I crisscrossed a region my own that is mired in a culture of denial and delay. The conversation on the climate crisis has not changed fast enough

atmosphere

Its 96 degrees in downtown Beaufort, North Carolina, a place where I spent much of my childhood. The sidewalk is too hot for dogs to walk on. The iconic wild horses, visible on Shackleford Banks, wade in the marsh, munching cordgrass. Ive been watching the horses since I was in elementary school, and now Im sharing them with my elementary school-aged daughters on summer vacation.

My girls love them, as I did. The legend is that the horses swam to safety from an old Spanish shipwreck. Its moving to watch the small, strong horses grazing on the dunes. For now, theyve survived the latest big hurricane, and theyre free.

The 100 or so wild horses have one square kilometer of high ground on which to weather hurricanes and sea level rise, and a shortage of fresh water endangered by encroaching salt water and storm surge. Some scientists recommend that the Shackleford horses be relocated, although they have been there for centuries.

The story is a familiar one that will be told in a thousand different ways as the atmosphere warms in the years to come: we must think creatively and quickly to save the things we love.

I wrote my Climate Changed column between hurricane seasons, in the wake of Hurricane Florence and before the start of Hurricane Barry. I close the column from Beaufort, a place where Florence brought a record storm surge; it caused $17bn in damage to the state. As my daughters and I drive over the bridge into Morehead City, I see bulldozers still clearing the last of the Channel Marker restaurant, a fixture of Atlantic Beach flooded during Florence.

I thought that Hurricane Florence might serve as a turning point in the conversation about the realities of climate change in a region still mired in a culture of denial and delay. After a year of research and reporting, I am not convinced that the conversation has changed fast enough, if much at all. Here in Beaufort, like Miami and Charleston, I encounter deniers, continued waterfront development, hurricane damage and blistering temperatures.

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A great blue heron is silhouetted by the reflection of the rising sun at Lake Johnson Park in Raleigh. Photograph: Alamy

 

If there is any part of the south where technology, tax dollars and public opinion are aligning to make changes, its Miami, even though new waterfront real estate is still being built. But for the most part, climate change discussions continue to fall along party lines in a divided nation. To many rural southerners, the bigger, well-funded environmental movements seem to be rooted in California and New England. The conversations appear to be taking place in the echo chamber of privileged believers.

I saw more of the south while reporting for this column than I ever saw in my 30 years of living there. My travel reinforced what I already knew: there is no one south. In 2019 it is multitudinous, diverse and still reckoning with its plantation economy and cruel social history. It has PhDs, evangelicals, Trump enthusiasts, environmentalists, artists and activists. Its this very tension that has often made the south the genesis of social movements; one hopes it might happen again, and soon.

Social and environmental racism, income inequality and poverty are as present as they have ever been, and are only weaponized by climate change, as I reported from Virginia and Natchez, Mississippi.

I found that in places like eastern North Carolina, the river parishes of Louisiana, Miami, and Mississippis Gulf coast, chronic exposure to natural disasters has resulted in psychological resilience, and created a desire in some to go down with the ship. In places like New Orleans, trauma strengthens the sense of community. As Tropical Storm Barry moved in to New Orleans, I emailed with former interviewees who shared forecasts and concerns. Im gritting my teeth, one wrote. But Im not evacuating. Home is sometimes more an emotional than a rational commitment.

In eastern North Carolina, where I grew up and write from, climate change was never a polite topic of conversation. I was told the same in a coffee shop in Mississippi, and by a minister in Georgia. Too many southerners are still dancing around the reality of climate change, and the cost of avoiding the conversation is going to be steep.

What does a better and more inclusive conversation look like? Non-traditional environmentalists can be critical allies in addressing the culture of climate change denial below the Mason-Dixon Line, like hunters in Arkansas and evangelical Christians in places like St Simons, Georgia. But too often, the perspectives and interests of frontline communities are ignored, further exacerbating the environmental racism so pervasive in the south.

When it comes to climate change preparedness in this region, part of the continued challenge is that the power structures of the old south remain in place. A Pew survey indicated that white evangelical protestants are the least likely to profess a belief in climate change. Power companies, developers and conservative politicians have a vested interest in deregulation and maintaining the environmental status quo, and many paint environmental concerns as nothing but liberal pagan ideas.

When I began this column, I felt more of a duty to listen to all sides, but frankly I do not believe that climate change is an issue of which one can pretend, or afford, to hear both sides. I believe that to deny climate change and delay productive action in 2019 is malicious and akin to governmental malpractice. A government that is not actively protecting its citizens from the future challenges of climate change (property loss, food system collapse, increased intensity of storms, flooded infrastructure, extreme heat, economic disruption) is not acting in the interests of its citizens. A politician who delays climate action is not acting in his or her constituents best interests, and may be going so far as to actually cause harm.

We do not need to hear another word from deniers, or cater to their anti-science position. Something the progressive south has always struggled to do: take the megaphone away from the people who want to live in the past.

Now that Ive seen more of the south, I cant help but feel losses and concerns in a specific way. As I began to write this final column, a fire raged through the Everglades, which I had driven through just months before. Storms threatened to challenge the already saturated Mississippi and its river control structures. I thought about the gators in the marsh, the last wild panthers darting to safety in the Everglades, the bartender who was kind to me in an ancient pub on Natchez-under-the-hill. The loss of life and landscape in climate change scenarios has always troubled me, but now it is real and urgent in a way it has never been before.

When the wild horses of Shackleford Banks weather storms, the dominant male gathers his harem on high ground or in the deep parts of the maritime forest, and they turn their backs to the wind and rain. A researcher observed that while wild herds are typically divided into harems, the divisions break down in extreme weather. The horses gave up their internal political dynamics, he said, staying together on the relatively highest ground of that site. That is how they survive.

To navigate the decades ahead, and save the places we love and call home, southerners will need to dismantle old political dynamics and build new, inclusive alliances.

 

 



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