Hurricanes were a large part of life growing up in Houston. Once a year, at least, there would be a significant tropical storm and (if we were lucky) a few days off from school – “hurrications.” We never evacuated, and the joke in high school was always: “let’s hunker down and get hammered.” We acted like it was a break from real life, not a potential disaster. For all my life, Houston seemed to end up on the “safe” side of storms, a city of refuge for those most directly impacted. My neighborhood was on higher ground, so even if other parts of the city were flooded, we were still safe. There was never any fear. It was all just play.
September of my senior year in high school, Hurricane Ike was churning in the Gulf. We knew it was headed for us, but the wind speeds were relatively low, so no one was really concerned. When school was let out on Thursday, we all figured we’d be back by Monday. Over the next day or so, we realized how wrong we were. Ike was only a category 2, but it was a powerful one. The predictions for the storm included a 20 ft high storm surge to the coast and hurricane force winds that extended 120 miles from the center of the storm, even after the storm made landfall.
I knew it was big when my parents began preparing our house. We live about 50 miles inland, so we had never worried about serious damage during my life. This time was different. Boards on the windows, bathtubs filled with fresh water, cars parked in a garage, safe from falling trees. The sky was overcast and the breeze smelt faintly of the sea. My job was to photograph everything in the house, so we could have evidence for the insurance company if anything was destroyed.
The night the storm rolled in, I was forced to stay home. My parents and I watched the Weather Channel in our breakfast room. I dominated the whole couch, as usual, while my parents sat in chairs at the table across the room. We became fixated by the spiraling red and yellow image, as if the storm was made of fire and not water, inching towards our city. At the same time, everything felt oddly normal. I was simultaneously working on college applications, thumbing through books like “The 25 Colleges that Change Lives” and jotting down essay ideas.
It started raining around seven pm. Then the wind picked up. The power went out at 11 pm and everything went black. Only the sound of the wind and the rain could be heard as we made our way to bed by flashlight.
When I woke up late the next morning, my neighborhood was quiet, lacking the sounds of garbage men or kids playing in the street. I found my parents in the breakfast room, where a huge oak tree had broken through the roof. Debris covered the table that I had done my homework on for as long as I have been in school. A branch blocked the chair I learned to tie my shoes in. The floor was muddy, a mix of the rain and parts of the former roof. A piece of pink insulation was draped like a blanket over the table that could have been my parent’s bed, had the tree fallen the other way across our yard. This is an image totally seared in my mind, I remember every detail, but words fall short of describing how the room felt after the storm. Even a picture could not truly show the feeling of emptiness penetrating the clutter of broken ceiling tiles and downed light fixtures.
As I walked out my front door, I grew more aware of the true extent of the destruction. A second tree was leaning against our house and another was completely upside down, skewered through my neighbor’s roof. A couple more blocking the street. I could see that the end of the street was flooded. I turned around and my dad was walking out of our garage with a rake.
“Grab some gloves, let’s get to work.”
That night, I lay awake. It was hot as hell without the air conditioner, and I had my window wide open for probably the first time ever. A breeze blew in but its humidity just made things stickier. After a candlelit dinner of PB&J’s and a bit of reading by flashlight, I felt like I was camping. What was keeping me awake was that I wasn’t camping – I was home.
In the middle of the day on Tuesday, four days after the storm hit, my mom and I drove over to my uncle’s house. He had a generator and one of my mom’s sisters was staying there as well, so we took the opportunity to go there to watch TV and check in with everyone. (He, incidentally, also had a tree through the roof – we also went there to check out whose hole was bigger). On the way there, we saw an open Jack ‘n’ the Box. The line was around the corner, but we decided to wait for our first hot meal in days, even though we wouldn’t normally eat fast food. It was worth it – hot food has never tasted so good. Arriving at my uncle’s house to eat French fries and see my family again gave me a little bit of stability. We also had cell phone reception for the first time since the storm. I turned my phone on, and messages started pouring in from friends all over the state – “ohmygod are you alive?!” “PICK UP THE PHONE! I HAVE POWER COME OVER!!” “I just got back from evacuating – how are you?” “I have power. Seriously, pick up the phone! LETS PARTY!” The messages washed away my anxiety and returned me to my previous world.
