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Intro by Nneka McGuire, profiles by Sonia Narang and illustrations by Hanna Lee Joshi. Photo credit has been updated.
Science tells us that if greenhouse gas emissions stay high, the Earth’s atmosphere could warm up by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 degrees Celsius, by 2040. The International Monetary Fund tells us that it’s critical to implement a global carbon tax. Jane Fonda tells us we need to start “cutting all funding and permits for new developments for fossil fuel and exports and processing and refining.”
Gina McCarthy, the 13th administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, acknowledges these types of facts, but wants to shift the focus.
“I think the most important thing is to talk about climate change not as a problem for the planet, but as a problem for people,” says McCarthy, who served under President Barack Obama. “People just don’t get the sense that their lives are being immediately impacted by climate change, except if they live along the coast or in areas that are susceptible to fire.”
Since she was young — “way back in the Neanderthal era,” she quips — McCarthy has been involved in environmental work. She started out working in community health centers in Providence, R.I., where she noticed that patients were facing “some serious environmental problems.” There wasn’t enough food to eat, there weren’t enough places to live. Lead paint was a major concern, she says, water challenges were “pretty rampant,” and the air quality? “Terrible.” Health consequences tended to heavily impact children, the elderly and the most vulnerable.
It’s crucially important to keep public health, and the changing realities of people’s lives, at the forefront when discussing climate change, she says. If you can’t follow the science, that’s fine. McCarthy says she doesn’t need people to “understand how the jet stream’s been affected or how the ocean is moving in a different way. I just need them to understand that it matters to them and their families in a concrete way.”
She urges optimism, even when past environmental progress is undone.
“What I’m trying to do is stay hopeful,” she says, “so that the young people who are engaged in this won’t think that we are fighting a useless battle, that there is no future for them. And I think the only way to fight against the skeptics is to get out of the doldrums that they want to keep us in, because nobody follows the losers. If I sat around and said, ‘Oh, there’s nothing we can do,’ well who the hell is going to do anything?”
Below, we share the stories of three women in different parts of the world whose lives have been shaken by climate change. These personal accounts are meant to inform, not spark distress or fear. If you’re like McCarthy, you may even be inspired to act — which is why we included three everyday steps she takes to help stem climate change. Keep reading to find out what they are.
Arpita Khatun was eight months pregnant in July when the heavy monsoon rains poured down in Nepal. Khatun’s home was located in the low-lying central Terai region, near the border with India. When the rainwater flooded over the embankment, three feet of water rushed into her house while she was asleep.
The deluge ruined her family’s food supply and household goods, and they lost their cash savings of 200,000 Nepali rupees — the equivalent of more than 1,700 U.S. dollars. With the home’s ground floor full of floodwater, she moved her family up to the rooftop for four days, but they had no shelter from the elements. “It was raining up there continuously, and we didn’t have a tarp to protect us from the water, so it was difficult,” she says. “There was also no place for sleeping properly on the roof.”
“The roads were impassable and the paddy fields were underwater. I was so scared,” she says. In surrounding areas, the water levels reached around 10 feet high.
Climate scientists say global warming is causing an uptick in these intense spells of rain in Nepal. This changing monsoon pattern makes the Himalayan country particularly vulnerable to flooding, landslides and flash floods. The region is also experiencing longer, drier periods without any rainfall, which could threaten agriculture.
When Khatun finally went to the hospital in labor, a few weeks after the heaviest rains started, the nursing staff was still absent — it was still raining. That meant she had to wait until the nurses arrived to get started on a saline solution IV. “I was in pain, so it was hard for me that the staff was not there,” she says. The nurses finally arrived, and Khatun gave birth to a baby girl.
Now, she’s focused on recovering from the flooding — including cleaning up her home and repaying money her family borrowed from neighbors to survive. She estimates it will take around three years to save up the money she lost in the catastrophic rains.
“I’m scared the floods could come again,” she says. “Even this time, the flood was before the expected time frame, so there’s still a chance for more.”
When Arlene Coleman’s family runs out of water, she drives her pickup truck 11 miles on rough, dusty roads to the nearest water station to fill up a giant, 2,000-gallon container. It’s an hour of driving, and she has to pay for the water.
