Beliefs Won’t Save Tangier Island, Virginia, From Sea Level Rise—Informed Preparedness Will.

June 15, 2017 | 3:13 pm
ecker39. CC BY NC 2.0 (Flickr)
Kristy Dahl
Principal Climate Scientist

On Tuesday, President Trump called James Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier Island, Virginia, and told him that sea level rise isn’t an issue for Tangier, one of the most threatened communities in America.

My heart sank as I read it, and I was reminded of how our core beliefs are so central to our worldviews–and how we all struggle to accept evidence that challenges them.

How it feels when your core beliefs are under threat

Case in point: me. The last time I took my kids to the doctor for their checkup, the doctor gave me this advice: Stop giving them apple slices as a bedtime snack; give them Häagen-Dazs instead. Feed them as much ice cream as they can eat. My heart nearly stopped, and resistance coursed through my veins as my kids cheered.

I had to set my own biases aside and listen to an expert: though my kids are healthy, for their bodies to keep up with the rapid growth and changes of the ‘tween years, they need to bulk up. But the idea of feeding my kids unlimited ice cream (the sugar!) flies in the face of my core beliefs about how a parent should feed her children.

In the Post’s account of Eskridge’s call with President Trump, I saw myself.

“He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge said. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’”

Eskridge wasn’t offended. In fact, he agreed that rising sea levels aren’t a problem for Tangier.

“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.”

In most US counties, less than half residents think climate change will affect them personally. In Accomack County, home to Tangier Island, only 40% of respondents said that climate change would affect them personally.

Like Eskridge,  I too had built an opinion based on my daily observations. I watched my kids eat every day. Sure, I noted that they were skinnier than some of their friends. But I wanted to think that following all the advice that’s out there (low sugar, plenty of healthy fats, lots of fruits and veggies) was enough.

Likewise, I want so desperately for sea level rise not to be an issue for Tangier Island, because the idea that the residents of Tangier–or any other coastal town, big or small–could lose their land and their homes is deeply upsetting.

We’ve seen people displaced after hurricanes: Residents of New Orleans, a city whose population is still down 20% from its pre-Katrina population, can speak to the lack of deep family ties in the city since becoming dispersed.

But those are rare disasters, right? When it comes to the steadily expanding reach of the sea, we don’t want to believe that it could fundamentally change our towns and communities. As a nation, we tend to think that climate change won’t affect us personally. Rather, it will affect people somewhere else, far from home.

But over and over, the science tells us that rising seas are growing problem for Tangier Island and hundreds of other U.S. communities.

As sea level rises over the next 30 years, the number of tidal flooding events is projected to rise dramatically.

Examining our core beliefs and acknowledging the need for change

Erosion is absolutely a problem for Tangier Island. But it is not the only problem. Underlying that erosion is the fact that Tangier Island is located in a hotspot of sea level rise caused by a combination of factors. By expanding the reach of waves and surge during storms, sea level rise can exacerbate erosion.

But when we see erosion as the only problem, and design solutions to only that problem, we put ourselves in danger. In order to fully address the issue of erosion, the residents of Tangier must also be able to plan for future erosion, which requires an acknowledgement that sea level rise is an important part of the equation.

What this means is that we need leaders that value our core beliefs and cultural identities while being aware of the realities on the ground.

President Trump, in his conversation with Mayor Eskridge, did just the opposite. He neither recognized the rich history of Tangier Island nor committed to policies that would truly help to maintain the island’s community and culture. Instead, he echoed Eskridge’s belief that sea level rise isn’t a problem for Tangier, even while making motions to end funding of the Chesapeake Bay Program. (Note that funding has since been restored, at least for now.)

A critical media can remind us of where the balance of evidence lies

When a national news outlet like The Washington Post publishes a piece like this, it’s bound to get attention. So every such article is an opportunity to push back against an administration that consistently devalues science.

The current article in the Post incorporates some science:

“The small island…shrinks by 15 feet each year, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which points to coastal erosion and rising sea levels as the cause.

…Scientists predict they will have to abandon the island in 50 years if nothing is done.”

But one could imagine this piece structured in a different way that highlighted how very out of alignment Trump and Eskridge’s views are with mainstream climate science. The US Climate Change Science Program issued a 300+ page report with over 20 authors on the sensitivity of this region to sea level rise. NOAA monitors sea level rise rates around the country, and the observations clearly show high rates of sea level rise in the mid-Atlantic region.

Our country needs a coherent approach to rising seas

Tangier Island is just one example of a community asking for federal assistance to cope with a growing environmental problem.

We all like simple solutions, such as the one that Eskridge proposes:

“Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to begin building a jetty on the west channel of the island some time this year…But Eskridge said they need a jetty, or perhaps even a sea wall, around the entire island.

He believes Trump will cut through red tape and get them that wall.”

As highlighted in a recent piece about Tangier Island in The New York Times, the decisions about where and how much to invest to protect a given community are rarely simple because they force us to evaluate how our core beliefs may need to change in the face of growing climate challenges.

As an increasing number of coastal communities grappling with frequent flooding, our country needs a coherent approach to providing research and resources that build community-level resilience. In the absence of this, resources for adaptation could easily be distributed unfairly or allocated to projects that protect one community while leaving other, neighboring communities to fend for themselves.

Growing stronger together

My core values about nutrition have shifted to be less prescriptive because, after all, what I want is for my kids to grow up to be strong and healthy.

Recognizing the reality of sea level rise and building a coherent, nationwide approach to the challenges it presents are the best chance we have to preserve the safety and prosperity of our coastal communities.

About the author

More from Kristy

Kristina Dahl is principal climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she provides scientific direction, strategic thinking, and technical and analytical expertise for the climate team as well as across UCS campaigns and programs. Her research focuses on the impact of climate change, particularly sea level rise and extreme heat, on people and places.