At seven I named my cat, Tikvah, for my favorite picture book “Tikvah Means Hope.” In the story, a cat is lost when families in the Oakland Hills evacuate a wildfire. When they return to their charred homes, Tikvah has survived the fire—a moment of hope for a devastated community. The vivid scenes captured in this book remained with me. In one, a young girl looks at a glowing sky and realizes the ash falling is charred pieces of recipes. The story felt fictional to me. I had no way to relate to the vivid imagery amidst my lush New Hampshire background of unbroken, centuries-old forests.
Ten years later, I stood outside of my school in California and reached upwards to catch pieces of ash drifting from a darkening sky. It was jarring to experience an event I previously could not ground in reality. My time in California is represented by a series of such shocks. I arrived during an extreme drought that was intensified by climate change. I found soccer fields brown and dry enough to
crackle underfoot, with each step causing pieces of grass to crack, break off, then float to rest on the ground. Yards didn’t have grass—each plot was an array of rocks or succulents. Our water had unsafe levels of chromium 6, which was naturally occurring. However, many of the surrounding areas, especially low-income communities and communities of color, had extremely high levels of nitrates because of agricultural runoff. Ninety-nine thousand people in San Joaquin Valley, where I lived, have unsafe water due to nitrate contamination. In my town, many community members invested in expensive filtering systems to ensure their drinking, shower, and cooking water was safe.
Because of climate change, summertime forest fires have increased in size by about 800 percent in the last five decades. When fires were closer to our town, we would wipe ash off my ping pong table before playing, a dull haze would blur far-off views, and the horizon would glow a deep orange red. Sports were cancelled for days during fires, because it was unhealthy for us to exercise outside. Breathing deeply, you could taste the smoke.
These experiences were an expected part of the months of August, September, and October. Fire Season was a fifth season in California, wedged between Summer and Fall. While it was disturbing to experience an environment where the effects of climate change were tangible, it was worse to realize this environment no longer felt strange to me, or my community. We had adapted to the extremes we created.
California’s commitment to 100% clean energy by 2045 is an effective way to combat the issues my home faces. To prevent warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we must reach zero net carbon emissions by 2050. In September of 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 100 into law. The bill committed California to 100% clean energy by 2045. Our state is now joined by 11 others, cities, counties, representatives, senators, and governors, all of whom are committed to Clean Energy for All.
While such steps are encouraging, there is still much to do in California. Transportation pollution is the largest source of carbon emissions in California. And while California has, for many years, held a waiver to impose tailpipe-emission standards that are stricter than federal regulations, the administration is now barring California from doing so, a move the auto industry opposes. To protect California, we need to hold ourselves and our federal government to even higher standards, and ensure we address the climate problems faced by every Californian, but particularly those who bear the greatest burdens—communities of color and low income communities—who need to be a part of determining the solutions.
I moved to California in 2015, four years after a historic drought began. A California with scalding and dry summers and no green in sight is the California that is a part of me. I was shocked to find out my friend who grew up in California remembers her childhood in shades of green, and her young adulthood in shades of brown. At school back in New Hampshire, I am reminded of my young adulthood in California when I smell smoke, because the scent was a constant during fire season. Our definitions of California, a place that is home to so many, are changing. As climate change continues to accelerate forest fires and drought, and pollution rises, stepping up to reach our clean energy goals is crucial. We cannot afford to accept this reality as our new normal, we must act on climate now.