Climate Change and History

California’s deadly Camp Fire, so named because it started at Camp Creek Road, has claimed the lives of 85 people. It also destroyed 13,972 residences, 528 commercial buildings, and 4,293 other buildings during its 153,336-acre burn. (http://www.fire.ca.gov/current_incidents/incidentdetails/Index/2277) The town of Paradise was devastated by the fire.

Whether the Gold Nugget Museum located in Paradise was considered a commercial building or one one of the other buildings included in these statistics, it, too, went up in the conflagration, with one of the museum’s docents, John Sedwick, losing his life. The museum, which was “community-funded and volunteer-run,” was dedicated to the community’s gold rush history. (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/californias-gold-nugget-museum-lost-to-camp-fire-flames)

While the Camp Fire was burning, firefighters in California were also attempting to contain the Woolsey Fire in the Los Angeles area. The Woolsey Fire burned 96,949 acres and resulted in 3 deaths. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woolsey_Fire)

Wild fires are not unusual in California, but the intensity of the Camp and Woolsey fires portends more vicious fire seasons in the state due to climate change. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II, which was released by the U.S. federal government the day after Thanksgiving, “The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country. More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.” (https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/)

We are feeling the effects of climate change in central Minnesota through changes in the amount of precipitation by season, unusual seasonal temperatures, and a shift in the flora and fauna. At The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum, we are also seeing it in severe erosion along our riverbank. In seeking a state grant to mitigate the erosion, we have been told that such erosion is becoming too common for the state to fund in rural Minnesota. The state’s priority will be in more populated areas.

If you substitute Minnesota for Alaska in the following statement from the federal report, you’ve got an accurate assessment of our current situation: “In Alaska, rising temperatures and erosion are causing damage to buildings and coastal infrastructure that will be costly to repair or replace, particularly in rural areas; these impacts are expected to grow without adaptation.”

The future is now and calls for immediate adaptation.

As climate change continues on the course we have set, it will impact agriculture, tourism, infrastructure, our coastal and inland water systems, the lifeways of Indigenous peoples, local and regional ecosystems, our health, and the economy.

Cultural resources like museums are not immune from these effects, and we will experience many of the same climate stresses felt in the rest of our communities. What the report does not address is how climate change will specifically affect threats to our history and culturally-significant sites. In Morrison County, we have numerous historically-important sites on the Mississippi River and the various lakes and smaller rivers within our county boundaries. These waterways have been vital to people since long, long before the county was founded in 1856. From Indigenous peoples through fur traders and town settlers to industrial developent on up to today, there are multiple layers of history built up along our rivers and lakes. Climate change threatens this history.

It is easy to wring our hands at this latest climate assessment, to despair and do nothing. But, as the report points out, some work has been done. “The integration of climate risk into decision-making and the implementation of adaptation activities have significantly increased since the Third National Climate Assessment in 2014, including in areas of financial risk reporting, capital investment planning, development of engineering standards, military planning, and disaster risk management.”

We need to roll up our sleeves and intensify the work that has already begun. And we need to do it at a local level. Rural communities shouldn’t wait around for federal and state governments to solve the problems caused by climate change. If we can reduce our emissions, the waste we produce, and our consumption of energy, water, and other natural resources, bit by bit we can lighten the load on the planet.

Many of us grew up with messages like “Turn off the lights when you leave a room,” “Never let the water run,” and “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” If you walk into the Weyerhaeuser Museum and find the lights off, this is one way we conserve energy and we’ve been doing it for years. Little actions done steadily over time add up to big effects.
In looking at major climate change effects that are starting to occur with regularity now, we need to ask our city councils, township officials, and county commissioners what planning they are doing to mitigate the forecast effects covered in the National Climate Assessment. What actions are being taken? We need to build citizen coalitions to take on issues such as climate-related refugees, massive droughts, rising sea levels, severe rain events and flooding, erosion, and the related health and economic effects of a rapidly changing ecosystem. Not only should we push our elected officials at every level, we should ask how we can help.

Case in point: Minneapolis just ended single-family home zoning in order to tackle segregation, sprawl, and the high cost of housing. This change will be crucial if Minnesota sees an influx of climate change refugees. (https://slate.com/business/2018/12/minneapolis-single-family-zoning-housing-racism.html)

We also need to include history within actions related to climate change, as the city of Paradise and the Gold Nugget Museum can attest to. If a community is threatened with imminent destruction, such as coastal communities with rising sea levels, we need to relocate their historical records and artifacts, along with documenting what we can about those communities before they are gone. Museums with the potential for a major climate change disaster need to have emergency plans in place, with critical history duplicated and stored elsewhere.

Together we made this climate change mess. Together we can fix it.

~ Mary Warner
Executive Director

This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2018.

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