Last fall, as I landed in New Orleans, a seed of existential anxiety lodged itself deep in my gut. It was my fifth flight in just over a week. I was in the middle of a tour to promote a book on how coastal communities around the US were already responding to the climate crisis in surprising, often radical ways. Outside, the bayou shimmered below, the city itself barely distinguishable from the water that surrounds it. I could see the landscape that my air travel would play a role in diminishing – the additional CO2 in the atmosphere melting Arctic sea ice and Antarctic glaciers, causing sea levels to rise. What am I doing here? I wondered.
I posted an anxious tweet, asking if anyone had any bright ideas about what to do when your work – expanding the public conversation around the climate crisis – requires that you consume fossil fuels at a rate at odds with your values. I received a host of responses – fly less for vacations, purchase carbon offsets, use Skype instead. All of the options, save for one, focused on things I could do at an individual level, many of which I already did. It seemed to me the suggestions sought to assuage my personal feelings of shame and so fell short of whatever intelligence I was hoping the gaping maw of the internet might offer up.
Since 2010, I have been researching and writing about sea-level rise. During that time the predictions for just how high the water might reach by 2100 have, in many places, more than doubled. Meanwhile, from 2010 to 2017 nearly 500,000 Americans filed flood insurance claims, and hundreds of thousands more experienced flooding first-hand. When you compare the claims filed during, say, the eight years of Reagan’s presidency to those mentioned above the numbers more than double. Which is to say for many living in low-lying areas the climate crisis is already here.
One of the things I remember most clearly from my early research trips to rural flood-prone communities is that residents told me how alone they felt. Most knew of no other place whose suffering was somehow analogous to their own, or other people they might consult to learn how to tackle their flooding problem.
Sometimes people tried to safeguard their homes themselves, building retaining walls out of brick, sandbags and stone. As Harvey bore down on Houston, Kristin Massey attempted to wrap her ranch in heavy-duty plastic sheeting after shelling out $130,000 to repair it in the wake of the floods that swamped the city the two years prior. But despite Massey’s efforts, her home still filled with water, displacing her family for the third time in three years. She would learn what many already knew: that overwhelmingly these individual fixes fail.
As I have watched the US inundated, again and again, by record-breaking storms, another equally powerful phenomenon has begun to unfold. Across the country, community-led flood-survivor groups are popping up. There’s Residents Against Flooding in Houston, and Groundswell in Charleston, the Just Florence Recovery Coalition and Horry County Rising. Many begin online, in advance of a storm, and serve as information-sharing networks around where to get sandbags, the location of local shelters, and the latest weather predictions. Once the flood waters recede, the focus shifts to the process of recovery, covering everything from how to file a flood claim to which contractors are least likely to rip you off.
But when one flood turns into two, then three or four or five, residents’ focus often shifts from how to weather individual storms towards identifying causes and advocating for community-wide solutions. The scale of concern shifts from the singular to the systemic.
This summer, Higher Ground, the largest coalition of flood survivors in the country, started a nationwide campaign of their own. In addition to empowering frontline communities by connecting them to pro-bono legal and scientific counsel, the group began disrupting city council meetings by unfurling banners that read: The United Flooded States of America. Member groups have filed lawsuits against unlawful wetland development and the unjust use of flood pumps during storm events. They have started local taskforces to inform people of the underlying infrastructure problems that exacerbate flooding, what resources to demand elected officials provide, and the role that climate change has played in amplifying their pre-existing vulnerability. Some have filed for temporary injunctions against floodplain development, while others even advocated for managed retreat, the only mitigation strategy that moves residents permanently away from risk.
Allison Sedatol Reviere, whose home in Lafayette, Louisiana flooded for the fifth time in five years during Hurricane Barry, recently joined forces with Higher Ground. “No one, no one would buy my home. I have five flood claims since 2014. I felt trapped. But through this flood survivor network I found out that I was not alone, and that there was help available, that a buyout of my home was possible.” As Barry spun in the Gulf, Sedatol Reviere went through the motions of elevating her furniture and evacuating, but this time with the knowledge that this flood would likely be her last.
At the end of my presentation last year in in New Orleans, an audience member asked me whether I still have hope? The hope that I do have does not revolve around individual choices (often framed through the lens of consumption). The hope that I do have is not about buying LED lightbulbs and electric cars; it’s not about eating vegan or bringing a canvas bag to the supermarket. These things can signal a shift in consumer habits (and those signals are extremely important), but they also frame the climate crisis as something that ought to be combated at the individual level, which, as Mary Annaïse Heglar of the National Resource Defense Council recently pointed out, leads those who cannot afford such decisions to feel paralyzed while simultaneously letting the fossil fuel industry off the hook.
The hope I do have resides in the fact that as the climate crisis comes home to us in deeply unsettling ways – in the form of heatwaves and freak storms, wildfires, and permafrost melt, twisting the world we know into new and disturbing shapes – it is also building unlikely coalitions amongst people who might not appear to share affinities at first glance. Since 2017, the US has endured the single costliest hurricane season in its history, meanwhile Higher Ground’s membership has ballooned to over 50,000 people.
With a rise in risk has also come an awareness that our vulnerability to those risks is shared, if unevenly distributed. A recent study suggests that as many as 41 million Americans live in a home at risk to flooding – roughly 13% of the population. From this place it is much easier to identify the root of the problem: that unjust development and the fossil fuel industry have made our communities less safe while super-charging the storms to come.
Elizabeth Swain, the director of Climate Interactive, recently recommended that we begin to shift our focus away from what we alone cannot accomplish, away from our profoundly individualist society, and towards the kind of thinking that helps us to glimpse what is possible when people come together to demand change. Her words helped me to connect what I had seen: that the only personal action that can slow the tide of the climate crisis is to create a coalition bigger and more powerful than the individuals of which it is comprised. All around the globe members of various environmental groups – enter the Extinction Rebellion, 350.org, Fridays for the Future and the Sunrise Movement – are already making good on Swain’s suggestion.
A week after returning home, I attended a Nationalize Grid meeting in Rhode Island. As I glimpsed all the other people that were organizing to influence how energy is derived and distributed in that state, at last I felt some of my climate anxiety dissipate. It isn’t my first round of environmental activism, nor my last, but it is the first time that I recognize these actions as their own kind of carbon offset. But better. Because instead of marrying guilt to redemption, they strive to make cheap fossil fuels a thing of the past.