In The Age Of Climate Change, It's The Magnolia Blossoms I'll Miss
This week's forecast has me feeling anxious. My most trusted meteorologist, Dave Epstein, predicted that Boston could reach 70 degrees this week. By Tuesday afternoon, we'd hit that benchmark. That’s not unheard of, but it’s rare. Or, at least, it’s usually rare. As Dave points out, we hit 70 in February last year, as well.
It’s strange to live through a slowly unfolding catastrophe like climate change. We’ve gone from quietly discussing the need to prevent climate change to quietly discussing how to live in our soon-to-be-altered world. There is a proposal to construct a seawall around Boston Harbor to protect the city from storm surge. All the while, 51 percent of Americans either don’t believe in climate change or don’t believe it is caused by human activity, the head of the EPA is rolling back efforts to combat climate change, and our president thinks it’s a Chinese hoax.
So when I see 70 degrees in February, I feel general anxiety about our coming doom, our inability to act to mitigate it, the sense that we will all lose soon enough anything like climatic normalcy.
It’s strange to live through a slowly unfolding catastrophe like climate change.
But I have more specific anxiety, too. I’m worried about the magnolia blossoms.
I’ve loved magnolia trees since college. There was a sprawling magnolia tree not far from my college campus, and when spring came, my now-wife and I would walk by it often, to see its yawning pink blossoms spread out against the smooth gray bark and the deep-green ivy that covered much of this particular tree. When we got married, our wedding invitations featured a drawing of a magnolia branch and blossoms. Since moving to Boston, each spring we make a point of walking along Commonwealth Avenue when the magnolia trees are in peak bloom, the pink, purple and white blossoms marking for us the end of winter and the beginning of softer times.
The magnolias have mostly failed to bloom the past two springs. Some trees have performed well enough, but I haven’t seen as many blossoms as I have come to expect. My favorite tree in our Dorchester neighborhood hasn’t blossomed since 2015.
These failures were caused by mid-winter warm spells in both 2016 and 2017, followed by subfreezing temperatures. With temperatures in the 50s or higher for multiple days in a row, the magnolia buds were fooled into opening early. Then temperatures returned to seasonal levels, or even record-breaking cold (recall Valentine’s Day 2016). The magnolia buds, opened and exposed, froze and died before they had a chance to fully bloom.
We’ve already had two springs without the magnificent abundance of magnolia blossoms; now we might have a third. And I worry this might be part of the new normal — that Boston will never be able to count on magnolia blossoms again.
The loss of these small pleasures is far from the most important consequence of global climate change. Millions of people will die as extreme weather events become more common, as sea levels rise, as places that were once hospitable to human life become unlivable.
Maybe the prospect of these little losses can persuade people unmoved by the overwhelming scale of the greater impending disaster.
For people in privileged countries with the resources to withstand the worst of climate change, though, these smaller losses may be the most deeply felt consequences. We may build sea walls and raise our roads to protect us from rising seas. We may use more efficient building methods and climate control to keep people comfortable during extended summer heatwaves. We may find new farming techniques or new food sources to counter the loss of arable land. We may witness the suffering of people in less fortunate places and count ourselves lucky to have been born into circumstances that shelter us from the worst of it.
But we may also never again have the pleasure of walking by block after block of vibrant magnolia blossoms in the Back Bay.
Maybe the prospect of these little losses can persuade people unmoved by the overwhelming scale of the greater impending disaster. Or maybe we’ll just learn to adapt to a life of fewer pleasures, less beauty, more meager joys. It’s not the worst thing that could happen, but it’s so very far from the best.