Don’t give up on Tangier Island

Victoria Herrmann on why it is important to bring sceptics into discussions about climate change.

Last week, President Trump made a surprising call to the mayor of a small island town in middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

In a CNN special report of their plight against sea level rise, Mayor James 'Ooker' Eskridge sent an SOS to the White House. "Donald Trump, whatever you can do, we welcome any help you can give us."

Trump answered the Mayor's plea, and last Monday called Ooker to assure him that sea level rise wouldn't drown his island. "Your island has been there for hundreds of years," he told the Mayor, "and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.'"

The call was a nice gesture. But Trump's reassurance is wrong.

Tangier, Virginia is four feet above sea level. It's just over one square mile in size, and loses 16 feet of land yearly to subsidence and coastal erosion. Most estimates give Tangier 50 years before its 500 residents will be forced to leave their homes behind in search of higher land. A major storm event could cause that abandonment to happen sooner.

Little sympathy

Despite its ruinous future, there has been little sympathy for the island on social media in the wake of Trump's call. Some Tweets go so far as to argue that the islanders deserve their fate of inundation and displacement.

Some 87 percent of Tangier Island voted for Trump, and few residents believe in man-made climate change. It's hard to sympathise with a town that voted for a president who campaigned on the platform that climate change was a Chinese hoax and is now eliminating the federal adaptation programmes that could save them. (The proposed White House budget cuts the US Army Corps of Engineers' construction account by more than 50 percent. That same account will help build a jetty on the northwestern side of Tangier in 2018 - the only planned construction project to stave off erosion on the island.)

I get the lack of sympathy because I've felt it myself. Last May, I made the same call President Trump did to Tangier's Mayor to talk about his sinking island.

I was planning a trip to the Chesapeake Bay as part of a National Geographic funded year-long research project to document the effects of climate change on coastal communities. Together with my research partner, I had interviewed hundreds of Americans from Alaska to American Samoa and wanted to include Tangier Island in the research. Ooker didn't come in from crabbing to call me back right away like he did with the President, but eventually I caught him at home and we arranged for a time to speak during my visit.

Trump and climate change

When I landed on Tangier in the heat of the 2016 presidential election, it was clear who the island was voting for. Make America Great Again bumper stickers were slapped onto every golf cart (the island has no cars) and a large red Trump flag waved proudly overhead. When I sat down to interview residents, remarks about Trump were common, as were jokes about building his wall around their town.

As a climate change researcher, I am no fan of Donald Trump, or the current Republican Party, or climate change deniers. When confronted with Trump-loving climate sceptics on Tangier Island, it was easy to choose apathy over empathy - to call islanders like Ooker ignorant instead of vulnerable.

But reacting indifferently towards Trump supporters at-risk to climate change is dangerous. It negates our opportunity to demand federal support for the slow-onset natural disasters facing all Americans. If I left the island and instead focused my project exclusively on threatened communities that didn't make me uncomfortable, I would also have to stop my work in Dauphin Island, Alabama, in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, and with my own family on the Jersey Shore.

If I have learned one thing from my travels across the US' eroding edges it is this: climate change is an American story. It is an issue that disrupts the lives of Americans across our country. And even if residents don't believe in climate change, they have an intimate, localised understanding of its effects and a vision for what adaptation strategies will work best for their hometowns. We will need to act on federal adaptation and relocation policy during this administration or the next, and will need those local insights to act on climate effectively. The issue is too immense to ignore.

Towns like Tangier may be the first to relocate from rising tides, but they won't be the last. By the end of this century, at least 414 towns, villages and cities across America will eventually be flooded no matter how much humans decrease carbon emissions. At the minimum, this equates to 4.3 million Americans displaced from their homes by 2100. And that's according to low-end NASA sea level rise predictions. At the high-end, over 13 million people along America's coastlines will embark on a great migration inland.

If we are to truly build national momentum to address the impacts of climate change on America in its entirety, we need everyone to be part of the conversation today - Trump-loving, climate-sceptic Tangier Islanders included.

*Victoria Herrmann [2014] is the Managing Director of The Arctic Institute and a Gates Scholar at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University. Picture credit: c/o Wiki Commons.