November 15, 2019

Talking about climate change in conservative places is hard. But we can’t afford not to

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Talking about climate change in conservative places is hard. But we can’t afford not to” was written by Megan Mayhew Bergman, for theguardian.com on Thursday 18th April 2019 09.00 UTC

Climate change, I was told when buying a coffee, is not a “polite” topic of conversation in Natchez, Mississippi.

The city sits on the legendarily volatile Mississippi River, which is straining against an aging system of levees. Considered the oldest permanent settlement on the Mississippi, Natchez is perched on a bluff over the river’s eastern banks. Three hundred miles upriver from New Orleans, Natchez was once a bastion of the old south: steamships moved enslaved people and cotton to market, enriching planters who lived in “Natchez-over-the-Hill”.

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The elevated places of modern Natchez fare well in floods, but business and homes in low-lying areas are most at risk, like the Anna’s Bottom and Bourke Road areas, and the riverfront known as Natchez-under-the-Hill. While the Mississippi river has never been static, it is pushing towards a more efficient course to the sea down the Atchafalaya River; only manmade levees keep it in place. The nearby Old River Control Structure is one catastrophic flood away from a failure that would destroy entire cities and create an estimated economic loss of $14m a day.

Which is why, to outsiders, the avoidance of climate change conversations seems strange, if not unconscionable. The 2011 flood, which affected Natchez, caused $2.8bn of damage and affected 1.2m acres of agricultural land. The failure to talk about, let alone acknowledge, the future of climate change here could have disastrous impacts for the town and surrounding areas.

I met Natchez realtor Jim Smith for coffee to ask him about what I perceived as the town’s tendency to look backward, instead of forward. Smith owns Natchez Architectural and Art Discoveries, an art gallery and event venue downtown.

“Help me understand Natchez,” I said.

A family watches the Mississippi River floodwaters come in.
A family watches the Mississippi River floodwaters come in. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

“It’s not all bad,” Smith cautioned me, sensing my exasperation. He explained that many people in Natchez are reticent with journalists, feeling that the media are hard on the area. Like much of the south, it’s a layered place with a diverse constituency and old wounds. There are artists, outdoors enthusiasts, academics and activists interspersed with those still clinging to old Dixie.

Smith and his wife had just come back from an event at the Zion Hill Baptist church, a predominantly African American place of worship where locals had gathered to pray for unity in the community, and talk about the planned monument to the Parchman Ordeal, which would commemorate the illegal arrest and abuse of hundreds of civil rights protesters at the state penitentiary. “The narratives here are changing,” he said. “People don’t want to see hoop skirts any more.”

When Smith and I spoke a second time on 26 March, our conversation turned to the Mississippi River, which a recent gauge had clocked at 57.6ft – 3ft short of the high. The “May rise” is still on the horizon, when northern snowmelt reaches Natchez.

“Could this be the year that the levee fails? It’s a constant fear for us,” Smith said. “We trust the corps of engineers and the government. But you can’t stop mother nature. We had a 500-year flood in 2011, maybe we’re on the cusp of another one. It’s part of living on a major waterway. It’s just like the coast – we choose to live here. Our livelihoods are here. It’s a risk, but it’s what we know.”

“Is it hard to talk about climate change in such a conservative place?” I asked.

“I’m no liberal,” Smith clarified. “But despite what you think, a lot of people here understand the science of climate change.

“It’s a baffling place sometimes,” he conceded. “These are some of the greatest people in the world. But if you’re worried about getting food on the table, you might not be focused on climate change.”

Unfortunately, it’s often the citizens who can’t afford flood insurance that will suffer the most. More than 25% of Natchez residents live below the poverty line.

Natchez, like other iconic antebellum towns such as Charleston and Savannah, has long been known for its focus on “heritage tourism”. Plantations such as Longwood, Lansdowne and Monmouth remain restored and open to the public. On the way into town, I drove past an operational restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard that was built in the shape of a “mammy” character. (The character’s face was repainted during Natchez’s turbulent civil rights era.)

