In coastal Georgia the conversation on climate change has changed dramatically over the last decade as residents experience the effects of a warmer world. Coastal residents have seen record high temperatures, more intense rain and more frequent "sunny day" flooding.
Adaptation to climate change in the South is the highlight of a new book of stories, “Sudden Spring,” from author and naturalist Rick Van Noy, a professor of English at Radford University in Virginia. “Sudden Spring” was published by the University of Georgia Press in January, and borrows its title from the groundbreaking "Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson.
The Golden Isles, and Tybee Island and Cumberland Island specifically, are featured in “Sudden Spring” as case studies for adaptation given their proximity to the coast and the direct impact changing climate is having on the habitats.
Van Noy returns to Savannah for a reading on May 31 at the McGowan Library on the University of Georgia Skidaway Marine Science Campus. The event is sponsored by The Book Lady Bookstore, the University of Georgia Press and the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.
Focusing the conversation
Much of the visual stimuli used over the last decade to express how the climate is changing has been focused on melting glaciers and ice caps due to the dramatic impact of seeing those colossal events take place. But it is in the nuances of our changing environment where some of the most devastating events are unfolding. These became the focus for Van Noy's book.
“I really wanted to try and bring it down to scale and not make it so abstract or distant,” Van Noy said. “I live in the South. I wanted to focus on particular places in this region that are seeing it and what they’re going to have to do about it and perhaps in some cases what they’re not doing about it.
“The South is already hot,” he said. “It’s already low-lying. There’s also this semi-hesitant political culture that we kind of have to get over. Although, I found for the most part, especially in Georgia that no one really denies that they’re seeing changes in terms of more intense hurricane seasons, more rainfall, more changes to the coast. People are seeing changes. Whether or not they want to call it climate change — sometimes that’s where it gets thorny. Of course, it is climate change that is affecting these places.”
Most recently, Coastal Georgia Congressman Buddy Carter reversed his stance on climate change, saying that it is real, and human activity is contributing to it and it’s a crisis, according to reporting by the Savannah Morning News. He was among six Republicans who joined the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis formed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“Regardless of whether it’s mostly or not, it has to be addressed,” Carter told the Morning News in a telephone interview in March. “We know that we’ve got to address climate change so it’s just one of those things that has to be addressed regardless of whether it is the primary reason for it or not. Everything is on the table and everything has got to be addressed.”
Through his book, Van Noy shepherds the conversation on climate change away from data-based language to a more poetic examination of impact and adaptation viewed through a human lens.
“We have climate change models, we have numbers that tell us how many parts per million we’re at,” Van Noy said. “What does that actually mean? What does two degrees actually mean? For me, as a writer, stories, language can affect us in ways that those numbers can’t. And how we imagine a thing and what we call it can affect our behavior towards it. If it’s a bug-infested swamp, who cares about it. Right? But, if it’s a marsh, or an estuary, or a thriving habitat for oysters, then that affects our behavior.
“Coastal Georgia, you’ve got this great coastal economy and a lot of unspoiled coastline,” he continued. “In Coastal Georgia, I sensed there was more pride in the coast and the many islands more than some of the other places I went to, because maybe they were more developed or spoiled. I went to Tybee and ended up in Cumberland.”
Tybee drew special interest for Van Noy, due to the major infrastructure issues facing the island in the wake of a changing climate. With rising sea levels coupled with the already dramatic tidal shifts of the island, the future of the lone road to the island lays in the balance.
In chapter five of “Sudden Spring,” Van Noy recalls his trip to Savannah and his conversations with local scientist and lawmakers who are studying and working on climate change in the area, including former Tybee council member Paul Wolff, Tybee Mayor Jason Buelterman and ocean geologist Clark Alexander at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.
The tides in Coastal Georgia are the highest south of Cape Cod and north of Argentina, according to Van Noy. He says in his book “by 2050, Highway 80 could flood 40 to 50 times a year.” Raising Highway 80 could cost $110 million and endanger local wetlands and animal habitats, the book says, showing how complex the issue is.
“People don’t necessarily debate that changes are happening, but they may become denialists when it comes to solutions, because they don’t want too much government intrusion,” Van Noy said. “Some of it is misinformation. Like the Green New Deal, you have to give up your hamburgers, etc.”
In the book, he also cites Tybee’s failed plan to ban plastic bags, citing the Koch Brothers involvement with killing the legislation by using false information.
Van Noy said most of the backlash he’s heard revolves around economic impact of certain industries, but he sees a way forward that is economically positive.
“If we can plan and do things, we’re going to stave off a lot of physical disaster,” Van Noy said. “The economic argument is backwards. People say we can’t do something about climate change, we’ve got other problems, or it costs too much. But really, it’s going to cost too much to do nothing.
“That’s the thing about Tybee, it seems it’s an important part of the coastal economy, then it’s got that road, Highway 80, and they can’t get the right solution there because we’re not having a national conversation about these priorities and that road should be one of them. They’re (Southern cities) starting to recognize what they have to do, but they can’t do it alone. Hopefully, there’s some momentum probably because it’s at the door. When I started this four or five years ago, maybe people were resistant, reluctant of conversations. Even Rep. Carter is willing to have a conversation.”
What we can do
Van Noy found a few avenues by which we can collectively address the issue of climate change on a local, regional and national level.
“There’s infrastructure adaptations, like elevating the roads, or improving communications,” Van Noy said. “There’s adaptation, there’s mitigation and then there’s suffering. The more we do of adaptation and mitigation the less we do of suffering. The mitigation side is more of transforming energy. There’s also cultural adaptations. There’s changing our behaviors. That’s what’s hard for people.”