The Climate Has Already Changed. Is UCSD Doing Enough?

In California, peak fire season has just begun. The combination of a long, dry summer with the advent of the Santa Ana winds puts October at the top of the charts for destructive, rapidly-growing wildfires in the Golden State.

As a new resident, this was news to me. In August, I followed news of the epic Carr Fire, which birthed a freak “fire tornado,” forced the evacuation of 40,000 people, and claimed eight lives. Then in September, the Delta Fire engulfed 45 miles of Interstate 5 and sent viral videos of terrified motorists streaming across the web.

In 2018, California is facing a wildfire crisis dramatically more severe than usual due to years of drought, irregular winter precipitation, and record heat. And as Craig Clements of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory told TIME: “It can only get worse.”

Across the continent in the Carolinas, 18 miles of Interstate 95 sat submerged for days in the floodwaters of Hurricane Florence last month. Millions of pigs drowned and their waste spilled into the rising waters, eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean along with coal ash, arsenic, and other pollutants. Dozens of people died. Called “the storm of a lifetime,” Florence is slated to be one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history. This is an elite roster tilted towards young talent; four of the five most expensive hurricanes are from the past six years: Harvey (2016), Maria (2017), Sandy (2012), and Irma (2017). Katrina (2005) still holds the top spot, for now.

As this column was taking shape, Hurricane Michael was arriving on the Florida panhandle. In a matter of hours, the warmed waters in the Gulf caused Michael to grow into the third-most powerful hurricane ever to hit the mainland United States, and the first Category 4 storm to hit the panhandle in recorded history.

The Philippines too were just pummelled by Typhoon Manghkut, which killed over 100 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, and devastated crops before heading to Hong Kong. And in Kerala, India, more than one million people are displaced, about 500 are dead, and major infrastructure is inundated due to the worst flooding in a century. The region received 40 percent more rain than usual this monsoon season.

Catastrophic climate change is upon us. It no longer lurks menacingly in the future or hides behind abstraction in the lab. From California to Kerala, formerly freak events are becoming routine, claiming large numbers of lives, extracting massive economic costs, devastating whole communities, and stressing our capacity to manage the spiraling crises. Newspapers report we are “losing Earth,” while columnists advise us to “learn to die.” Experts debate whether global civilization is “going off a cliff” or merely “walking out into a minefield.” Scientists signal that planetary change is accelerating faster than the models predict. World governments are dropping the ball as the buzzer sounds. A cratered biosphere is a foregone conclusion, and perhaps the only thing we know for sure is this: It will get worse before it gets better.

Who am I, and why am I trying to ruin your day?

Before coming to UC San Diego to begin my doctorate in music, I worked as an organizer at an environmental non-profit in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico, fighting for wildlands and wolves, and against industrial extraction and border militarization. Working in coalition with communities that have struggled against oppression for generations, I began to understand the deep intersection of ecological health and social justice. Interfacing with the Bureau of Land Management, I came to appreciate our institutions’ awful power to do great violence to the Earth.

Most importantly, I saw firsthand what a mobilized community can accomplish, even with scant resources. Arriving at UCSD, I was struck by the density and energy of so much capital and human potential gathered here. It led me immediately to wonder: Are we doing everything we can to impact our planet’s climate trajectory?

That’s the question I’ll be following in future columns in The Triton. I will take a look at our administration’s commitment to rapid decarbonization, including not just energy and construction but also the supply chains of campus vendors. I’ll do my best to unpack the science and politics, and critique the way our media has—or hasn’t—handled this issue to date. And I’ll explore the cognitive and emotional blocks we experience when grappling with this complex, scary problem that implicates us all.

UCSD has done much to help the world understand its warming problem. In 1958, Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Charles Keeling took the first measurement of the Keeling Curve, which lays bare the cyclical yet inexorable rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Today, Scripps houses the Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation, with the mission of empowering communities to use interdisciplinary research to innovate solutions.

UCSD’s research scientists are sounding the alarm. Their urgent takeaway? Build coalitions and seize political power. And students are remembering our strength. This year, a student movement across UC campuses, coordinated by the California Public Interest Research Group, forced the system’s hand in adopting an ambitious target of 100 percent renewable energy by 2025.

So we’re getting there. But we have so much further to go, so much faster than we currently imagine to be possible. It will take a sustained, creative effort, from every individual, institution, and layer of government. That includes us, right here at UCSD, right now. After all, as the fall quarter kicks into gear, and campus parking becomes its own natural disaster, we should remember that summer is still coming, and our hottest, most dangerous days lie ahead.

Peter Sloan is a contributing writer for The Triton. This piece is the first part of a series titled Fire Season, which publishes every few weeks.

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