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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet

Cherry blossoms, warm spring weather, and a coming climate apocalypse: Welcome to the "apocabliss." - Slate

Cherry blossoms, warm spring weather, and a coming climate apocalypse: Welcome to the “apocabliss.” – Slate

WASHINGTON—I had been strolling beneath the cherry blossoms with Rep. Pramila Jayapal for about 15 minutes on a recent morning in March when she was greeted by her first fan of the day. “Thank you for taking care of America!” a white-haired man in a baseball hat yelled out, with the enthusiasm of a tourist getting more than his money’s worth on a visit to the nation’s capital.

“You bet, thank you so much!” Jayapal called back.

Next, a middle-aged woman stopped us to ask if her husband could take a photo of her with Jayapal. The congresswoman cheerfully obliged.

The couple was from Houston, the woman said, and had made a habit of visiting the cherry blossoms each year since their daughter moved to Washington, D.C., for school. Usually, they come up in early April. This year, after hearing that the cherry trees were approaching an atypically early bloom date, they had scheduled their trip for March instead.

The early arrival of the white and pink flowers, hastened this year by an unusually warm February, was the reason I had asked Jayapal to take a walk around the Tidal Basin with me. It was “peak bloom,” an enchanting and fleeting period during which 70 percent of cherry tree buds are in full flower. But the season has also been flecked with a guilty unease: These trees wouldn’t be blooming so early without the rising temperatures of a warming climate.

I asked Jayapal if she was familiar with the concept of “apocabliss”—the feeling of delight at unseasonably warm weather, even as one recognizes it as an omen of a catastrophically less habitable climate to come. “Totally, because I live in Seattle. And Seattle is typically cloudy and rainy and cold,” she said. “And yet, in Seattle for the last many years, we have seen these massive weather changes. Some of them are good in the moment, the apocabliss kind of changes.” She described a recent visit to her hometown in late winter, when it was 65 degrees and sunny, the mountains around the city were visible, and “everything was sparkling.”

But “the droughts, the fires, all the other things that are just apocalyptic, no bliss about them, have really been very present,” Jayapal said. Due to longer and hotter summers, wildfires, a relatively common occurrence on the dry eastern side of the Cascade Range, are now increasingly likely to erupt on the west side, enveloping Seattle in smoke. Air conditioning has long been an optional luxury in western Washington, but a few years ago, in response to progressively harsher heat waves and the toll the wildfire smoke was taking on Jayapal’s asthma, she and her husband had a system installed in their home.

Two women pose for the camera under a flowering cherry blossom tree.

Two women pose for the camera under a flowering cherry blossom tree.

Rep. Jayapal and a fan.
Christina Cauterucci

In D.C., far from the country’s wildfire corridors, the immediate effects of climate change are subtler, but they’re here. Since records began tracking the blossom phases of D.C.’s cherry trees in the 1920s, the average peak bloom date has crept up by nearly a week, from April 5 to March 31. And in each of the most recent four years, peak bloom has begun even earlier than that.

On this year’s peak bloom date, March 23, the air at the Tidal Basin was clean and cool. Jayapal had dressed for the occasion in a blazer and loafers, both in cherry-blossom pink. (She’d wanted to match the flowers, her spokesperson said.) As we dodged sightseers on the narrow path, Jayapal, demonstrating a Seattle-appropriate appreciation for the cloud cover, noted with gratitude that our view of the blossoms was “not getting washed out by the sun.”

A few days earlier, the United Nations’ authority on climate change had released a sobering report, warning of “a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” Without monumental, unprecedented changes to national economies and energy policies, the report states, we only have about a decade before average global temperatures hit 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—the level to which countries have agreed to try to limit warming, beyond which the effects of climate change will become much harder for humanity to endure.

It’s enough to make any climate-conscious Earth inhabitant spiral. The decades lost to inaction! The long odds of preserving life on this planet as we know it! “It feels depressing every time you see one of those reports, because it just shows us, again, how far behind the eight ball we are,” Jayapal said. Last year, “we had a little moment of a high of passing the Inflation Reduction Act, and finally feeling like at least we were doing something … But I think the reality of how long it has taken us to act—this is not a ship you can turn easily. You have to move so many processes in order to move the result, move the needle on the dial.”

