As my North Carolina family and friends brace for the storms destruction, a radical shift may be occurring in attitudes to climate change
My sister sent me a text two days ago from Wilmington, North Carolina. She was moving her furniture to the second floor, nailing plywood to the windows, and packing up her valuables in advance of Hurricane Florence. What would you take? she asked.
A second question appeared minutes later: What if we lose our home?
Growing up in the eastern North Carolina towns of Rocky Mount and Atlantic Beach, I evacuated for Hurricane Hugo, heard my parents friends talk about the horror of Hazel, watched friends homes flood in Hurricane Floyd and again in Hurricane Matthew. But I moved to New England a few years ago; Ive never had to evacuate in my own car full of children, pets and valuables.
Im sorry this is happening, I wrote. Youre doing the best you can.
Hurricanes are an unsentimental force, the ultimate man versus nature narrative. They mark time in the coastal south, create stories of trauma and resilience, generate lore. You grow up waiting for them, stomaching a low-level anxiety that flares up in September. In 2018, this anxiety is worse than ever. Perhaps it should be.
This week, I saw people post articles online about North Carolina ignoring climate science, in a told-you-so tone, as if the state is somehow on track to get what it deserves. To be clear, it isnt the entire state of North Carolina that willfully ignored climate science. It was a Republican-led group that voted to use historical data to project sea level rise instead of contemporary climate change models.
In 2012, the conservative-leaning North Carolina legislature passed HB 219, a bill that deemed current climate science unreliable and extreme. The best science was left out of coastal development and policy discussions. They need to use some science that we can all trust when we start making laws in North Carolina that affect property values on the coast, the Republican state representative Pat McElraft said. The result is an overly developed, vulnerable coastline, one currently inundated with storm surge.
Like many thorny issues in North Carolina gendered bathrooms, gay marriage, Confederate monuments, radical gerrymandering conservatives insisted on looking backward instead of forward on climate change. This mentality will probably cost the state billions of dollars in forthcoming damage to infrastructure and homes. The past six years could have been spent planning for climate events like Florence, making coastal communities more resilient.
Know, however, that the entire state of North Carolina is not a solid bloc of backwards, anti-science people. Do not buy into the dumb southerner narrative recently peddled by our president, a man clearly limited in empathy and appreciation for science. There are smart people and organizations working to protect the states coast, such as the North Carolina Coastal Federation, Duke Universitys Orrin H Pilkey, retired East Carolina researcher Stanley Riggs, UNC professor Jason West, and former legislator Deborah K Ross, to name a few.
As Hurricane Florence rips into seaside towns, floods rivers, damages fragile coastal ecosystems, and destroys homes, remember that it is also destroying real lives. Remember that its affecting those who believe in climate science and fight for progressive values below the Mason Dixon Line. It will affect nursing homes in Lumberton, farmers in Nash county, professors in Chapel Hill, hospitality workers in Wilmington. The storm will probably have an outsized effect on those who dont have the time or privilege to ponder the latest models of rising seas.
A childhood friend and I have been texting as Florence barrels toward our parents homes.
This one feels different, I wrote yesterday, and she agreed.
While hurricanes have always pummeled the coast, research indicates theyre stronger than ever. A recent report notes that Hurricane Florence will produce 50% more rain due to climate change. Never have I been so anxious, a friend writes on Instagram, posting a picture of his familys wooden beach cottage, which looked beautiful all summer. Now it just looks vulnerable.
There is a potential radical shift at hand for all of us who grew up on the coast, a reckoning with the new and sometimes terrifying normal of climate change where there is no normal. The most radical shift may be occurring right now among moderates and conservatives who have long dodged the science of a warming planet and rising seas. They will be forced to consider its realities: sunny day flooding (Wilmington had 84 days of high tide flooding in 2016), more extreme weather events, a rapidly changing coastline, and the loss of culture and landscape. Those who have stayed doggedly rooted to the past, or maintained a business-first mentality, may have their eyes opened uncomfortably to the future.
And how we talk to those people, and about them, matters. We must speak honestly and unabashedly about climate science in the south. Communicating in a direct and compassionate not condescending way about climate change could put us on a more collaborative and inviting path toward solutions. We need change and resilience more than we need to score a point.
Megan Mayhew Bergman is thedirector of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum at Bennington College, and is also the director of Middleburys Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference
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