In July 2018, the air temperature in Woodland Hills, a Los Angeles neighborhood some 20 miles north of the Pacific Ocean, peaked at 117 degrees Fahrenheit. For 63-year old U.S. Post Office carrier Peggy Frank, that Friday marked her first day back at work after recovering from a broken ankle. At 3:35 p.m., Frank was pronounced dead after paramedics found her unresponsive in her non-air-conditioned truck. In September, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office confirmed what seemed a forgone conclusion: Frank died of hyperthermia — she overheated.
A few months later, in November, the Woolsey Fire swept through Malibu and parts of the San Fernando Valley. The blaze killed three and forced the evacuation of almost 300,000 people, burning 96,000 acres and destroying 1,643 structures. Then, after heavy rain in areas scarred by the fire, came the mudslides in December and January that killed one person and closed portions of the Pacific Coast Highway.
For most of the population, climate change is too big a thing to grapple with. As the theorist Timothy Morton argued, it’s a “hyperobject” — it is too big, too sprawling in time and space, and too complex to see fully from any single vantage point. It’s numbing. But by narrowing our focus, we can catch more than a glimpse. It may be easier to understand climate change at the regional level, says Katherine Davis Reich, associate director of UCLA’s Center for Climate Science. “We can all appreciate what climate change impacts would be in our backyard and act on that, much more than at the global level.”
Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the United States, is perched precariously on the edge of the Pacific. Not long ago, it was the nation’s frontier; today, its cultural industries produce the globe’s films, music, and television, always hunting for the next new thing. Here, the line between the present and the future has always been thin. As it swelters, burns, erodes, and collapses, that barrier may have been swept away altogether. For L.A., 2018 was not a sign of things to come. It’s a sign of things that have arrived.