In December of 1997, I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, walking to Chemistry class, wearing my rain coat, but still getting drenched. This was the tenth day in a row of torrential rain and the end felt nowhere in sight. Even though I had only moved an hour north from where I grew up in the California Bay Area, I couldn't believe how much more it rained in Berkeley! That following spring, in March of 1998, my friends and I drove up to Lake Tahoe and I was shocked by the 20 feet wall of snow that lined the highway. I had grown up in California my whole life and spent a good deal of time driving around it - how did I not know that Berkeley was so wet or that the Sierras Nevada Mountains received so much snow? By February of 2000, my questions were finally answered. I learned about "El Niño" in one of my classes and that the 1997-98 El Niño was one of the wettest winters in California. I remember thinking to myself: how did I not know about El Niño until now? I want to learn more about this planet!
In the year 2000, I was lucky to spend an entire summer on the Tibetan Plateau, helping a PhD student with her dissertation research on the impacts of climate warming on high elevation grasslands. I spent the entire summer working outside all day, braving the intense sun and giant mosquitoes, but also being rewarded with amazingly long days where I could wander for as long and as far as I wanted. I then spent two weeks hitchhiking (almost getting kidnapped?) my way back to the city of Chengdu, after visiting some of the most remote and glorious mountains of Sichuan. At 21, I found the world to be stunningly beautiful.
For my final year of college, I was spoiled even further. I spent the entire fall semester on Moorea, an island in the French Polynesian archipelago in the South Pacific, taking a field course titled "Geomorphology of Tropical Islands." Along with 20 other Berkeley students, we spent a semester study whatever we wanted to on this beautiful island. I swam with humpback whales and saw every reef creature imaginable. I was overwhelmed by how amazing our planet was and felt incredibly lucky to have been able to witness all this at such a young age. There was no way I was going to apply for medical school (sorry mom and dad) - working in nature was what I wanted to continue doing.
When I graduated from college in 2001, atmospheric CO2 concentrations was around 380 ppm.
Twenty years later, the world feels like a very different place. There is still an incredible amount of beauty, but it's clear that the world is heading towards an uncertain future. There isn't one corner of the world that hasn't experienced some catastrophic climate event in the last ten years, and year after year, the climate catastrophe snowball continues to grow bigger.
When did the switch happen? How is it that 20 years ago I viewed the world as vibrant, vast, and limitless? Today I view the world as something vulnerable, teetering on a fulcrum, not sure which side it will eventually roll. Every time I visit a new place, my feelings are mixed; I feel blessed to visit these new places, but I also feel fear that future generations will not have such a chance. It feels unfair that future generations are inheriting this version of Earth.
So here I am: I've been offered a chance to be Director of the SW CASC, whose mission is to ensure that communities and ecosystems are resilient to future climate changes. Not to sound cliche, but this position feels like a culmination of what I have been preparing professionally for. I find myself surrounded by people who are passionate about working towards implementing climate adaptation solutions, and doing this in creative ways. We are all aware that not one person, or organization, or country, or policy, or perspective will change our course, but that it will take a community, a coalition, and diversity of views to implement change. I am excited to be part of this journey and thank you all for inviting me to join.
Twenty years from now, I hope that I am still traveling to new places and exploring different landscapes for the first time. But even more, I hope that by then, we will be rounding a metaphorical corner of sorts, re-correcting our course and heading towards a future that aligns with how a 20-year old Jia would have wanted to world to be moving. This would be a version of Earth that I would feel better about leaving for future generations.