By Anne Snabes and Maura Turcotte
BEAUFORT, S.C. — The sea along South Carolina’s coast line is growing ravenous.
In this sleepy coastal town at the bottom of the state, Tropical Storm Irma sent waves over the sea wall into a downtown park in 2017. Downtown businesses flooded with waist-high water. Nearly a year after the storm, the federal government reported spending nearly $64 million on South Carolina’s recovery efforts.
The damage from climate change is very likely to grow, scientists predict. The impact threatens areas of the state’s Lowcountry barely skimming above sea level — including Beaufort, South Carolina’s second-oldest city, home to longtime residents and retirees from the North.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that, if sea level rise is modest, the ocean will rise about 1.4 feet in an area south of Beaufort by the year 2100. In an extreme scenario, the ocean would rise by 10.5 feet, swamping much of eastern South Carolina.
Residents recognize the rising sea and worsening storms. And yet there is no consensus among Beaufort residents — or in South Carolina more broadly — about whether action should be taken or even whether climate change should be a major issue in the Democratic primaries.
Among Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, a November 2019 poll by Quinnipiac University found just 13% think climate change is the most important issue in choosing a Democratic presidential nominee. Among Democratic voters who identified themselves as moderate or conservative, only 10% felt the issue of climate change is the most important — tied with education, and behind health care, the economy and gun policy.
Nan Brown Sutton is one independent voter who believes environmental policy is important.
“The water is coming up over the sea wall more often,” said Sutton, 62, a city council member who lives along the Beaufort River.
“We’ll probably be underwater in a hundred years,” she added.
Amid the sweeping branches of oaks and cascading drapes of Spanish moss, historic antebellum homes stand clustered along the water’s edge in Beaufort in the neighborhood referred to as The Point.
Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and then Irma in 2017 ravaged the neighborhood. During both storms, the waters rose to nearly 9 feet in Beaufort County, according to unofficial measurements.
During Irma, the waters were so high on the streets of The Point that Sutton said her husband, a contractor, navigated the waters by boat.
Joan Patterson, a resident of The Point, said her basement flooded with about 6 inches of water during Matthew. The damage was not severe, but she’s concerned about how climate change will affect her neighborhood.
“There’s the water right there, and that way,” she said, pointing towards the water’s edge. “We’re at elevation six, I think that’s what our street is here. We don’t have a lot of wiggle room.”
Already, NOAA calculated that the sea has risen 3.33 millimeters per year on average in the area since 1935 — which would mean a 1-foot increase by 2035.
Environmental issues have not played a role in how Patterson has voted, but that’s changing, she said, because Beaufort’s environment is “pretty fragile.”
“A lot of these homes have been here a very long time — I mean since before the Civil War, like this one here,” she said, pointing to a grand home with white pillars as she walked her two dogs. “It’s just something to worry about.”
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who leans Democratic, said his city’s residents care about the environment. While he described the area as very Republican, he said his constituents support his plans to address sea level rise and his opposition to offshore oil testing, an invasive process of finding oil that harms marine mammals.
“They care about the quality of life here, which is how Joe Cunningham won,” he said, referring to the moderate Democratic congressman whose pro-environment positions helped him beat a Republican in 2018.
However, Rikki Parker, the nonprofit Coastal Conservation League’s south coast office director and legal analyst, sees denial among South Carolina residents about the cause of climate change. Some think it’s a “cyclical” or natural process, she said, which has been disproved by scientists.
A March 2019 poll by Winthrop University found that only 29% of South Carolinians blame humans for climate change, while 39% believe climate change is a result of both human activity and nature, and 22% believe that it is simply a natural process.
State politicians who support tackling climate change don’t necessarily follow traditional political lines. Parker, for instance, cited state Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican, as one of her favorite officials to work with on environmental legislation. The official, representing Beaufort County, has pushed for offshore drilling bans and solar power expansion.
