On a mid-morning in May, the telephone rang in the modest home of the mayor of Tangier, a village of 470 people on tiny Tangier Island, 12 miles off the coast of Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay. It was the president of the United States calling. If you lived there, you would not know which to think more odd; that the president was calling James “Ooker” Eskridge, or that Ooker was in his house to take the call, on a fair-weather weekday, and not on the water crabbing (he had been warned the call was coming).
If you live anywhere else on the planet Earth, you will be hard put to decide which part of the ensuing conversation was the most strange.
The President had seen something on television, which is what stimulates his cumbersome thought processes. The piece on CNN documented the fact that Tangier Island was slowly but inevitably disappearing as the waters of the Bay responded to global climate change. In the mid-1800s, Tangier Island sprawled over 2,000 acres, and was home to watermelon farmers, dairymen and a variety of entrepreneurs other than watermen. By 1997, only 768 acres of land were left, 83 of them habitable. Today, the island is even smaller.
The island is losing ground because it is
- sinking, in response to the retreat of the glaciers that until 10,000 years ago or so bore down on the crust of New England and bulged up the crust farther south;
- being subjected to fiercer and more frequent storms;
- beings immersed by water that is expanding because it is getting warmer every year, and that is being augments by melting glaciers and ice caps around the world. Geologists calculate that until around 1900, sea levels in the Chesapeake Bay rose at an average of three feet per thousand years, and have risen three feet in the one hundred years since. Tangier is now losing nine acres of land a year to erosion and rising tides.
All but the sinking are directly attributable to climate change, a consequence of human pollution. All of this has been known, confirmed and re-checked for many years now, so it is perhaps not surprising that a President who has not shown himself to be especially up-to-date on the problems of the real world would be moved, on learning of the island’s predicament, to reach out. To say what, one wonders. To offer sympathy? Or support? Federal aid for the inevitable migration of the inhabitants of the island to somewhere else?
None of the above. The president called the mayor to say, and I’m quoting here, “Don’t worry about it.” The island has been there for a long time, the President astutely observed, and he expressed his confidence that the island would still be there a long time from now. The mayor should not worry, but be happy.
So the water’s rising a hundred times faster than in previous millennia — don’t worry about it. So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Tangier Island will be habitable for at most another 50 years, possibly as few as 20. Why would anyone worry?
But what is truly astonishing about this conversation — the part that is breath-stopping, jaw-dropping, vertigo-inducing, stupefying — is not the consummate ignorance of the President, with which we are all now familiar, but of the Mayor, who agrees with Trump that there is nothing to worry about because there is no such thing as climate change, and the consequent rising of the seas. “I’m out there on the water every day,” says Ooker, “and I don’t see it.”
Perhaps he marks the waterline on the outside of his boat every day, and seeing no change from day to day, has concluded that the water cannot be rising.
By coincidence, in the same week Scientific American published a story about the struggle to save Deal Island, also in the Chesapeake Bay, from an identical onslaught by rising tides, a struggle complicated by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Deal Island, just like those who live on Tangier Island — don’t believe in climate change.
It’s as if the captain of the Titanic had assembled the passengers, formed them up on the tilting deck, up to their asses in water on the silent, motionless, burbling ship and said, “Don’t you worry about a thing. This ship brought us here all the way from England and there’s no reason to think she won’t take us the rest of the way.”
Depressing enough. But what makes one truly suicidal is the way the passengers are cheering, and agreeing, and saying to each other, “That’s our kind of captain.”