01/28/2014 12:35 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

California's Eerie Ski Conditions

I rode a bus to Lake Tahoe last weekend with about 40 kids from the Bay Area. My son, who'd been counting the days on a homemade calendar he kept under his pillow, was now counting the hours.

But about three hours in, a young girl asked: "Where is the snow?"

"Yeah, where is the snow?" another said.

We had reached the mountains -- the place where Bay Area kids, who almost never see snow at home, suddenly see it before them as if by magic: snow. Pure white, beautiful snow everywhere: mountain ridges, tree branches, the side of the road.

Not this year.

As the Midwest battles another deep freeze, California is in a drought emergency -- the worst drought in the state's history.

The risks are significant: to water supplies, the state's vast agricultural lands, salmon runs, and (gasp) wine production. There is also the threat of increased food prices and job losses.

No one knows how long the drought will last. Some say it could be seven years. Some fear a megadrought, which is not unprecedented in this state.

As the San Jose Mercury News recently reported: "Through studies of tree rings, sediment and other natural evidence, researchers have documented multiple droughts in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row during the past 1,000 years -- compared to the mere three-year duration of the current dry spell. The two most severe megadroughts make the Dust Bowl of the 1930s look tame: a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years."

In comparison to the risks of water shortages and economic losses, children's dashed hopes for seeing snow might seem a small thing. And yet, as a parent, something felt deeply unsettling about it -- especially, as we arrived at the ski resort, which looked like a Hollywood-set ghost town. The slopes, thanks to snowmaking machines, were covered in white. But the parking lot, usually in overflow conditions at this time of year, was mostly empty. The trees were green or brown. The ground beneath our feet was bare asphalt. There was no real need to zip up our coats.

Both the kids and adults went onto have a great day of skiing. If you love skiing, it's fun however the snow gets under your skis. And yet, there was an eerie undercurrent. It isn't supposed to be like this, many parents quietly said.

We can, of course, debate whether any particular drought, blizzard, hurricane, wildfire, heat wave, or cold snap is the result of climate change. Yet these debates can also do little more than distract us from the essential problem before us: Our continued use of fossil fuels is threatening the future well being of our own children and grandchildren.

In recent years, many people have asked why Americans don't take climate change more seriously. There are many answers but the one that resonates most for me is that we have been engaging in it through the wrong part of our brains. Our rational minds are notoriously terrible at assessing and responding to risk. That is why we can hear apocalyptic reports and merely go on with our day.

Our emotions, on the other hand, offer a more reliable way to grasp the significance of this issue on a personal or family level, and to inspire the will to stand up for the changes we need, including the development of renewable energy and carbon-capture innovations.

Perhaps that is why several new parent groups focused on climate change have recently sprung up, such as Mothers Out Front and Climate Parents. Seeing climate change through a parent's eyes offers a heartfelt way into this complex issue. And these groups provide the opportunity to take a momentary recognition -- it isn't supposed to be like this -- and join with others to do something about it.

Lisa Bennett, coauthor of Ecoliterate, is writing a book about parents and climate change.