In a single week in July, more than 100 million Americans, from Massachusetts to Arizona, were under excessive heat warnings or advisories as temperatures soared into the triple digits. Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes in California as the Oak Fire burned near Yosemite National Park. And at least 100 people had to be rescued when record-level rains flooded St. Louis, Mo.
“Everywhere, the weather, the sky, the water, even the terrain on which we have built our homes, is becoming unruly,” writes Madeline Ostrander, in her new book At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth. Ostrander, a Seattle-based science journalist, is interested in what happens to our sense of home and stability when the rhythms and seasons that characterize those places change.
To answer this question, she spent time in four communities on the front lines of the climate crisis: a small community in rural Washington rebuilding in the wake of a wildfire, a historic town on the Florida coast contending with sea-level rise, an industrial city in the Bay Area whose residents live in the shadow of an oil refinery, and an Indigenous village in Alaska that is being uprooted by permafrost erosion.
“In some ways, I could have picked almost anywhere and told the story about how people are dealing with the impacts of climate change because it is happening everywhere,” Ostrander told me. The individuals she interviews all face impossible decisions. A firefighter weighs whether to break from her crew to try to save her family home from an encroaching wildfire. An Alaskan Native community navigates a move to higher ground as river levels rise.
“Today, more and more communities are having to ask these questions about what climate change means for them,” Ostrander said. “It’s about their home. It’s about the things that they care about.”
Then, in 2010, I started spending a lot of time talking with environmental justice groups. They were thinking about climate change in a way that was much more local and palpable, looking at disasters like Hurricane Katrina and having conversations like “What will this mean for us?” and “How do we build resilience in our own communities?”
They were doing a lot of really interesting, creative, very tangible things, and I felt that this conversation was just so much more powerful and immediate. Today, more and more communities are having to ask these questions about what climate change means for them. It’s about their home. It’s about the things that they care about.
DR: You feature a firefighter in rural Washington; a historic preservationist in St. Augustine, Florida; a farmer in Richmond, California; and an Indigenous community in Alaska. How did you choose the communities you reported on?
MO: The communities in the book tend to be small- to medium-sized communities. I think in smaller communities, there is sometimes a more immediate dialogue between people who are making decisions and people on the ground.
Larger cities like New York City or Seattle, where I live, have significant resources to put toward climate resilience. But small coastal communities like St. Augustine are having to make difficult choices about what to save because they have fewer resources.
DR: What are some of those difficult decisions?
MO: In St. Augustine, city officials have been asking themselves, “What can we afford to do as the sea level rises, so that we can continue to handle flooding?” The city’s previous mayor met with Senator Marco Rubio to ask whether the Army Corps of Engineers could study what it would take to build big infrastructure, such as Venice, Italy’s floodgate system—though Venice’s gates are controversial.
A project like that is beyond the scope of what a lot of places are going to be able to afford, and it may never be feasible for a place like St. Augustine.
Instead, the city is making choices about small steps to minimize flooding. Can we start lifting streets up a little bit so that we have some extra resilience against moderate storms and some hurricanes? Can we retire some parcels of flood-prone land and build flood-control structures? Some of these efforts are controversial, and none will ever be enough to save everything.
DR: How has the climate crisis changed your own sense of home?
MO: When I first moved to Seattle in the mid-2000s, people talked about how the Pacific Northwest was going to be insulated from climate change. It would become a haven for climate migrants, because we’re surrounded by water and we had this very mild climate. But in the last few years, we’ve seen that we’re not insulated. We’re hugely impacted by wildfire smoke and had last summer’s terrible heat dome event.
It has also impacted my thoughts about whether to start a family—I still don’t have kids.
DR: The Covid-19 pandemic brought our lives increasingly online, and remote work has made many American workers more transient. How does that phenomenon factor into the way you think about home?
MO: Another challenge is that a lot of resilience comes from knowing your community. There are a number of different studies, including some work by the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, that showed that, for instance, during a heatw ave, even in very vulnerable places where there were a lot of elderly and lower-income folks who can’t necessarily afford air-conditioning, knowing your neighbors and being able to check in on them dramatically reduces the [health] impacts of the heat wave.
Having connections in your community makes it easier for you to respond and have resilience in the face of a disaster. So I am concerned that that disconnection could make us less resilient.
DR: Did the people you interviewed for this book talk about the ways climate disasters changed them emotionally?
MO: For a lot of the people I write about, when they start to experience the impacts of climate change at home, it puts into focus what matters to them. I think that’s the best possible response: Our homes are starting to change and that puts into focus what we care about and what kind of future we want to have.
In less ideal circumstances, it can be really destabilizing—economically, socially and on a community and personal level—when people lose a home or feel unsafe or ill-at-ease at home. There are profound implications to mental and physical health, and I think we’re underestimating how profoundly this crisis is impacting people.
DR: What did you learn from the people you interviewed that’s impacted the way you’re processing the climate crisis?
MO: I think we tend to frame hope as looking for assurances that everything might be all right if we just do the right things. But the people I talked to didn’t necessarily think about it that way. They just knew that they loved these places, they loved their communities, and they loved a particular landscape or a particular place. And if you love something, you’re willing to fight for it. You’re willing to really do whatever you can do to try to protect that place and make it continue to be a good place.
When we think about the climate crisis, maybe it’s more important to ask not just how do we have hope, but what do we really love most in the world? What do we care about? And are we willing to fight for that? To me that’s more motivating than the question of hope, and I think it’s what drives a lot of people that I’ve written about.