I never want to hear anyone deny the existence or cause of climate change in my presence ever again.
This is what I was thinking last night when I got home, poured myself out of a sweltering car, and stumbled into my bedroom where the lights were turned off (to avoid generating unnecessary heat) and fans and a room air conditioner were roaring full-blast. Even despite these measures, which I’m lucky to have, I could still feel no relief. I was exhausted and recovery from the heat was very slow. Yesterday I lay there in the darkness, sweltering, cursing climate change, and finally I got angry. I wanted to ask the numbskulls who deny climate change, do you think this is all in my head? You really think the Chinese or Al Gore made all of this up? How can you possibly deny what lived experience has shown us to be true, which is that climate change has made everything, especially summer, noticeably worse in a remarkably short period of time?
This article is not a refutation of the contortionist nonsense arguments of climate deniers, nor an explication of the facts, science or history of climate change. One historical fact did stick in my mind last night, as I lay there exhausted—that scientists have known for over 50 years that this was going to happen, and that Lyndon Johnson was briefed on climate change in 1965, with full awareness of the scientific basis of greenhouse gas warming and what it was going to do to our world. Maybe in 1965 you could forgive LBJ for having more pressing concerns, like Vietnam, on his mind. Not true in 2018. In this article I’m not even going to howl at the oil companies, at Presidential administrations (Republican and Democratic alike), at economists, at propagandists for their denialist nonsense which has helped lead our planet to this terrible moment. No; in this article I’m going to tell you why I now have a personal vendetta against climate change. It took summer away. And that makes me sad.
Portland in summer, about 1992. This is how I remember the city in the early years. You could still see snow on Mt. Hood, even in July.
I live in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon to be precise. I wasn’t born here. My family moved to the area in 1989, when I was almost through high school, and I first saw Oregon in late August. I remember the burnished look of the late summer sunlight at the magic hour of sunset slanting through the branches of a grove of tall pines that stood just across the street from our house. There was a kind of magic about a Northwest summer back then, a thrill that brought to mind images of hiking ancient trails and lush forests, blue waters, distant snow-capped mountains (even in deep summer), barbecuing river-fresh salmon on a backyard grill and eating it on the deck out behind my parents’ house. I loved those early summers, and they still hang in my memory as a sort of golden age.
Even in the early years I do remember some hot days. They came once in a while, mostly in the dog days of August. You could escape them by driving an hour to Seaside on the Oregon Coast, where it was usually 62° and often cloudy even if it was 90 in Portland. On a very rare occasion there would be two or three hot days in a row. I recall the summer of 1992, when I was home from college between terms, there were some hot days in mid-July. The day Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for President—I remember watching the speech in my parents’ living room, fans droning—was about the hottest. But the heat never seriously threatened anything you wanted to do in the summer. You could still barbecue or hike Multnomah Falls or play badminton on the lawn; maybe you’d sweat a bit, but that was about it.
This photo was taken (not by me) on the day of the Metallica concert in Portland on July 20, 1994, as metalheads were about to go to the venue at Portland Meadows. It was 103 that day.
The first super-hot day I can recall in Portland’s history was July 20, 1994. The city set a temperature record of 103° that day, the hottest it had ever been up until that time. Unbelievably, that evening I went to a Metallica concert—at an outdoor venue—and lived to tell about it. Hey, I was 22. About this time, mid- to late-1990s, you could learn to expect one pretty bad heat wave, or “spike” as I called them, per summer. By that I mean, a spell of three days or so where temperatures would consistently be above 95°. Even in these summers there would be a couple more near-spikes, high 80s or low 90s. But once the big spike was over, as it was in late July that year, 1994, the rest of the summer would be pretty good.
A decade later it was different. Summer 2004 was especially warm, and it was harder to sleep at nights than usual. There were two or three spikes that summer, generally evenly spaced. That summer also seemed to linger a long time, as there were near-spike days even in late September. Still, ironically, the worst heat waves I’d encountered had been in Europe. I was in Amsterdam and London at the time of the terrible 2003 heat wave, which killed over 70,000 people; I was at the Wacken festival in Germany in 2004, during which it was terribly, terribly hot. But the Northwest was still, despite the heat spikes, a paradise, especially in early summer.
In August 2015 I spent an evening at the Jantzen Beach Red Lion hotel in Portland. This was what the day looked like. There was not a cloud in the sky–everything you see is smoke.
