Over the winter holidays, I spent a few days with my father and stepmother on the small farm where I grew up in Butte Creek Canyon. The canyon — and their farm — were nearly destroyed in the Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California history.
Eighty-six people were killed in the blaze, and thousands of lives were completely upended and forever changed. Stories of individual courage as the fire raged — and community strength and generosity in its aftermath — are deeply inspiring.
Yet as the tragedy fades from the headlines, I’m left wondering about the bigger story that isn’t being told. While it’s right and good to applaud the resilience of those affected as they help each other rebuild and recover, how do we ensure that the “why” behind this latest tragedy isn’t overlooked yet again?
Yes, our climate is changing
The Camp Fire is just the latest record-breaking “natural” disaster to wreak havoc in the past few years. Here in California, 10 of the most destructive fires in the state’s history have happened since 2015.
In 2017 the people of Houston faced devastation from hurricane Harvey, the “most significant” storm to make landfall in the U.S. since records began in the 1880s. This was followed by Irma and Maria, back-to-back record-breaking hurricanes that affected communities throughout the caribbean.
Fires and extreme weather events are exactly what climate scientists predicted when they started ringing alarm bells decades ago. And of course these impacts are not just here in the U.S. Across the globe, fires, floods and dramatic storms are now more frequent and more severe.
As one New York Magazine journalist noted last summer, “treating every climate disaster as a discrete event” is part of what’s keeping us from taking action.
Farmers on the frontline
What does all this have to do with our work here at PAN? It turns out farmers are on the frontlines of climate change, in more ways than one.
Changing weather patterns mean less predictable seasons, more droughts and floods. Extreme weather events can mean financial ruin for farmers, as we saw in the recent North Carolina floods and the fallout from hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The 2017 fires in northern California destroyed hundreds of farms and ranches. A changing climate can also mean faster growing weeds and changing insect pressures, problems the pesticide corporations are of course happily offering to “solve” with their latest products.
But farmers are also on the frontlines of climate change solutions. As my colleague Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman explains, all over the world farmers are shifting away from the failing industrial model of farming to more productive ecological methods that
...build healthy soil and provide nourishing food, medicine and fiber for their communities, while sustaining vital ecosystem functions and adapting to and even mitigating climate change.”
The promise of “carbon farming” as a climate solution is becoming increasingly clear.
Back up in the canyon, my family’s house, sheep and goats all survived the fire. They know they’re lucky, but life will never be the same in this small canyon community where about 80 percent of the homes burned. The scale and scope of destruction took my breath away as we drove slowly through.
Let’s celebrate the heroes. And then . . .
Facing a crisis often calls up people’s kindest, best selves, and breaks through the many false divisions that can keep us apart.
As the Camp Fire raged, teachers calmed their young students as they evacuated through the flames, emergency responders carried elderly hospital patients to safety, volunteers rescued hundreds of stranded livestock — and so much more.
Yes, we should definitely celebrate all the amazing ways people help each other through each and every crisis.
But I’d argue that we can no longer afford to lurch from disaster to disaster applauding heroism and community resilience. The stakes are just too high. We need to be doing all we can — today — to prevent the next fire, flood or hurricane.
One important step in preventing the next disaster is breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our country, and demanding that politicians say no to their dirty money. Another is lifting up and supporting the farmers, advocates, businesses and (finally!) some political leaders who are doing the hard, urgent work of creating a climate-friendly future.
We all can, and must, be part of the solution. And now is the time.
Photos courtesy Walt Schafer