Over the past year or so, I’ve found it increasingly hard to ignore the realities of climate change. I don’t mean that I used to be a climate change denier; I’ve known it’s real since back in the 90’s when I knocked on doors for Greenpeace. What I mean is that it’s gotten harder to move through daily life as though we are not in the middle of an existential crisis, and it’s gotten harder to ignore the feelings of dread, grief, and doom.
For the third autumn in a row, the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, work, and am raising my child, has been flooded with smoke from wildfires in the northern part of the state as hundreds of thousands of people are forced to evacuate and entire counties face electricity shutoffs lasting up to a week. These fires have been caused by equipment belonging to PG&E, the power company monopoly that has spent years lining investor pocketsinstead of maintaining equipment and modernizing. Meanwhile, in Australia, Siberia, in Indonesia, and throughout Africa. fires burn. In the Amazon, where the hard right Bolsonaro government encouragesillegal logging and slash and burn tactics, Indigenous communities are risking everything to defend their territories and the future of the planet.
This year’s fires come just a few weeks after global climate strikes, in which young people including my own child flooded the streets demanding that their future be taken seriously. Globally, young people are taking the lead in responding to the climate crisis through bold action and clarity of vision. Some of the many inspiring leaders include Autumn Peltier, Isra Hirsi, Xiuhtescatl Martinez, Greta Thunberg, and manyothers.
But it wasn’t the sight of the crowds of young people flooding the streets that shifted me from dissociation to really *facing* that climate crisis is an existential threat that is already redefining how my community and I live our everyday lives. It was reading the unintentional poetry my friend posted as she listed those things that cannot be left behind as she prepared to evacuate; it was seeing a bridge I regularly cross to see beloveds engulfed in flames; it was unbreathable air for the third autumn in a row and seeing so few people protecting themselves with masks.
Unfortunately, this is common, that something as big as the complete transformation of the global climate and the subsequent threat to life as we know it seems unreal until it impacts us directly. Among other things, this speaks to a desperate need to build our understanding and practices of solidarity and empathy, because we cannot wait until those of us who are most protected from climate change feel it personally to make the kinds of changes that will make a significant difference.
And it is the very systems that have led to this destruction that impede our ability to have empathy and act in solidarity. Systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism have driven and excused the desecration of this beautiful planet, and these systems have warped the senses and sensibilities of people, encouraging a focus on individualism and isolation from each other and the environment. But all actual solutions call for massive solidarity with each other and need to be grounded in our vision of a truly just world. It’s crucial that we remember the lessons we’ve learned from women of color feminism about intersectionality, about the ways oppressions and struggles are interconnected. These lessons can be a lens through which we view potential responses to climate change, so that we do not make the mistake of gravitating to false climate solutions that bolster white supremacy, patriarchy, class exploitation, and other forms of oppression.
On a personal level, each of us needs to find the balance of allowing ourselves to see and feel what is happening enough to engage our empathy, and to learn to move through dissociating. When we shut off our own grief and fear, we also shut down our capacity for empathy. At this point in time there is nowhere on the planet where the changes in climate systems can’t be felt. If you look at where you live, you can find evidence of the changes, from catastrophic flooding in the US midwest, to rising sea levels threatening coastal cities, to unpredictable severe weather, to plummeting insect populations, famine, and drought. We also see evidence of climate change in the vast numbers of climate refugees, and seeing how governments around the world respond to climate refugees is a stark reminder that it is not just severe weather that we need to prepare for; we are also seeing, and need to prepare for, increased state violence and militarization.
Those of us who are not yet experiencing climate crisis impacting our ability to get through our day to day need to prepare for the reality that that day will come. The grief that comes with this is massive, but we do no favors for ourselves if we push it aside and pretend all is well. All is not well.
On a community, collective level, we need to normalize talking about climate chaos and its impacts. Even if we disagree about what to do, it’s time to build a social consensus that this is real, and it’s dire, and we’ve got to be in motion. We can be trading survival tips and strategies. We can discuss ideas about what steps we can be taking and how to get the best possible outcomes – from engaging in electoral politics in ways most likely to lead to action on climate change to building inclusive neighborhood networks to support each other when disaster strikes. These conversations and efforts should be guided by what we learn from the people most vulnerable to climate crisis impacts. They not only have information about what climate crisis looks like, they also offer examples of organizing and resiliency. We can and must support them with concrete, political, and material support.
Conventional wisdom, promoted by disaster movies and right wing paranoia, says that in times of crisis, people turn on each other. However, experience shows us that while those in power seek to take advantage of every crisis as an opportunity to consolidate their power, most of the rest of us turn toward mutual aid, toward helping one another. In the San Francisco Bay Area, in response to PG&E’s power outages, Stacey Milbern and the Disability Justice Culture Club organized mutual aid for the people most impacted by the power outages and smoke: disabled people whose adaptive, life saving devices run on electricity. What are some of the ways you can organize in your community to support those most affected?
Because climate change is already here, and anyone who is not yet feeling its impacts soon will, part of the task is also to figure out how to survive its impacts well enough to continue building and participating in multi-racial, multi-class movements that are powerful enough to address climate crisis and build a just society that prioritizes people’s well being over profit and domination. Resilience in the face of climate crisis is both a survival mechanism and a way to build toward the world we want. The Just Transition frameworks put forward by groups like Movement Generation and the Climate Justice Alliance beautifully illustrate that approach.
Facing the climate crisis is hard. It terrifies me and breaks my heart every day. There is a stark choice in how we collectively respond to the escalating crisis – It is a choice between a society that treats some people as disposable and promotes its own survival through the exclusion and oppression of others, and a society that strives to lift up equality and individual and collective well being. I know what world I want to live in. How about you?
PS: Here are some organizations working at the intersection of climate justice and racial justice: