Future Tense

Watching the Giant Sequoias Die

Watching the trees I love die has made me rethink what hope means this far into climate change.

The sun shies through the tops of some sequoia trees.
Photo by welcomia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This piece has been published as part of Slate’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Each week this summer I snapped pictures of giant sequoias. Each week I documented their sparse, browning needles. They were dying. I was trying to track it.

Giant sequoias are special; they are both incomprehensibly massive and ancient. Reaching upward of 250 feet tall and over 100 feet in circumference, sequoias are among the largest living things on Earth. They can live to be 3,000 years old, which means that some giant sequoias alive today were here when King Solomon ruled Israel, Zoroaster prophesied, and the Mayan civilization arose. Of course they weren’t actually there in ancient Israel, Persia, or Central America—because sequoias are also rare, found only in about 75 isolated groves on the western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada. But statistics like those don’t even begin to convey what makes giant sequoias special. You have to be there, to feel just how small you are, to see the Sierra sunshine illuminate a sequoia’s cinnamon-red trunk, to really understand. In the summertime, I get to work among these trees. For the past 12 years, I’ve worked as a seasonal ranger in Yosemite National Park, leading visitors through the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, in the park’s south end, pointing out all the ways these trees are extraordinary.

“Giant sequoias are so good at surviving that you almost never see a dead standing sequoia,” I used to tell visitors. “They keep living and growing for thousands of years, until they finally get too top-heavy for their shallow root systems to support. Then they topple over.” I don’t say that anymore.

Because now giant sequoias are starting to die where they stand. And it’s been my job to document it. Last summer, our park botanist requested a photo log of declining sequoia health. So each week when I was out in the field, I took pictures of several groups of dying sequoias, snapping photos from the same GPS point each time. Then I carefully labeled each photo with the date and location and dropped it into a folder on the park’s internal network. These photos won’t do anything to save the trees. But it seems important, somehow, to provide our grandchildren with some kind of record of the time we realized we might be losing the largest trees on Earth.

Giant sequoia mortality is complicated and, as with all facets of science, attribution is difficult. But climate change is one suspect—it appears to be affecting giant sequoia survival in other parts of their range. Perhaps this mortality is due to drought and heat, the direct effects of climate change in this region. Maybe it’s some kinds of beetles, some species of which are proliferating at exponential rates in warmer temperatures, unmolested by the cold snaps we used to get around here that once kept their numbers in check. Maybe it’s something else altogether. It’s almost certainly a combination of factors. I don’t know exactly what’s going on; I only know that some groups of sequoias are visibly dying now, and they weren’t just a few years ago.

In graduate school I studied climate change communication—the ways in which scientists, institutions, and laypeople perceive and talk about climate change. The received wisdom in this field holds that climate change is difficult to see because it happens gradually, making it imperceptible on a day-to-day scale. This is why, according to the experts, lots of people don’t believe it’s happening. Maybe that used to be true, but I don’t think it’s true anymore. Trees are dying, and people notice. Australia has gone up in flames, leading to the death of 1 billion animals, and people notice. Some part of California is likely to be on fire at any given time, and people notice. Droughts stretch on for years here in the American West, and people notice. Back east and along the Gulf Coast, hurricanes and flooding are ramping up, and people notice.

In fact, now more Americans than ever understand that climate change is happening. Seven in 10 believe it is. That’s not to say they all understand the scientific reality that human activity is the cause of climate change—some surveys shows that barely more than half of Americans believe the scientific consensus that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are to blame. And most won’t do much about it, even if they realize it’s happening and realize our emissions are causing it. One poll conducted in 2018 found that 70 percent of Americans would be unwilling to contribute just $10 a month, the cost of a Netflix subscription, to combat climate change.

I didn’t need a poll to tell me that. Just look at our behavior. Last May, the United Nations released a report on the massive extinction currently underway due to human activity. I wasn’t all that surprised, but some part of me thought that maybe the tragic report would spur some kind of conservation action. Instead, within months of the report’s release, humans were intentionally burning the Amazon. Here in the United States, the Trump administration proposed rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act, nixed greenhouse gas emissions limits, greenlit oil drilling projects in sensitive Arctic habitat, loosened restrictions on the fossil fuel industry, and much, much more. We are never going to wake up, I realized.

There are moments when I think maybe we will wake up. In September, 6 million people around the world participated in global climate protests. Anger was welling up and spilling into action, and I felt more hopeful than I had in a long time, even as I continued to snap pictures of ailing sequoias. But now, only a few months later, our attention is elsewhere. As a pandemic radically alters our day-to-day lives, it’s unsurprising that nearly every headline is about the coronavirus. But climate change continues to have serious impacts on just about every ecosystem on Earth. It will take long-term focus and the ability to reckon with multiple crises at once, along with sustained public outcry, to put enough pressure on our existing political and economic systems to force them to change. Maybe we’ll see that kind of long-lasting focus and outcry at some point in the future, but we’re not seeing it yet. And while the all-consuming pandemic will presumably end at some point, there will inevitably be another crisis, another election, another distraction, to suck our attention away from the climate catastrophe. So now I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that I will spend the rest of my life watching the world I love burn up, one beautiful species after another going up in flames.

Nate Stephenson, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has spent his career studying giant sequoias, isn’t so sure the trees are doomed. “Over 3,000 years, a tree has gone through a lot of environmental changes,” he says when I ask him if he thinks sequoias will survive climate change. “But we could start leaving the realm of a 3,000-year-old tree’s experience. Maybe we already have. I don’t know. But if you push hard enough, you can probably break their resilience.” He says he doesn’t know what’s killing the trees I photographed in the Mariposa Grove last summer; it could be lots of other things besides climate change effects. Stephenson is a scientist, and he had to get permission from his agency to talk to me in the first place. So he’s cautious—very cautious—about making any claims he can’t back up directly with very specific scientific evidence. And the future, he notes, “is impossible to predict,” not only because of the complexities of climate science but also because of the unpredictability of human behavior and technological advances. We could find a geoengineering solution to climate change, he suggests. So many things are possible.

“But do you think sequoias are resilient enough that there’s still time for us to figure those things out?” I ask. “Can these trees really hang on that long?”

He pauses. “Maybe.”

That optimism—the hope that giant sequoias might just be OK—is the optimism of a scientist who doesn’t yet have the models or the data to predict what will happen. It’s the optimism of someone who is cautious about making definitive claims without hard evidence. “I’ve stopped pretending that I can predict the future,” he says.

But me, I’m not a scientist—I have the freedom to look at the society around me and write about what I see and what I fear the future will look like. I don’t need hard data to back up my fears; my fears are driven by something more intuitive. And when I look at a dying sequoia and a dozen fires burning across California and a hundred burning across Australia and record-breaking flooding back east and an utter lack of any responsible action to do something about any of it—I am willing to predict that fragile species like giant sequoias are doomed. Or at least, I am willing to say out loud that I’m afraid this will happen and that I believe my fear is realistic.

Last fall, Jonathan Franzen came to pretty much the same conclusion in a much-hated essay about the meaning of hope in the era of climate change. “If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this,” Franzen writes. “You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.” For Franzen, hope at this late date means focusing on the small, specific thing you love, be it a species, a place, or an institution, and taking whatever small, specific actions you can to forestall its demise. Put your energy into the “smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning,” he says. By Franzen’s lights, stopping or reversing climate change is not a winnable battle.

Climate scientists hated the essay, many taking to Twitter to express their dismay at Franzen’s nihilism and take issue with the scientific claims he made. As Myles Allen, the “relevant lead author” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report pointed out months before Franzen’s essay came out, climate change is complicated. Yes, it’s true that there’s a certain amount of warming that we’ve already bought into and that climate change’s effects are already being felt. It’s also true that it is not an on/off switch, clicking on if we overshoot a certain warming threshold or staying off if we don’t. “Climate change is not so much an emergency as a festering injustice,” he writes. “Every half a degree of warming matters.” In which case, every battle to curb every ounce of emitted carbon is a battle worth fighting, and giving into nihilism because we aren’t going to solve the whole thing is probably counterproductive.

