Cathy Richard and her husband Drew and kids, Emily, Adam (boy) and Addie (wearing blue coat), at their house in North Pole which is built on permafrost . The family uses the deck even though it has a 10 degree tilt to it. / Hugh Rose for USA TODAY
Cathy Richard's home, up the road from Santa Claus Lane in North Pole, Alaska, hardly seems the place to tell the story of climate change. It's a middle-class rambler that could be found on so many streets in the United States. Yet that's where I went in August to show readers the impact of rising temperatures.
Cathy, a married bookkepper and mom of three, is like many welcoming people I met last year as I traveled the country to report for USA TODAY's "Weathering the Change" series.
She isn't an activist or a scientist. She's a homeowner with problems: cracks in the garage's foundation and sidewalk. Perhaps the strangest is the heaving of her backyard deck by as much as 7 inches a day. The reason? Increased thawing of the surface layer of her land, which sits on permafrost - ground that's frozen below, rumpled the concrete pillars holding up the deck.
Driving around Fairbanks, I saw how thawing permafrost has caused homes and trees to tilt and roads to buckle. It's not a new problem. Alaskans have been dealing with it for decades, but global warming is making it worse.
These and other problems are highlighted in a federal report compiled by hundreds of scientists and released Tuesday by the White House. The National Climate Assessment says climate change is not a distant threat but rather a reality already affecting American lives.
In Norfolk, Va., where the sea level is rising, I met Bob Parsons and Jennifer Priest, whose homes have repeatedly flooded. In Spicewood, Texas, drought has triggered severe watering restrictions. Resident C.J. Teare was using soapy water left from washing clothes to try to keep her decades-old oaks alive. And in the Chicago area, doctors and patients said allergies are getting worse as the pollen count rises - and that's also linked to a rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions
To be sure, there's skepticism. I heard from folks who say they don't believe in climate change, even though they see intensifying problems in their communities that science attributes (at least partly) to global warming.
Climate change has been the most difficult issue I've covered in 30 years as a journalist. It's become so politicized and controversial that people are often confused, and reporters who write about it are often criticized.
It's complex. While more than 97% of climate scientists agree on the broad contours of climate change - namely that its primary driver now is the burning of fossil fuels - there's still a lot they don't know about the details. They're improving their modeling, but explaining the nuances is a challenge.
It's also sad - so much so that people can go into denial. I know I've been shaken. Four years ago, when prepping for an interview with author and activist Bill McKibben about his book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, I had to stop reading. His description of how the world was melting, drying, acidifying, flooding and burning in heretofore unseen ways was just too frightening.
But despite all the bad news, what's encouraging is the plethora of technological advances in clean energy. Says Harvard chemist Daniel Nocera, who told me about his own "artificial leaf" for producing hydrogen fuel: "I'm totally optimistic."
Koch covers energy and technology for USA TODAY.
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