LEWISTON — One day late last month, as I walked across the Bates College campus on my way to teach my environmental literature seminar, I began peeling off my layers. First I took off my hat. Then I unwound my wool scarf and removed my gloves. By the time I reached the Carnegie Science building, my coat was in my hand. I sensed then, as I do more and more often these days, that something, or everything, was off.
Over the last 120 years, the average temperature in Maine has gone up by 3 degrees. And in the next hundred years it is expected to rise as much as 10 more. It turns out that it was 48 degrees that afternoon, a solid 23 degrees higher than the historic end-of-February average for Lewiston. These wild temperature swings – part of a larger overall trend – are already affecting Maine’s iconic industries. Last spring, my students and I interviewed those living and working on the front lines of climate change. Instead of asking foresters, farmers and fishers whether or not they “believed” in global warming, we inquired about the ways in which they were trying to adapt to the profound environmental transformations already reshaping their lives and livelihoods.
Those whose work is directly affected by climate change often live in rural areas, far from the center of political discourse. They are rarely invited to speak for themselves about their own experiences and are often skeptical of the grounds on which the public discussion of climate change takes place. Candis Callison writes about this gulf between local and national vernaculars in her book “How Climate Comes to Matter.”
Recalling her time in an indigenous fishing village in Alaska, she writes, “I experienced not an explicit questioning of climate change but a flat-out rejection of it as a term that described what direct experience with climatic changes feels like.” When warming in the Arctic is publicly discussed, it appears either as a statistical anomaly or as a catastrophic event, neither of which map onto the lived experience of the people Callison interviewed.
In Maine, many of the folks directly affected by climate change – lobstermen, maple syrup farmers, indigenous peoples, timber workers – are, like the groups that Callison profiles, reticent to use the terms dictated by national discourse. But they will happily relate the very specific ways in which their industry has been transformed by the recent string of abnormally warm winters.
In Jay, a longtime forester described how warmer winters were costing the lumber industry money because removing trees over half-thawed, muddy ground – as opposed to frozen land – requires that new roadways be built. In Phippsburg, a lobsterman spoke of how warming in the Gulf was pushing lobster offshore into colder water, causing him to spend more time away from home. And in Mechanic Falls, a local farmer spoke of the negative impact erratic winter temperatures were having on his peers throughout the valley.
“Plants can take incredibly cold temperatures,” he said. “But what is difficult is when you start to get temperatures that jump up above 45. The Christmas Day warmth this year is probably when people lost their peaches. That warm spell brought the peaches out of dormancy, and sap went up into the trees and broke the tissues.”
Perhaps what most surprised my students was that many of their interviewees self-identified as conservative and they were deeply invested in Maine’s environment. Nine times out of 10, environmentally progressive legislation is labeled “liberal.” But what my students’ interviews suggested is that perhaps that knee-jerk pairing will soon be out-of-date.
Two days after I sweated my way across campus, I attended a presentation by Daniel Richter, legislative director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. I went in search of a set of tactical responses to President Trump’s recent string of anti-environmental executive orders, and I left with encouraging news. Richter reported that in the House of Representatives, the Climate Solutions Caucus now has 13 Republican and 13 Democratic members. But what is more encouraging is that many of those Republicans acknowledged that climate change was real, was human caused and demanded a response as part of their candidacy. Here was proof that it’s possible to be an environmentally progressive conservative and to win.
In Maine, where so much of who we are and what we do depends on the environment, it is time for our elected officials to reflect the lived experience of their constituents. As I write, it is 45 degrees again and I wonder what this means for those farmers in the valley, whether their peaches will make it through another strange winter and whether any of their elected officials are paying attention.
— Special to the Press Herald