Will Climate Change Unite the Sierra Nevada?

Climate change isn’t happening in a vacuum. Its impacts have rippled both directly and indirectly into the public conscious and daily lives, ingraining a daunting challenge while offering a thrilling opportunity. There are few things that can unite a region as ideologically diverse and geographically isolated as the Sierra Nevada in the way that climate change is bringing people, along with their varying interests, together. Coming to the state as an outsider I was familiar with the narrative of liberal urban hotspots and semiconservative rural areas, but as with all things, I have yet to realize the nuance of what it means to be a Californian living in a small mountain town. Layer a charged and partisan political atmosphere on top of that, and you’ll begin to understand how my quest to best serve Sierra communities becomes even more of a learning experience.

COMM SCC Blog 2018 12When I asked the Civicspark Americorps program to place me in Truckee at the Sierra Business Council for my service year, I thought I knew what I was getting into. Coming from Colorado, I thought I understood the needs and limitations of mountain communities – the delicate balance of loving the economic rush that ski and recreation tourists bring into an area, while at the same time loathing the feeling of foreign invasion. I thought I understood what it meant to live in the Sierra foothills, in a town of less than 15,000 people, and to have pride in your community’s history while wanting to ensure its future. I am beginning to realize I have only the most basic understanding of how Californians in the Sierra balance the love for their natural environment with their region’s economic interests while maintaining their social identities and equalities.

In my short time here, I have been fortunate to see communities undertaking this charge. Dedicated community members and thoughtful town staff in Grass Valley are already exploring how to make their community more energy efficient. They’re taking the steps deliberately, utilizing resources they have and making sure not to rush or overburden, but a charge of purpose runs through their energy action plan. What is good for their energy efficiency is good for their collective wallets and town development, while achieving state goals and bettering the environment. The Town of Mammoth Lakes has convened a Climate Change Action Team, and during the two hours that I sat in on their first meeting, I was taken aback by the fact that you could have business leaders, environmentalists, and government representatives all in the same room, working toward the same goal. They disagree sometimes, but those moments are brief, as they set their differences aside and charge toward the goal of adapting to the new way of life they and their peers are already experiencing. The new normal is that nothing is normal.

Wildfires burn down million dollar second homes near ski areas while wreaking havoc on watersheds for downstream agriculture. Climate change is a strange beast in the region because it surmounts nuance and difference to impact communities indiscriminately. There isn’t a soul living in the Sierra who doesn’t have a story to tell about wildfire, drought, insane snow, or sideways hail on a June day.

Climate change is fundamentally changing the nature of the region, and how its natural and built systems behave. While that seems like a formidable challenge, it also poses a beautiful opportunity. From an outsider’s perspective, my hope for the Sierra is that the region’s basic commonality can be the uniting force. I hope that despite the differences these communities have in priorities and interests, in composition and economies, that the hurricane force of climate change can unite our regional agencies, governments, and communities to better understand and combat the greatest challenge of our time.