The antebellum tourism complex, which developed as a way for southern towns to make money during Reconstruction and the Great Depression as agriculture struggled, often romanticizes the old south. There have been efforts in the last decade to share the experience of people of color, but some feel the town isn’t ready to embrace a contemporary dialogue.

“Natchez is trying to progress,” Bobby L Dennis, chairman of the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture, told me. “It’s a tough case to break. Most of our tradition is still swept under the rug. Now people want to hear what happened in the backyard of these plantations. But the struggle for power in the south has never ended.”

Stanton Hall is an antebellum classical revival mansion in Natchez built during 1851-1857 for Frederick Stanton, a cotton broker.
Stanton Hall is an antebellum classical revival mansion in Natchez built during 1851-1857 for Frederick Stanton, a cotton broker. Photograph: Danita Delimont/Getty Images/Gallo Images

This is true not just for Natchez but for much of Mississippi, a state with a reputation for being slow to progress on issues of both race and climate change.

“People just don’t want to talk to someone perceived to be on the other side, politically,” Dominika Parry, founder of 2C Mississippi, told the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She became their first group leader in the state; others had avoided the position because they feared social and professional retribution.

In 2019, there is a palpable tension between the past and future in cities like Natchez. Conservatives don’t want to talk about the future of climate change, even as the phenomenon bears down on shorelines, historic streetscapes and coastal plantations. Preservationists, who once focused on the historical accuracy of window materials, are now confronted with whether or not to remove statues, raise vulnerable buildings on stilts or relocate entire communities.

I spoke with the social scientist and professor Dr Erin Seekamp about the link between climate change and cultural heritage, which I see playing out in Natchez. Seekamp attributes the connection to the strong bond between person and place. She says our landscapes are loaded with meaning.

“Climate change increases not only the vulnerability of cultural resources,” Seekamp wrote in a recent study, “but also the cultural values that are deeply embedded in cultural resources and landscapes.” These changes are provocative and painful because they affect not just historic views, but identity.

I wanted to view Natchez from the river, because water access enabled the old south, and may be the force that ultimately undoes its historic structures. Natchez’s Forks of the Road was one of America’s largest slave markets, second only to New Orleans, and enslaved people were moved along the river in steamboats.

My river guide, Adam Elliot, and his assistant, Joe Harris, pushed a yellow canoe into the swollen Mississippi in early January, just outside of Natchez. I got in, steadying myself with a paddle.

The river was brown and wide, with sandy banks and high bluffs. It had been at flood stage for three days.

The Mississippi has a roguish reputation, known for large alligators, pollution, strong currents and industrial traffic. “People will tell you that you’re gonna die on this river,” Adam said as we shoved off, “but you won’t.”

We paddled toward Natchez for eight solitary miles, barges our only company. When I asked what evidence of climate change he saw on the river, Adam cautioned me against reading every flood and big weather event that way. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t really see it here.”

As we neared the end of our trip, I gazed at the bluff ahead, where a row of proud antebellum homes overlooked the river.

One can’t help but notice the significant energy Mississippi expends protecting the past, and compare it with what appears to be a lack of concern for the state’s future generations, which scientists predict will be burdened by rising seas, hot temperatures, flooded coastlines, lost real estate value, mosquito-borne illnesses and disruptions to local economies.

Mississippi’s current two-term governor, Phil Bryant, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, often legislates with a nod to the state’s past. When prompted, he refused to remove the Confederate battle flag motif from the state flag, and in February 2016, issued a proclamation declaring April “Confederate Heritage Month”.

In 2015, Bryant wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, saying he might not comply with emissions standards put forth in the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, calling the 30% reduction goal “burdensome”. His fiscal year 2020 executive budget recommendation allots for infrastructure improvements, but does not mention climate change once. (I contacted his office for comment and received no response.)

In Bryant’s proclamation about Confederate Heritage Month, he mentions the importance of reflection, and gaining “insight from our mistakes and successes”. If Mississippi does indeed reflect on the deep, systemic inequalities its plantation economy created, perhaps it will see those inequalities remain, and are exacerbated by climate change. It is time to make climate change part of a polite, if not urgent, conversation.

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