As we become increasingly aware of the ways climate change is manifesting in severe weather here and around the globe, we’re compelled to understand the complex causes and to contribute to just changes that can prevent future suffering. The New York Times reported that climate disasters may be losing their shock value, though, as people learn to accept extreme weather as normal. “This is not just a complicated issue, but it’s competing for attention in a dynamic, uncertain, complicated world,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Coverage of last week’s catastrophic fires in Hawaii has us fighting disbelief as a breathtakingly lush vacation destination has been torched, destroying homes, lives, and livelihoods of tens of thousands of Americans. Aid groups have rushed to support rescue and recovery efforts, and those of us far from the tragedy are encouraged to assist in whatever ways we can. This list of opportunities may help.

How did climate change play a central role in the devastating Maui wildfires that have killed more than 100 and displaced thousands? Part of the explanation: the island experienced a rapid increase in drought severity in just three weeks from May to June – a flash drought, according to Jason Otkin, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin. 

Flash droughts occur when the rain stops and it gets so hot that the atmosphere draws moisture out of the ground and plants, making them more fire prone, University of Virginia hydrologist Venkataraman Lakshmi explained to the Associated Press. “Plants are getting really, really dry,” Lakshmi said. “It’s all related to water in some ways.”

Kaniela Ing, an environmental activist and former Hawaiian legislator, identified “colonial greed” as the root of the Maui fire tragedy. “The gross mismanagement of land by greedy developers and land speculators destroyed our natural landscape and buffers and enabled the rapid spread of the fire,” Ing posted on social media.

In an interview with Democracy Now, Ing explained how colonial oligarchies in Hawaii had amassed land and diverted water from wetlands for commercial purposes, making Lahaina vulnerable in ways it would not have been. Much of this water is needed to support the burgeoning tourism industry.

Invasive grasses were also introduced to Maui in the 19th century, along with the destruction of native ecosystems to make room for cattle ranching and sugar plantations. These nonnative grasses contribute to the frequency and strength of wildfires. “The historic changes to the plants and the vegetation is really what’s making us vulnerable and susceptible to an event like this,” Clay Trauernicht, a specialist in wildland fire science at the University of Hawaii, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Elizabeth Pickett, the co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, told CBS News that “there used to be massive tracts of land occupied by irrigated pineapples and sugar cane, and as those businesses declined and ceased, the lands were taken over by invasive, fire-prone grass species. … When these grasses burn, they burn into the native forests, threatening endangered species, and then the forests are replaced by more grass, Pickett said.”

Katie Kamelamela, a Native Hawaiian ethnoecologist at Arizona State University, told Nature Journal that the most important consideration is how carefully land is cared for. She stresses land management that creates a deeper connection between people and place. “That’s why these fires started: because no one had a relationship to these places,” she said.

Many people are still spending thousands of dollars to have a short-term relationship with the land, though. Enter the tourists – scads of them. According to SFGate, Fodor cited overtourism and tensions between the tourism industry and Native Hawaiians in putting Maui on its 2023 no travel list. “The saying goes that Maui has been loved to death, so it would be really nice for Maui Island to get a break from the amount of tourists that we’re getting,” Maui County Council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said.

The maximum number of tourists per day is supposed to be one-third of Maui’s resident population, which is approximately 154,000. One-third of that is 51,300. The first four months of 2023 saw a daily average of 66,517 visitors – far from the ideal, SFGate reported. That’s a daily average of 43% of the population, which creates an unsustainable demand for resources.

What do we do with these explanations? How do our hearts process the tragedy of loss? How do our minds digest the historical. ecological, and economic factors? What kind of action are we called to when we witness such suffering and understand causes and inpacts more fully? 

Michael Hogue, a professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School, provides guidance in last fall’s UUWorld. “Struggling with such questions, especially under the pressures of an emergency like the climate crisis, is life-shaping work. This struggle can teach us the true nature of our own lives and our planetary home, provoke us to align our lives with our intentions, open us up to more meaningful relationships with others, and help us to become more mindfully aware of the beautiful complexity of the places and communities we inhabit.

“The acronym I use for these four learnings is VITA, the Latin word for life. Each letter represents an essential practice of spiritual resilience: Vulnerability, Intentionality, Trust, and Awareness.

“Vulnerability is the name for our true nature and the nature of our planetary home. We and the planet are finite and woundable.

“Genuinely internalizing the meaning of vulnerability for us and the Earth can discipline us to align our actions and thoughts more rigorously with our intentions.

“In aspiring to this alignment, we discover that we are not alone, and we need one another – we cannot live intentionally apart from others. In recognizing this need for others, we discern the importance of trust – showing up, being there, and holding ourselves accountable.

“And when integrated, the practices of vulnerability, intention, and trust open the way to a more profound awareness of the exquisite intricacies of the places and people that comprise our home. In place of despair and resignation in the face of climate emergency, the path of spiritual resilience opens us to fuller life. The value of spiritual resilience is not that it will solve the climate crisis. Spiritual resilience is not climate policy, nor does spiritual resilience provide a direct answer to the moral questions provoked by the crisis. Spiritual resilience is not a set of moral reasons. But the practice of spiritual resilience – vulnerability, intention, trust, and awareness – might provide us with the courage to do what we can, and to do what we can with more grace.”

This free 14-minute guided meditation from author and environmentalist Gisele Bündchen may be useful as you strengthen your spiritual resilience and your commitment to respecting the interdependent web all existence. We need all the help we can get.

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JOURNEY WITH US: The Climate Action Team is for you. Yes, you. Because you want to act on your love for the planet and because you need caring companions as you navigate these changing times. Learn all about the group here, and check out our lending library and Carbon Offset Fund. Contact Nicole Haines to connect to the CAT and join us for our next meeting at 7:30 PM THIS MONDAY, August 21, using this Zoom link.