On the national stage, though, Parker is firm in criticizing the actions of President Donald Trump’s administration, which has repealed offshore drilling safety regulations and diluted the Clean Water Act by eliminating federal protections for many streams and wetlands.
“We do not agree with any of the regulatory rollbacks that the Trump administration has implemented, and certainly they’re moving us in the wrong direction from a climate change standpoint,” she said.
Across the country, only 2 in 10 Republicans see climate change as a top priority, an August 2019 Pew Research Center survey reported.
On the other hand, Parker said all of the Democratic presidential candidates are “pretty focused” on climate change. She said they “have at least some plan to move us in the right direction” to fight the changing environment.
“That has to be a talking point for whoever eventually is the nominee,” she said, “because it is really a crisis and something that we are, you know — it’s the great issue for whoever ends up as president to tackle.”
Keyserling agreed any of the Democratic candidates would be “right” on environmental issues.
“I don’t, even in the biggest storms we ever had, remember the kind of flooding we have today,” he said.
Sea islands hug much of the southeastern coast of the United States, including South Carolina. Hunting Island, 14 miles from Beaufort, loses 15 feet of sand each year due to erosion, according to park manager J.W. Weatherford. The park pumps new sand onto its beach every 10 years, costing it $8 million each time.
Slightly farther inland, on St. Helena Island, fishing docks and the first school in the South for formerly enslaved people stand among the area’s forested wetlands.
Craig Reeves, who runs the fishing business Sea Eagle Market on the island and votes Republican, said Hurricane Matthew in 2016 brought 2 feet of water over the sea wall onto his property. The water surged past the business docking area and flooded the parking lot, forcing him to replace the electrical lines in one of his buildings.
But he does not attribute coastal flooding to climate change.
Reeves said he believes there are “ebbs and flows” in the earth’s climate, or periods of warming and cooling. He is concerned about chemicals sprayed on the coast, though. They kill insects, he said, but also kill shrimp or crab larvae in the river. He also thinks coastal marsh areas are being overdeveloped.
“I think God created this earth that can pretty much tolerate anything man threw at it, but he put systems in place to clean up behind us and the salt marshes is a way to filter out impurities,” Reeves said. While he remains skeptical of climate change, he said overdevelopment hinders those natural systems.
The idea that climate change is natural, however, is false. Scientists say the planet’s fast rate of warming can’t be attributed to natural processes, and human activity has increased the Earth’s temperature by about 1°C since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
On St. Helena Island, environmental degradation threatens the Gullah Geechee community. The Gullah Geechee people, descendants of West Africans enslaved on the isolated island and coastal plantations, developed a unique culture and language that is still present today along the U.S. coast between North Carolina and Florida. For a community settled so close to the water’s edge, climate change has become a pressing issue.
Marquetta Goodwine, who goes by Queen Quet as the head of the Gullah Geechee Nation, said the communities along the coast started noticing changes to their environment more than two decades ago — more trees falling, more beaches eroding, increasingly intense storms.
Sometimes people joke, she said, that they need boats to navigate the island’s causeway because of the higher tides.
Goodwine, who has already talked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), appreciates that Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have noted that environmental changes will hit communities of color particularly hard and potentially cause lung and heart problems.
But she has yet to find a candidate to endorse.
“Right now, I don’t see any one of them that stands out for me in regard to actually working with the Gullah Geechee community,” Goodwine said. “I wish I could say something else. There are a lot of great people running, you know — on the Democratic ticket, that is.”
She believes that candidates must promote environmental justice to remedy African American disenfranchisement, instead of superficially interacting with communities of color.
For the Gullah Geechee community, the rising tides caused by climate change won’t just alter the environment. The effects will rip at the community’s very culture, according to Goodwine. Praise houses sit along the water, as well as gravesites. Residents till the marshy land for okra, grains and other vegetables, and pull oysters and fish from the sea.
“Gullah Geechee land is who we are,” she said. “I always say to people, the land is our family and the waterways, our bloodline.”