When my family moved from Maine to a mountain in Costa Rica for a
year, we discovered a tropical wonderland—a dense forest covered
by a protective blanket of clouds and adorned with woody vines,
wild orchids, 15-foot tree ferns, and exotic wildlife.
We knew to expect sloths, parrots, and even scorpions in
Monteverde. But the abundance of one creature surprised us: the
common red-faced climate activist.
These people were concerned enough about climate change to
actually act on it. Within weeks of our arrival at our new home
in the cloud forest, I met an 80-something man who imperiled
himself by pedaling his electric bike along atrociously
potholed roads in the name of avoiding internal combustion.
When he wasn’t cycling, he was creating an enormous
recycled-art sculpture of the threatened three-wattled bellbird
to parade through town in hopes of inciting environmental
awareness. There was a woman at my kids’ school who insisted
that parents immediately—by the next month—stop driving their
kids individually to school and start funding a bus service to
reduce the school’s carbon footprint.
I’ve always appreciated eccentrics, but these new neighbors’
insistence upon local change struck me as myopic and
impatient. Would it really be the end of the world if the old
man passed up his bike and called a taxi when it was pouring?
Couldn’t the school bus service wait a year for families to
budget for this significant expense?
It’s not that I’m opposed to reducing one’s carbon
footprint—back in Maine, our family had prioritized living
within walking distance of work and school to limit our
driving, and had also invested in an energy overhaul of our
house (focused on boosting our insulation).
But my concern for the climate had always felt fairly
theoretical. When it came time to make charitable donations,
I favored issues I could see and understand: local
poverty-relief efforts, my community library, or girls’
education in developing countries. I understood that climate
change was important, it just didn’t feel urgent. I had a
hard time identifying with it.
Not so for my neighbors here in Costa Rica. Here, climate
change was an obvious and pressing concern. The more I got to
know the residents of Monteverde, the more I noticed that
everyone was worried. Biologists, farmers, restaurant
waiters, and even taxi drivers spoke with concern not only
about Monteverde’s famed golden toad, whose extinction was
to be attributed by scientists to global warming, but also
about Monteverde’s changing weather patterns. Although the
area is getting more rain each year, those rains are now
coming in less regular and more intense bursts, leaving
spells. In other words, the cloud forest is losing its
clouds, and that protective blanket of moisture that
Monteverde has always relied on is getting ripped to tatters.
After a year in Costa Rica, I see the effects of climate
change all around me. Living on a mountain gave me a
front-row view of what I’ve come to think of as the climate
change conveyor belt: With each degree uptick in global
temperatures, creatures that evolved to live in the lowlands
have had to move up to the cooler middle elevations to
That means middle-elevation creatures have moved up here to
the top. Take keel-billed
toucans, for example. Fifty years ago, they were unheard
of in Monteverde, but now I hear their loud, froglike call in
my backyard every morning. Less mobile species aren’t so
lucky. Plants can’t simply walk or fly up the mountain to
cooler climate gradients. And what’s to become of the species
that adapted to live at the top of mountain peaks, like
Monteverde’s 503 orchid
species that feed off the mist? When you start at the top
of the mountain, there’s no moving up to fairer weather,
unless it’s to heaven.
Before I lived in Costa Rica, climate change felt like a
future event. But right here, right now, I realize that we
are living at the very breaking point. I saw it last November
in the first
hurricane to hit Costa Rica in recorded history. It
passed north of us, leaving destruction in its wake.
I see it in my dry kitchen faucet and the water tanker truck
that drives up our unusually dusty road to fill water tanks
at my kids’ school because Monteverde—the cloud forest, of
all places—has run out of water. The toucans have already
moved up. The golden toads have already been pushed off the
top. The climate change conveyer belt ends in extinction. We
just don’t know yet which one is next to fall off the edge.
All of this makes me understand that neighbor who won’t get
in the car. Or why the bus can’t wait. Will either of these
actions save us? Almost certainly not. But my Costa Rican
neighbors have helped me realize that agitating for local
environmental change is just the first step toward joining in
a collective cause. Once folks are pushing for smarter school
commuting patterns or paying attention to how our changing
climate is impacting the birds in our own backyards, suddenly
national and global environmental movements become much more
I don’t know if the signs of climate change will be any more
obvious when I return to Maine. But regardless, I’m already
planning to price out solar panels for our house’s roof and
to call my representatives and plead for a carbon tax. And
I’m considering opportunities for local, collective climate
My rural New England town certainly could use expanded bike
lanes. What about advocating for making downtown
pedestrian-only on farmers market Saturdays? And my kids’
mile-long walk commute to school could easily be converted to
school bus, picking up other kids who live along our
route to collectively commute to school on foot.
And perhaps the most important thing I could do is to
explain where my newfound urgency came from. My Costa Rican
neighbors helped me locate my inner climate activist—now my
job is to figure out how to do the same for my neighbors