As I wrote in a blog last month, the faith-based stewardship covenant and work of Tangier Island watermen and their families, inspired the landowners I worked with in Bedford County, Pennsylvania to take their own stewardship covenant. Their example inspired the Evangelical Climate Initiative, an important evangelical call to action for national climate solutions. So I was especially saddened to read in The New York Times’ article, “Should the United States Save Tangier Island From Oblivion” by John Gertner, that the Tangier Islanders may soon become some of America’s first climate refugees in the continental United States.
Gertner highlights that Tangier Island which has lost two-thirds of its land mass since 1850, might only have 50 years left - possibly as little as 25. The island is facing sea level rise and damaging storm surges which erode the friable turf of the island.
Tangier Island isn’t alone. Cities and towns along the Eastern Seaboard, including Atlantic City, Boston, and Miami Beach are impacted by rising seas, stronger storm surges and other impacts of our warming world. The article gives a sense of the magnitude of the problem America faces:
There will be dozens of Miamis and thousands of Tangiers. “The Outer Banks, the Delmarva Peninsula, Long Island, the Jersey Shore — they’re in the same boat,” [David] Schulte [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] said. “It’s going to just take a little longer for them to get to where Tangier is now.” An excruciating question is how we will decide which coastal communities to rescue and which to relinquish to the sea. Also, there’s the money problem. A recent study, commissioned by the Risky Business Project, an initiative led by Henry Paulson, Michael Bloomberg and the hedge-fund billionaire and philanthropist Tom Steyer, concluded that as much as a half-trillion dollars’ worth of coastal property in the United States could be under water by the end of the century. And that figure doesn’t include the cost of further encroachments by flooding. As Skip Stiles, the head of Wetlands Watch, a Virginia nonprofit that focuses on coastal preservation and sea-level rise, puts it, “Is there even enough money in the world to buy out — to make whole — everybody’s investment that’s going to get soggy?
One solution for Tangier is a $30 million infrastructure project that would preserve the island. But this solution, which isn’t financially viable for the working class families of the island, highlights a host of economic, technical and moral questions that each community will face as it considers its own solutions and what America will soon face as a country:
Chris Moore, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation [said], “we’re not anywhere near the point where we need to write off an entire community.” Still, the science suggests that it may soon be time to consider which towns, islands and cities can (or cannot) be saved. This, in turn, prompts some hard thinking about which criteria — economic wealth, population density, natural appeal, historical value — should weigh most heavily in those decisions. “It’s just a sad fact that we can’t spend an infinite amount of money defending the coast,” Michael Oppenheimer, the Princeton professor, says. “And the concept of retreat, which is sort of un-American, has to be normalized. It has to become part of the culture. Because there are some places where we’re really going to have to retreat.
The international community has responded to climate needs in developing countries by establishing the Green Climate Fund, wherein $100 billion a year is being sought to help developing countries reduce their carbon pollution and help communities adapt to climate impacts. While not sufficient to address the full magnitude of the need, it is a good beginning.
By contrast, America does not yet have a comprehensive, coordinated and proactive national response to address our growing needs and ensure that vulnerable coastal and other cities and towns are resilient to climate changes and that attendant solutions reduce our global warming emissions.
Do we need an “American Green Climate Fund?” In the absence of a concerted national res
ponse, wealthy communities that are already impacted are self-funding projects. But many like Tangier will not be able to self-fund their projects and will lose out in the growing competition for scarce resources:
We know Tangier has to compete with other projects,” [Renee] Tyler [Tangier’s town manager] said. “But we feel — I don’t know, is ‘inconsequential’ the right word? We feel that we’re not a priority, that we’re too small to make a difference.” Tyler said she hadn’t given up, but she was worried. “We really have not thought of Plan B,” she told me. “Or it may be that Plan B scares me.
There are ethical dimensions to the decisions we will need to make, evidenced by Tangier and the many communities already being impacted. Since we already see impacts both in the U.S. and abroad, it makes sense that faith leaders are articulating the vision for just solutions, advocating for those already impacted, and doing the faithful work of being part of the solutions to reduce global warming pollution and help make our communities more resilient.
As one example, earlier this month, Blessed Tomorrow partner African Methodist Episcopal Church, with the leadership of many in the church including Blessed Tomorrow Leadership Circle members Bishop Vashti McKenzie (President, General Board, AME Social Action Commission) and Mrs. Jackie Dupont-Walker (Director, AME Social Action Commission), passed a resolution stating their commitment to advocate for strong climate policies that will reduce global warming pollution and to “help build stronger communities that protect us from the harmful impacts of damage to our climate that we are already experiencing so that we and our children can live our best lives.”
With the accelerating impacts of climate change, we will need more leadership like AME’s and those who are already leading in the faith sphere as well as our best leadership in all our spheres including science, technology, economics, policy and innovation, to start envisioning what a proactive, sustained national response will look like and the roles each of our institutions and we can play so “we and our children can live our best lives.”
Kara Ball is the Program Director of our Blessed Tomorrow initiative.
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