I used to hang around the TV, waiting for Spokane Public Schools to announce snow closures, hoping my school was on the list. Sometimes it didn’t matter – with snow berms as tall as I was, there was no way our little 2-wheel drive would make it down the driveway, on which days my mom would march dutifully out the front door, shovel in hand.
I graduated from Lewis and Clark in 2013, and around then I remember a shift in the seasonal narrative. Rather than too much snow, there suddenly wasn’t enough. While my ski bum friends noticed it first, the flip side of warmer winters was felt by everyone. Hazardous air from wildfires kept even the most committed outdoor recreationalists inside. I dismissed the first few seasons as outliers – looking back, they seemed to be the beginning of a new norm.
My personal recollections match the findings of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Released last week by the Trump administration, the latest assessment is the product of over two years of work by hundreds of experts from federal, state and local governments, tribes and indigenous communities, national laboratories, universities, and the private sector, overseen by 13 federal agencies. It’s been called the most comprehensive study done by any country on climate impacts and risks.
Missed it? You were supposed to. Scheduled for December, authors were notified of an early release – on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.
The NCA isn’t new. In fact, it has been a mandate since the 1990s under the first Bush administration, in response to the first U.N. report saying that global warming is happening and human-caused. The law requires that every four years a new assessment is published, explaining the latest science and effects of climate change on the United States.
The report’s chapter on the Northwest builds on the projected climate impacts to the region which, alarmingly, align with what the Northwest experienced in 2015. Record-low snowpack resulted in water scarcity and large wildfires, putting at risk farmers, hydropower, drinking water, air quality and the salmon we fish, not to mention recreation.
We had temperatures up to 6 degrees warmer than normal in the winter relative to the period between 1970 and 1999. Combined with year-round below-average precipitation from 14-25 percent lower than normal, we were left with snowpacks at 70 percent below average in Washington state.
Unless we aggressively work toward a lower emissions scenario, 2015 will become the new normal.
The snowfall I experienced growing up in Spokane is more important than a little kid’s hopes for a snow day. According to the report, each low-snowfall year from 1999-2009, compared to a high-snowfall year, resulted in over 2,000 fewer employees and nearly $200 million lost in resort revenues.
Other parts of my childhood, like summers hiking Mount Spokane or picking apples at Greenbluff, are also threatened. Everyone is worried about wildfires, but insects, disease, drought and earlier flowering will also affect these staples of Northwestern culture.
If that isn’t enough, the hazardous levels of wildfire-related air particulates that sent my family buying air filtration systems and staying indoors on summer days will become part of life in the Northwest. Statewide increases in hospitalization due to heat stress and respiratory illness will pose growing health concerns. There is a well-documented link between exposure to air pollution and risk of heart attack, stroke, some types of cancer, and respiratory diseases, all of which are leading causes of death in the Northwest.
I was deeply disappointed that the efforts by citizens in Washington state to pass a fee on carbon couldn’t overcome the tens of millions of dollars spent by oil interests against the initiative this November. We have to keep trying.
The takeaway: Climate change is not a problem to be solved for future generations. It’s affecting us, now, and it’s getting worse. Addressing climate change will require changing the way we live, but we will change our lives dramatically if we don’t address it: We know problems from snowless mountains to withered trees are going to continue and intensify if we keep on business as usual.
It’s not alarmist to respond to climate change as we would any other national emergency – with immediate action and great concern. Our health, economy, cultural and ecological heritage, and the way of life that makes life in the Northwest exceptional, depend on it.
Alexandra Golikov is a graduate of Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane and a senior at Smith College, in Massachusetts, where she studies philosophy and climate change.
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