I dismounted my bike and fumbled for my phone under the layers of clothes that were proving to be unnecessary in this unseasonable weather. The sky was a shocking blue, and I couldn’t resist the image of lichen-covered trees standing out against it, their every twist and tangle highlighted by the vibrant backdrop. It was January 6th, fifty-one degrees and mostly sunny. I’d awoken the last few mornings with blood in my nose, my sinuses irritated by unexpected pollen and dried from the crisp air.
This is my sixth winter here, on the edge of the Oregon Cascades and the Coast Range, in the heart of the Willamette Valley, and I have never seen it so dry in January. The fall was odd as well, with little rain just a year after the wettest October on record. I am afraid for this summer’s fire season, for water shortages, for further diminished salmon runs. A dry winter does not simply mean fewer layers to put on before walking out the door; it is consequential to the way that water is stored, the way that plants grow, and the way that the valley burns.
Meanwhile, temperatures ten to twenty degrees above average are disrupting everyday living in rural Alaska, preventing residents from hunting for food and leading to accidents and deaths. In December, polar scientists made the gut-wrenching announcement that the Arctic will never be frozen again. (Not something any of us can begin to conceptualize in one sitting). The East Coast is experiencing a “bomb cyclone” that has featured a record tidal surge, massive flooding, record-breaking cold, snowfall in Florida, and numerous other weather anomalies.
An older woman approached on her bike as I snapped photo after photo of the trees along the bike path. She stopped next to me, and we both stared up at an acorn woodpecker clinging easily to the side of an Oregon white oak. His red head was yet another layer of color in the spring-like landscape. The woman told me the woodpecker was checking on his stash of acorns. I said, “He probably thinks it’s spring.”
She and I shared a knowing look, and she said, “It might be. Though, I hope not.”
I nodded. “Yes, I hope it’s not. I really hope we get some rain.” These were words that, since moving to Corvallis, I never thought I would say. At least, not in January, when I’m usually strategizing about whether to wear rain boots and walk with an umbrella, or to don rain pants, pack dry clothes, and brave the vertical deluge on my bike.
“Me too,” the white-haired woman said. We exchanged well wishes and went our separate ways.
After taking more pictures and musing at the curious alpacas across the way, I hopped back on my bike, my mind distracted as I tried to fit my interaction with the woman into this larger picture of a changing, warming planet. Eventually, it occurred to me: talking about the weather right now is anything but small talk. Instead, it’s a code for talking about big things.
It’s big talk. One look into the older woman’s eyes as we both hoped for rain, and she and I knew we were talking about something so much larger than the two of us. So much larger than the President of the United States, who last week boasted about the size of his nuclear button. So much larger, even, than the wars this country is waging in the Middle East.
I typically try to avoid ranking by “importance,” especially when the items on any such list inevitably involve the experiences of others that I cannot pretend to know. Yet, I’m going to renege on that today. I am going to go out on a limb and say that climate change is the biggest thing we could talk about today, tomorrow, and in fifty years. The topic is pressing, because climate change and its increasingly visible consequences are already very much here, and they could eventually affect every single organism on Earth.
I want to provoke you by saying that global climate change is bigger than anything else going on in your life, whether you just won the lottery or lost a loved one. I want to make you uneasy by saying that global climate change is bigger than whether or not you are able to have children. It is bigger than your monthly bills, your worries, your dreams.
Please understand that I am not writing this to offend you or to belittle your joys and troubles, but rather to impress upon you the bigness of climate change. I will readily concede that global climate change is also bigger than whether or not I ever draw another breath, whether or not I graduate, whether or not I lead a fulfilling life. Why? Because the world is much bigger than I am. The plants, animals, water, and soil – their existence, now and into the future – matter more to the collective wellbeing and longevity of this planet and generations to come than anything that will every happen to little ol’ me.
Drug addiction, homelessness, starvation, disease, and hate acts are only some of the many crises that plague humans on this planet today, and I hope the people combating them continue to do so valiantly. I hope more join them. Their work is crucial. Yet I must point out that, in the long-run, such efforts are in vain if the planet becomes inhabitable for the vast majority of us who do not have the wealth and technology to endure mass-scale collapse of ecological and social systems. I want to tirelessly assure you that global climate change will affect you, your work, and your favorite place on Earth, so you and I both had better factor it into our conversations, our daily actions, and our plans for the future.
It could rain tomorrow. It will likely rain this week. Even if it pours for the next twenty days straight, this story I am sharing about a dry January afternoon is far from obsolete. The conversation is no longer about whether or not climate change exists, but rather about its effects, how we will cease from fueling them, and how we can build resilient communities that will adapt to them. That is big work, and talking about it is big talk. How are you joining the conversation?