I don’t pretend to be a climate scientist like Allen or an ecologist like Stephenson. Maybe that’s why Franzen’s essay resonated with me. Just like him, when I look at the current state of affairs, I have no hope, or at least no hope for fragile species like giant sequoias. Climate change might not turn out to be a global apocalypse, universally awful for every human alive in a century, especially if we start fighting those battles against every ounce of carbon. But even if life goes on for humanity, and even if it goes on relatively comfortably for most people, my hunch is that it will probably be a life without giant sequoias, because I’m willing to predict that we aren’t going to do enough in time to save beautiful, vulnerable species that don’t necessarily serve human needs directly. That’s not a life I want, and it’s not a life I want for my great-grandchildren. But it’s probably the life they’ll get, and that leaves me hopeless. Like Franzen, the reason for my pessimism is not scientific so much as anthropological. When I consider the total lack of meaningful policy action on climate change, and the fact that Americans will spend $10 a month on streaming services but not on climate change mitigation, I don’t find any reasons for hope.

But this is not what I tell visitors to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. I tell them about the threats these trees face. I even tell them that some are dying for reasons we don’t completely understand but that are probably related to climate change. But I also tell them it’s not too late to save them. “Anything you can do that’s good for the environment, that helps us start to address climate change, will also help giant sequoias,” I say at the conclusion of each guided walk through the grove. “Things like recycling, walking or biking or taking public transit instead of driving, simply consuming less stuff—these are small steps every one of us can take. It’s probably also time to start thinking about much larger steps we can take as a global society, to restructure the way we live, in order to start to address the climate crisis. I don’t know if we’ll do enough in time to save giant sequoias.” And here’s where the big lie comes: “But Yosemite gets about 5 million visitors a year, and it does give me a lot of hope to think about what would happen if each of those visitors started making some of these changes in their day-to-day lives. It could go a long way toward making sure that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren get to live in a world with giant sequoias.”

Here is why I lie: I don’t have to be a climate scientist to know that 5 million people recycling isn’t going to do much to save giant sequoias. But I have a master’s degree in climate change communication, and I know that you can’t leave people hopeless. You have to give them specific actions they can take, and you have to let them know those actions matter. Otherwise they get hopeless and they don’t do anything at all. And even if 5 million people recycling isn’t going to save giant sequoias, isn’t it better than 5 million people not recycling?

But maybe the important thing, at this point, is to give up on the illusion that what we have to do is recycle. Maybe the important thing is getting people to understand what is at stake, and to feel the weight of all we stand to lose and all we have already lost. Take, for example, the woman from Germany who approached me after attending a program I gave in the Mariposa Grove. She was weeping. “My whole life I’ve wanted to see these trees,” she said. “They are so, so beautiful and we are killing them! We have to do something!” Precisely. We have to do something. We have to do something. We don’t just need 5 million individuals recycling or biking or switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs. We don’t just need 5 million individuals doing anything. We need many millions of people coming together with sustained attention and outrage to demand that our lawmakers and corporations do what they have to do to put an end to this tragic status quo. It could happen. But it hasn’t yet.

Without that kind of collective outrage, we’re stuck with individual actions like recycling. And I’m not convinced that recycling—or anything else I do in my daily life—will matter in the long run for giant sequoias, or any of the millions of other species that are threatened by climate change; the problem is so massive that it’s far, far beyond the scope of individual action. But action is all we have, and for now, as we wait for collective outrage to foment into coordinated collective action, we’re stuck with the small steps of personal action. Nate Stephenson seems to have reached the same conclusion. “I went through my personal crisis,” he told me, describing his realization several decades ago that ecosystems can no longer be preserved or restored to their pristine conditions due to the rapidity of climate change and the far reach of human influence. “It took years,” he said. “But I’ve come to a degree of peace about that.” Where can that peace be found? For Stephenson, the answer is research. He has the skills to study changing ecosystems, to research the ways sequoias responded to the latest drought in order to predict how they might respond in a hotter, drier future. Armed with that information, he can help land management agencies like the National Park Service adapt to coming changes. But I’m not a scientist, and I don’t have those skills. All I have is a cheap point-and-shoot camera to document dying sequoias and the chance to tell visitors every day that their actions matter. It’s a message I don’t entirely buy. But doing something has to be better than doing nothing—I have to believe that. And maybe that is its own form of hope.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.