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Lessons From the Frontlines of Global Warming

What interviews with flood, wildfire, and drought survivors can teach us about how to live amid the threat of climate change

A woman walks near the coast in 2019 as tropical Storm Karen approached Puerto Rico barely two years after Hurricane Maria.

Ronnie Scott lost his wife when she tried to to rescue their dog and cat from floodwaters in West Virginia in 2016. Carole Duncan almost lost her 83-year-old father during Australia’s massive 2019 bushfires, the firefighters finding him just in time. KerryAnn Laufer returned home days after the 2019 Kincade Fire in California to find only her fireplace still standing, while Dave Mackey saw nearly every house in his neighborhood on Grand Bahama island washed away, pummeled by raging waters and 200-mile-per-hour winds from Hurricane Dorian.

Storms, wildfires, and other such disasters are getting more common and intense as climate change accelerates. Scott, Duncan, Laufer, and Mackey, who survived these extreme weather events, are among the lucky ones. But each of them found themselves changed by the experience.

What would you do if your house burned down or your neighborhood washed away in a flood? How would you respond if a cataclysmic weather event killed someone you love or forced you to abandon, perhaps forever, the place you call home? And how would it change the way you think about the world?

These questions are at the heart of a new “Voices from the Future” interview series a small group of journalists, researchers, and I have developed at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University. We have collected the stories and insights of nearly three dozen survivors on five continents, eight of which will be published in these pages over the next few weeks.

We were interested in what these survivors could tell us about the new era we are all about to face. As the climate crisis expands and intensifies, many people will soon be confronting similar choices and realities. While data-driven evidence gathering and analysis are critical to understanding the policy and scientific challenges ahead, personal stories offer different and often emotionally resonant insights, particularly when it comes to the lived experience of climate change.

While each story is personal and individual, the collective findings depict a painful, more tumultuous reality in the coming decades–exacerbated by inequality, accelerated by governmental inaction and leadership failure, and intensified by dislocation and economic hardship. Unsurprisingly, many of us have resisted envisioning what that future might look like; others have refused even to accept that climate change is upon us now rather than a distant possibility.

Yet the emerging themes also provide glimmers of hope: of neighbors helping neighbors, of communities thinking about how to live more sustainably, of growing numbers grasping that materialistic values and consumerism may be antithetical to living better. With change comes not just survival but sometimes even well-being.

The Kincade Fire burned down not only Laufer’s two-story, northern California house but also all of the work she had produced as a professional artist–her pottery collection and her mementos. It left her traumatized with a deep sense of instability. “We are all on the leading edge of becoming climate refugees,” she said, noting the experience has changed her thinking about material things. At 62, she’s questioning whether she should rebuild or move away and start over somewhere else.

Floridians Tom and Linda Cianos, newly terrified of storms after being trapped in their house for 10 hours as Hurricane Irma pounded their walls, are also thinking about moving away. They increasingly feel, though, that the scale and impact of climate change mean “there’s nowhere to run to.” They used to think climate change was decades away. “I’m very, very, very scared and concerned,” Tom told the project. “I’m almost glad that we’re near the end of our lives. I really don’t think we’re going to fix this one ... I think maybe what we need to talk about is how we’re going to live with it.”

Moving to a better place isn’t an option if you’re struggling to survive day to day. Wedding photographer Anjali Ponni Rajkumar saw that when record monsoons and devastating floods hit slum dwellers in Chennai, India. When the more fortunate arrived with pizzas, those living in huts got angry and threw them back, resentful of the inequality that leaves them so exposed. While Rakjumar’s family can store a truckload of water at home, poor residents stand in lines each day to buy a single bucket of clean water. Rakjumar blames government corruption and mismanagement.

Instability, dislocation, and disproportionate devastation for poorer populations are growing. But these climate-induced jolts are also spurring survivors to rethink their priorities and assumptions. After the 2018 Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles burned down his family’s house, architect Greg Kochanowski was stunned by the level of community support, both from neighbors and strangers. “Everywhere we turned, people were offering something—money, clothing, food, a place to rent,” he said, acknowledging that his family is still grieving over the loss. “You start believing in the human race again.”

Carol Duncan was touched when locals contributed $13,000 in one day to the GoFundMe campaign she started for her father, who lost everything to the Australian wildfires. Angry with the Australian government’s inaction and increasingly aware of life’s precariousness, she decided to quit her communications work in Sydney, focus on her family, and volunteer with fire survivors and other relief organizations. “We are at a tipping point,” she says. “My future is open; I do anything I can to help people and to prevent future devastating fires from happening.”

Others, too, have responded to instability by trying to help. After Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the failed response from the federal government, Glorynel Ojeda Matos decided to move her family and work on a Ph.D. studying sustainability, water management, green infrastructure, and behavior change. Sylvia Watchman, a Navajo Nation farmer facing extreme drought in northeastern Arizona, has urged local authorities to make changes that can protect scarce water resources; she also finds solace in trying to recall balance between people and nature through Navajo stories.

Scott, who turned to religion and got baptized after losing his wife in the flood, moved to a home on a hill where he now feels safe. He’s also become increasingly aware of the changing temperatures, motivating him to drive less, plan for solar, and worry about a local manufacturer’s tree cutting. “I tell everybody,” Scott said. “We are going to have to educate people, to change their ways of living, to make a change because of the climate and how we treat each other.”

It’s a message we heard from many of these survivors: They did not choose to become “voices from the future,” cautionary tales from the frontlines of global warming. But they hope their stories might convince others to start making changes now before their world is turned upside down.

Voices From the Future is a series from the frontlines of climate change and extreme weather in collaboration with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University.