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What does the conversation on climate change look like under President Trump?

Waking Up at Sea Level

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On Wednesday, about half of us in Charleston County woke up pleased with the election result. About half of us woke up shocked and saddened by the same result. But we all woke up at sea level. And we would do well to wonder what the change in government will mean for ourselves and our way of life here in the Lowcountry.

I woke up in my house, built on a street carved out of a coastal forest in the early 1970s. Walking out the front door to pick up the newspaper, I felt the strong sense of place that is a part of living here. We live close enough to the ocean that ospreys nest in the neighborhood, near enough to the harbor that our dinner conversation is interrupted by foghorns. My first thought, as I carried the newspaper inside and unrolled it, was of water. The candidates had strikingly different policy positions on climate change and, though there wasn’t a single question about it in any of the three televised debates, it will affect us all directly. Last time I checked, physics is nonpartisan. And when East Bay floods at high tide it turns all the cars around, Republican and Democrat alike.

Hillary Clinton had a fairly standard set of climate policies. They weren’t enough, but they were a start. She would have kept our climate treaty obligations, encouraged renewable energy development, and heeded the warnings of the international scientific community. Of course, her policies were no longer relevant. I knew that when I woke up. But what I was beginning to wake up to was what the president-elect had said. Donald Trump was on record saying climate change was everything but real. He called it a hoax, a Chinese conspiracy, and even an expletive. He never acknowledged that it’s a threat to many of our coastal cities, especially here in the low-lying Southeast. And he surrounded himself with advisers who told him only what he wanted to hear.

We now have a president-elect who has selected one of the country’s leading climate deniers to head his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. Myron Ebell is this man, who told Vanity Fair, and presumably the rest of us, that climate change is “nothing to worry about.” Maybe it isn’t anything to worry about if you live in Trump Tower, where I suppose you can always take the gold-plated elevator to the next level of denial, but where I live it is something to worry about. And where you live, too. Because all of us in Charleston County live roughly at sea level. We felt it acutely just a month ago, when Hurricane Matthew’s waves breached the battery and winds took out trees from here to Columbia. That hurricane, strengthened by warming seas, didn’t stop to ask for our party affiliation. It did, however, cause many of us to wake up to just how close to the water we really are and how related we are to what is happening there. Rising seas are slowly changing the way we live and move in the Lowcountry, where the Union of Concerned Scientists now predicts we will have 80 days of annual flooding by 2030 and 180 by 2045. That’s half the year, if you’re counting. And the problem isn’t only here. Earlier this year, the U.S. saw its first climate refugees as residents of Isle de Jean, Louisiana were relocated at a cost of 48 million dollars. Our president-elect either doesn’t know these things or doesn’t care. Which is where we come in.

If there is one thing that unites us in Charleston County, it may be the love of our natural home. My conservative friends love to hunt and fish. They care deeply about passing down these traditions, and the clean land and water upon which to enjoy them, to their children. My liberal friends love to hike and kayak. They commune with nature for spiritual refreshment and write about it for open-mic poetry nights. My friends who work on the water have an economic stake in its health. They pull crabs from traps and hawk beachside beers to the throngs of tourists who make their way here every year to walk shoeless in the sand. So we all have good reasons to protect and preserve this place and pass it on to the next generation.

I am gravely worried about the deep divisions in our country. But I am even more worried about what we are doing to the Earth. The choices we make today will long outlast the current crop of politicians. I wonder what it would take to wake us, Republicans and Democrats, to the truth that the ice caps will melt whether we like it or not, whether we’ve prepared or not. When they do, living at sea level won’t be so fun all of a sudden. And we won’t need a president so much as a paddle.

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