Editor’s Note: Amy Ettinger is a journalist and the author of “Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America.” Her work can be found at www.amyettinger.com. Read more opinion at CNN.
My 13-year-old daughter and I walked along the flooded banks of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, surveying the damage of the latest storm. There were large pieces of driftwood and other detritus swirling in the brown, rushing current.
“What do you think is worse: the floods or the fires?” I asked her.
She didn’t need to pause for long before answering. “Definitely the fires because of the smell,” she said.
It was, to be fair, an impossible choice – especially for a child barely into her teens. The apocalyptic weather in California is upending all of our lives, but that’s true for no one more so than for our kids.
Julianna has lived in California for all of her life and has learned to live with the temperamental, destructive nature of its environment. In August 2020, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire ignited the mountain areas near our house.
Crews have been busy in recent days clearing neighborhoods and roadways destroyed by heavy downpours and strong winds, forcing thousands of evacuations. Forecasters say another round of unprecedented rain could soon be on its way, and new devastation emerges almost before the debris has been cleared away.
The storms that have buffeted my home state in recent weeks have left at least 17 people dead as much of the state received rainfall totals 400% to 600% above average.
In 2020, relentless wildfires saw more than 80,000 acres burn and more than 900 homes destroyed leaving blackened scars that are still visible when we drive along the sweeping cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway.
We were fortunate that our rental home was miles away from the evacuation zones. But smoke throughout the region was so pervasive and so severe that we needed to stay inside for days at a stretch with the windows closed and a MacGyvered box fan-turned-air purifier running at all times.
The fires hit during the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the terrible air quality, meant we lost access to nature at the time when we needed it the most. So we stayed inside and watched news reports of the destruction.
Now, there’s no telling how much new damage we’ll see each day when we emerge from our homes. With this current disaster, as with the last, we’re experiencing a familiar feeling of doom. Schools are canceling classes this week amid flooding so severe that it has washed away cliff faces, as well as the bridges we’re used to crossing every day.
Scientists may debate whether the latest series of storms is due to climate change, but there’s no doubt that the Golden State is being hit by more extreme weather events. That has meant that all of us – at every age – have had to become more familiar with tell-tale signs of impending bad weather.
Any child who lives here can tell you that you need to plan for potential smoke in the fall because the dry, drought-ravaged hillsides can spark in a moment. Now, Julianna will also have the memory of what it’s like to watch basic infrastructure like roads and bridges wash away from the rain.
The World Health Organization has said that climate change poses a threat to mental health and well-being. Even among adults, the extreme conditions create a hypervigilance that can never completely be turned off. You try to fall back asleep after being awakened in the middle of the night by howling winds – or the stifling heat or the pounding rain – but your brain starts to imagine the life-threatening devastation.
The emotional strain can be even greater for young people. The deadly heat, fires and flooding wrought by climate change have spawned an ever-present eco-anxiety in youth. In a 2021 survey of teens and young adults, 60% of respondents said they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change. The survey polled 10,000 young people in 10 countries about climate change and how well they felt their government responses to it have been.
When asked how they felt about our volatile climate, the most commonly chosen answers were “sad,” “afraid,” “anxious,” “angry” and “powerless.” Overall, 45% of participants said their feelings about climate change impacted their daily lives.
I know what it’s like to live without those worries, but my daughter does not. They have become a part of her, like the freckles that emerge on her face after days in the California sunlight.
In a region that has seen massive devastation from both fire and flood in the space of a few short years, it’s shocking to witness how quickly a landscape can change. As Julianna’s 13-year-old friend Talula put it, “The storm has a thundering effect on the people around us, and it rains down on the unfortunate more than anyone else.”
In addition to learning about the impermanence of things around us that once seemed immutable and the destructive power of nature, my daughter and her peers are also learning that rebuilding takes time. It’s a slow process to bring back what’s been violently destroyed.
So far, more than 100 permits have been issued to rebuild the houses that were destroyed by the fire – but that’s just a fraction of the number of dwellings destroyed. Many of the state parks that burned have only recently reopened.
Now, the recovery from these storms will cost tens of millions and will be a years-long process.
That kind of work happens on a community level, for those who stick it out. Some people I know have chosen to leave the area rather than rebuild from the fires. Others keep an extensive emergency evacuation bag constantly ready.
Long after Covid-19 is endemic, my family will still have KN95 masks and air purifiers in the house in anticipation of next year’s wildfire season. We will likely stay close to home during the rainy season, just in case. These are just the realities of raising a child in California in the 21st century. As more of these mass climate events happen in coming years, it is the children who will have to deal with the fall out.
A few days ago, after one of the storms splintered Santa Cruz’s Capitola Wharf, a beloved local landmark, we drove the mile or so from our house to take a look. We drive past it several times a week, and it was shocking to see the way part of it had fallen off into the ocean.
The businesses at the end of the wharf were cut off from the rest of the city. We surveyed the damage as tourists and photojournalists snapped photos and children built forts with driftwood from a nearby beach.
“They’ll fix it, right?” Julianna finally asked.
“Yes, I’m sure they will. But all the cleanup will cost millions,” I answered.
“But there are only a few businesses there,” she said, already doing the complicated math in her head. Did the historic nature of the landmark warrant the cost and effort?
This is the legacy our children will be left with. They will be engaged in a never-ending question of weights and balance, making difficult choices about what we rebuild and what gets washed away for good.