How does climate change connect to the California wildfires?

By Noelle W. ’23

In the last few months, thirty-one people have been killed and over four  million acres have been burned all over California, resulting in deadly smoke, ash, and apocalyptic orange skies across the west coast. 

The California wildfires have been burning since August, with little signs of letting up soon. What started as record heat waves and an unusual lightning storm has grown into the most devastating wildfire season California has seen in many years. Worsened by global warming, these fires are likely to return next year, resulting in even more destruction.

“Experts agree that human behavior, land management, arson, and the effects of climate change caused by human industrial activity helped spur these massive fires, worse than any in recent memory,” wrote science journalist Matthew Rozsa in Salon. 

The fires, which mainly started from a major lightning storm in late August, have escalated due to a lack of rain, record high temperatures, and fierce winds. They are now releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating the already dangerous heat waves in California.  

“One thing [heat] does, it causes the ground [and] plant life to dry out, which makes it a lot easier once things do catch fire, for things to spread and burn very quickly,” said Environmental Science Teacher Brittany SchlaeGuada. “The warm air also causes weird things to happen like the lightning surges we had which isn’t typical for this area. The actual temperature effects are due to global warming and climate change, and the fires are a subsequent repercussion of that.”

Beyond identifying the numerous factors that contribute to the escalation of wildfires, it is also important to note the key differences between climate and weather in order to understand the causes behind them.

“Climate is essentially the long-term average weather,” wrote Dean L. Urban, Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Duke University in an email to Salon. “So in the west now we’re seeing a warming climate, plus a long-term drought, plus freakish short-term weather (for example, the lightning storms in [California], and the crazier than usual winds). Climate change and weather are linked, of course, in that under climate change we expect warmer weather but we also expect more extreme events.”

The widespread impact of wildfires this year has caused many Californians to seriously consider the influences and effects of climate change.

“[When] people think about climate change, they think [about how] the weather gets hotter or ice caps are melting,” said SchlaeGuada. “[They think about these effects of climate change] that are far away, not really measurable, and that don’t usually come into contact with our lives, but the truth is that climate change and its effects are kind of everywhere and people are starting to realize that with the seriousness of fires this year.”  

Although the denial of climate change has decreased as people start to personally experience it’s effects, it still makes a difference when public leaders recognize and respond to it’s presence. 

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom acknowledged this influence of climate change in a September interview: “The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes. It’s not an intellectual debate. It’s not even debatable.”

However, Newsom hasn’t just accepted the reality of climate change. He has begun taking much-needed action on behalf of California to reduce it’s impacts. 

“One thing that [Governor Newsom] just signed recently was an executive order in the next 15 years to make California’s car market 100% emission free.” said SchlaeGuada. “So that all new vehicles sold in the state of California 15 years from now will all be electric vehicles or some other type of renewable source. He’s taking strides to try and push California in a better direction when it comes to climate change.” 

Newsom isn’t alone as he combats our climate crisis. Many Californians have been coming up with their own proposed solutions over the last few years. Some popular suggestions include forest management and stronger fire regulations, which although easier to implement, will only provide temporary relief. 

“If we do not address the climate change issue, no amount of forest management is going to avoid this sort of situation in the future,” said Professor Francis E. Putz, botanist at the University of Florida in an interview with Matthew Rozsa.

It is clear that we need a long-term plan set in motion—and soon—as many climate scientists have predicted the wildfires to continue in the coming years, likely getting worse over time. 

This article was originally published in The Athenian Pillar, Athenian’s student-run publication, on October 24, 2020.

Sixth Graders Back on Campus, with the Rest Soon to Come

Preparing the Middle School to welcome students back to campus under new circumstances was an adventure in logistics. Yet despite the challenges the pandemic presents, the school has achieved its monumental goal of getting students back on campus. By strictly following county guidelines for schools, Athenian became one of the first schools to gain a waiver for sixth graders to come back to campus on September 21, with grades 7-12 soon to follow. 