Jayapal paused to step off the concrete and into the dirt as we struggled upstream against a horde of what appeared to be eighth-graders, presumably on a class trip to D.C. to learn about the nation’s government. The kids were oblivious to the congresswoman they’d just run off the sidewalk, brimming with the electric energy of preteens set semi-loose away from their parents.

Anyway, Jayapal continued as we stepped around the roots of the trees, “I do want people to also take heart in the fact that the movement for climate change and climate justice is making a huge difference. … We were the biggest laggards out of developed countries, and we have taken these huge steps.” Like leaders in every progressive movement, Jayapal walks a fine line when discussing the future of climate action: She must accurately convey the urgency of the issue and the consequences of further delay, while instilling hope and confidence that major achievements are within reach.

Still, weaning the United States off of fossil fuels will be harder than many people realize, she said. “I think, for a lot of people, they think that once we pass the legislation, we’re done.” But federal agencies still have to write rules about how each piece of legislation is implemented and the appropriated funds distributed. Lobbyists are swarming all over that process. Last year, Jayapal introduced the Stop Corporate Capture Act, which would reduce corporate influence over the rulemaking process by, among other things, jacking up penalties for companies that lie to regulators and creating an office to advocate for members of the public who stand to benefit from regulations.

As a political issue, despite its centrality to the workings of government, “corporate capture” is as arcane and unsexy as it gets.

“If you had said to me, before I came into Congress, ‘What’s corporate capture?’ I would have been like, ‘no idea,’” Jayapal said. Now she wants to clarify, for laypeople, that it’s about the insidious ways industry lobbyists can wiggle their way into the work of federal agencies—and that her bill aims to stop them. Since she entered federal government a little over six years ago, Jayapal said, “I have really recognized, in a whole new way, the power of the lobby against us.”

We stepped off the path again to accommodate a young couple posing for a photoshoot under one of the cherry trees. As the man lifted his partner in the air, a nearby child, possibly theirs, threw a handful of blossom petals in front of the photographer’s lens. “This is really cute,” Jayapal said, and gave the lovebirds a “yay!” and a round of applause.

There is some talk these days about the potential for a shift in the partisan nature of climate action. With a disproportionate chunk of IRA funds flooding into renewable-energy projects located in red counties and states, Republican officials have powerful incentives to support the transition. Jayapal thinks it’s possible. “There was a time when, actually, Republicans were leading on climate change issues. And there was a real momentum—a sense that maybe if we had a Democratic administration, we could just push it over the finish line,” she said, citing John McCain’s relatively sensible outlook on climate during the 2008 presidential election. More recently, she has seen some local- and state-level Republicans respond to pressure from constituents who are worried about their own safety in an increasingly volatile climate. “And so with the flooding, with the fires, with the disaster events—those are all places where there’s an enormous opportunity to make it bipartisan again.”

But, she went on, “you’re confronting a structural barrier with the filibuster.”

The Senate can’t pass most bills with a simple majority. As it stands, 41 percent of the Senate— which can represent as little as 11 percent of the U.S. population, Jayapal emphasized—can block any legislation that isn’t part of budget reconciliation. With a 51-member majority that includes independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin—both of whom have indicated that they support the filibuster and will not budge—Democrats would need one more vote in the Senate to suspend the filibuster and pass key parts of their agenda, such as voting rights legislation and codifying Roe v. Wade. (This was more of a relevant concern when Democrats controlled the House.)

There is something like a contradiction, here, in the role Jayapal plays on climate. On one hand, she is one of the few people on Earth with anything approaching real power to change the calamitous trajectory of the planet, an issue that has a way of making everyday people feel infuriatingly powerless. On the other, when you get right down to it, whether or not the U.S. moves aggressively enough to forestall a looming climate apocalypse is almost entirely dependent on a handful of people—many of them, like Manchin and Biden, named Joe—who don’t seem to approach the problem with the life-or-death resolve it warrants.