“Hauling water is very expensive — our vehicles break down very quickly, and there’s a lot of maintenance costs,” Coleman says. “In the summertime, it’s even harder because of the heat, and you could get a heat stroke out there getting water.”
Coleman grew up herding sheep and cattle on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribal reservation in the United States. However, extreme drought and heat waves have made it difficult for Coleman to continue her way of life.
“In the old days, we had more rain, so most of the time the water dams were full,” Coleman says. But, in recent years, the lack of rainfall has dried up the streams that once flowed through Navajo land.
Scientists studying global warming on the Navajo Nation point to major environmental changes. Margaret Redsteer, a University of Washington at Bothell professor and geologist who has contributed to U.N. climate reports, says the amount of surface water flowing in streams on the Navajo Nation declined by about 98 percent over the 20th century.
Coleman has watched these extreme changes happen in her lifetime. “I remember as a child, when I used to look out the door, I used to see these plants just waving in the wind,” she says.
Coleman says that this past summer “got way too hot”: “It’s terrible that we don’t have electricity here,” she says. “We’re at the danger zones with the heat, and we are not able to run air conditioning.”
Since there’s little natural vegetation left around her area anymore, Coleman has to drive around 50 miles just to buy hay for her livestock. “It can get expensive, and I usually have to call around to find out who’s got what and at what price,” she says.
These days, the animals have almost no naturally flowing water to drink, and Coleman isn’t sure she will be able to continue the Navajo tradition of raising livestock. “I sometimes think to myself, ‘Well, maybe it’s better not to have animals,’” she says. “But that’s really hard, because one of the reasons I have animals is that they keep me going daily, from the moment I open my eyes to wake up. That really starts my day, and if I don’t have that, I’ll be depressed ... because I don’t have a purpose to get up.”
Khadijah Moore was at home on Sept. 18, 2017, when Category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall on the small Caribbean island of Dominica. It hit the island before hurtling toward Puerto Rico, bringing with it 175 mph winds, torrential downpour and storm surges that caused widespread damage.
Two years later, the devastation remains etched in her memory. “I will never forget the sound of the winds that night, because it literally sounded like a banshee screaming,” Moore says. “You heard roofs being ripped off in whole, the entire house was flooding — the water was coming under the doors, above the doors. At one point, the back door to the kitchen looked like a waterfall.”
The hurricane was the strongest disaster in recorded history to hit Dominica, an island of fewer than 75,000 people. Moore says the island looked like a “war zone”; houses in her neighborhood were totally destroyed.
When Moore ventured into Dominica’s capital, Roseau, a couple days after the hurricane hit, she says she found “anarchy”: People were looting the supermarkets. As an employee in the prime minister’s office, she had to get to work — even as power was still out on various parts of the island.
As a volunteer for the Dominica Planned Parenthood Association, Moore also traveled the island assisting with the relief effort.
She helped distribute contraceptives, hygiene kits, sanitary products, water and food supplies in the days following the disaster.
“When I went to the various villages by boat, I saw that the villages were cut off,” she says. “Most days, I tried to remain strong, but sometimes I’m a softy, so I [cried] a lot.”
The local Dominican community spirit, though, inspired her to keep going. “You could see people helping each other to put a roof back over their heads, so they could have somewhere dry to sleep that night,” she says.
Environmental work defines Gina McCarthy’s days. Between her previous job heading the EPA and her current position as the director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, much of her life has been committed to cutting pollution and boosting public health.
She helps the planet in quieter ways, too. Here are three everyday actions she takes:
• “I no longer buy plastic or use plastic, to the extent that that’s possible. Because I know that plastic is associated with fossil fuels, which many people don’t recognize, and I don’t want to be a party to making the life of fossil fuels longer.”
• “I don’t own a car,” says McCarthy, who lives in Boston. “I bike to work, or I take public transportation to work.” (She tries not to take Ubers as much as possible, but admits that she does so occasionally when time is tight.)
• “We’ve narrowed down our red meat consumption,” but “I’m still sort of struggling getting to the way my children eat, which is very good.” (They’re pescatarians.)
• How to combat climate anxiety (CNN)
• How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world (New York Times)
An earlier version of this story, in our email newsletter, incorrectly attributed a quote to Gina McCarthy in a pull quote.