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Watching the World Burn: Truthout Readers Share Their Climate Stories

Some up-close and personal accounts of how people are experiencing climate change in the US and abroad.

A firefighter lights backfires during the Carr fire in Redding, California on July 27, 2018.

Part of the Series

Toward the front end of the recent spasm of several wildfires (one of them record-breaking) to rake drought-prone California, my friend Michael Dales who lives in Berkeley shared this with me:

“Smoke from the fire burning up in Butte County is so thick here in the Bay Area that lungs ache, eyes burn, and the TV news warns against being outside. Because of the winds (and of course, because we’ve had no rain), at one point the Camp/Butte fire was consuming the equivalent of 1 football field of acreage every second. Again, a football field size area every second.”

At the time of this writing, the Camp Fire in Northern California had already set the record of being both the most deadly (85 dead) and the most destructive in history.

And it’s not just wildfires that are setting records. Every year now we are seeing records being set for high temperatures, record-breaking droughts, Arctic sea ice melting and more species going extinct every day.

All one needs to do to see these dramatic changes stemming from runaway climate change is look out the window. When we sit still, and really pay attention to the shifts in nature right in front of our eyes, they cannot be missed.

Below is a selection of observations from some of Truthout’s readers from around the world.

“Never Seen Anything Like It”

Mark Oates, who lives on a farm in New South Wales, Australia, shared the following with me in September, while his country was being wracked by ongoing drought.

“We are blessed to have this property where we are and have had some rain and have feed for our stock. You only have to drive 30 minutes any direction from us to see how bad this drought is though. We have 40 orphaned lambs that we are bottle raising at the moment. The locals tell me that normally mother nature gets it right and we should get more singles in a bad year and more twins in a good year, but everything is topsy-turvy and we have a huge amount of twins, which the mothers know they aren’t strong enough to raise, so they walk away from one…. New teats for the bottles are on back order as there are so many people trying to save some of their genetic bloodlines whilst praying for rain. Colostrum for young lambs and cattle is also getting very difficult to get [colostrum contains antibodies and essential proteins newborns need for protection from diseases], as are salt licks that stock use to help process dry feed. … there is virtually no grain or hay for sale anywhere in New South Wales and I have heard generational farmers say they have never seen anything like it. Normally in drought, there is feed that can be trucked in from somewhere nearby, but this time [the drought] is so widespread. Most farms that normally plant a winter crop were unable to as there was insufficient soil moisture. I have heard farmers saying, what happens when the grain they have runs out? It looks like we are going to see a major decrease in cattle and sheep numbers in Australia, which will drive up the price of meat. … with the lack of grain left in the country, the price of grain has already gone up quite a bit. Interesting time to be alive.

“My 17-year-old daughter has been reading the Deep Adaptation document and sent it to her economics teacher. It is interesting and at times difficult to talk with her about our predicament. She is certainly reconsidering if she would want to bring a child into this world. All I can say is that it is her decision and we don’t know what the future will look like other than it will be much more difficult than what it is now. Now that her eyes are open, she is keen to help other[s] see….”

Shortly after that, Mark sent another email that is worth noting:

“A lovely old guy, probably in his eighties or nineties, I ran into in the take away shop a few weeks ago was saying that he can’t wait for the weather to get back to the way it used to be. He said he could always count on getting snowed in a couple of times a year with 3-4 [feet] of snow. “It just rejuvenates the land,” he said. He said he hasn’t seen snow since the mid ’80s….”

Not long before Mark sent these observations from Australia, Robert Rands wrote to me about the fires and floods that had been besetting Tasmania during 2016, and again in 2018.

“Tasmania is not so much wilderness as wild. It is wilder in some places than others; for example, the highlands in the northwest of the state. There are forests there that have survived since the late ice age, and that’s because the island climate has protected them from the occasional heat waves brought down from the north, across the desert inland of Australia. Global warming is bringing hotter weather on the average, though. More heat waves and also more thunderstorms. The thunderstorms are more likely to bring dry lightning, and two years ago, the fires in the northwest ravaged some of the ancient pencil-pine forest, 11,000 years old. It will not grow back.

