When Climate Breakdown Hits Home: ‘Our Small Town Now Has a Rush Hour’ 1

Readers share how environmental issues are changing their lives.

President Biden is meeting virtually with world leaders on Thursday in an attempt to coordinate a global initiative to address the climate crisis. But across America and around the world, individuals are confronted by the effects of climate change close up in their daily lives.

Earlier this year, we asked readers to tell us about the environmental issues they face in their regions, how their lives are affected and what, if anything, their communities are doing in response. A selection of their comments, collected over the last several months, follows. They have been edited for clarity and length.

Over the summer the air quality got so bad from wildfires we had to create a clean room that my family lived in for three days. We couldn’t find filters so we had to wear N95 masks just to go make breakfast. Even with the clean room we were experiencing symptoms. It was very scary that the air we breathed was hurting us but we couldn’t do anything about it. — Tiffanie Shakespeare, Portland, Ore.

I’ve noticed that many Alaskans recognize our long-term climate is changing. People who rely on snowmachines to get around in winter are aware of open water into December; they tell tales of when ice used to be solid in October. With thin ice around us, life depends on observations of environmental issues. Engagement in sharing those observations, and especially honoring Indigenous knowledge related to changes in seasons and subsistence resources, has also increased. Yet, resistance to weaning ourselves from oil is strong. We want our P.F.D.! — Christi Buffington, Fairbanks, Alaska

My hometown has experienced increasing days of poor air quality. As the mother of young children, I worry about the short- and long-term health effects this will have on my kids. They have to go outside to play — but at what cost? Many people believe that because Boulder has a strong history of environmentalism, we’re relatively safe. But air pollution doesn’t stop at the county border, and our neighboring communities are heavy oil and gas developers. Most people talk about wildfire smoke — but much of the risk associated with oil and gas isn’t as easily detected. — Morgan McMillan, Boulder, Colo.

The heat and the hurricanes coupled with rising sea levels made me think twice about staying on the coast in my old age. I decided to move from Beaufort, S.C., to Atlanta for the higher ground and to be closer to my family. I had to downsize in order to afford living here.

Many living in the coastal areas of South Carolina support measures to help preserve the environment, but will they have the funds to make a difference in time? Will people vote for the taxes and bond referendums needed for climate change mitigation? It’s a very conservative state, politically. I think it will be hard. — Sharon Reilly, Atlanta

I feel like the entire second half of my life has been defined by climate change: preparing for floods, cleaning up after floods, applying for FEMA funding and trying to find a place to relocate in order to be safe. We had to move out of our house on the banks of the Hudson River. It’s been in my family for three generations. The museum where I work is on the banks of a tributary of the Hudson and our campus is regularly threatened by rising water. This has changed everything for us and will become the reality for many more people. The entire Hudson Valley will change completely. — Lisa Cline, Newburgh, N.Y.

Five years ago my husband and I divested our real estate holdings for a life on the road. We tow an Airstream with a clean-diesel Ram truck. We meet people who live on the fringe of society, some who are running from disasters like fires, earthquakes, storm surges and hurricanes. An older couple we met lost their first house in the Northridge earthquake, and their second in the Santa Rosa wildfire. They wander from state to state in their truck and trailer with no plans to settle down permanently. A professor at U.C. Santa Barbara tells me his house will soon be off the grid because of rising tides. He and his wife are practicing living in a trailer. At a glance, they appear to be older retired people out having a good time, but they are already on the run. — Carmen Beaubeaux, On the road

Hawaii has gotten noticeably hotter in my 38 years. I remember as a child everyone running to the mall or the movies on the rare day that the temperature reached the high 80s. Now I cannot hike past 11 a.m. and 90-degree days are the norm in the summer. It’s January and I have the air-conditioning on so I can sleep.

There has been a lot of public education and advocacy in my community around sea levels rising and coastal hardening, but that’s about it. It seems like individuals don’t really know what they can do to stop the progression of climate change. — Kau’i Merritt, Honolulu

The California drought means we don’t flush every time, we shower once every five days instead of every day, use water left over from inside tasks or caught from rain in four trash cans. We water our garden as minimally as possible to keep CO₂-eating plants alive. We don’t have air-conditioning and avoid products that come in plastic. We walk if possible instead of drive and donate to the Nature Conservancy. And still we know we are tremendously guilty of contributing to a terribly compromised habitat and life for our children and grandchildren.

People are trying. Oakland’s leaders are doing their best to make a sustainable city through planning choices like bike-friendly roads, but I feel these choices should have been preceded by increasing public transportation. — Shirley Lutzky, Oakland, Calif.

Climate change has made my cute, humble mountain home unaffordable. The long, harsh winters that once started in October and didn’t start to lift until May have melted into mild ones. Where once cars were regularly buried, trails snow-choked until July, pipes constantly freezing in subzero temperatures, there is now little to discourage an onslaught of out-of-state money. We are one of the fastest-growing micropolitan areas in the country. Our small town now has a rush hour. There’s more: drought, wildfires, threats to our local ski industry and wildlife. I feel I am previewing the great climate migration, and the less-well-off among us are getting trampled. — Kira Stoops, Bozeman, Mont.

I have lived in the Seattle area for almost 50 years and have been astounded by the wild, seemingly unchecked development in the rural areas, the lowland forests and the foothills of the Cascade mountains. I had thought that growth management plans would stymie it, but this has not been the case. The lowland tree cover is being mowed down at a dizzying pace and vast, ticky-tacky housing developments are springing up everywhere.

There are quite a few efforts to protect the harried fauna and their forests and rivers, but they seem to be failing. The onslaught is overwhelming, dizzying, insidious. There is massive resistance, manifest in the success of the development. It need not always be organized into industry logging and construction lobby groups because it is built into the system — a consequence of the primacy, momentum and inevitability of growth that seems to almost be part of human psyche. — Vince Barnes, Edmonds, Wash.

In northern Idaho, our summers are filled with the thick, lung-burning smoke of nearby wildfires. In the fall we have heavy amounts of early snow that wreak havoc on the trees, causing them to fall on roads, cars, houses and people. It’s warmer in the winter, and dry. There has been a widespread outbreak of salmonella in our bird population. Our lakes are dirty from the runoff.

These changes touch every aspect of our lives, yet many people in this area continue to deny that climate change is even real. It has made me question the morality of my community members, and ultimately society itself. Even for someone who desperately wants to reverse these issues, there isn’t much a single person can do. To live a life shopping at specialty grocery stores without plastic waste is a privilege. — Hayley Clausen, Hayden, Idaho

In the affluent north, many try to live more sustainably, but habits are difficult to change. We compost and take our bikes but continue to eat beef and go on weekend trips to European cities (before the pandemic, and probably after it). There is a double bind: The very causes that enable comfortable lives are the very same things that undermine them. Similarly, at a higher scale, politicians are keen to talk about sustainability and climate awareness but continue to preach the gospel of growth and, in Norway, to pump out oil from the North Sea. People are loath to leave consumerism behind. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Oslo

In June 2018, Houghton County, Mich., suffered a “1,000-year” flood. We are still rebuilding and repairing roads and trails that were damaged. Many whose homes were destroyed decided not to rebuild. We are rebuilding roads and railway grades to help prevent future floods. Looking back at pictures from that time, it’s amazing to see how far our community has come. I think people in our county finally recognize the seriousness of climate change. Many assumed our pleasant peninsula would be spared the worst effects. The flood shattered that belief. — Jaikob Djerf, Houghton County, Mich.

For years, people in my community have ignored education campaigns and scolding letters to the editor and continued putting plastic bags in their curbside recyclables. Only when crews stopped taking recyclables contaminated with plastic bags did people stop. It took about a month to change everyone’s behavior.

Then Covid hit and people were forced again to change their ways, this time on a much larger scale. We proved ourselves adaptable, resourceful and even capable of finding silver linings, one of which was rediscovery of the great outdoors.

Local environmentalists still cling to the notion that education will cause people to change their ways voluntarily. Necessity in the form of policy change is the only form of education most people learn from, but we’ve been taught to resent those who dare impose necessity upon us. It’s sad that such an adaptable species is saving all of its adaptability for the endgame. — Steve Hiltner, Princeton, N.J.

I’m an interdisciplinary marine scientist who conducts research on climate change and the world’s oceans. Originally from Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, I currently live in Corvallis, Ore., and despite the literal ocean between the two, I’ve experienced climate breakdown in both places. Back home, I witnessed elevated ocean temperatures decimate the coral reefs I grew up swimming around and a rapidly intensifying typhoon (Super Typhoon Soudelor) flatten the island, leaving many without power or running water. This past September, Oregon lost over a million acres due to climate change-fueled wildfires. Hopefully the lesson my story can teach is that you can’t escape climate change. We only have one option: look the problem in the eyes and get to work developing just and equitable solutions. — Steven Mana’oakamai Johnson, Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands

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