When climate change is a given

My childhood home sits on a big hill just outside Portland, Oregon. From my bedroom window I often gazed at the familiar and pointy snow-capped peak of Mt. Hood looming in the distance. If I turned northward on a clear day, I could just make out the peaks of Mts. Rainier and St. Helens. These peaks are a significant part of my identity as a Pacific Northwester, but I never thought much about them until relatively recently, after I started living in the Midwest (which is, by the way, as flat as a pancake).

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Mt Hood from my bedroom window on a clear winter evening

Climate change is like the mountains of my childhood. A seemingly immutable part my world. Ever-present but not always in the foreground of my focus. Permeating. Something I’ve started to think about more and more.

Climate change occupies much of my thoughts these days, not only because I’ve been mulling over dissertation research questions. Since being away from home I’ve heard from family about cherry blossoms blooming in mid-February, the unusually intense summer heat, the dearth of snow on the peaks. Here in the Midwest it’s talk about safeguarding our freshwater as distant regions become thirstier and set their sights on the Great Lakes. It’s also the mild winters and the extreme winters (the “polar vortex”) that indicate the climate is changing. Mega wildfires, migrating wildlife, and seasonal extremes shape the future of the Sierras—a place that has become my home away from home.

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Thousand Island Lakes, flanked by Banner Peak from my time hiking in the Eastern Sierras

Characterizing how I feel about these shifts has been difficult because there’s so much to unpack. It’s not as simple as feeling a sense of loss. I am also nostalgic for the familiar landscapes. Sad that someday there will come a time when I can no longer experience the same sights and sounds ingrained in my memory. Angry that more has not been done since human-caused climate change was discovered over a century ago. Frustrated at how difficult it is to instigate change in institutions. Guilty that I am a contributor to the problem and that I can afford to “study” climate change while others flee storm-ravaged regions. Helpless in the face of quickly disappearing Arctic ice and unambitious global mitigation commitments. And uncertain about my decision to become a scientist (“Will I make enough of a difference as a scientist?”).

But amidst all of this, there is also a growing sense of hope, urgency, responsibility, and opportunity. I think that is what really keeps me awake at night. Not that I will have to live with climate change for the rest of my life, but the potential for a better tomorrow and the recognition that I can contribute to it. So the question for me is: What role will I play in this transformation?

This post is just the beginning of what coming of age in a climate changing world means to me. What does living with climate change mean to you?

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