A common way of ignoring climate change whenever it rears its ugly head is to view the problem as one for people somewhere else. Those of us lucky enough to grow up in cold climates see forecasts of a warming earth and remain unphased—we don’t think of it as an issue involving us. Perhaps we feel more inclined to reduce our emissions out of a sense of pity for those less fortunate, but we generally do not wonder what will happen to us. This cold comfort is no comfort at all; it is a lie. So why do we keep believing it?
Like the rest of the world, Maine’s climate has been changing rapidly for decades. In the mid-to-late 20th century, most changes to the climate were much easier to ignore: It would no longer snow around Thanksgiving, the air wouldn’t bite the way it used to and you might leave the heat off for a few more days this year than you did the last. The increasing number of natural disasters is a relatively recent phenomenon. Alongside this, much of the public messaging around climate change has been overwhelmingly positive for Maine. But that supposedly good news often has an omitted caveat: We have grown to depend on cold weather.
In the modern age, we often do not think of ourselves as tied to the climates we live in. But the land defines a climate, and our climate defines our lives. We are fundamentally dependent on the Earth—we aren’t ethereal. So when those patterns are disrupted, even if the change is supposedly positive, the change happens at such a rapid pace that we cannot adapt in time. This is particularly salient in the waters of the Gulf of Maine, where the water is warming faster than almost anywhere else in the world—threatening Maine’s seafood industry, a pillar of tourism to the state. Maine’s primary agricultural products—potatoes, maple syrup and blueberries—all depend on Maine’s continental climate to maintain economically viable levels of yield, and the changing climate is threatening that viability. Unless the world turns upside down, it is unlikely that Maine’s agriculture will ever be the same.
This is to say nothing of the potential displacement due to climate change. In the mid-to-late 20th century, Americans increasingly congregated within the hottest reaches of the continental United States—a trend that continues to this day. Massive development has been undertaken in fundamentally unsustainable urban centers far away from the kinds of water sources needed to sustain urban areas. Cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and, to a lesser extent, even much of Southern California depend on a very vulnerable balancing act between man-made infrastructure and just barely enough water and land to keep the charades going. To put it mildly, attempting to make suburban Sun Belt developments sustainable is like rearranging chairs on the Titanic—it’s just not going to happen. This means that the relatively cool parts of the United States can anticipate unprecedented levels of migration, especially from historically neglected regions like the Rust Belt. Maine is going to be a part of that population exchange.
This is not to say that Maine does not have a future. Maine has long had an aging population and a surge could breathe some much-needed life into the dwindling towns across the northern and western swaths of the state. Change is inevitable and the only constant in modern life. But understanding climate change as something that impacts other people rather than us is wrong. A worldwide threat has worldwide implications, and Maine is not free from them. We should not be sending a message to Maine, as we often do, that it cannot happen here. It can—and will—happen here.