“It has been so exciting to see our sixth graders back, engaging with each other, and connecting in-person with their teachers,” says Athenian Head of School Eric Niles. “Tremendous kudos to those teachers for their amazing work in making this happen. As always, they make it all about our kids and their experience here at Athenian.”

From the big picture to the smallest details, Athenian has worked with Forensic Analytical Consulting Services (FACS) since early spring to achieve risk reduction throughout the pandemic. FACS and a medical expert helped Athenian draft the school’s comprehensive Safety Plan, enabled the school to offer COVID-19 testing on campus, and helped teachers and staff to prepare classrooms for optimal spacing of students and teachers, among myriad other steps toward a contactless campus. 

With sixth grade students and teachers having acted as trailblazers for a new educational model in the time of COVID-19, the school is now prepared to welcome all students back in a part-time, low-density fashion. On October 20, the Athenian will start a two-week reintroduction to campus for all other grades on an alternating-week schedule. 

Large and small changes have been made to the campus, including the addition of outdoor learning spaces, hand sanitizing stations outside each classroom, and cleaning supplies inside each room. Our sixth graders are being tested every week for COVID-19 and we will be testing all of our students and teachers regularly when they return.

Teachers separated the groups into pods of 10-13 students while still in distance learning. This gave kids a sense of familiarity with their groups when they came back, and a core group with whom to start their Athenian career. 

“In preparation, we had to think about how it would work, what we were going to be able to do in the classroom,” says Middle School English teacher Justin Guerra. “We learned a lot through that experience.”

The sixth grade faculty worked hard to prepare classrooms, which went from shared spaces among which students would rotate from room to room, to a model where each student is assigned their own desk to use throughout the day, with teachers rotating instead. During breaks between classes, teachers pack up their materials in wagons that have been provided for them by the school, and move to their next classroom. 

“We are walking around the classrooms and things feel very normal, other than kids [previously] being able to collaborate inside,” Justin says.

Keeping students assigned to a single desk while indoors is meant to aid in contact tracing—if there were a COVID-19 case, the school would easily be able to determine where any points of contact might be. Students bring their materials from home, keeping everything organized in one place.

“They look beautiful, like little workspaces,” Justin says of the desks. “It’s really awesome.”

With a small number of students still learning from home, teachers are maintaining distance learning while also teaching in person by setting up “owl cameras” while they teach their in-person classes. 

And while students aren’t as mobile indoors as they have been in the past, new outdoor classrooms are offering them a chance to collaborate with each other and mix groups and spend time six feet apart with masks, or 10 feet apart without masks. 

“We are going outside, we are really utilizing the outside the classrooms,” Justin says.

As is often the case, there is a silver lining to all this. The sixth graders have been able to gain confidence as the only students on campus before the seventh and eighth grades arrive, and they are developing a closeness in their small pods that would not exist if they had not been cohorted in this way. 

“They are able to have some face-to-face conversations laying outside on the peanut, or on the soccer field, or in the outdoor classrooms, and so that’s starting to feel a lot more normal,” Justin says. “It’s starting to feel like Athenian again.”

Community Service at Athenian

As one of our Pillars, the key values we share with the Round Square consortium of schools around the world, Service is an essential part of an Athenian education. The beauty of community service lies in the way that it allows for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together and advocate for causes that they are passionate about. Not only does it help those in need, it is also a way in which students can grow and develop themselves as individuals. At the Athenian Upper School, students are able to gain these experiences through weekend service trips, ongoing community service groups, and intensive individual projects. The following essay, by Radman Z. ’21, speaks to the depth of one student’s experience at White Pony Express, a Pleasant Hill-based nonprofit that provides food and goods to those in need.

White Pony Express

By Radman Z. ’21

Radman Zarbock

In my view, many community service programs, including Athenian’s, use service requirements to educate individuals about the values of civic duty, selflessness, and our responsibility not just to our community but to each other by virtue of our shared humanity; our participation in the human experience. While I have certainly become wiser with respect to all three values, the primary outcome of my service project was something else – the experience bestowed upon me a better understanding of human purpose in the context of our ephemeralness in a constantly changing universe, pushed forward relentlessly by the torrents of time.

