How My Costa Rican Neighbors Jolted Me Out of Climate Activist Apathy

They have a front-row seat to the havoc climate change is already causing. No wonder they’re moved to action.

Costa Rica
Farmers work near the Turrialba Volcano in Cartago, Costa Rica, on Sept. 20.

Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

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 the first 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 longer dry 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 survive.

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 salient.

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 action. 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 a walking 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 back home.