In 2010, I joined another scientist on a scientific research expedition to study evidence of climate change in the mountains of Peru. We hiked into remote locations, looking for current glaciers and proof of where past glaciers used to reach.
On our very first day in the field, we had paused for a break in the thin air, in a valley over 16,000 feet above sea level. A low rumble began, and I felt it in my chest before I could identify the source.
I looked to my left, at the 20,000-foot-high mountain across a narrow valley. The rumble grew, and great cracking noises echoed off the mountain walls. Before my eyes, tremendous rifts opened in the blanket of snow and ice that covered the mountain’s highest slopes.
The dark gashes widened, tearing apart a glacier that had rested quietly atop one of the world’s tallest peaks for millennia. I watched the avalanche gain speed, a vortex of snow and ice chunks thundering into oblivion, the once-quiet glacier another victim of our planet’s increasingly warming climate.
We don’t have to travel to Peru to see the impacts of climate change.
Here in California, we just had a five-year drought, followed by one year of relief, in 2016-17. The winter of 2017-18 is exceptionally dry so far, with the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers in Southern California all receiving less than .60 inches of rain to date in February.
The Thomas, Creek and Rye Fires brought a brutal end to 2017, their effects intensified due to additional plant fuel that grew in response to the drought breaking.
These cycles are natural, but our response to living in a changing world is not. We continue to build closer to wilderness areas and forests, and our love of coastal living puts us in the crosshairs for rising sea levels.
Our growing population means that we have larger food, water and energy consumption needs. And yes, consuming more means that we have more waste, too.
Here on the outskirts of Los Angeles, in my community, we’re no strangers to environmental challenges. We make our homes in the Mojave Desert and Sierra Pelona Mountains and the valleys in between. We know to prepare for earthquakes, landslides and wildfires.
We’re also all too familiar with man-made environmental problems, with the memory of the massive Aliso Canyon natural gas leak fresh in our minds. Our community also contends with the toxic effects of aerospace manufacturing in the hills of Simi Valley, the hazardous remains of explosives manufacturing and testing in the heart of Santa Clarita and the harmful effects of ozone pollution in the Antelope Valley.
We can overcome these challenges and provide good lives for all the people of our neighborhood, state, and country. Just like any other challenge, we need to assess its true size and scope, and then our federal government must work cooperatively with local and state organizations to make sure our communities are informed and included in the solutions.
We need good information to analyze, and innovative solutions that protect our beautiful, vital natural world and our families. Partnerships, not partisanship, will help us succeed in living in a changing world.
We must invest in green technology research and development, since the jobs of the future will be both sustainable and innovative. We need to prioritize the health of our communities and ensure that we remedy current dangerous sites and prevent future disasters.
This means we need leadership in government that not only understands science but acts on it—for all of our futures.
My work as a geologist has taught me how to read the story of our planet in the records left behind in rocks. I can look at the shape of mountains and valleys, or the tiny grains in an individual rock, and see the story of how they came to be that way.
Our environment has been changing in countless ways for billions of years, and comparatively humans have been part of the story for only a short time. It is up to us to adapt to the planet’s current changes, so that we can continue to thrive and enjoy our lives, good health and the beauty of the world around us.
This isn’t science fiction— it’s science fact.
Jess Phoenix is a Democratic candidate for the 25th Congressional District seat.