Prior to conducting my service project with the White Pony Express (WPE), I believed that personal achievement was the most important objective in life. In our society, we are often taught that nothing short of perfection is acceptable, and that anything less than that is failure. Even the way we look at food at the grocery store is reflective of this judgement. There are many who would not even consider buying, for example, corn whose rows are not perfectly straight or tomatoes with too many disfigurations, even though there may be nothing amiss with the product. In light of this, Imperfect Foods, with whom I have collaborated through WPE, was founded to rescue food that is senselessly neglected. Before my project, I believed that we as humans should work towards perfection, and to a good extent still do. However, I used to think this was the ultimate goal of life, and I was shown otherwise.

When I heard about the opportunity to conduct a 200 hour service project as a sophomore, I decided it would be in my best interests to take on such a project as it would bring me closer to the ideal of a perfect model citizen. Since service was valued highly in my community, I believed that excellence was correlated to service, and that consequently this achievement would make me a better community member. I also reasoned it would be a great use of my time, especially since as a teenager, I knew there were not very many conventional ways for me to be a useful member of society.

My first year of volunteering at WPE taught me leadership above all else. It also showed me both the power and value of civic duty, and why it is important to be taught selflessness – so you can logically identify and act on societal needs greater than your own wants instead of succumbing to the common compulsion towards Netflix and popcorn. When multiple people come together in responding to their sense of civic duty, it is nothing short of incredible what can be done. I got several opportunities to lead others in my first year at WPE; I gained experience in leading by example, by directive, and through peer leadership, all of which were immensely gratifying. I felt as if I was giving back to WPE by assisting the flow of the operation and helping new volunteers, as I had been given guidance when I was new.

As a whole, the first year consisted of connecting to my sense of civic duty, striving to be as useful as I could through both my work and leadership, and finding fulfillment in contributing to society. Yet I still believed what was important was to work towards becoming the ideal citizen or community member, to attain this personal achievement of perfecting one’s self with regards to one’s societally given duties. It was not until the second year of my project that I realized that personal achievement, even pertaining to one’s excellence in their fulfillment of the tasks their community deems valuable, is not what ultimately gives us purpose.

In my second year of volunteering for WPE, I took a position as a deliveryman on food distribution runs, a role I had never done before. I would usually arrive at the distribution center early in the morning and go out on a truck to rescue surplus food from local grocery stores. This time, I went out on an afternoon delivery to supply food to pantries and soup kitchens so they could distribute it directly to those in need.

One day, after unloading at one of our stops, I encountered a homeless man sitting on a bench near the pantry. I offered to grab him anything he wanted from the truck, and upon his agreement, I jaunted to the back of the truck, where my eyes fell upon a crate of fruit cartons I had quality-controlled and packed that morning. As I handed a pack of strawberries to the man, who gratefully accepted it with a smile, something clicked in my mind. I came to the crucial realization that personal achievement is not purpose itself, but a contributing factor to a much larger cause. 

The strawberries I handed the man were not the finest but, as opposed to their shiny comrades sitting idly on grocery store shelves, they had a purpose. For the strawberry that goes unused, regardless of how marvelous, will have had a purposeless existence. Hence, I saw that what matters is not purely one’s personal achievement but what you do with the knowledge, skill, and opportunity you have. Many of us desire to do something that lasts longer than ourselves, to leave some imprint in history so that our existence will not have been negligible. Yet one’s achievements, regardless of their magnitude, will eventually all be lost in the sands of time. But the impacts we have on each other’s lives, from the genuine smiles we evoke in friends and strangers to the technological breakthroughs we make that improve the lives of thousands, are permanently imprinted in the being of other observers of reality. In this, we may know that we were not negligible, that we mattered, that we made a positive difference that cannot be erased.

Our personal achievements matter only insofar as we use our gifts to positively impact the lives of others. With great ability comes great responsibility. And I am determined to use mine to its fullest potential.

This essay was originally published on the Athenian Community Service Blog on October 4, 2020.