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Press Pass: Don’t Let The Apocalypse Get You Down

Joan Didion, 1934-2021
“Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

Joan Didion wrote that in her 1967 essay “Los Angeles Notebook” about the hot Santa Ana winds that cascade through Southern California each fall. But read out of context, the sentiment could just as easily be about Ashland or Redding or Yreka, or any other number of towns along the Oregon-California border. “For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too,” she wrote.

The list of names grows each year: Carr, Slater, Almeda, McKinney. Late summer – August into September – is the time of year when you hear people talking about the weather with a fear-of-God kind of reverence, a sign of the ominous collective memory of the 2020 wildfires for many across the region. If you were here, you would probably feel it too.

So, what do you do with that back-of-your-mind dread that has drained the enjoyment out of hot summer days? A decent number of journalists, academics and activists today are arguing that the solution, especially for those of us weighing whether to have kids, is to do our best to beat back that dread; to acknowledge that while the world might be growing slightly less vibrant, we must fight to protect what can still be saved instead of getting sucked into the nihilism of climate gloom, which usually tracks nicely with every new report about climate change, numbing headline or, yes, tragic wildfire. According to this argument, refocusing on what is beautiful in the world is our best chance to keep it. It’s not an easy optimism to foster if you pay attention. Reading the news certainly doesn’t help.

"So, what do you do with that back-of-your-mind dread that has drained the enjoyment out of hot summer days?"

Still, there are undeniable wins worth paying attention to. In August, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, a massive health and climate bill. It’s the biggest piece of climate legislation passed in U.S. history. Its provisions include ramping up production of renewable energy sources and electric vehicles. It puts the Biden administration on track to meet their climate goal of cutting U.S. emissions nearly in half by 2030. Closer to home, in late 2021 the project to build the Jordan Cove liquified natural gas pipeline, that would have snaked across Southern Oregon to an export terminal in Coos Bay, was abandoned by its developers in the face of a raft of longstanding opposition from local activists to federal lawmakers. These fights to prevent the worst climate impacts shouldn’t be so difficult, and they waste precious time. To slightly alter an old saw: the best time to fix climate change was 50 years ago. The second best is today.

Joan Didion died earlier this year. She was one of the best, sharpest voices of her generation but she was not much of an optimist. Her critiques of the end of the 1960s eviscerated whatever mythology remained of the flower power generation. Do we need another Joan Didion today? I think so. I hope a clear-eyed journalism emerges for climate. Today, the most delusional perspective that I see is not from a selective focus on optimism but from those who still say climate change is not a problem at all. People who want to debate away the issue, or hope it gets carried away with the wind. The wind that, on hot September days, shows us how close to the edge we really are.

Simply focusing on the positive with a kind of forced optimism is not necessarily the journalism we need, but neither is an attitude that ignores the magnitude of what climate change means for all of us. We need a Joan Didion – or an army of them—to witness and report unflinchingly on the good, the bad, and the ugly so that we have a realistic understanding of what’s happening and so we can act on it accordingly.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.