When you talk about what it means to experience climate change there’s a tendency to focus on the disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, or heat waves. But in this moment before all of us have had to deal with one calamity or another the feeling I’m starting to notice is that of disorientation. I can’t claim it’s more than anecdotal but it’s a definite shift that’s hard to discount. Over and over I now hear stories about how specific places and times of year are no longer like what they used to be. I recently had one such experience and want to add to this growing collection of what it feels like to live in the time when our climate is starting to wobble.
Every year since I moved to the Bay Area I’ve gone home to Virginia for the holidays at the end of the year. Outside of the festivities and food, going back to the East Coast also serves as my annual taste of the winter season. Bundling up and staying warm inside is an integral part of being at home for the holidays. It’s almost definitional. But over the last three years things have started to get a little weird. My most enduring memories from the last few visits are no longer of being toasty inside but of being outdoors on abnormally warm days. While the average temperatures for December may not have significantly increased, the lived experience feels markedly different. It’s also conflicting in that for now these new warm December days are not a bad thing. In truth they’re downright preferable. Yet each of these enjoyable experiences is tinged with a sense that something is off and that something totally different is about to begin.
All these thoughts came together for me this most recent December. I was standing on the beach with my parents and brother in 70 degree weather looking at dolphins no more than 50 feet away in the water. It felt surreal. Where was I? When was it? Were these dolphins always around this time of year? It’s hard to say because it’s not often you spend two hours on the beach in December in Virginia. To witness this felt a little like intruding on their private dolphin lives. If the weather weren’t so nice, we wouldn’t be there to see what they were doing. My whole life I've had one conception of winter in Virginia. Then suddenly there I was feeling a warm breeze in my hair while staring hard at the ocean to spot dolphins as they came up for air. The incongruity between the time of year and the perfect weather was impossible to ignore. To be on the beach felt refreshing but also somehow wrong. Which speaks to the growing disorientation we will all face as climate change distorts the world around us.
Seasons provide a rhythm to guide us through time. You feel a certain way each year when you first hear a summer thunderstorm, or when you first smell spring flowers blooming, or when you first notice that you can see your breath in the morning air. Our lives are built upon this foundation of repetition. But now this rhythm is breaking apart. Something deep inside tells you that it’s strange to be sweating outside in December just from walking around*. It feels as though your body has been tricked into thinking it’s summer when your mind is very aware that it’s winter. To make matters worse, a key piece of this disorientation is that there isn’t some new normal that we can expect. Most of the days during the holidays last year were cold or at least chilly, it even snowed a little. But the four or five days where it was perfect spring weather warped my perception of the entire three weeks. There is no new pattern, just more volatility. And it starts to make you distrust yourself. Maybe even as a kid December had these strangely warm days? Maybe I’ve forgotten those other winter beach trips? Or maybe I’m just too focused on what are truly anomalous events? Whatever the answers, the result is losing a sense of time. You feel displaced in familiar surroundings. You should be on the beach in the summer, not the winter. It’s the same and different all at once. The worst effects of climate change will be unequally distributed but the disorientation as rhythms like seasons start to disintegrate will impact each of us in one way or another.
We are entering a new era that will be defined by instability. There's still time to prevent the worst effects of climate change but we've already locked in a lot more disorientation as the world ceases to behave in the ways we expect. The most stunning thing about all of this is that the last global climatic shift happened more than 12,000 years ago. Some 6,000 years before recorded human history even began. We are the first of our kind to go through this experience but we’re no different than all those who have come before us. The Great Pyramids of Egypt and the Burj Khalifa were both built in the same stable climate that Earth has provided for thousands of years. There’s no precedent for the feelings that await us in the future. This era has already began for many people. For others the first signs are now appearing. Small things like spotting dolphins on a warm day in December point towards bigger things that are yet to come. In addition to the irrefutable data, the anecdotes and stories also all point in the same direction. The climate is changing and its redefining our relations to time and space. We are living in this first moment of departure from the only world any of us or our ancestors have ever known. It will take our best efforts to live with the coming disorientation and to establish new ways of understanding our familiar but changed surroundings.
*If you live in the Northern hemisphere