Isle de Jean Charles
John D. Sutter’s column ‘There’s no more land’ struck home for me about global warming and sea level rise.
It’s not that Sutter offers new data or analysis on sea level rise per se. There is plenty of that already. For example, Dahr Jamail’s excellent recent summary ‘Climate disruption in overdrive: Submerged cities and melting that “feeds on Itself”‘ is enough to ruin whatever you might imagine could be a good day. It starts with this
the planet is warming a stunning 50 times faster than when it comes out of an ice age. The implications of the rapidity of this warming, for those who care to digest it emotionally, are horrifying…. even if carbon reduction targets are achieved and the planet’s temperature is kept below the 2 degree Celsius warming threshold, sea-level rise will still inundate major coastal cities around the world, forcing one-fifth of the total world population of humans to migrate away from the coasts.
and goes downhill from there.
But Sutter shows what dreary statistics can mean for ordinary lives:
Isle de Jean Charles, the mostly French-speaking, Native American community where Billiot [Wenceslaus Billiot, an 88-year-old born on the island] lives, once was about the size of Manhattan. Now, it’s about a third of Central Park.
The coastal island has lost 98% of its land since 1955.
And what’s left is going fast.
“I don’t know how long we’re going to stay here,” Billiot told me.
“If a hurricane comes, we’re wide open.
“There’s no more land.”
The island is losing a football field chunk of land every 45 minutes. Also see Lauren Zanolli’s ‘Louisiana’s vanishing island: the climate ‘refugees’ resettling for $52m’.
I’ve never been to Isle de Jean Charles, but have traveled in that area just south of New Orleans. Susan and I once camped in a tent at Grand Isle State Park. We feasted on Gulf shrimp we bought directly off a trawler. It’s a rare and magical place to visit.
The website for the island/town says:
For the people of Isle de Jean Charles, the island is more than simply a place to live. It is the epicenter of our people and traditions. It is where our ancestors cultivated what has become a unique part of Louisiana culture. Today, the land that has sustained us for generations is vanishing before our eyes. Our tribal lands are plagued with a host of environmental problems — coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal, oil company and government canals, and a rising sea level — which are threatening our way of life on this gradually shrinking island.
The land’s beauty is enhanced by the feeling of its impermanence, whether because of hurricanes or natural changes in estuaries and dunes. If I were typesetting the island, I’d look for a wispy font with a small type size.
Bayous and estuaries south of New Orleans
But the fact of the impermanence has now been written in 96 point bold by the actions of humans rapidly destroying the land. Channeling the river, adding dams and levees, drilling for and transporting oil, developing resort communities, and other activities have all played their part, but stronger hurricanes and sea level rise are the final blows.
Our politicians seem happy to stay in blissful ignorance of all this (see ‘In their own words: 2016 presidential candidates on climate change’). Republican leaders are actually in denial and Democrats make tepid statements without programs for meaningful change. Naomi Klein writes that to make those changes, “ some powerful interests will have to lose”:
A president willing to inflict these losses on fossil-fuel companies and their allies needs to be more than just not actively corrupt. That president needs to be up for the fight of the century—and absolutely clear about which side must win. Looking at the Democratic primary, there can be no doubt about who is best suited to rise to this historic moment.
For Klein, Bernie Sanders is the one best suited for that rise. But could anyone who stands up to the fossil-fuel companies ever be elected President? More importantly, could they stand up to the fossil fuel users, meaning us?
To win “the fight of the century” many more people need to connect the larger processes of human-induced climate change to the particulars of places like Isle de Jean Charles, and further, to connect that to the choices we make about lifestyle and to what we value.