The aftermath of Ike affected all of us differently. Some of my neighbors turned to charity and helped to rebuild the most damaged areas of the coast; others just tidied up the debris and put it away, tried not to think about it. There were those trying to get back to work as quickly as possible, to deal with another disaster: the collapse of Lehman Brothers that had happened two days after the storm. For me, I think, it was different. Whatever relief I felt from the influx of text messages, however much my life returned to normal when we went back to school, things had changed. The tree that shattered my house shattered my worldview. It was the first time I had ever felt my sense of security diminish before my eyes. There hadn’t really been anything before the storm that had directly threatened my home or neighborhood. I grew up on a pretty safe street – I would walk to school under the oak trees and I never worried about, well, anything. My parents moved to our house when I was barely a year old, so 119 Warrenton Drive, Houston, Texas is the only place I know as home. It was where I felt most comfortable, it was where I was safe, and there had never been any reason for me to believe that this was going to change, except under my own volition. I was so secure in my life that I didn’t even recognize it until my security was threatened from me.
I was doubly shaken because I understood that Hurricane Ike signified the already occurring effects of climate change, and that stronger storms are just going to become more frequent. I have been aware of this science since I was in middle school. My dad is an atmospheric physicist and my mom is a Wellesley-educated liberal crusader/lawyer turned piano teacher, so I was taught all about the scientifically proven conservative plot to destroy the Earth. We went to see “An Inconvenient Truth” on the 4th of July, I read the editorial by Bill McKibben on “350” (surprisingly published in the Houston Chronicle), we listened to NPR on the ride to school every morning. I considered myself very well educated on the issue. I understood the earth is warming due to an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and I knew that the increase in temperature means more than just warmer summers, it means severe changes in global climactic patterns. One of these changes will be an increase in strong storms: more moisture and more heat mean stronger hurricanes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be more storms, just more strong ones. This trend was symbolized in my mind as Hurricane Katrina, but we also all knew that Ike was also one of these storms.
But the abstract knowledge that sea levels would rise, summers would get hotter and the ice caps were already melting didn’t ignite in me a passion for real change. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have a passion for environmental quality or protection before the storm. I grew up on hanging around on boats and doing trash clean up projects at the beach while looking out to see oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico on the horizon. I saw quite dramatically the beauty of the environment juxtaposed with the damage that humans could cause to it. The intrinsic value of natural systems was instilled in me at a very young age. Climate change is, however, infinitely more abstract than trash on the beach. It wasn’t until the aftermath of Hurricane Ike that I felt the immanence of climate change. I know now, in a way that only shock can teach, that the consequences of global climate change directly threaten the home that I love and the place where I grew up.
For me, this became my mandate for action.
As my senior year in high school progressed, I decided my dream was to study at Middlebury College. An institution with a strong environmental studies program and a reputation as international studies leader, it was a place where I could envision myself taking action. I also wanted desperately to interact with people who were just as committed to change as I was. Believe it or not, such people were hard to come by in my upper-middle class suburban neighborhood in Texas.
I’m not sure if this is irony or just bad luck, but I decided Middlebury was the only place I wanted to go about four weeks after the ED II deadline. Afterwards, I ended up on the wait list. I wrote to the admissions office with my plea: “Really, all I want is to ski and eat Ben & Jerry’s with a lower carbon footprint. Oh, and save the world by double majoring in Environmental Policy and German and use the international political system to stop global warming.” Since my fortunate arrival at Middlebury, I have skied a lot and eaten so much Ben and Jerry’s. And even though I’ve chosen to major in Conservation Biology, the spirit remains. I know I’ve come to the right place.
I spent my first year at Middlebury completely invested in political environmental activism. In the fall I helped organize phone banks around Copenhagen: “call your senator and tell them to support passing a climate bill before Copenhagen!” In the spring, we organized a bike rally in support of shutting down Vermont Yankee, a polluting nuclear power plant in southern Vermont, and continued to organize through the upcoming November election in support of a governor who supported clean, green and reliable power for Vermont. The rallies for clean energy and other initiatives were inspiring, and I felt like I was contributing something to the fight against climate change.
