SC - The perfect storm: the US city where rising sea levels and racism collide
Cross-currents of denialism, boosterism, broken governance systems and deep-seated racism will meet with rapidly accelerating sea level rise
Predictions about how much water is coming vary greatly. Some scientists say we should be planning on three feet of rise by 2050, six feet by 2070 and 10 feet by 2100. Someday, not too long from now, the stories of many current coastal and riverside cities across the US will include sudden plot twists as well as new beginnings, as edges that had seemed solid liquify and become indistinguishable from the seas around them.
That brings us to Charleston, South Carolina. Its geography is that of a small New York City. The city also has a history of racial immorality, often ignored by its contemporary boosters.
About 40% of all the enslaved people who were forcibly brought to the US first stepped ashore there. Enslaved people were the basis of Charleston’s economy and development for 200 years, planting and harvesting the rice and extracting the indigo that the region exported, filling the marshy margins of the peninsula with trash, rubble and human waste.
Today, its historic peninsula is a magnet for 7 million – mostly white – tourists a year. For its visitors, the peninsula’s bars, restaurants and luxury hotels are sites for carefree indulgence and relaxation. But these visitors are spending and drinking and shopping in a place with a baleful past that, by most objective measures, is living on borrowed time.
After spending four years visiting Charleston and interviewing more than a hundred people there, I have come to see the city as a place where the cross-currents of denialism, boosterism, a host of broken governance systems and deep-seated racism are about to meet with rapidly accelerating sea level rise. We barely have time to avoid widespread human misery in coastal cities, and my hope is that Charleston’s story will spur immediate action.
We know that storms and floods in the US and around the world disproportionately harm Black and low-income communities whose residents are involuntarily permanently displaced, rendered homeless or ground more deeply into poverty. Of the people who lived in the neighborhood in Houston that sustained the worst damage during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, nearly half were people of color.
Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans in 2005, hurt Black neighborhoods the most. Hurricane Ida in 2021 devastated low-income communities south of New Orleans. Affordable housing in the US, largely occupied by low-income Black people, is at very high risk of being damaged or destroyed by coastal flooding over the next few decades.
These same patterns will play out in Charleston. The city is in the lowcountry region in South Carolina, and it is very, very low: more than a third of the houses in the city are at 10 feet above sea level or less. The first settlers saw mostly marsh when they arrived in 1640, stepping gingerly over scores of muddy creeks. Much of the city was built on fill – trash, oyster shells, wooden pilings, human waste, loose dirt – over centuries, and now nature wants its land back. Charleston’s residents have already become accustomed to frequent high-tide flooding on days when the sun is shining.
The message that climate change is happening, and happening quickly, is acknowledged by national governments around the world. But the translation of that message into action at the local level is not yet, really, happening.