When the Climate Crisis Hits Home
Climate change is altering not only the environment, but also the way we think about the place and concept of home.
Home. The thought of it conjures up a tangle of images, of safeness and permanence and comfortable refuge. Home is also tenuous shelter under a busy overpass, in a neighborhood park, or on a friend’s living room couch. Now, increasingly, rapid changes in the world’s climate are forcing us all to reevaluate the way we think about home.
In her new book, At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth, Madeline Ostrander explores the calamitous consequences of a warming planet through the experiences of those on the front lines of climate change.
She reflects on its symptoms—drought, floods, hurricanes, changing rain and snow patterns, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels, warming oceans—that have left no corner of the world untouched.
“In an era of climate crisis,” she writes, “we will have to reckon with new complexities in our relationships to home, and even more people will experience the shock of being uprooted. In the long run, if we fail to address the crisis that is disrupting our planetary home, there will be hardly any safe refuge left.”
In 2019, she points out, 24.9 million people across the world were forced from their homes because of the impact of climate change and other natural disasters—1.5 million of them in the Americas.
She writes about communities in the Pacific Northwest ravaged by wildfires, and about the scientists, firefighters, and community leaders working to understand how to better prepare for and manage them. We learn about how collapsing permafrost in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska created America’s first climate refugees, most of them Alaska Natives struggling to establish a new home on higher ground; about how farming and sustainable agriculture efforts in the Northern California town of Richmond emerged from within the shadows of a refinery explosion; and about hurricanes and flooding in Florida and one preservationist’s effort to save the historic city of St. Augustine.
They are stories not about tragedy or trauma but about resiliency and hope, and about how we persevere even when faced with the most unimaginable of circumstances.
Reading Ostrander’s book got me thinking of my childhood home, a chain of islands of over 30,000 people in the Eastern Caribbean. Growing up in the British Virgin Islands, or BVI, we seldom talked about the weather. There wasn’t much to say about it—80-plus degrees and blue skies, pretty much summer all year round. Of course, in the middle of that long summer was hurricane season.
As a kid, I didn’t mind hurricanes. They always seemed to come at night, and I loved the pattering of the rains on our galvanized roof and the howling of the winds outside. I felt secure inside even as Mother Nature raged outside.
Usually, it also meant time home from school, and as kids we’d spend hours playing in the rivers of water the hurricanes deposited on our street, using long, broad grass leaves to make little sailboats that we’d race down the streams.
Back then, I thought hurricanes were fun. Nobody thinks that anymore.
While I left the BVI long ago, I still refer to it as home. And in the years since, hurricanes have gotten more powerful and destructive, fueled by increasingly warming oceans.
Yet, even as the world was learning more about how a hotter planet was disrupting the way we all live, people continued to see hurricanes as every-few-years outbursts of nature they had to endure—the price for the privilege of living where they did. They never truly made the connection to the climate crisis threatening our world.
September 2017, then, was a wake-up call when Irma—a Category 5 hurricane with wind speeds that at times reached 185 miles per hour—slammed directly into the islands. It was one of the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricanes on record and it left a trail of loss and despair in its wake.
My first understanding of how dreadful things were at home was a video of a young man on the street in the capital: “Everything is mashed up,” he was saying. The roads were eroded, the hillsides were bare of trees; a majority of houses, typically built to withstand Category 3 hurricanes, were either damaged or destroyed. Businesses, government offices, and schools were wiped out. He was desperately asking the world for help. Watching it over and over, I cried.
Maria, another Category 5 hurricane, followed two weeks later, only grazing the already traumatized Virgin Islands but devastating nearby Puerto Rico, which had become a recovery staging ground for its Irma-ravaged neighbors.
The damage Irma caused was so severe, its impact so complete, I couldn’t comprehend how or if my home could ever recover. And in the days and weeks that followed, as the extent of the devastation unfolded, I had the sense of having lost something indescribable.
Some of Ostrander’s subjects describe this same feeling of loss when flood waters overwhelm their cities or fires destroy their homes.
In the last several years, she writes, “a whole field of study has emerged to quantify the intangible losses associated with climate change. Losses related to culture, identity, heritage, emotional well-being, and the sacredness or spirituality of people’s relationship to a place or a community—not to mention experiences like the joy, love, beauty, or inspiration found in a cherished landscape—are nearly impossible to quantify in economic terms.”
Angela Burnett Penn, the BVI’s environmental officer, had written the BVI’s first policy on climate change and pioneered its Climate Change Trust Fund. Before Irma, she talked frequently and extensively across the territory about the islands’ vulnerability to stronger, more deadly hurricanes. Still, Irma shocked even her.
“There is a real possibility,” she writes in The Irma Diaries: Compelling Survivor Stories From the Virgin Islands, “that a hostile climate could eventually make the islands I have always called and cherished as home uninhabitable.”
On my first trip home after the hurricane, I parked on a mountain road overlooking downtown, once a stunning and favorite view, and marveled at the carnage laid bare before me. Looking down onto the neighborhood directly below, it was like a bomb had gone off. I could see into the kitchens and living rooms of many of the homes; glancing farther out, I could see the bare walls and shattered classrooms of my old high school.
When I talked recently to Burnett Penn about the state of the islands five years on, she told me people are still trying to rebuild. As is often the case in places facing such disasters, many people were uninsured or underinsured and lacked the resources to rebuild their homes. On top of that, in a country this small, everything is shipped in, so supply lines were strained, lengthening the time it took to get work done. Additionally, the sheer urgency and an influx of labor to address that urgency meant that not everyone who rebuilt did so with climate resiliency in mind, she says. That worries her. And it worries me too.
But as Ostrander writes, no one can yet claim a clear narrative of triumph or tragedy when it comes to climate change. Solutions invariably involve community efforts “to plan for threats in the present and future, to reengineer a place, to reshape the choices that are available, to reexamine what matters.”
That often requires “confronting powerful institutions, swimming through a deluge of misinformation, brawling over the smallest matters, stumbling and then standing up again.”