Earth Doctor / Climate Troubadour

Leaving California

Restless people in a wagon train;                   D
Forty-niners out to stake a  claim;               D  A
Hungry farmers on the dust bowl plain;     D G
It’s the sound of people bound                     D  A
to California.                                                       D

Over the mountains you can smell the sea.          D
Milk and honey, like you dreamed it would be.  D A
Golden valleys feed your family.                           D G
Horn of plenty, piece of heaven                            D  A
California.                                                                  D

But golden dreams melt away                   A
And nothing gold will stay     

Times are changing now, they parch the soil.
Too much heat and all that beauty spoils.
Dry as powder now, all around,
Burning Paradise to the ground,

Take for granted things’ll stay the same,
But too much fire now, and too much rain.
Don’t know how I’m gonna start again.
Soon be leaving, east of Eden,

©Doug Hendren 2020

What’s it about? For generations of Americans, California has been a land of milk and honey, productive farmland and extraordinary natural beauty. Global warming, however, now brings each new crisis on the heels of the last. The American West has always had dry periods, and has always had a “fire season.” When I practiced orthopedics in northern California in the 1990s, I occasionally took care of injured “smokejumpers.” Back then, “fire season” was about 5 months out of every year. Today, wildfire risk is all year ’round. When I published this song, there were 90 wildfires burning in California. Fire had destroyed 2.5 million acres within a matter of weeks. The effects of global warming are uneven, but mainly involve the physics of heat and moisture. Hot, dry winds can remove all humidity from the soil and the plants attached to it, so a tiny spark may be enough to start a wildfire. In winter 2023, California has experienced just the opposite extreme, so far recording 29 “atmospheric rivers” since the wet season began in October 2022. Extreme flooding and landslides destroy homes and infrastructure.

Elsewhere, hot air over the Atlantic generates wetter, more powerful hurricanes and flooding. These extreme events have become much more costly, as the insurance industry has documented. And rising seas are beginning to threaten some of our coastal cities with staggering potential costs.

As author Jake Bittle has written in The Great Displacement, climate migration within the United States has already begun. The ranks of American refugees are growing every year, driven by fire, flood and rising seas, and amplified by underfunded disaster relief, shortage of affordable housing, and a broken insurance market. Many losses are uninsured or uninsurable. In the case of California, many can no longer afford to stay in the state.

This is what climate crisis looks like. The main driver is humans burning coal, gas and oil for energy: electricity, heating, industry and transportation. Some people still think fossil fuels are cheap – but only because so many of their costs are not being counted. A true accounting must include the costs of pollution, of extreme weather, rising seas and climate disruption.

We have the ability right now to transition completely to clean, renewable sources of energy. We are limited by politics, not by our technology. Our lawmakers continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry which is burning down our homes and our world. Many of our energy regulators have been “captured” by fossil fuel interests.

Our average global temperature is now more than 1°C above the pre-industrial average. Scientific experts agree that over 1.5°C, the consequences for our environment, food security, and social stability become “outright terrifying.”  Climate change represents a major risk to our entire financial system as well.

It is clear that market forces alone will not stop the climate juggernaut. Federal support from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is helping move us toward a clean energy economy, but obstruction and disinformation from the powerful fossil fuel industry remains formidable. Political leaders who believe this transition is too costly need to start tallying the cost of doing nothing.  Watching the land of milk and honey, whole cities going up in smoke, one has to ask: What are they thinking?

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