“The fire service is more concerned about fences and sheds, even on abandoned properties. That’s where most of the bushfire was fought, in the southern summer of 2016. There were no resources left to save bits of the beautiful heirloom forest in the wild, in the wilderness.

“More lightning, less rain: that does the farmers and graziers no good here, and far less on the mainland of Australia. The eastern half of Australia, away from the coastline, has been in drought for over five years.
“In Tasmania, the rains are coming less frequently, but the warming of the ocean means that we may get far heavier rain when it does arrive. This happened last May. Hobart was flooded. The streams that make the town livable were vomiting debris into the city, tearing out roads and paths, overflowing into streets and buildings. Torrents of water ran down hillsides and through houses. At our house, we were lucky. The water flowed down the steps from the road and probably undermined the concrete stairs to the house, but they didn’t collapse. Several of the neighbours had their ground floors soaked and their belongings ruined, not to mention the many who are not our neighbours.

“The fact is, collectively, we were lucky. Most city folks have building insurance that covers the damage, so their losses, in dollar terms, are limited. But we have lost our climate, and we will be losing more of it, and a fair proportion of Hobartians know this and do not try to deny it. But we will not fare well if the sea level rises by more than a metre. Of course, we’ll be better off than Miami, or even Melbourne, on Australia’s south-eastern coast, but if the Antarctic glaciers fall away, then downtown Hobart will disappear, along with New York City and Bangladesh. We live on a hillside 80 metres above sea level, so our shelter would remain in the worst of circumstances, but that’s ignoring the social collapse that would ride along with a climate disaster like major ice-cap melting in Antarctica and Greenland.

“Until then, we are lucky. But our luck may last a bit longer than the Bangladeshis’ luck, but in the end, we will also be living by our wits in a land of surprises.”

That same month from Geneva, Switzerland, independent journalist and Truthout contributor Robert James Parsons wrote the following from the city where he lives:

“In 2003, Europe lived through the worst heat wave on record. It started with a very early spring (mid-February). By late July, the temperature in Switzerland was up around +/- 40°C (+/-104°F), breaking a record.

“This year, the temperatures were only slightly above long-term averages, with cool periods and rain every few weeks.

“Then, in the beginning of July it started to get warm, and it got hot very fast. In four weeks, enough heat had accumulated to push the temperatures above 40°C for a good week. In 2003, it had taken over four months for this much heat to accumulate, with no cool periods and almost no rain. This time, it took about four weeks, starting from below normal temperatures.

“This means that the earth was not abnormally warm this year when the heat wave started, hence, it was still absorbing heat. Yet four weeks later, it was throwing heat back up at us because it had reached saturation point. This is testimony to the intensity of the summer heat.”

That same spring, Joseph Peterson, Truthout’s community liaison shared this:

“I am sad to have read the details from your piece, ‘Thanks to Climate Disruption, Earth Is Already Losing Critical Biosphere Components,’ but I know the truth in it all too well following my recent travels to Spain and then Florida immediately after. In Barcelona and Valencia, all anyone said to me was that ‘… it isn’t normally like this this time of year,’ in reference to the cold and rainy weather I experienced for most of the two weeks I was there. It was also unseasonably cold the entire time I was down at the Gulf Coast of Florida. By mid-March it is usually in the 50s [to] 60s [Fahrenheit], but it stayed in the 40s the entire time. People in Europe seemed more aware of the problems of climate change, but they too have many political hurdles to jump in order to improve their own carbon footprint, which is certainly less than ours in the States.”

“Where Will This Growing Population Get Its Water?”

Some of these people, including two of the aforementioned, have shared their observations of changes occurring over decades. Given the mobility of much of industrialized societies, it is an anomaly to find people who’ve lived in the same place for longer than a decade, so their perspectives are very much worth noting.

Robert James Parsons from Geneva, in May 2017, shared this:

“Here, today, it was well over 80 degrees, Fahrenheit, with a strong, steady northerly wind. I have been running, to work out, on the lake embankment for the past twenty-nine years that I’ve lived here. It has an almost perfect north-south alignment. Today, the wind was definitely out of the north, but warm, warm, warm. I have never known such a warm northerly wind, much less at this time of year, so early in the summer (a time that used to be late spring). I keep mentioning the premature spring — four to six weeks ahead of schedule, depending on the species of vegetation — and getting the usual consumer response, ‘Yes, hasn’t it been beautiful?’ Nobody seems to have the slightest idea what such a shift means.”

