The inconvenient science of Tangier Island

Tangier Island Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge’s 15 minutes of fame went into overtime this week when he appeared on a CNN town hall to tell former Vice President Al Gore that it isn’t sea-level rise but erosion that is destroying his Chesapeake Bay island. Mr. Gore, the nation’s best-known climate change talking head, was left with the thankless task of explaining how the two things aren’t mutually exclusive without being unsympathetic to a lifelong waterman’s point of view.

What’s frustrating about the encounter is the absurdity of it. Sea level rise isn’t worthy of debate any more than sunrises or sunsets are. Nor should anyone question that erosion, particularly during severe storms, is a huge threat to coastal communities. Chesapeake Bay islands are dramatic examples of this, but they aren’t alone. Barrier islands like Ocean City and Assateague off the Atlantic coast have been hit hard, too — including the 1933 storm that carved out the Ocean City Inlet. Sea level rise is simply a much more subtle influence (about one-eighth inch per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), but it is likely to worsen considerably as oceans expand under global warming. In Maryland, the forecast is for a two-foot rise in the Chesapeake Bay by 2050.

Mr. Eskridge was drawn into the “debate” over climate change earlier this summer when President Donald Trump called him in June to tell him not to worry about sea-level rise. “Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more,” the president reportedly told him. Mr. Trump’s denial of climate change was in full flower at the time, as he had just announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, and the pro-Trump Mr. Eskridge proved a useful prop: If people living on an island sinking into the water don’t see any sea level rise, how can we believe the scientists?

Unfortunately, a career catching crabs doesn’t make one an expert on climate any more than a career eating them does. There are things that alert observers can perceive and some things they can’t. Climate change science is grounded in far more than a deep knowledge of one’s immediate surroundings and the life cycle of crustaceans.

But shamefully, those who are invested in those branches of politics and commerce that find climate change inconvenient, particularly those associated with the fossil fuel industry, have tried to portray the science as uncertain and the scientists themselves (not to mention Mr. Gore) as self-interested hacks. The good news is the public isn’t much fooled. Around the world, people see climate change (along with ISIS) as the chief threats to security, according to a poll of 38 countries released this month by the Pew Research Center.

Here’s the debate communities like Tangier should be having: What’s the best way to cope with the rising tides? Maryland’s Smith Island is facing a nearly identical question. Do taxpayers invest tens of millions of dollars to protect such outposts with sea walls, jetties and other fortifications or simply be prepared to eventually abandon them like icebergs shrinking in warm water? In Ocean City, a costly beach replenishment program is justified by hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate investments, from condos to resort hotels. Smith Island has 240 residents. Construction is beginning soon on a $9 million pair of jetties to prevent erosion at one end of the island. That’s $37,500 for every man, woman and child, and it’s not even a down payment on what the community needs. At some point, wouldn’t it simply be cheaper to buy each family a house on the mainland?

At the very least, Smith Island needs a Plan B. We can pretend that water levels aren’t rising and that the climate isn’t changing, but even the most obstinate Trump supporter recognizes that Smith and Tangier are shrinking. How much of this folly are taxpayers expected to subsidize?

That’s not to suggest we are not sympathetic to the local residents’ plight and the potential loss of their homes and traditions — it’s a terrible thought to contemplate — but they are not in their boat alone. The islands are only the start; coastal communities are next. Are we prepared to build seawalls along all of them? The cost would be astronomical.

Mr. Gore caught grief from islanders for alluding to their religious faith during the CNN town hall. He told the story of a man who turned away rescue during a flood because he expected God to save him only to hear the rescuers were acting on the Lord’s behalf. It might not have been subtle, but Mr. Gore’s essential point is well taken. We have been given the means to understand the threat that lies ahead. Ignoring sea-level rise would be a costly, and potentially deadly, mistake, whether on Tangier or Smith islands, in Ocean City or Annapolis — or, most especially, in Washington where rational climate policy is currently in short supply.

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