The end of American history . . . in slow-motion

jamestown.gifOK, I admit it’s a hyperbolic, sensationalistic title. What I am referring to is actually the impending end of the physical manifestation a perhaps small, but profound, part of American history, one that is central to the American consciousness, namely the hallowed site where a group of English adventurers first stumbled ashore in the New World and managed (barely) to fledge a small colony that eventually grew into the most powerful nation on earth.

That nation–with help from the rest of the industrialized world, but certainly leading the way–is now burying that history forever, or more accurately, flooding it: 

Jamestown is going under.

. . . along with much of the Chesapeake’s low-lying Tidewater region. The historic site, like much of the region, is only a few feet above (current) sea level.  And that includes not only cherished but largely dead places like Jamestown, but even more soberingly the largest naval base on planet earth, a dense concentration of other American military facilities, a massive civilian shipbuilding industry, and a whole lot of people.  A similar dilemma faces Manhattan and Miami, and of course, New Orleans.  Virginia Governor Tim Kaine recently testified before a Senate committee that the Hampton Roads area of Virginia is second only to New Orleans in terms of vulnerability to the sea level rise underway now.

It is now possible to get a reasonably detailed look at what’s in store with a cool new set of interactive maps produced by scientists at the University of Arizona (but be prepared — they load very slowly), which let you explore what your neck o’ the woods will look like under a sea level rise of one meter, two meters, or even more if you’re feeling particularly masochistic. 

uss_reagan.jpgTo those who still believe that global warming is some vast left-wing conspiracy (which, oddly, would include President Bush’s chief science advisor, Newt Gingrich, many military top brass, and the insurance industry)and there are still some out there, I invite you to consider the following.  What would we have done if we knew ten years in advance that the bombing of Pearl Harbor was coming?  Certainly, we would have prevented it.  What would we do if we knew ten years in advance, or twenty, that an even more destructive and permanent threat was advancing slowly on the nation’s largest naval base?  Well, we do know this in advance.  Will we throw up our hands?  Will we sit on the sidelines and watch to see what happens?  Will we dismiss the threat because we heard it from someone of a different political persuasion?  Or will we get our rear ends in gear, take this seriously, and start planning and re-engineering our coastal societies accordingly? I sure hope so.  This country will literally go under if we pretend that climate change will just go away or that changing some light bulbs (important as such actions are) will solve it.  We need bold, major action and leadership at all levels from local to international.

The drowning of Jamestown was reported first at the Natural Patriot back in April.  Since that op-ed is no longer online at the Daily Press, I reprint it below:

The warming winds of change

Emmett Duffy

10 April 2007

Four centuries ago, a weary group of English settlers landed their tiny ship on a swampy shore of the James River and founded the first permanent European colony in the new world.  Over the ensuing decades they established the first representative government in this hemisphere, beginning the great American experiment.  This year we mark that event’s 400th anniversary with celebrations, pageants, and parties.  We should all enjoy the occasion, and take lots of photos.  Our grandchildren won’t be able to because Jamestown may be underwater.

The jury is now in.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that climate change is no longer a distant threat.  It is happening now and humans are largely responsible.  In the coming decades we can expect not only rising sea levels but rising average temperatures, more frequent storms, changes in rainfall patterns and agricultural productivity, spread of diseases, and a host of other sobering changes.  In Tidewater, Virginia, a sea level rise of several meters is well within the possible range over the next several decades.  Imagine the consequences for coastal inhabitants, economies, and the world’s largest naval base at Norfolk.  Global climate change is the major issue of our time, with implications for national security, public health, long-term economic sustainability, and even our basic food supply. 

Sadly, despite unprecedented consensus among over 2000 of the world’s climate experts, there remains in America a deep division, largely along party lines, not only concerning what should be done about climate change but, remarkably, whether it is even real.

Message to America: wake up! There are legitimate issues for debate about how we as a nation, as a world, and as individuals can most effectively deal with the threat of climate change.  But it is simply immoral to pretend that there is no problem, and to pass off a depleted and ravaged world to our children.  This issue is far too important to allow partisan politics to continue clouding our vision. Whatever one might think of Al Gore, or others ringing the alarm, it is time to stop shooting the messenger and begin listening to the message.

Thankfully, people from across the political spectrum have begun listening, and acting.  Over 100 Christian leaders have signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative.  Industrial giants including Alcoa, BP America, Duke Energy, DuPont, and General Electric have formed the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), recognizing that sustaining their business requires reconciling it with this small planet’s limited resources. Mayors of both parties from 375 cities nationwide (including Mayor Jeanne Zeidler of Williamsburg) have signed the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement.  Even President Bush has now recognized in his State of the Union address that climate change is real and a real problem.

step-it-up_2007.jpgBut what can we as ordinary citizens do?  We can exercise the sacred right and duty of representative democracy: let your voice be heard in Washington.  This Saturday, April 14th, is your opportunity.  On that day, people all over America will hold events – over 1000 are now scheduled — in parks, churches, universities, state capitols, inside and out, with the goal of convincing Congress to “Step it Up” and enact legislation to cut carbon  emissions by 80 percent by 2050.  In our region, events will be held in Williamsburg and Virginia Beach (see http://www.stepitup2007.org). Let’s honor those intrepid Jamestown settlers by exercising the democracy they planted here four centuries ago.  With several energy and carbon-emissions bills currently being considered in Congress, the climate is favorable for action, so to speak. Let your voice be heard by our elected representatives this Saturday, 14 April.  Send the winds of change to Washington. 

[NOTE: Step it up is still very much alive and preparing for a second national day of climate action on 3 November 2007.  Get involved!]

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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