David Swanson: Tangier Island is the Earth
By David Swanson
It’s nice to look down on the poor foolish residents of Tangier Island, a little speck of land sinking into the Chesapeake Bay. Some 87% of the residents who voted in 2016, voted for Trump. The Mayor of Tangier says that being mayor is only his second job; his first is killing some of what remain of the crabs in the Bay. Residents imagine that the U.S. government will save their island from going under by building a wall. They imagine that Trump will make that happen. Yet Trump famously told the mayor on the phone that there was nothing to worry about, that the island is not actually in any danger. Residents of Tangier say that they know what’s coming, but that they leave it up to “the Lord.”
What’s likely coming is a sea level that renders Tangier uninhabitable in 20 or 25 years. And those poor ignorant fools say not one word about halting the use of fossil fuels, going vegan, controlling population growth, or ending all the planet-destructive wars. Boy, we sure can despise such backwardness. After all, the rest of Virginia may not be doomed for another 20 or 25 years after Tangier.
The rest of us in Virginia and the earth are morally in the exact same situation as the people of Tangier Island. Imagining that voting for a different corrupt ruler, or dropping beliefs in ancient mythologies, or wearing shirts that say “resist” has a damn thing to do with it is our particular form of ignorance. We use stories like Tangier to distract us, sports to distract us, partisan politics to distract us. But if we are not doing everything we can to organize people to engage in massive nonviolent action to completely reverse destructive systemic behavior on the largest scale, we are in no position to criticize anyone.
Five-year averages of temperature in Virginia began a significant and steady increase in the early 1970s, rising from 54.6 degrees Fahrenheit then to 56.2 degrees F in 2012. The Piedmont area, where I live, has seen the temperature rise at a rate of 0.53 degrees F per decade. At this rate, Virginia will be as hot as South Carolina by 2050 and as northern Florida by 2100, and continuing at a steady or increasing pace from there. Sixty percent of Virginia is forest, and forests cannot evolve or switch over to warmer-weather species at anything like that fast a pace. The most likely future is not pines or palm trees but wasteland.
From 1979 to 2003, excessive heat exposure contributed to over 8,000 premature deaths in the United States, more than all deaths from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined, and dramatically more than all deaths from terrorism. Between 1948 and 2006 “extreme precipitation events” increased 25% in Virginia. Precipitation in Virginia is likely to increase or decrease dramatically overall, and is extremely likely to continue the trend of arriving in ever more intense bursts of storms interrupting droughts. This will be devastating to agriculture.
Acidity in the ocean has already increased by 30 percent and if current trends continue will hit a 100 to 150 percent increase by 2100 and continue to spiral upward from there. Oysters’ shells in the Chesapeake Bay have grown thinner as a result. The oyster population is 98 percent gone. Shell fish are becoming and will entirely become extinct, if current trends remain unaltered. By 2100 we can expect 60 to 100 percent of the world’s coral reefs to be gone. Fish off the Virginia coast are moving north and east to survive, some species having already vanished from Virginia waters either by migrating or dying out. In Virginia 46 percent of fish species, 25 percent of birds, 46 percent of reptiles, 43 percent of amphibians, and 28 percent of mammals are listed as threatened or endangered.
Seventy-eight percent of Virginians live within 20 miles of the Chesapeake, the Atlantic, or tidal rivers. On the Eastern Shore and in the Hampton Roads-Norfolk area, flooding has already become routine. The sea level will rise, if current trends continue, between 3 and 18 feet by 2100. Already it has risen an inch every 7 or 8 years — 12 inches in the last century. Some 628,000 Virginians live within 6.5 feet of sea level. Paul Fraim, Mayor of Norfolk since 1994, says the city may need to soon establish “retreat zones” and abandon sections of the city as too costly to protect. Real estate agents are discussing the need to require disclosure of sea level as well as lead paint and other defects when selling property. The famous ponies of Chincoteague live among trees killed and grasses weakened by risen saltwater, and will not live there much longer.
The U.S. military, headquartered largely in Virginia, the world’s largest Navy base in Norfolk, and the swamp-built Capital of the United States in Washington, D.C., face potential devastation directly contributed to by the endless wars for oil, and the consumption of that oil first and foremost in the conduct of the wars and preparations for more wars, despite the widespread belief that the results of the wars are distant. Just as ice melting in Greenland lifts water onto the streets of Norfolk, investment of trillions of dollars in pointless death and destruction not only diverts resources from addressing climate damage but heavily contributes to that damage. The U.S. military would rank 38th in oil consumption if it were a nation.
If any image can wallop someone with the need to adjust our priorities it is one of Wallops Island just south of Chincoteague but protected for the moment by a $34 million rock wall. Wallops Island hosts tests for the $4 billion crash-prone Osprey helicopter, and all sorts of war training, plus a space port from which multi-billionaires can blow themselves up or launch themselves into space to starve in tin cans literally as well as subjectively above the rest of us.
There is no Planet B. Nobody has found anywhere for humans to live apart from earth, at least not remotely in the time frame of the current crisis. Virginia has taken in thousands of refugees from Hurricane Katrina and can expect to take in many more and to create many refugees itself. The only thinking that says every future Hurricane Sandy will miss Virginia is wishful thinking. The claim that Tangier will produce the first U.S. refugees from climate chaos is willfully blind.
The warming will bring the mosquito varieties (already arriving) and diseases. Serious risks include malaria, Chagas disease, chikungunya virus, and dengue virus. Look them up. The television won’t explain them until they’re here.
Virginians, like others in the United States, consume vastly more energy and produce vastly more warming per capita than do people in other countries, including countries in Europe that they don’t look down on. Proposals to actually halt the climate catastrophe generally call for Americans to start living like Europeans (the horror!).
Virginia’s Constitution requires the state to “protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment and general welfare of the people.” In a decent court system, any member of the public could have that enforced through a massive emergency Marshall-Plan effort to preserve our climate. Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality does not concern itself with climate change. Virginia lags significantly behind Maryland and North Carolina in addressing climate change. Numerous reasonable steps can be quite easily taken if the political will is found, but they get harder with each passing year.