You may have missed The New York Times story Monday on the $48 million federal grant to resettle climate refugees from the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. It’s a story pointing to what is just the beginning of what is certain to be an accelerated trend worldwide: Millions moving away from the rising seas, oppressive heatwaves, and drought that human-caused global warming is inflicting on the planet.
What’s happening on Isle de Jean Charles is what climate scientists say is coming for Miami, New York City, Boston, Guangzhou, China, Osaka, Japan, and at least 130 other coastal cities around the world: A rising sea at their doorstep, and vast sums of money spent to protect them or move their inhabitants to higher ground. As for the people of Isle de Jean Charles:
“We’re going to lose all our heritage, all our culture,” lamented Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, the tribe to which most Isle de Jean Charles residents belong. “It’s all going to be history.”
Tribal ancestors fled to the island more than 175 years ago when the U.S. government removed tens of thousands of Indians at gunpoint, including several bands of Choctaw, from their east of the Mississippi homelands to what is now Oklahoma. Rather than accept faraway exile, some people of the several tribes being removed from across the South hid out or held on to patches of ground that nobody else wanted.
The swampy, low-lying Isle de Jean Charles was one of those. Even when the Indians arrived, it was only reachable by boat or, at low tide, on a wagon road. Fifty years ago, its 22,000 acres were ample enough for the fishing, trapping, livestock raising and subsistence farming by the few hundred inhabitants with their Cajun tinge. The island was 15 miles long and three miles wide and boasted three little towns and many fishing camps. Now, it’s a quarter-mile wide and a half-mile long as erosion worsens. Only 25 families remain, their homes on stilts because the waters of the Gulf of Mexico inundate the land a little bit more each year.
That’s not solely because of climate change. Fifty years of reckless oil and natural gas extraction, canal dredging, and pipeline building, combined with south Louisiana’s levee projects that cut off the island from the land-replenishing silt of the Mississippi River, left the islanders at the mercy of severe storms. Says Chief Naquin:
"Back when I was a child, we used to ride out the hurricane on the island and not worry about flooding. We didn't have to worry about the winds either, because there were a lot of trees ... And now it's basically an open field. So when a hurricane comes, it's like here we are, come and get us."
The grant that will assist the tribe to live elsewhere in a contextually relevant community that experts hope will help Naquin’s people retain some of that heritage and culture he fears will be lost is part of a $1 billion program of federal grants in 10 states. That billion dollars is pocket change compared with what it will take worldwide to deal with problems caused by climate change, including providing a new place for its refugees to live. The latest news is that such spending is going to have to come sooner rather than later because some of the impacts of climate change that scientists estimated might be a century away are going to be happening in the next few decades … or sooner.
That reality has still not hit home for many politicians. Besides the climate change denial of Donald Trump and a big hunk of the rest of the Republican Party, there is the delaying promoted by far too many Democrats. Every one of them in Congress or state legislatures, governorships, and mayorships should be doing as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island has been for several years now—speaking once a week on the Senate floor about the need for climate action. Most of his climate speeches, however, and those of others, like Sen. Barbara Boxer, are delivered to an empty chamber. The attitude seems to be that this kind of talk is alarmist. Well, it certainly is alarming. But not out of hyperbole.
What’s even more alarming is the infuriating complacence.
Why we get little more than boilerplate proposals about climate change from most Democratic candidates—incumbents and challengers alike—is hard to discern. Are they reality-based, or do they just pretend to be? Anyone who agrees that climate scientists are right in their assessments of what we face ought to act like it instead of treating the matter as an item somewhere on their list of priorities about which something needs to be done, sometime in the future when they get around to it.
Rising sea levels, devastating wildfires, scorching heat, disease-carrying mosquito migrations, extreme storms, crop-wrecking drought, and the prospect of hundreds of millions of human beings forced to move into areas where hundreds of millions already live isn’t enough to spark serious action?
The obvious need for stepped-up demands was addressed today by climate activist Bill McKibben. He wrote about #breakfree:
For years people have patiently and gently tried to nudge us onto a new path for dealing with our climate and energy troubles—we’ve had international conferences and countless symposia and lots and lots and lots of websites. And it’s sort of worked—the world met in Paris last December and announced it would like to hold temperature increases to 1.5C or less. Celebration ensued. But what also ensued was February, when the planet’s temperature first broke through that 1.5C barrier. And as people looked past the rhetoric, they saw that the promises made in Paris would add up to a world 3.5C warmer—an impossible world. The world we’re starting to see take shape around us.
So there’s a need to push harder. A need, as it were, to break free from some of the dogma that’s surrounded this issue for a very long time. Yes, we need to have “everyone work together.” Yes, we need a “multi-faceted, global effort.” But you know what we really need? We need to keep oil and gas and coal in the ground, keep it from being burned and adding its freight of carbon to the global total.
You can see more about how you can participate in #breakfree here.
As for Congress and state legislators and other elected leaders, it’s time they, too, break free by refusing campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. You know, the guys like Exxon and the Koch brothers, who have for decades funded propaganda to spread lies that they knew were lies about climate change, and funded the elections of marionettes they could count on to take their side.
Politicians who tell us that now isn’t yet the right time to take strong measures are no better in practice than those who throw snowballs in the Senate and call climate change a hoax.
Delay is denial.