Why so many old-timers don’t see climate change as a problem

The climate is changing all across the country and around the world, but in traditional communities, people often refuse to accept the evidence of its workings, even if demonstrated by scientists. Along this line a story in The New Yorker — called Tangier, the sinking island in the Chesapeake — profiles Mayor James Eskridge, a long-time crabber and resident of the doomed island.

The headline for the podcast discussion of the island put it best I think:

The island in the Chesapeake Bay is washing out to sea, and its residents may be among the first American refugees of climate change. But that’s not how they see the loss of their land.

The story focuses on the Mayor of the small island, who is named James Eskridge.

Eskridge, who is sixty, has been the mayor of Tangier for the past decade. Like most people on the island, he is an evangelical Christian; on his right forearm is a tattoo of a Jesus fish, on his left a Star of David. He has pale blue eyes, a Tom Selleck mustache, and deeply tanned, permanently windburned skin. No matter where you met him or what he was wearing, you would know that he had spent his life on the water. Like his grandfather, his father, and his eldest son, Eskridge has been a professional crabber since he graduated from high school. Nearly forty other men, in a community of four hundred and sixty, do the same. He likes to brag, and it’s not much of an exaggeration, that Tangier—located in the widest part of the Chesapeake, six miles south of the Virginia-Maryland border—“is the soft-shell capital of the world.” It’s the only place he has ever lived.

These days, it appears that he may outlive it. Tangier has lost two-thirds of its land since 1850. This is, in part, because of a ten-thousand-year-old phenomenon known as glacial rebound, which has caused the island to sink a millimetre or two each year. But the more urgent problem is a combination of storm-driven erosion and sea-level rise, which are both increasing as climate change advances; scientists who study the region estimate that sea-level rise is tripling or even quadrupling the rate of land loss. Without climate change, the island would have remained above water for perhaps another century; now the cutoff date is only a few decades away, if not sooner. David Schulte, a marine biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the co-author of a study in Nature’s Scientific Reports on Tangier’s fate, told me, “They are literally one storm away from being wiped out.”

But Eskridge blames erosion, not climate change, for the island’s woes. When President Trump heard of his stance, he gave Eskridge a call and encouraged him, but nothing has come of the call but a few minutes of national coverage.

James Eskridge blames conservation groups and environmental-impact studies for hindering the infrastructure projects that he says his island needs in order to endure. (Photograph by Steve Helber / AP)

A similar story of locals refusing to accept the evidence of climate change is playing out in Montana. An excellent reporter I’ve been fortunate to meet named Meera Subramanian, reporting for Inside Climate News and High Country News, focuses on a well-known Montana angler with decades-long experience. He can see that the stream water around his lodge is warming, and see its impact on the fish, but he can’t convince his fellow fisherman that what they are experiencing is an impact of climate change.

On an early May day, on the upper reaches of the Big Hole River in southwest Montana, fly fisherman Craig Fellin is in that quiet contemplative state of the experimental scientist as he steps out of his Suburban. Already he is studying the swirl of deep eddies on Grayling Pool, searching for the movement of insects.  Before he casts his luck into the river, he shows me how he decides which fly to attach to his rod. First step, he says, is to put “your nose on the water.”

Craig Fellin, owner of the Big Hole Lodge, describes himself as a conservative, a conservationist and a “frustrated Republican” who worries about climate change. Meera Subramanian /Inside Climate News

Craig, 71, has a neat swoop of mustache and a calm, deliberate air. He founded the Big Hole Lodge nearly 35 years ago, putting to use a degree in philosophy and a lifetime of fishing, begun during his childhood on family trips to Canada to fish for walleye and pike. He is a Vietnam veteran, and a lifelong Republican. He is also convinced that climate change is affecting the pastime and livelihood he loves, from the trout in his backyard to the steelhead he seeks in the Pacific Ocean. What he can’t figure out is where the outspoken conservationists among his fellow conservatives have gone.

Fellin is an exception to the rule in his neck of the woods: most of his fellow fly fishermen don’t accept the scientific consensus around climate change. He seems all but alone in his stance. Why do those closest to the land and the water so often resist the idea of climate change? Is it purely tribal politics? (That seems to be the implication of The New Yorker piece, although Virginia Senator Tim Kaine has a different idea).

Kaine argues, speaking from experience of Eskridge and his fellow islanders, that:

“Acknowledging climate change is so sort of staggering, in terms of what it might mean to the place they love, that they resist the explanation.”

I think that’s right. An English writer named Timothy Morton has brought forward the term hyperobject to explain in a new word this concept, the news too big to mention, the impossible-to-encompass concept. Something like climate change is too overwhelming to contemplate or fix, realistically, so those most connected to the land are most resistant to seeing it.

I see the heroism in Feller, the courage to see what others can’t. I only wish he had company in Montana, and not just out here in California, where most voters support serious efforts to reduce emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change to come.


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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