Extreme weather reminds us we must (and can) tackle the climate crisis

Amanda Leland

The San Francisco sky outside my colleague’s window last summer was burning red with wildfires. It was like a hellscape, and I was frightened for her and for our planet.

Summer began this month, time to shed our pandemic-induced stress at beaches and other vacation spots, but a new season of extreme weather made worse by climate change also began — as shown by the record temperatures being set right now in the Pacific Northwest. That means hurricanes in the South and the East, drought and wildfires in the West and Southwest.

Clearly, we need to take immediate action to slow the warming and the effects it has on weather systems — action that prioritizes bold, ambitious and swift measures to tackle the climate crisis while addressing longstanding environmental injustices.

Reasons to be hopeful again

This is a cautionary tale about the extreme weather that has already begun, but also an homage to the hope I feel in my bones.

Why am I hopeful?

The political winds around climate policy are shifting. The Biden administration has brought the U.S. back into the Paris climate agreement, pledged to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and appointed a superstar team of seasoned experts to focus on climate change. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan attempted to confront climate change head-on.

Also, two climate activists were recently elected to ExxonMobil’s board of directors, and CEOs from over 300 businesses called on the Biden administration for bold emission reductions — all positive signs.

How extreme weather gets personal

Weather is part of the fabric of our lives, and extreme weather poses particular challenges.

The first thing I do every morning is check the weather. Do I need to dress my kids in short or long sleeves, water the garden or take an umbrella outside? At the same time, the weather has become a deeply unsettling part of life.

When the heat rises, I worry more. My daughter Teagan has special needs. When it gets hot, she has more seizures. She’s in a wheelchair so she can’t run and jump in a pool to cool off like other kids.

Teagan is not alone. When temperatures soar and storms become severe, people with asthma have more flare-ups, studies show. People of color suffer the most. Children in neighborhoods with higher percentages of people of color face double the rate, on average, of pollution-related asthma compared to predominantly white neighborhoods, according to an EDF analysis.

I live in Maryland, so I don’t worry about a hurricane destroying my home. But my parents live in Florida, so I worry about them. Things are not looking good: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted a 60 percent chance of an above-normal hurricane season — what could be the sixth in a row.

More severe storms, droughts and wildfires

If you live in Miami, New Orleans, Houston or other coastal areas, you know that winds and storm surges are getting worse. A shocking 32 million homes on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, with a combined value of $8.5 trillion, are at risk of sustaining damage from high winds this year.

The West could use some of that water. The Lake Mead reservoir, which supplies water to 25 million people in the Southwest, is at its lowest level since the 1930s. Ranchers in North Dakota have to truck in water to keep their livestock alive, and farmers along the Rio Grande in New Mexico were urged not to plant crops.

Further west, as Joni Mitchell would sing, “Oh, but California.” Last summer, there were nearly 10,000 wildfires there. Fires burned over 4 million acres and destroyed more than 14,000 structures. California’s still in trouble: reservoirs are only half as full as they should be.

The drought and high temperatures are ominous signs that my colleague’s sky will be burning red again this year.

Turn hope and worry into action

Just as most of us endured the pandemic, we will learn to live with extreme weather, and we can do so while fighting to lessen the worst impacts. Here are three things you can do at home:

  • Plant shade trees in your yard if you have one.
  • Keep your blinds or shades drawn to save energy if you have AC.
  • Consider installing solar panels — and benefit from tax advantages.

You can also join EDF in advocating to slow the warming and increase resilience around the world:

After taking these actions, let’s go enjoy the summer while we can!