I published this article in The Harvard Crimson today:
Phrases like “climate change” and “global warming” lose their meaning when repeated too often. But when global warming smacks you in the face, you suddenly realize that it’s real. I want to tell you how climate change affected my life. I hope that my story will breathe new significance into these sometimes-tired phrases and deepen your perspective on what is happening to our planet.
I grew up in Maine—the land of lobsters, blueberries, and pine trees. I always felt safe in Maine because of its strong community, pristine nature, and lack of life-threatening weather conditions. But I have learned that Maine’s idyllic traits are deceiving. It’s not as safe as I thought, and neither is any other place in the world. The reason: climate change. It was 11 p.m. on the night of July 2, 2009. The sky was bright with lightning. A furious downpour engulfed our farm as I watched from my bedroom window. I heard an earsplitting crack and felt the floor vibrate beneath me. The house filled with the sounds of security and fire alarms all screaming at once. I knew that lightning had hit our house. Smoke was billowing from the ground floor. My mom called 911 on my cellphone.
The smoke evicted us from our home as it poured out of every wall. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like the hand of fate was squeezing all the air out of me. I was living my worst childhood nightmare as we stood out in the storm and watched the first flames leap out a lower floor window. I screamed. For the first time ever, I could feel my heart pound as if it would break through my chest. It took nine minutes for the fire-trucks to arrive. They were too late. They say that lightning hit the electrical system. Fire quickly overwhelmed every part of the home that I cherished, the heart and soul of my family’s life, the scene of my childhood, and all our memories. It was the place where we made music, read books, had pajama parties, and celebrated life. It was where I fell in love with nature: my axis mundi, my launching pad, my paradise. It’s where I learned to read and play piano. It’s where my brother and I laughed and played all summer. That night I witnessed the death of my home. It was like watching a family member shriek in agony. My family lost everything. We promised each other that we would love one another forever and thanked the world for not taking our lives.
It’s been three years since the fire, and I would give anything to lie in my bed once more. The first month after the fire was the worst time of my life, but I kept myself from insanity by throwing myself into my work as an environmental activist. As I immersed myself in my activism and research, I was gripped by a realization that propelled me into a deeper sense of urgency: global warming might have been responsible for the extreme weather that destroyed my home. I knew that rising global temperatures cause an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms. I wondered: is the lightning associated with these storms also a result of climate change? The answer is yes. According to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, there will be an “approximate 5-6 percent change in global lightning frequencies for every 1 degree Celsius global warming/cooling.” The Earth has already warmed .8 degrees Celsius in the past century, and Maine has warmed 1 degree Celsius since 1970. The average number of lightning strikes per thunderstorm in my county is 100. The night my house burned down, there were 217 recorded strikes. Alarmingly, the frequency of extreme storms in Maine has increased 70 percent in the past 60 years.
No one can say for sure that global warming was responsible for the fire. But these and other data suggest that what happened to my home was not random. This pattern of extreme weather is seen in Maine, the United States, and throughout the world. Drought in the U.S. over the summer caused world food prices to increase 10 percent. West Nile Virus, created by larger mosquito populations thriving in warm weather, was rampant in Texas. The worst wildfires in decades spread across Colorado, fed by a heat wave and drought. Extreme weather conditions have destroyed homes and resulted in habitat destruction and people dying. Climate scientists agree that, in the coming years, we will confront rising sea levels, higher temperatures, and extreme weather. Global warming affects not only polar bears, but also every single human on this planet. As NASA climatologist James E. Hansen wrote this summer: “For the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.” Other extreme weather events are now being conclusively linked to climate change.
Our generation is the first to see the devastating effects of global warming. The responsibility to mitigate climatic upheavals, change human behavior, and save our world will fall to us. What’s more—we will be defined by our response to these new realities. If past generations had the power to alter the global climate system for the worse, then our generation must rally to change it for the better.