Weathering the Heat 

In the decades ahead, as temperatures rise and droughts intensify, Northern California's climate, vegetation, and wildlife may look more like Southern California does today.

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"But, in general, I don't see a lot of people willing to change their own lives," Kalmus said. "I see a lot of people wanting to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to be carbon neutral but they don't want to change their lifestyles, so they buy carbon offsets and buy electric cars or install solar panels, instead of making lifestyle changes, like living closer to work or flying less."

Kalmus, a father of two, has written a book called Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. The book describes the five-year transformation of his own lifestyle. He has estimated that his personal annual greenhouse gas footprint is now 2 metric tons — about one-tenth that of the average American.

He's given up flying and eating meat and he walks and rides a bicycle most places, which provides exercise and engages him with neighbors and his community. He shops at local businesses and he grows some of his own food, including avocados and tomatoes.

With his book, Kalmus hopes "to shift the conventional wisdom that using less fossil fuel will make your life worse."

"Your life actually becomes more fulfilling," he said. "It also becomes a powerful thing to advocate for lifestyle changes that you've made yourself." In his book, he characterizes global warming as the product of "a consumerist lifestyle that doesn't even make us happy."

Kalmus argues in Being the Change that there is ultimately little difference between physically attacking a person and burning fossil fuels, and he anticipates the day when the latter will be as socially shunned as the former.

"Burning fossil fuels should be unacceptable socially, the way physical assault is unacceptable," he wrote.

"The connection is clear," he told me. "Burning fossil fuels hurts people and causes harm."

Kalmus said he also objects to the popular catchphrase "the new normal," often used to characterize climate change.

"To say this is the new normal creates a sense of complacency, like, 'Oh, this is it — we just have to adapt to a slightly warmer world,'" he said. "This isn't the new normal. It's still changing. Until we stop burning fossil fuel, it's going to get worse and worse and worse."


On Oct. 24, the same day that the NRDC issued a report about extreme heat days, another asphalt-softening heatwave baked California. Temperatures hit 108 in San Luis Obispo, while Long Beach and Los Angeles saw the mercury peak at 105 and 104, respectively. In many locations, it hadn't been so hot in late October for almost 60 years.

The science may never be enough to convince Americans to take action and reduce their emissions: Plant communities sometimes respond so slowly to warming trends that only trained botanists can detect most of the changes; the numbers — 1 degree here, another there — aren't always convincing to laypeople; warnings that hundreds of millions of people will be impacted seem almost abstract and distantly futuristic; and scientists armed with models and wielding data are portrayed as "biased" by industry-friendly politicians.

But Kalmus believes even diehard climate denialists will be hard-pressed to ignore rising temperatures much longer. As more people each summer and fall swelter under an atmosphere of accumulating greenhouse gases, global warming, he thinks, will push people to action.

"My hope is that people are starting to sense that it's getting hotter, that these heatwaves are getting worse and worse," Kalmus said.

Williams, at Columbia University, feels that politicians who continue to dismiss scientific evidence of climate change will begin to lose the confidence of their voter base. "Because increasingly we don't need a temperature record to show us that warming is happening," he said. "We can see it happening now in the West, where the rate and intensity of forest fires have been exploding."

Warming has strengthened deadly hurricanes and worsened droughts, and it's killing California's ancient oaks. Williams noted that warming trends have become evident in the global die-off of coral reefs, and that carbon emissions, while heating the atmosphere, are simultaneously acidifying the ocean.

"We can see the fingerprint of climate change now almost everywhere we look," he said.


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