The Here and Now of Climate Change

Floodwaters in February of 2018 meet the Sue Silliman House, a historical building and museum which sits along the St. Joseph River in Three Rivers. (Deborah Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

Skimming through my emails tonight, I scrolled past one from an environmental organization I follow. Usually, I would stop and read its contents with great interest. 

But now, who has the energy to think about such things? I already have too many emails coming at me (and I somehow got added to an emphatic political mailing list recently, to boot). It’s hard to care about climate change when I’m concerned about potential exposure to a global virus whose trajectory narrowly missed my family circle, this time; when I’m reading posts from friends of color about a day in their skin; when I’m eyeing the bank account and counting down to payday; heck, when it’s dinnertime and I’m staring down a kitchen with nary a clean pan or plate. Climate change just isn’t on the radar.

I see the irony here: I’m supposed to be the tree-hugger. And yet, it’s still hard for me to feel a sense of urgency around climate change, particularly when there are pressing situations happening all the time. It’s especially tricky now, but I think it’s always been hard. I think this is in large part because it feels big (How do you begin to fix it?), it feels abstract (Bar charts! Decimal points!), and it feels far away (It’s, like, melting ice caps, right?).  

The bad news is that it is big, that its manifestations are becoming more concrete, and that it will increasingly affect the air, water, and land near and dear to us and our communities.

I recently attended a virtual presentation put on by the Friends of the St. Joseph River, featuring Melissa Widhalm of the Purdue University Climate Change Research Center. Melissa has been studying the effects of climate change in Indiana and the Midwest, and she shared her findings with the group. She prefaced her talk with the forewarning that the current situation and future predictions aren’t exactly optimistic. In a nutshell:

  • The Midwest is getting warmer: Average temperatures are creeping upward, which means that summers are getting hotter, and winters are getting milder. 
  • The Midwest is getting wetter: Annual rainfall in Michigan has increased by 5.5 inches since 1900. Rainstorms will become more intense and more frequent, leading to a greater risk of flooding. More rain will fall in the winter and spring (when we already get enough), and less will fall in the summer and autumn (when it is needed).
  • The impacts are too many to name here – and the full extent may be unknown – but a few examples at the local level might help bring the scope into focus:
    • Farming: Mild winters do not completely kill off insect and pest populations, which will affect the crops that our farming neighbors grow. Wetter springs will mean delayed work in the fields, and drier summers will require more irrigation. Soil and nutrients will be harder to retain as erosion and run-off increases.
    • Lakes and rivers: The ecosystems of our lakes and rivers face an imbalance as water temperatures increase, affecting aquatic life as well as water quality and clarity. Waterfront properties will find their frontage shrinking as water levels rise.
    • Homes: As summers get warmer, the use of air conditioners will increase, which is costly both financially and environmentally. Those without air conditioning will feel the effects more directly.

The list goes on, and the good news in this situation is difficult to see. Melissa Widhalm framed the opportunity within our current context, and in a way, addressed my aforementioned concerns: “Is this a terrible time or a great time to talk about climate change?” She made a few remarks in defense of sustained climate action in these times:

  • The pandemic – as well as the social upheaval we’ve seen – has shown us that we can mobilize in the face of a threat. (There are, granted, mixed reviews on the performance of American leadership in the face of coronavirus, protests, etc., as well as its commitment to environmental values.) We have a long way to go, but we have tested our emergency-response systems, and we need to plan on constantly improving them as climate change creates more challenges in our region.
  • It’s not too late to shift course. We can, in a sense, bend the curve of rising temperatures and greenhouse gases. There are things we can start doing now to affect future outcomes and mitigate negative impacts. We can reduce carbon outputs while also taking strides to make local infrastructure, agriculture, and housing more resilient to the changes that are coming. Two examples:
    • The beloved riverfront park near my house will likely experience more frequent flooding. How can we make adaptations to the park that will make room for the water while remaining a space for humans to enjoy? And how can we reduce emissions related to the maintenance of the park?
    • Farmers will need to deal with both too much and too little water at different points in the year. How can we invest in infrastructure that facilitates proper drainage of excess water, and cultivate drought-resistant crops that will withstand high heat, while developing technology that uses clean energy to run?
  • We are all connected. We’ve learned – the hard way – how the coronavirus spreads in communities, and how an individual’s actions can have ripple effects. Climate change research has shown that actions on one side of the planet can have impacts on the other side. In fact, melting ice caps change global wind patterns, which affect local weather systems. So yes, ice caps matter! 

I got a wake-up call when someone connected to my family tested positive for COVID-19, and I re-doubled my attention to safety and precaution, which had admittedly become lax. The Midwest will get a wake-up call when we start to see and feel the effects of the changes that are already taking place. It’s up to us to head off the worst of it, and make sure we’re ready for the rest. 

It still feels big and complex. We’ll need action in all areas and at all levels of our society. Solving a global crisis like climate change or a contagious virus won’t be come about solely by small individual efforts like wearing a mask, casting a vote, riding a bike, or eating less meat. But, I know that it won’t be solved without them.

Deborah Haak-Frost is grateful for every ray of sunshine that reaches her skin. She is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.

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