Despite achieving clean energy goals for Vermont, the national results were not as positive. The shift in power to Tea Party and Republican Congress members after the November election made climate policy seem impossible, so I started searching for another way. All the work I had been doing during my sophomore year was beginning to seem too wonky and political. It was a slow process, but I eventually realized I was fighting “the right” and “big oil” for changes in taxes, subsidies and regulations, not for the rights of people. Politics can’t be enough to tackle the problem we are facing, especially because the climate activist groups I was a part of weren’t necessarily talking about people. At this same time, I first started hearing about climate justice.
This idea of climate justice, credited by many to Van Jones, is a synthesis of environmental justice and climate activism. The political approach to stopping greenhouse gas pollution focuses mainly on market initiatives, which traditionally favor upper class people. For example, the people who benefit the most in the short run from traditional incentives to build solar panels are engineers and investors, not necessarily the members of the community where those panels are going to be placed. Massive infrastructure changes also do not account for the necessity of a decrease in individual resource usage. By engaging all communities and providing all people with sustainable development opportunities, we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. By overhauling our economy and engaging lower income communities we can provide opportunities for economic development as well as environmental quality. Van Jones calls it the “green collar economy,” and I understand it as a way to build strong and just communities. Exposure to these ideas changed the way I think about environmentalism. The environment isn’t just wild and natural spaces, and there are more ways to fix problems than policy reform. The solutions lie within people.
The magnitude of structural changes that are needed to fight climate change are needed both at the community and policy levels. Finding a synthesis between justice and policy is critical. The development of sustainable communities can be achieved through broad, structural policy initiatives, but these policy initiatives must benefit all communities equally. Furthermore, these broad policies can and should be developed in a way to counteract current and past environmental injustices. This synthesis of community scale justice and national environmental policy is complicated and challenging. I do not have all the answers, but I feel very strongly that climate justice must be an integral part of any climate policy.
A central part of my conception of climate justice is that everyone deserves an environment that is conducive to building a future. As long as we continue to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, no one will be able to. It’s not just the communities that have traditionally faced environmental injustice that are at risk from climate change. We all are. Climate change is a great equalizer because no one is immune to its effects. After Hurricane Ike, my neighborhood, traditionally white and upper-middle class, was hit just as hard as other parts of the city. It was wrong for my life to be damaged because of human caused climate imbalance, in the same way that other environmental injustices are wrong. Applying morality to natural systems is not really possible, but I believe that the increasing frequency of powerful hurricanes is unnatural. Climate change is the biggest environmental injustice of them all, and we’re all victims.
The feeling that my individual actions, and even the work that the Middlebury environmental community is doing, are just drops in the proverbial bucket, that the specter of climate change is too large to be conquered, is discouraging. The climate is a public good, and even if I carpool, it won’t stop kids who went to my high school from asking for Hummers for their sixteenth birthdays. If Middlebury is carbon neutral, it won’t stop everyone else from buying coal-powered electricity. We can start organic gardens in the Bronx, install fuel-efficient stoves in rural African nations or organize for environmental justice in New Orleans, but for every community that tries to help, there are hundreds more. How could it ever possibly be enough?
Instead of letting this discouragement stop me, I try to remind myself how valuable it is to stand for what you believe in. A drop in the proverbial bucket is better than an empty bucket.
In addition to making an individual change for the better, we must convince others to do the same. That is the hard part. There are books and books written on how to build communities based on sustainable living principles and on our impact on the environment but how many of those thinkers have really changed things? A community begins when more than two people get together and start finding common ground. Finding common ground, however, begins with empathetic and open conversation, which people aren’t always ready to have.
If someone agrees that environmental quality is good or right, they may not appreciate the magnitude of environmental injustices and the immanence of climate change. I have heard this statement or some version of it probably a hundred times: “Environmental protection is great, but it’s really not a priority. Who cares?” Kids from my high school, kids at Middlebury, skeptical family friends who work in the oil industry – they question the legitimacy of prioritizing the environment. Even people who are dedicated to social justice in other realms do not always see climate change and environmental protection as a pressing concern.
I have said this once before, and I will say it again. I do not have answers to the questions I am asking. Building a movement and developing a just policy framework that includes voices from many different groups are extremely complex problems. There are so many bright, passionate people working on all of these questions and maybe they have the answer. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that I am going to keep working on answering them. I am going to keep trying to find just solutions to climate change while including as many different people as I can. I am also never going to forget why this matters so much to me – my home, Warrenton Drive, Houston, Texas.