Global warming could spell disaster for coastal living across the Southeast. For many, that means denying climate change as long as possible.
I covered my ears as the deafening roar of diesel engine pumps mingled with the wet crash of seawater and sand pouring from a three-foot-wide sea pipe. As the pipe belched forth its contents, backhoes and graders swarmed around the pipe like worker bees around their queen. This thunderous industrial site was in stark contrast to its surrounding: the sun-drenched beach of the quiet barrier island of Holden Beach, North Carolina.
“Beach reclamation,” as such projects are called, was restoring sand to the eroded coastline of the eight-mile-long island. A similar effort had been completed some 15 years before, but over time storms and rising sea-levels had again chewed away the sandy strip. In 2016, Hurricane Mathew took a final bite and washed away all but a sliver of beach and parts of the protective dunes. And so, working with the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal and state agencies, the reclamation project began.
This battle with beach erosion is a defining characteristic of not only Holden Beach, but beach towns up and down the East Coast. As I stood by the flowing pipe, the smell of diesel and seaweed swirling in my nostrils, I looked east toward the Lockwoods Folly Inlet, the direction from which the project had begun. Eighty feet of newly laid sand now protected beach houses as far as the eye could see. The new sand was darker than the old and spotted with shells and rocks, some as big as my head, coughed up from the sea bottom from which the sand was being pumped. I turned west, where the project was slowly heading, and could see the old, untouched beach. Water was just feet from the tattered remains of the dunes, but the sand was still clean and fine.
The expense, power, and effort needed to manipulate the environment in such a way is stunning—over $15 million for this project alone. Each year dozens of projects like it occur along the Southeast coast, with costs running into the hundreds of millions. Much of the funding for such projects is provided by federal and state grants; they also require vast amounts of equipment, some of it from the Army Corps of Engineers. More stunning is knowing that after completing such a project, planning generally begins to do it again in ten to 15 years. As I watched a bulldozer smoothing the piles of sand recently disgorged onto the beach, I realized that I stood not just in the middle of a battle with nature, but in the middle of a fractured debate about government subsidies and global warming.
I walked the few blocks back to my beach house and noted the faded Trump signs on some of the sandy lawns, left over from the election that had occurred a few months before. I passed bumper stickers on oversized pickup trucks declaring I Own a Gun and I Vote and Global Warming is Global Fraud. The residents of Brunswick County, where Holden Beach and a half-dozen beach towns like it are located, have a strong independent streak and are heavily Republican. From my years visiting and owning a vacation home in the area I knew two things were certain among the county residents: government subsidies are considered a waste of tax dollars and talk of global warming is as popular as gun control. I wondered how this ideology balanced with the heavily subsidized and environmentally dependent place they lived. The most obvious example of government support was the thundering beach reclamation project a few yards away; however, the biggest is hurricane insurance, which subsidizes billions of dollars in coastal homes, including my own.
Every year storms cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to coastal communities. No rational insurance company would provide coverage to houses balanced on the edge of such a violent and slowly rising ocean. To alleviate this problem, the government controls insurance rates and subsidizes storm losses. This allows coastal homeowners to pay as little as 20 percent of the true cost of insurance. When a storm hits, the damages are covered by the government backstop—and the homes are rebuilt to face the next storm.
When I first came to Brunswick County in the early 2000s, this odd encouragement to build in the path of storms puzzled me, as did the steadfast support for the practice by the solidly conservative residents. Then I met Karen.
Karen is a well-known realtor in the area, having lived here for decades, selling real estate through thick and thin. She was my realtor as I searched for a beach home of my own. We met for coffee on Holden Beach at Mermaids. Mermaids is a typical beach bar, a bit rundown, with license plates nailed to the rafters and karaoke on Thursday nights. As we slid into a window booth and ordered, we discussed the local housing market. The discussion eventually came around to the cost of wind and flood insurance given the high risk of storm damage.
“Hurricane insurance,” she sighed while removing her sunglasses and wedging them into her cropped, salt-and-pepper hair. “It can be very expensive, particularly after Katrina.” Katrina, of course, was the storm that had deluged New Orleans, causing billions in damage and ultimately effecting coastal insurance nationwide. “But don’t worry,” continued Karen with a quick smile, “insurance is still supported by the state and pretty affordable.”
“Isn’t it odd,” I asked, “that the state subsidizes wealthy people’s beach houses? Shouldn’t the owners have to bear that cost?” She considered me with a look that indicated this is not a popular position in a beach town.
“It’s not so much about the homeowners,” she said, shaking her head as she put down her coffee. “It’s about everyone else.” She patiently explained to me how the subsidies are the lifeblood of coastal towns. Yes, wealthy people often own the homes, but most then rent to vacationers who come and eat at the restaurants, buy beachwear, play putt-putt, and generally spend a lot of money. This supports the waiters, builders, cashiers, and, not coincidentally, realtors of the surrounding area.
“If homeowners paid the full cost of insurance then rental prices would go through the roof to cover it. Few could afford to vacation here and even fewer could afford to maintain a home.” Karen pointed out the window toward the long strip of rental houses running along the sandy main road. “For Brunswick County beaches, if all these houses were empty, it would mean the end of the whole tourist economy—no more landscapers, candy stores, or realtors needed.”
This also explained the unflinching support for subsidized beach reclamation. If the beaches are not replenished, tourism stops and the surrounding area dies. Imagine if Disney World stopped holding back the swamps on which the park is built and allowed the amusement park to sink back into the quagmire, the top of Splash Mountain marking the grave. The whole economy of Orlando would sink with it.
