Just Above Water: The Unsustainable Republican Denial of Climate Change

An island in the Chesapeake Bay is sinking. It’s projected to be underwater within the next 30 years, and its inhabitants are going to be some of the first American climate change refugees. But they’re denying the existence of climate change as their home disappears from beneath their feet.

That island is Tangier Island, laying in the middle of the Virginian portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Tangier’s population used to number in the thousands, bolstered by a once-booming tourism sector and famous crab harvest. In fact, if you’ve ever eaten a soft-shelled crab, it was probably from Tangier. But its popularity and status as a vacation destination has declined since the early 20th century; it’s now home to only about 500 residents.

This is because the island is a third of the size it was in 1900. Scientists say that it’s lost a whopping eight acres of land per year to rising sea levels in the past century. For reference, that’s more than six American football fields per year. The island is quite literally disappearing as a direct result of climate change; with melting glaciers and rising seas compounding the effects of increasingly frequent devastating hurricanes, islands like Tangier are beginning to give way.

Residents of Tangier are going to be some of the earliest climate refugees in the United States. Yet they are far from being on the frontlines in the battle to address climate change. Rather, residents of Tangier have actually denied the existence of climate change time and time again, even as reporters and researchers from all over the country have come to the island to document the impact of climate change on the ever-shrinking island.

"Many Republicans sit in the Capitol denying climate change as an island full of their supporters sinks into the ocean, less than 100 miles away."

The island’s inhabitants—known locally as Tangiermen—have chalked up the sinking of their home to erosion. They claim that climate change has nothing to do with it, and that this is simply the natural way of the island. Scientists agree that erosion is damaging the island, but point out that the root cause of this erosion is in fact climate change. So why would these residents, who are experiencing this disaster firsthand, continuously and fervently deny its existence?

The answer may lie in their politics. Tangier’s residents are Donald Trump’s stereotypical electorate; the overwhelming majority of them are middle-class, religious, white, and don’t have a college degree. The island voted strongly in favour of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, giving him 90 percent of their vote. The island is a virtual shrine to President Trump, with MAGA signs, often ironically swept into the Bay by rising tides, on almost every lawn.

President Trump has been one of the most outspoken deniers of climate change in recent years, and the residents of Tangier Island have followed his lead. His withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and incendiary rhetoric mocking the crisis of climate change has made him the chief climate-denier in the Republican Party, and his near-celebrity status on Tangier means these views have resonated with its inhabitants.

However, while Tangiermen deny the cause of their island’s impending doom, they don’t deny that it is indeed sinking. While many Republicans have called for a wall at the southern border, Tangiermen are asking for a different wallthis one surrounding their island. Instead of keeping out undocumented immigrants, they want to keep out the rising tides that are sweeping away their island. While Trump has actually acknowledged the island’s eroding landscape—and, unsurprisingly, denied the role of climate change—he has told the island’s mayor “not to worry.” Yet no action has been taken to combat these rising tides on a national or local level.

Regardless, it may already be too late to act. The island is expected to be underwater within the next 30 years, and the Tangiermen will officially be among the class of America’s first climate change refugees, an unsettling reality that the entire country must face. However, this brings up an especially troubling situation for the Republican party: if its most visual leaders and representatives continue to deny climate change, it will risk losing a large portion of its electorate that is increasingly affected by the crisis.

Tangier Island is only the first example of a worrisome pattern to come. Islands and coasts will continue to disappear, and ‘climate change refugees’ will become a household term, encompassing a larger and larger portion of American citizens. Most importantly, climate change does not discriminate along partisan lines; Republicans and Democrats feel its effects just the same, and will lose their homes just the same.

The issue for the Republican party lies in its views on climate change—views that deny the struggle of an increasing amount of its constituents. The party’s vocal standpoint is plainly unsustainable; as more and more Tangier Islands sink across the country due to the impending crisis of climate change, Republicans will begin to ask their party to save their homes, as the Tangiermen have begun to do. As the effects of the crisis become more and more widespread, Republican displacement will necessitate a party-wide reckoning.

Not only is the party at risk of isolating its constituents, but this denial is also raising concerns as to the general issue of climate change. The plight of the Tangiermen shows us that even those who should reject climate change denial the most continue to embrace it as their political leaders lead them astray. President Trump represents this misleading rhetoric at its most influential, and his statements and lack of action on climate change pose a threat to both the Republican party and sufferers of climate change around the globe. To solve the crisis, people on both sides of the aisle are going to have to be on board.

Some moderate Republicans have actually realized this reality, taking concrete steps to confront the scientifically-proven crisis that is affecting more and more of their supporters. Some big names in the party are beginning to address the issue, such as Senators Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham, who have both expressed worry that the party isn’t paying enough attention to climate change, and that it must develop a cohesive action plan and united view to take on the problem.

However, much of the party’s leadership is still vocally in denial of climate change and its detrimental effects. This outspoken viewpoint cannot be maintained as the crisis escalates in proximity and severity. Many Republicans sit in the Capitol denying climate change as an island full of their supporters is swallowed by the ocean less than 100 miles away.

Walls are not going to solve this problem. Vacillating on the issue isn’t going to save people’s homes. Concrete steps and policies, on both sides of the aisle, are essential to protecting all Americans at the risk of losing their livelihoods, their families, and their homes. Any party that ignores this fact is at the risk of sinking, just like Tangier Island.

Photo: “Tangier Island

About the Author

Matthew Bailey '21 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Matthew can be reached at matthew_bailey@brown.edu

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