I specifically remember a change in 2008. At that time in my office I always had a web browser open to the National Weather Service weather page for Portland (I still do this today). The NWS shows weather day by day in little icons. Well, in 2008, due to the effects of wildfires whose smoke was blowing into the Portland metro area, the NWS had to create a brand new icon: “Smoke.” Maybe it was used in other places, but I’d never seen it on our local page before. Summer 2008 was pretty bad. The next year, in late July, came the worst single spike I could ever remember: a week of excruciating temperatures where there was no significant cooling at night. I remember, it was 94° inside my apartment, at midnight, one night. I was still going to the Wacken Open Air festival yearly then; escaping (on an air-conditioned plane) to northern Germany was a great relief.
The last three years, since 2015, the summers have become cruel, brutal, merciless and unrelenting. It’s not just heat, which is bad enough. By then you could count on at least one, and usually two, spikes every month of the summer, June, July and August, with a good possibility of one in September, and most other days would be near-spikes of 80s or low 90s. The fires, however, grew much worse. In August 2015 Portland was blanketed with a thick, toxic pall of smoke from multiple fires raging all around it. It happened again—even worse—in 2017. At one point the sunset, blood-red, looked like something out of an Andrei Tarkovsky film. Several times I brushed cinders off the windshield of my car before driving to work. And the news was filled with one climate-related disaster after another: fires, heat waves, crop failures, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria one-two-three right in a row; record-breaking temperatures; Trump pulling out of the Paris Accords.
Sunset over Mt. Tabor, in Portland, during wildfire season. This is what climate change looks like.
And now it is the summer of 2018. After a June that wasn’t so bad, since the beginning of July we’ve had so many heat spikes, one after another, I’ve lost track of them; one lasted 10 days, with not a single day below 90°, and as I look at the forecast I see another one predicted next week. Smoke is beginning to suffuse the atmosphere again. The New York Times Magazine ran an article titled “Losing Earth,” about how, in the 1980s, we missed our best chance to reverse climate change. I now work in a job related to climate change, so I see it, breathe it, live it all the time. The job feels onerous on days, like yesterday, where I get home so exhausted from the heat that all I can do is lay there in the darkness, wondering what the hell happened, how we could have let it get this bad.
Twenty-nine years ago, in 1989 when my family first came here, a Pacific Northwest summer was paradise. Now it’s hell. Forget the snow-capped mountains; Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens rarely have any snow on their flanks between May and September. Forget Multnomah Falls; the forest around it was gutted by a fire last year. Forget the salmon. They’re mostly gone from the rivers around here, though you can get salmon imported from Japan at the market. It’s usually too hot to eat dinner outdoors on the deck. Even the burnished golden sunlight slanting through the pine trees at magic hour is gone. The trees themselves—the grove behind my parents’ house still exists—are stripped and sparse from beetle infestations, and in any event during fire season the light at magic hour now turns a sickly blood red, like the aftermath of a battle.
Me with two Finnish friends at Wacken 2004. The heat seemed almost quainter then.
I used to love summer in the Northwest. I used to look forward to it. In June I would plan out what books I wanted to read that summer, where we’d go for a weekend, I’d chat excitedly with my metal friends about Wacken. I often wrote books in the summer (Zombies of Byzantium, Zombie Rebellion and Doppelgänger were all written mostly in the summer). I’d enjoy summer wines like rosé or chardonnay. Summer was beautiful here.
That is all gone now. Summer is now a trial, an extended blistering blaze of physical and mental misery, a gauntlet of heat spikes, smoke, fires, news of hurricanes and floods and disasters, repeated warnings of how it might already be too late. In terms of climate change impacts, I’m lucky, living a privileged life in a wealthy country (though for how much longer, who knows). Others in many parts of the world have it far worse. And deniers pretend to ignore it all, writing shit blogs filled with falsehoods and propaganda, as if nothing has changed, as if all of my lived experience in the past 30 years is something I imagined, or perhaps they just think that by saying so they’re “triggering libtards,” which in the age of Trump is apparently an end unto itself.
I used to love summer in the Northwest, and now I hate it.
That is the fault of climate change. Climate change took summer away, and turned it into something bad.
I never want to hear anyone deny the existence or cause of climate change in my presence ever again. Climate deniers lie, but the 29 years I’ve spent watching and experiencing the descent of summer do not.