My friend Michael, whose comments about the current wildfires in California are above, shared this observation about the drought in his state, as well as overpopulation:

“I was raised in San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s and 1980s before leaving for college. Fifteen years ago, I returned to the East Bay city where I grew up. Through the years I have been amazed by the changes I have witnessed. The quiet residential streets where we played as kids are now often clogged with traffic. Today, a child riding a bicycle or skateboard runs the risk of being mowed down by a speeding Prius with a Hillary [Clinton] sticker. That’s because the Bay Area’s population is growing exponentially. In addition to the expanding populace, the most notable difference has been the changing weather patterns, particularly the distinct lack of rain. The media calls it a five-year-long drought, but in a very visceral sense, it doesn’t seem like the drought we had in the 1970s. This feels like the new normal, or perhaps I should say abnormal. If you grew up here and know the area in your bones, you can feel that the environmental systems that supported us are breaking down. As the rain stops falling and the reservoirs dry up where will this growing population get its water?”

He wrote that in the spring of 2017, before the record-breaking wildfire season scorched his state that year, only to be surpassed by the Camp Fire this year, which now holds the record for lives lost and property destruction.

In the fall of 2016, Tom Shetterly wrote from San Lorenzo Nuovo, Italy.

“About 15 years ago we started an olive orchard in Central Italy, and as the trees have matured and the climate has warmed, I have noticed several changes which I am confident are due to climate change.

“In the late ’90s Italy was in a drought pattern that lasted for another 5-6 years. The winter temperatures were, on average, about 1 degree (Celsius) warmer, and the summer was usually quite hot with no more of the summer rains that Central Italy used to get. In 2006, we had an infestation of a leaf-eating beetle that — if left unattended — would strip the leaves from the top branches (new growth) from all the trees. My caretaker and friend, Roberto, had never seen this before in his 60 years of living in that area. In 2008, we saw a new insect — an egg-laying moth — that would drill its proboscis into the new fruit, lay an egg, and the egg (worm) would eat its way to the seed of the fruit and go dormant for a while. Later in the season, usually around mid-August, the worm would eat its way to the surface, and the result was a complete destruction of the fruit.

“The EU has been looking for a way to kill these moths but has nothing yet, and every year — because there have not been any hard freezes in the area for years — the moths get a little more intense. Their season is a little longer so we can see moths in May and they last until November. Two years ago, we experienced a bark blight — fungal in nature — which produced large welts or sores on the bark. This spread like wildfire throughout the orchard. Last winter we used a dormant spray, which had little or no effect, and it is just a matter of time before all the trees are covered with this scaly blight. It doesn’t seem to affect the fruit per say, but in time I am afraid it will kill all the trees.

“The boot of Italy has also developed serious issues with their trees, and it seems to be spreading all over the Mediterranean. It is a bacterial infection that dries out the leaves — as if it is stealing all the moisture from the tree — and the fruit either dies or never matures. The end result has been to cut down 1,000+ year-old trees to prevent the spread of whatever this is. Locals have tried injecting antibiotics into the soil, and continual spraying with copper sulfate, but nothing has worked. There are 600,000 trees in this part of Italy and they are a principal component of the local economy. If all these ancient trees die, it will be the end of the olive oil economy in Southern Italy, and if it spreads to the rest of the Mediterranean, it could mean the end of the olive oil business altogether.

“My opinion, and the opinion of farmers who have worked the land for generations, is that climate change is the culprit causing these dramatic and disturbing infestations. Without cold enough winters to freeze the larvae, it appears that these problems will persist with greater damage as time goes on. Stock up on olive oil. It may not be so abundant in the future. I talk to my trees, and their response now is frightening.”

At this point it is clear that, no matter where you live in the world, all that is needed to understand how far along we are regarding human-caused climate disruption is to look closely into the natural world where you live.
Only a relatively short time frame is necessary for comparison to how dramatic changes are upon us compared to nature’s normal cycles.

This awareness is accompanied by alarm, but also reminds us to cherish and work to protect what is here today, while we still can.

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