I recently enjoyed a stretch of time up in the mountains of Northern New England. At the very end of the trip we spent a couple of days in a particularly remote spot. One evening the mountains disappeared, cloaked in rain clouds while thunder made a steady march. We called up the weather to gauge what was coming, and noticed an air quality alert. It advised limited time outdoors, especially for old, young, and anyone at risk, and no exertion, whatever your age and whoever you were.
As we dug into the air quality alert, we learned that it was due to smoke from the fires burning out West. I thought back to the day and its hazy sun, not clear, but not cloudy. It was such an unsettling, powerful, and important process to sit with everything I was learning and feeling, and to hear the questions my kids were asking. Was it a problem that we had been exerting ourselves to the extreme that day, riding bikes and hiking? My answer — probably not. Maybe. I don’t know.
There is something very comforting to me to be in a place such as I was, that sense of being “off the map” in the wilderness. I love nature, and so the deeper I am, the more I feel protected and surrounded — in a good way. And yet this knowledge of the smoke and the air quality cracked open that sense of protection, health, and simple goodness. It was also a great reminder of what my brain knows, but my heart is still working to truly understand. We are all connected here on this planet. We may experience things to greater or lesser degrees, we may have greater or lesser opportunity or privilege to shield ourselves, but as much as we may try to avoid or ignore it, we cannot be immune to the fates of other places and people. It is not possible, and not a good strategy.
It is time for us to really understand the connections in what we are seeing happen to our planet and our weather, as well as better understand the connectedness that we all share.
Climate change is happening, and more rapidly than predicted. We see it in the heat and fires in the West, the flooding in one part of the country and simultaneous extreme drought in another, rivers that are turning into sandy bottomland, glaciers that are turning into rivers. This year we watched our Southern states go into an unprecedented deep-freeze and our Northwestern states and Canada suffer unimaginable heat. The last hurricane on the Vineyard was in 1991, and it was only a Category 2, but we have watched our nor’easters become more hurricane-like and more numerous, while at the same time we have repeated summer droughts, and pray for beneficial rain.
What we are experiencing now is not the normal rate of change, nor one that will make human life pleasant and at some point even possible. We are already losing so many species. We are already seeing so many people lose their security — to rising seas, temperature, fire, food, fresh water, and housing challenges. Ultimately, none of us are free from these impacts, yet they are not felt equitably, putting increased pressure on communities already shouldering too much and endowed with too little.
I am someone who always cringes when people lay on the doom and gloom. I think it shuts us down when what we need to do is open up to the realities and take action. Our heads in the sand is no way for us to face climate change — this challenge we have brought upon ourselves. There are so many little and big decisions that we make each day that have a very direct impact on the future. If we wait, we face the elimination of our choices, and surrender outcomes to the powerful flywheels we have set in motion.
While I do not know what will finally motivate us all to take action and turn this around, I know it will take more than carrying a reusable water bottle (although that is a great thing to do), and it needs to happen faster than relying on the passion of the next generation.
So, as we enjoy the privilege (and hard work) of a Vineyard summer, I hope we will think about how we can each engage with this problem, because it is critical that we all do so. Climate scientists, advocates, and policy experts have poured untold dollars and creative thinking into trying to make us hear, see, and feel the concern. I am educated on the subject and concerned, yet I still drive a gasoline-powered car. I do not have solar panels, and I occasionally fly. I use propane for heating, cooking, and drying clothes. Like many people, I am stymied by cost and worried about sacrifices to my lifestyle. The reality is that the market and technology have evolved; electrification and climate-friendly options are competitively priced to buy, and even more affordable to operate than their conventional counterparts.
For now, I am researching air-source heat pump rebates to convert my heating. I will not buy another fossil-fueled appliance, and plan to replace the few I have. I would like to get solar panels and an EV. I will vote early and often for the people and policies that can help make the bigger changes we so desperately need.
I hope you will join me. If you need ideas, an internet search will yield a wilderness of information. To narrow your search more locally, look at the Island Climate Action Network website.
Climate change is not a political issue. It is not even an environmental one. It is about the survival of our species for generations to come.
We have the intelligence and goodness to address this challenge, but only if we all start now.
Samantha Look is the youth and education coordinator for the Vineyard Conservation Society, and lives with her family in West Tisbury.