 

Words: Kelsey Coolidge
Pictures: Ava Sol

I stood in my 90-degree Fahrenheit living room in a bra and a pair of athletic shorts, watching the cold wind from the southwest shake Portland’s trees through my window. From a high of 115 degrees in the day, the temperature would drop about 50 degrees during the nighttime, bringing much-needed relief. Three straight days of record-breaking heat. The heat of each day outpaced the previous day’s record holder. Portland, Oregon famous for its cloudy skies and rain was one of the hottest places on earth.

I don’t want to live my life like this, I thought to myself. Sheltering from climate disaster after climate disaster.

Reflecting on those hot days, I have come to the bleak realization that much of my adult life has already been punctuated by climate disasters. And I expect that will remain true for the remainder of my life.

The first was Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I had moved just months earlier from my home state of New Jersey to Colorado. Coming home for the holidays, I volunteered for an afternoon at a donation site where families displaced by the storm could grab needed supplies. I was working the diaper section and was told to limit the number of diaper packages to one per person. Every parent knows how quickly a single packet of diapers goes. I remember their faces as I gently denied each parent those “extra” supplies.

I experienced the next later that year: the 2013 flood in Boulder, Colorado. At night, I opened my bedroom window and listened to the floodwaters pushing boulders down a steep hill. In the morning, I walked to my neighborhood’s main street to find it covered in mud, rocks, and broken car parts. That my house didn’t flood was pure chance our neighbors across the street pumped out an endless stream of water from theirs.

Scientists have warned that the effects of climate change will cause more extreme storms and weather patterns for decades. However, neither event was as spectacularly out-of-the-ordinary as what I’ve experienced in Oregon in just under a year.

I wrote about my first Oregon-based climate disaster experience just under a year ago — the Oregon wildfires in 2020 that covered most of the state in a heavy and toxic smoke for over a week. Now, we have melting power lines and buckling roads due to an extreme heatwave that is likely to occur only once every 4,776 years. To put that into perspective, geologists estimate that Mt. Hood, the iconic stratovolcano that dominates Portland’s skyline, erupts once every 500 to 1,000 years.

In science-language, human-induced climate change is defined by an increase in global temperature, extreme weather patterns, and acidifying oceans. In people-language, climate change is denying parents diapers for their babies.

In science-language, human-induced climate change is defined by an increase in global temperature, extreme weather patterns, and acidifying oceans. In people-language, climate change is denying parents diapers for their babies. It’s waking up early to do your household chores because your apartment will be too hot to function after noon. It’s losing your family home to flood waters or fire. It’s people drowning in rivers and lakes while seeking refuge from the heat. It’s air you can’t breathe. It’s both random and indiscriminate climate change will affect everyone but some folks will be worse off than others. And not only because of economic or racial disparities in a single neighborhood, one side of the street can be flooded and the other can be perfectly fine.

Typically, this is where I’d “flip the script” in my writing. This is where I’d tell you about all of the alternatives — technologies that we can invest in, budgets to alter, or ways that our societies can change. But frankly, I’m not feeling optimistic today. And if you’re reading this, you probably already know the dramatic steps we need to take and should have already taken.

To put it mildly, it is incredibly frustrating that our government is refusing to act on climate change. I don’t care about the intricacies of policy-making right now. I cannot stomach the discussions around the infrastructure bill striking key climate change provisions like the clean electricity standard or arresting climate activists during a protest while I’m building DIY swamp coolers and hunkering down in the only room in my apartment that my little AC unit can keep below 85 degrees with my husband and cats.

The reality is that it doesn’t matter what the government does or seemingly more likely, doesn’t do to address climate change tomorrow.

You need to be prepared for how climate change will disrupt your life today.

This is the single most important part of the conversation that’s missing from the current discourse. You need a plan to evacuate, to keep yourself and your family cool or warm, to ensure you have adequate food and clean water available, and to care for others in your community in need of help.

Even if we switch the proverbial light switch tomorrow and live in a carbon-neutral world, our planet still has 409.8 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It could take centuries upon centuries to rid our atmosphere of anthropogenic carbon. While models vary according to different specifications, we might not see global cooling until after 2300 well beyond my lifetime and the lifetime of anyone alive today. This means that global temperatures will increase regardless of our efforts, with continued extreme weather, natural disasters, and rising sea levels. Our oceans will absorb a good chunk of our carbon emissions, forever altering marine ecosystems. The rest of the carbon in our atmosphere will be slowly absorbed by vegetation or descend as rain, over the course of thousands of years.

The inconceivably long-lasting effects of climate change are precisely what makes a political response so urgent. The less carbon we emit into the atmosphere, the better. But that’s what also makes it so unpopular there’s a lot of money and livelihoods on the line. For some elected officials, it’s a lose-lose scenario in the short term. Passing key climate change legislation may reduce our carbon emissions while creating new jobs in renewable energy, but it likely won’t stop sea-level rise or extreme weather in our lifetimes. We’re asking the generations alive today to change, without ever seeing the direct benefit of change. Yet, without change, we condemn future civilization.

The scale of the threat of climate change is beyond human comprehension. It’s far greater than other commonly-viewed threats to security. It’s far greater than any terrorist threat, any presumed conflict with a “near-peer” adversary, or any “traditional” threat that dominates the national security or foreign policy agenda. Our security will not be improved by any additional weapon made, any new drone strike, or any new war. Not when our forests are diminished to smoke and ash, our air too toxic to breathe, our rushing rivers reduced to parched earth, our oceans composed of more plastic than fish. Our planet unable to sustain the components necessary for life.

Our rock orbiting around the sun will persist.

But we will not.

Kelsey Coolidge is the Director of the War Prevention Initiative.

Kelsey Coolidge

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