Why the fate of this tiny Louisiana island is the world’s most important news story of 2019 | Will Bunch
Rising tides are starting to swamp U.S. communities. Is that enough to make us care about climate?
It took the devastating floods from two hurricanes in the long, hot summer of 1985 to convince Wenceslaus “Boyo” Billiot Jr. that it was time to finally move with his wife and three children off of Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles — a painful decision for a man who grew up venturing around the island in the shallow canoes called pirogues to fish or catch crabs and who would grow up to become deputy chief of his people, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe.
From the drier land of nearby Houma, La., Billiot still worries about the winter days when the northern winds push the high tides over the only road to Isle de Jean Charles, cutting off his family members who’ve stayed behind — including his 94-year-old mom. The New York Times visited the island a couple of years ago and found kids who didn’t go to school on the frequent flood days, and a family that was cooking dinner on a hot plate because their oven had become waterlogged eight years earlier.
The tiny, isolated island’s problems are very much a consequence of humankind’s addiction to fossil fuels — first from the wetlands that were destroyed by the canals that Big Oil cut through the Gulf of Mexico marshlands, and increasingly because of sea levels that are rising worldwide as a result of climate change. With an alarming 98 percent of the island vanished since 1955, Isle de Jean Charles made news in 2016 when the federal government — yes, a very different federal government from the one we have now — gave the island a $48 million grant to relocate everyone who lived there to safer ground. But that goal has proved easier said than done.
“She doesn’t want to go — she’s not moving,” Billiot told me by phone this week, referring to his nonagenarian mother and her refusal to leave the only place she’s ever known. Earlier this month, tribal leaders rejected the state of Louisiana’s plan to move the 30 or so families still left on Isle de Jean Charles — sometimes referred to as “America’s first climate change refugees” — to a 515-acre tract of land some 40 miles to the north, citing a variety of objections.
Unfortunately, the huge problems — both logistical and emotional — around losing a settled American community to the rising tides of global warming will not be unique to this one shrinking island off Louisiana, On the Pacific Ocean, for example, the California town of Imperial Beach, hard against the U.S. Mexico border, is finding its biggest threat isn’t from undocumented immigrants but from the higher and higher “king tides” that swamp the small city’s streets and have led to a heated debate about a “managed retreat” from its oceanside homes.
And for your regular reminder that climate change is a global and not only a U.S. domestic problem, we take you to Australia, which is in the midst of its down-under summer and where it’s been so hot in recent days — 117 degrees in Sydney, for example — that confused, overheated bats are dropping dead by the hundreds, falling out of trees and littering roadways, their brains literally fried by global warming.
I tell these stories because I’m thinking maybe the images of a 94-year-old women clinging to her tribal home, or people struggling to survive amid their rusted, flooded-out appliances like characters in a “Mad Max” sequel, or the notion of dodging bat carcasses as they fall from the trees like a Kansas hail storm might convince America of what a “king tide” of major-but-ponderous scientific reports evidently has not convinced them — that climate change is our most important story right now.
And the other stories that drone constantly from your TV — whether it’s Rudy Giuliani contradicting what he said the day before that contradicts what he said the day before that contradicts what he said the day before, or the latest installment of the Covington Catholic soap opera — aren’t really a close second. Yet it’s a story that we — not just the media but our more woke political leaders and environmental activists — are still struggling with, to break through all the clutter.
Consider — briefly, because God knows I wouldn’t want to put anyone to sleep — three monumental reports that have come out just in the past 10 days or so.
— An important new study of the gigantic ice sheet that covers (or used to, anyway) Greenland found that — with the Arctic region warming up at twice the rate of the rest of the planet — melting has accelerated much faster than scientists had expected and may have crossed a “tipping point” that will lead to rapid sea-level rise in the next two decades.
— Just the week before that, a new report looking at the other side of our beleaguered globe revealed that that ice in Antarctica is ALSO melting much more rapidly than climatologists expected — six times the rate of the 1980s — which will also radically change the rate of our rising seas over the 21st Century.
— At the same time, and not unrelated to the two previous items, a study published this month in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences reported that 2018 was the hottest year for the world’s oceans since we started keeping track of that 60 years ago — beating out the previous record which I’m sure you’ll be utterly shocked to learn occurred in 2017.
There’s something happenin' here, and what it is ain’t exactly unclear: Climate change is beginning to accelerate as more and more of the greenhouse-gas pollution from our burning of fossil fuels is ringing the planet. Just like those egghead scientists had been trying to warn us for decades. But the fantastic news is that, this time, the dire reports were covered by CNN and MSNBC and even Fox News at the top of hour, squeezing President Trump’s tweets from the headlines, and forcing to policy makers in Washington to...
OK, who am I kidding here? Nothing happened. TV barely covered the news, and as for the federal government — where the keys to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been flung to a coal lobbyist — our national-level policy is guaranteed to go the wrong direction until at least noon on January 20, 2021. Indeed, rolling back anti-climate-change policies has arguably been the most “effective” measure to come from the Trump administration: U.S. carbon dioxide emissions surged by 3.4 percent in 2018, the fastest gain in eight years.
If you’re one of those crazy people who cares about the world we’re leaving for our eventual grandchildren, these are demoralizing times. The climate story isn’t just depressing, but it’s overwhelming and too often pegged to hard-to-read reports from little-known scientists, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t get the kind of boffo ratings you’ll see from tossing an unprepared reality-TV star into the Oval Office.
I’m not a New Year’s resolution guy, but I did make one on-the-job pledge for 2019: To tell the climate change story more often — at least once every calendar month, I hereby promise — and, more importantly, to look for ways to tell it better, so that readers stop feeling overwhelmed and start thinking that we, both individually and as a society, can do something about climate change.
Because we can.
Even with Washington hopelessly gridlocked, progress-minded states, counties, cities and even small towns are adopting local policies that will reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions. What’s more, there are changes we can all make in our everyday life — not just the big stuff like solar panels on the roof, although that would certainly help — that can contribute to the solution. Every time I write about climate change, I’ll include some small tip at the end. Call it a “lagniappe” — that’s Louisiana talk for "something a little extra — in honor of the hearty spirits of Isle de Jean Charles.
“It is real,” their tribal leader Billiot told me, as he reminisced about the town wharf he remembered as a little boy — then two or three feet above the tides, now totally submerged. He marveled at his neighbors in Houma who still buy into the anti-science propaganda. “If you live on the coast, you know.”
Let’s make 2019 the year that knowing turns into action.
This month’s action: Eat less meat. What does feasting on animal flesh have to do with the world’s climate? A lot more than you’d think. Depending on how you calculate it, animal agriculture is responsible for at least 14-18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and some experts think the real number could be a whopping 50 percent. So every less steak in 2019 is one more ounce of prevention.
And, yes, I included this one first because it’s one of the ones where I semi-practice what I preach. I gave up red meat except in the rare social situation (i.e., a host serves it, or I mysteriously find myself in downtown Memphis) after a health scare three years ago and I don’t miss it at all. Neither does the atmosphere.