Fighting climate change is a campaign, not a term paper

I recently got a text from a friend that said, “I just can’t bring myself to care about climate change.” This friend is very politically active and plugged-in, but their brain isn’t framing climate change as a pressing, need-to-act-now issue—and I think I might understand why.

As a chronic procrastinator, I have some sense of what is procrastinate-able and what is not. Some tasks, like filling out a form, are not going to suffer much in quality if you leave them until the last minute; the only real downside is the unnecessary stress you put yourself under.

Others, like writing a paper, certainly should be started ahead of time, but it’s still technically possible to get them done under a tight deadline.

I think my friend, and many other people who aren’t taking climate change as seriously as they could be, see fighting climate change as the equivalent of a 10-page term paper: Yes, the paper would be better if you wrote an outline, a first draft, got feedback, days (or weeks, or months) before it’s due. It would benefit both the paper and the paper-writer—and the teacher, for that matter—to turn it in with plenty of time to spare before the deadline in case anything goes unexpectedly wrong, like a printer jam or a technical difficulty with online submission.

But when life gets in the way, and procrastination kicks in, you can still write a 10-page paper in the three hours before midnight when it’s due. It won’t be pretty, it probably won’t get an A, and those three hours will be miserable, but you can technically get it done.

Because the effects of climate change aren’t impacting our day-to-day life in the inland U.S. as much as they are other countries, and even the coastal regions of our own country, putting off decisive climate action can feel much like procrastinating a term paper. We’re all living with the constant low-level stress of knowing we should be doing things that we’re not. But many of us may be under the impression that we can pull out a last-minute turnaround in the last few hours before the paper is due, and with climate change, that’s just not the case.

Although we may not truly feel or comprehend its effects for several decades, the time to act on climate change is now. Renowned climate scientist Bill McKibben has reiterated this call to action, with increasing urgency, for over a decade; his most recent treatise in the New Yorker highlights the drastic and immediate actions we need to take to steer our future onto a non-apocalyptic course. Elizabeth Kolbert, an award-winning science journalist, paints a picture of three potential futures that await us. We’re in a choose-your-own-adventure book, but we can’t flip back to the previous page once we’ve gone too far down a path of bad choices.

So, if climate change can’t be addressed by furiously writing a last-minute term paper, what can we compare it to? Something that simply can’t be completed last minute, that will take days and weeks and months to achieve. Depending on your frame of reference, I’ve come up with a few examples: Writing a novel. Building a robot. Launching a presidential campaign.

A novel differs from a term paper most obviously in its length, which means it’s much more daunting and time-consuming to complete. Even the fastest typer in the world couldn’t write a novel in three hours. You must start long before your concrete deadline to avoid the negative consequences of not finishing your book.

Building a robot is a similarly formidable task, especially if you’re handicapped by a lack of tools or resources or knowledge. Or if someone keeps coming into your robot-building room and taking away essential pieces to use for their own benefit. Throwing together your remaining screws and bolts and bits of scrap metal won’t result in a functional robot, no matter how badly you want those incomplete pieces to add up.

Finally, running a presidential campaign, as we’ve seen over the past two years, is no quick or easy feat. It requires momentum, money, dedication, inspiration, public outreach, and delivering on promises. No one running for president could announce their candidacy in the fall, or even summer or spring, preceding an election and hope to win. Building a successful campaign is the result of the concentrated effort and resources of thousands, if not millions, of people over several years. Scale that effort up from a political race to the issue of our entire planet’s fate, and I hope you’ll see the momentous business we must take on. We must begin that campaign in earnest now—all of our futures depend on it. As Bill McKibben wrote three days ago, “on climate change, we’re entirely out of margin.”

I wrote this blog post in a stream-of-consciousness fashion and didn’t edit it very much, but I hope you enjoyed and got something out of it. Please let me know if you’d like to read more on this topic.

Earth Day: global pandemic edition

Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica

Happy Earth Day, everyone. I’m writing this in a dead tired state and I’m not going to edit it right now, but I wanted to say something (if only for myself) on a day that is normally joyful and poignant for me and for many others.

I spent most of Earth Day in a car. That’s probably a first for me, at least since I have been old enough and cognizant of the world around me enought to care about it. It wasn’t how I wanted to or in some senses should have spent the day, but with my trusty cat in a carrier beside me and the golden-green spring landscapes of New England rolling past, it could have been a lot worse.

My roommate situation in Vermont has become untenable, so today I packed up my cat and my sourdough starter and drove to Pennsylvania to hunker down with my family for awhile instead. I have been considering doing this for some time now, but for several reasons that I will probably get into in a later blog post, the cons seemed to outweigh the pros.

Now, I’m back here in suburbia, at least for the time being. As I scrolled through my camera roll looking for photos to include in my somehow obligatory-feeling Earth Day Instagram post, I reminisced about all the cool places I’ve been so lucky to visit on this beautiful planet of ours. The mossy cloud forests of Costa Rica; the sand dunes piled starkly against the mountains in the middle of Colorado. And both of those were just this year. And who knows when I’ll be able to go someplace like that again, now?

But I’ve seen plenty of beauty in my day-to-day life this week, too. A red-winged blackbird perched on a swaying, top-heavy Phragmites. Ramps (!!!. RAMPS!) sprouting up in a pop of vivid green against the brown earth, startling me with their vibrancy. The fuzzy outlines of dozens of blossoming trees lining the highways I drove down today. The unmistakable and ever-growing red buds of the maple in the backyard I left. Black-capped chickadees chattering in a tree not ten feet from me.

I want to write more about Earth Day action items sometime soon, but for now, for tonight, I’m just grateful. I’m safe and the family dog is snoring gently beside me. The world is soldiering on. Nature is healing. (But really, she always does.)

Sunrise on top of the world

Hello! I’m currently at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica and supposed to be working on my research project here. But I took a break to share this, an account of a couple mornings ago when my friends and I climbed up the observation tower at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sun rise above the rainforest canopy. It’s so beautiful here, I can’t stand it. This is a creative writing exercise inspired both by the observation tower and very much by Delia Owens’ incredible figurative language about nature (I just finished reading Where the Crawdads Sing). I didn’t edit it much, but wanted to share it anyway. Happy 2020.

We emerge from the stairs on the top of the world. Ahead in the east, light brightens the dusky sky. Next door to us, a Cecropia tree bends and waves, its long whorled branches mirroring the dizzying spiral we ascended to get here. My eyes search its leaves for a sloth, but if there is one, it doesn’t reveal itself.

Lollipop palms puncture the horizon. Their naked giraffe-neck trunks stretch vulnerably far above the canopy. I wonder why they grow so tall. Isn’t it enough to be the best by only a little bit? Isn’t it lonely at the top?

As light creeps across the cloud-streaked canvas overhead, birds fill the sky with song. A jewel-like tanager zooms by, feet from my face, crystal-clearly visible for only an instant before blurring away.

In the west I see the glinting buildings of Las Cruces nestled in the rippling mountains. Sunlight oozes down the forested slopes in an inexorable wave, gilding each tree it touches, as if they occupied a latitude 30 degrees north. Here is an elevation gradient that resets each morning. The seasons here don’t hold the same meaning; this forest never bares its branches to a stark winter sky.

My vision pitches downward to the rich brown earth. I feel my center of gravity press against the railing and wobble slightly, dangerously close to the edge. Along the peeling metal rail, dozens of sunlit visitors have scratched their names in rust, making their indelible mark on this place. But I will become a part of the forest in another way. A long reddish hair has come away in my hand, and I extend my fingers to let it go, floating down to the forest where I know its carbon will be endlessly cycled through the world below.