What “Climate Anxiety” Truly Means for California

The hills of Sonoma, CA as the smoke from the Glass fire quickly approaches from the north. Image: Miro Korenha/ODP

by Miro Korenha, co-founder/publisher of Our Daily Planet

Like many West Coast transplants to the East, I’ve spent the past decade feeling torn between the city where my professional life is rooted and my home state of California where my family lives. This summer seemed like an opportunity to have the best of both worlds: to get to work remotely from our home in Sonoma, CA while isolating from the pandemic. This was my first full summer at home since I left for college in 2005 and while the pleasant weather and verdant hiking trails were as I had remembered them, I was taken aback by how vehemently the climate had changed in those years.

Come mid-August extreme heatwaves caused vast lightning storms that erupted wildfires and choked the state in a shroud of toxic ash. At one point the sky turned so dark, the crickets began chirping at 3:00 PM and there was no warmth to be felt from the sun. Never once in my adolescence did I have to pack a go-bag while awaiting wildfire evacuation orders but this past summer I’ve had to do so three times. And while I had hoped the respite of clear air we’ve experienced over the past two weeks was a sign that we were through the worst of it, I was sorely mistaken.

On Sunday night, just after I had watched beloved naturalist David Attenborough warn humanity of the harm we were causing our planet on 60 Minutes, a rapidly progressing fire broke out in neighboring Napa and was on the same path the deadly fires of 2017 took as they made their way to Sonoma. By morning, tens of thousands of people were evacuated in Sonoma County and the fire had burned into residential neighborhoods including a senior community.

As I write this, the fires in Sonoma County are 0% contained and we continue to wait for news, a knock on our door telling us to flee, or perhaps the welcome alert that the winds have shifted and crews were able to contain the flames. I feel immensely fortunate that these are our current prospects instead of having to grapple with the grief of a destroyed home. But the most distressing part for me is the process of going through photos, heirlooms, and precious items with my mom and making the decision of what to save and what to leave behind.

Who will I be if I lose the photos documenting my childhood, my yearbooks, the teacups from my grandmother’s kitchen, and the other tangible bits of my personal history? As someone who is deeply sentimental, the thought of losing these items feels utterly heartbreaking. This of course pales in comparison to losing a home, becoming housing insecure, or worst of all, losing a loved one but nonetheless, it’s a bitter reality my community has to contend with.

Worse yet, what I’ve observed from being home is the new-to-me sense of latent anxiety that springs to life every time it’s hot or the wind picks up. We’ve always had hot days in California as well as sweeping winds that help create the microclimates our famed vineyards rely upon, but in the era of climate change, this lingering fear that our neighborhood might be next is a new phenomenon. Climate change has laid siege on California and our entire way of life is now in a precariously fragile state. Our homes are becoming uninsurable, our housing crisis is escalating, wildfire smoke is killing us, our most vulnerable neighbors are put in excessive danger, we’re running out of water, and the persistent fear brought by wildfires is wreaking havoc on our mental health. This is also far from an exhaustive list of consequences.

These factors beg the question, is my beloved home state becoming unlivable? How many times do we rebuild until it becomes a futile effort? Truthfully, I’m afraid to know the answer. I love the small, beautiful valley that I come from and I would have never imagined how easily the aspects that make it so special could be threatened and destroyed. There are still visible scars from the 2017 wildfires and each year I fear what new wounds will be inflicted on the ecosystems and people who call this place home. It’s like watching a tragedy slowly progress while feeling helpless to stop it.

I hate the term “new normal” because there is nothing normal about how our planet has warmed and the resulting impacts on humanity. I’m not sure if there is any hope of reversing the climate-related damage we’ve already sustained in my lifetime, but I hope that as a state and a nation we try our damnedest to curb our emissions nonetheless. I don’t know how Californians continue to live like this, because as it currently stands, it’s truly an untenable future.

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