Fire, Flood and Fury: Voting for the Climate
I am in the first generation to grow up in the climate crisis. My environmentalist journey began with fire.
Reading time: 4 minutes
When I think of presidential elections, I think of ash.
On November 9, 2016, I woke up in a daze, exhausted from the devastation of the night before. The first sensation I noticed was the acrid smell of smoke. I stepped outside of my tiny, ground-floor apartment in Columbia, South Carolina into an ashy haze. The air was thick with burned particles of forest from the western part of the state, blown in to accompany the honking pick-up trucks charging around town with celebratory ‘make America great again’ flags flapping off their bumpers.
What kind of cosmic joke is this? I thought. Wildfires aren’t supposed to happen in South Carolina.
Fall 2016 was the second-to-last semester of my Bachelor’s in Environmental Science. I was a student of the climate crisis and of its political entanglements. Hurricanes brought massive flooding to Columbia all four of years that I lived there, along with evacuees from the coast further east. While intergenerational neighborhoods were disbanded by floodwaters and families lost property passed down since Emancipation, politicians in the state capital of Columbia refused to even use the term ‘sea level rise’. Now, the west of the state burned as the east flooded and Columbia filled with impromptu parades celebrating the election of a climate denier. My despair and disappointment kindled a steady rage that has burned since that day.
Fittingly, my environmentalist journey began with fire.
Growing up, I spent summers in British Columbia (BC), Canada. When I was eight years old, pine beetles ravaged BC’s forests, leaving swaths of dead trees. Those dry forests were tinder boxes and that summer fires swept the region. One night, my Dad and my Uncle took me to a hillside to look across a lake at a similar hillside engulfed in flames. It terrified me. I also wondered what could be done about those beetles.
In high school, I learned that by 2020 hurricanes would be more numerous, massive and wet, while wildfires burned all year—if we did nothing. But 2020 was ten years away, and the adults would do something, I was sure.
On election night 2020, I sat outside with a campfire—providing warmth to my friend and I on a chilly November evening. We shared our nervous anticipation outdoors because with COVID-19 cases rising, it was not safe to be indoors with friends. We checked the electoral map constantly, hoping more states would turn blue for Democrat and fewer red for Republican. But, as the campfire died, the map burned redder.
November 4, 2020, dawned clear, but uncertainty hung over everything like the ash of four years earlier. Over the next few days, votes were counted and the map turned just blue enough. In 2020, for the first time, US voters elected a candidate with a robust climate plan.
I am in the first generation to grow up in the climate crisis. For me, elections are about fires and ash, hurricanes and floods. My anger is ignited by the political failures that brought us to this point of crisis. I do not trust the politicians to deliver on their plans. Yet, when the 2020 election was finally called, I felt a puff of hope on the November breeze. This too fans the flame. There is work to do.
 On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
 Scroll down to ‘2016’ for information about the largest wildfire in South Carolina history, which burned the day after the 2016 election: https://www.state.sc.us/forest/firesign.htm#:~:text=The%20largest%20mountain%20wildfire%20on,was%20controlled%20on%20December%2016.
 Emancipation refers to the end of slavery in the United States, declared by the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862.
 Sea level rise is flooding many coastal communities in South Carolina. Among those hit first and hardest are black neighborhoods, including those whose families have passed property down since the end of slavery. Some such properties fall under ‘heir’s property’ ownership, in which land has been passed down over generations without a legal will. Heir’s property is often excluded from government support to recover or move away from flooding and sea level rise, resulting in the loss of wealth, as well as community connections. For more information see: Heir’s Property Retention Coalition; Southern Environmental Law Center Broken Ground podcast, especially episode ‘Uprooted’; Charleston Post & Courier Sea Level Rise and Land Slipping Away.
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