So for Jayapal, as the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, power looks more like pushing on the Joes and negotiating within the Democratic caucus than it does casting a deciding vote. “I feel like we as a progressive caucus have built power over the last six years,” she said. “I mean, that was really my goal when I came into Congress. That was my whole theory of change, is that you could organize on the inside, not just the outside. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have been interested.”

She argued that the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate change legislation in U.S. history, wouldn’t exist had the House not written the Build Back Better Act—which wouldn’t have happened if House progressives hadn’t insisted that it get written before they passed the infrastructure package in 2021. (“When the infrastructure bill got sent to us, there was no Build Back Better legislation,” Jayapal pointed out.) At the time, some progressives criticized Jayapal’s eventual decision to give up leverage and vote to pass the infrastructure bill without a concomitant vote on Build Back Better, especially once Manchin refused to support Build Back Better two months later, dooming the massive climate change and social spending bill for good.

Jayapal still thinks it was the right move. “I don’t think compromise in and of itself is the greatest thing. But I do think principled compromise is,” she said. “You can’t get everything. And I tell all my activist friends, ‘We can’t get everything, because the structure is not set up for us. But we can get a lot.’” In the Inflation Reduction Act, with its hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for a clean energy transition, “we got a lot. And we also won the public argument around all the pieces we didn’t get,” she said.

Last month, the Biden administration angered climate change advocates with its recent move to approve the Willow project, an oil drilling endeavor on federal lands in Alaska. Jayapal had pressed Biden to reject it, and she believes he made the wrong choice. But she told me the issue was “a bit more complicated” since Rep. Mary Peltola—a Democrat and Alaska Native—had asked Biden to greenlight the project, in part because of the economic boost it could bring to rural indigenous communities. Jayapal suspects that the Willow project may have been a promise Biden made in exchange for votes to confirm federal judicial appointees in a Senate where Democrats hold a paper-thin majority.

Nevertheless, the approval of the project, which could extract 600 million barrels of oil in the coming decades, looks like a major setback to global decarbonization—at a time when there is little leeway for delays. As Jayapal and I neared the end of our walk at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, she tested the seat of a bench with her hand, found it still wet from the earlier drizzle, and sat down anyway. I asked her about the personal and emotional impact of toiling away on climate change while watching global leaders—including her own colleagues—make policies that consistently fall short of what’s necessary to safeguard human life. “Wow, that’s a very deep question,” she said. She spoke of the many years she spent working on immigration reform before entering Congress, only to see U.S. agencies and lawmakers make things worse for immigrants. “And yet, I think in terms of movements, we’ve taken enormous steps forward. And we have built coalitions where there aren’t any,” she said. “I think I’m somebody who sees intractable problems as just being about time, and about organizing.”

I observed that, at this point, climate change is an issue that doesn’t grant us much time.

“Correct. On any of these things. I mean, even on immigration, when you deport a bunch of people, or you separate families, their lives are traumatized forever,” Jayapal said. “And so I guess I just try to think about how so many of the people that I worked with as an organizer and an activist—like, literally, didn’t have time or hope, and yet they continued. They made it from countries around the world, they fought huge militias that were trying to kill them. They kept going, and they were resilient.”

Often, after I read a devastating new climate report or watch elected officials squander opportunities to keep the planet suitable for human life, I think back on a conversation I had in 2019 with a climate scientist, who told me that she once had to counsel a teenager in deep climate despair. She encouraged him to remember that, “regardless of the scale and the nature of the chaos and the climate breakdown, there are certain things that we will not lose,” including “really important pieces about what it means to be a human being.”

There will always be tourists seeing new things and couples celebrating love. There will be warm days (a lot of them, actually!), children throwing flower petals around, and surprise sightings of that smart lady you saw on the post-apocalyptic equivalent of MSNBC. And eighth graders, bless them, will always be lightly annoying on field trips, getting high on their first tiny taste of freedom.

“The biggest problem with doing this work is making sure your heart is full,” Jayapal told me. “Because if your heart gets empty, and if you don’t have any resilience built up or ways to build up the resilience, you just get—it’s an exhausting job, and you just get exhausted really quickly, and you get hopeless really quickly, and you get bitter really quickly. And I’ve always believed that those emotions are real. The question is, how do you harness them and turn them into something that is positive, you know?”


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