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Tina Casey headshot

Chesapeake Bay Island Community Crowd Funds for Climate Change Impacts

By Tina Casey

President Trump's aides are reportedly frantic to keep him off of Twitter, and they may want to start thinking about cutting him off the phone entirely. Last week a phone call from Trump to the mayor of a tiny town in Virginia suddenly sparked a new burst of public attention on climate change and the risks that coastal businesses -- and entire communities -- face from rising sea levels.

If the story stays alive, that's an important shift. Literally for decades, environmental stakeholders have had great difficulty in communicating the urgency of climate action to the general public. In the U.S. that's partly due to misinformation promoted by the climate denial movement and its allies in government. If the plight of a small town can catch and hold the public eye with real stories about real people, the prospects for accelerating action on climate change in this country could improve significantly.

Trump to disappearing town: no worries

Last week's presidential phone call went to James Eskridge, Mayor of the town of Tangier. Apparently Trump was prompted to call after aides encouraged him to watch a CNN report on the effect of rising sea levels on Tangier Island, which houses the town.

The town of Tangier's recent voting history may have also had something to do with Trump's sudden interest. A reported 87 percent of voters in the town cast their ballots for Trump in the 2016 election.

During the 10-minute chat Trump reportedly offered no firm commitment to help the island, although it is losing land at an alarming rate:

Eskridge told Trump that he hoped the President would cut down the time on studies and maybe help with funding a sea wall. But he said they didn't go into detail about the wall, which the mayor says Tangier needs to survive, or about the jetty the island is expected to get next year for erosion of the harbor.

The President did not seem to worried, according to USA Today:
Trump told the mayor "not to worry about sea-level rise," Eskridge said. "He said, 'Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.'"

Trump seems somewhat isolated in that opinion.

Situated in Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island became the focus of news about climate change, coastal land loss and rising sea levels back in 2013 with the release of a documentary, "Tangier -- the vanishing island," which charted the effects of the disappearing coastline.

As an interesting side note, the film was produced by the documentary division of RT, the Russian media organization that has been accused of funneling propaganda to the U.S. and elsewhere.

Be that as it may, the RT documentary did not attract too much attention back then. A long form story on Tangier's plight by Al Jazeera in 2014 similarly sank into the media mix. So did the 2014 documentary Pieces of Tangier, created as an MFA thesis project by film maker Jenny Roberts.

Last week's phone call, though, could finally be a breakthrough. Reportedly galvanized by word of the Trump's call to Eskridge, last week Tangier town council member Anna E. Pruitt-Parks started a GoFundMe drive aimed at sending a copy of Pieces of Tangier to each member of Congress, and to the President and other top office holders.

The GoFundMe goal was set at $3,200. As of Monday the effort topped $4,500, and the story appears to be picking up steam in the media.

It looks like Tangier has finally found a powerful medium through which to communicate the urgency of action. The only question now is whether federal policy makers will come through with a solution.

Tangier, erosion, climate change and rising sea levels

To be clear, Tangier residents and elected officials are more focused on the wave-induced erosion aspect of their problem than on the linkage to global warming.

A 2016 report on Tangier by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, though, pins the problem on a combination of erosion, climate change and rising sea levels.

The study, published in the top science journal Nature, looks at land mass loss between 1850 and 2013 and reaches this conclusion:

Climate change and associated sea level rise (SLR) are already impacting low-lying coastal areas, including islands, throughout the world...Since 1850, 66.75% of the island's landmass has been lost. Under the mid-range SLR scenario, much of the remaining landmass is expected to be lost in the next 50 years and the Town will likely need to be abandoned...

The 50-year scenario is actually a conservative one. If sea level rise accelerates, within 25 years the town of Tangier would be uninhabitable, making it a canary in the coal mine -- an early warning sign -- of the devastation facing much of the U.S. coastline.

The researchers do recommend a series of resiliency measures that could preserve the island. These include breakwaters, dune systems, restoration of several low-lying marshes to their former state of ridges that rise above the high tide mark, and fertilization of wetlands.

The expense, however, is well beyond the means of local residents. The researchers estimate an initial investment of $20-$30 million. Virtually all of it would have to come from federal and state of Virginia taxpayers.

The alternative is to relocate a population of several hundred people, and that raises the question: is Tangier Island worth saving?

The climate change canary finds its voice

The proposed Trump budget and the small-government leanings of the majority Republican Congress indicate one answer to the Tangier question: no, it is unreasonable to expect U.S. taxpayers to bail out a few hundred people whose homes and businesses are in immanent danger of being washed away, because they could live and work elsewhere.

However, the GoFundMe campaign could add a significant new element to the mix of concerns. The Pieces of Tangier documentary explores the cultural life of the community, and in doing so makes a powerful argument that the impact of climate change is not only about the loss of property, economic life and ecosystems. It's also about the destruction of history -- in this case, the destruction of centuries-old American history in the very cradle of the nation's birth.

The Army Corps of Engineers researchers note that, along with the destruction of a "significant wildlife habitat," the destruction of Tangier Island will bring about the loss of the "culturally-unique Town of Tangier, the last offshore fishing community in Virginia waters of Chesapeake Bay."

The Tangier Island official website and tourist guide provides some insight into the value of Tangier Island to the Virginia tourist economy and its history. A 2009 article in Smithsonian Magazine also took note of the historical aspect. In the context of a shrinking local fishing industry that was already suffering the effect of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, Eskridge makes this observation:

"Tangier is a living history. We've been doing this hundreds of years...We are really not that far from D.C. or Richmond, but you can come here and step back in time."

In a 2015 article, the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that local graves and a historic fort were already under water in neighboring Uppards Island, which provides an important buffer for Tangier. The Times-Dispatch provided this background:
The settlement of Tangier and its history is long and storied, dating back to 1608. It includes the likes of Captain John Smith, a time when the island served as a military base for the British during the War of 1812, and a history of providing safe haven for slaves fleeing to freedom in the North.

Though modern communication has diluted Tangier's distinctive accent, the residents' unique manner of speech has also caught the eye of researchers.

The speech pattern is noted for its "backwards-talk," a kind of consistent deployment of sarcasm. If you hear any reports of Eskridge, Pruitt-Parks or any other Tangier resident lavishing praise upon President Trump or his Administration, take it with a grain of salt.

Image: via http://www.tangierisland-va.com/

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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