After her emphatic speech, I hesitated to ask my follow up question: “With all this government support, why is Brunswick so strongly conservative?”
She finished her coffee and gave me a matter-of-fact grin, “It’s good for business.”
After my meeting with Karen, I had a better grasp of why a county of independent-minded Republicans would feel so socialist about insurance. These were their subsidies, and they were good for business. So, they turned a blind eye to conservative doctrine and fully supported them, while simultaneously manning the ramparts against healthcare, environmental efforts, and a myriad of other programs that are someone else’s subsidies. In Brunswick, like most of the world, self-interest easily overcomes ideology.
This hypocrisy reminded me of another anomaly of the area. A few years earlier, when Sarah Palin was in her heyday, many in Brunswick County were chanting “Drill baby drill!” and viewed the Alaskan wild as a wasted oil resource to be tapped. However, a few years later, when the Obama administration announced plans to open the North Carolina coast to drilling, a sudden crop of Save Our Coast protest signs grew in resident’s yards. These signs were around for years, often right next to Trump signs.
With this sudden display of environmental consciousness and with beach erosion and hurricane insurance such a concern, you might assume the county residents are worried about the underlying cause of these dilemmas—global warming. But you’d be wrong. Despite the visible effects of climate change, most residents are adamant climate change deniers. To help me understand this, I looked to a friend of mine who lives on Ocean Isle, another Brunswick County town with a recently completed beach reclamation project.
Dave and his wife Sheila have lived on Ocean Isle their entire lives. They follow local politics and know most of the 600 or so full-time residents. They are staunch Republicans, and Sheila, in particular, is fanatical about Donald Trump. In person she is outgoing, funny, and generous. However, online she fills her Facebook feed with anti-Hillary, anti-Democrat, and anti-global warming screeds—things so harsh and articles so far-fetched it is impossible to match her social media façade with my friendly neighbor. She deeply believes the federal government should stop spending her hard-earned taxes on Obamacare, welfare queens, and alternative energy scams.
Sheila’s attitude at first surprised me considering that she and Dave owned two rental homes on the island, each covered by subsidized hurricane insurance and each yards away from a beach that had been recently rebuilt with the help of a massive, government funded project. If you did not see her online persona and only examined Sheila’s life, you might assume she was a socialist, or at least a Democrat.
My conversations with Karen had helped me understand Sheila’s contradictory support for local subsidies; however, I was still left wondering why she considered global warming a hoax. High tide marks at Ocean Isle and surrounding towns have been rising steadily, several inches within the last couple of decades. Flooding of low-lying homes and roads during peak high tides is now the norm. In parts of Brunswick County whole rows of ocean-front homes have been taken by the sea.
Building codes on the coastline have been updated regularly to acknowledge this reality. In accordance with Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines, new homes on most beaches are required to be built on pilings at least 18 feet above sea level. In the 1980s this level was only ten feet or less. But this has increased in light of updated predictions and, more convincingly, actual experience. Studies call for up to three feet of additional sea-level rise over the next few decades. This would put parts of many islands and coastal towns underwater.
Given this history of rising tides, vanishing streets, and regularly scheduled beach reclamation—a history which Sheila and Dave can recount in detail—it seems global warming would be something of a concern to them and every conservative islander.
But it’s not. The idea, in fact, is treated with outright hostility.
Brunswick County overwhelmingly voted for Trump, who loudly proclaims global warming “fake news.” Upon his election, Trump promptly appointed a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Though there are many reasons Brunswick voted Republican, a rejection of global warming was part of it.
The reason for this seems to have several dimensions. One is certainly because environmental issues have been co-opted by the Democrats; therefore, an admission by a conservative Republican that global warming could be legitimate would be heresy. The political environment in much of the country is such that any idea presented by the opposing party creates a knee-jerk negative reaction. From Sheila’s online posts, this seems to be the main driver of her conviction.
However, this attitude is only part the picture. Sheila’s husband, Dave, is a bit more circumspect. He and I discussed the question one evening while huddled around his backyard firepit for an oyster roast.
The yard overlooks a canal where his Sea Ray bobs quietly, its two massive outboard engines dwarfing the small fiberglass body of the boat itself. The canal is one of around a dozen that were cut into the island by developers in the 1960s and 70s to allow houses built in the center of the island to have access to the intercoastal waterway. Small docks jut from each canal-facing home. When built, the canals greatly enhanced the value of the homes; however, they also significantly weakened the island’s defenses. They now regularly contribute to flooding during even moderate storms and overflow their walled channels at every significant high tide. Still, as I sat in an Adirondack chair talking with Dave, a beer in one hand and a plate of steaming oysters in the other, the canal made a charming backdrop.
Dave is in his late 40s and a part-time fisherman, as evidenced by his rough hands and sinewy arms, offset by a bowling-ball belly. As he opened a beer he acknowledged the rising waters and changing fishing patterns. He confessed, safely out of Sheila’s earshot, that global warming is probably the cause and that many of his friends understand this as well. He picked a steaming oyster off his plate and considered it. “But most of them feel that pollution is not the cause, it’s just natural changes—like the ice age.”
I look into the glowing fire and decide to avoid the fractious debate about the causes of global warming. Instead I asked, “Regardless of the cause, it seems most people here see it is happening. So, why do you think they completely reject the scientist’s predictions of sea-level rise? Whether it’s natural or man-made, the data still points to the same thing.”
He considered the oyster for a moment and then began to manipulate it open with a small knife, explaining that it would be incredibly expensive, if not impossible, to preserve the area’s beaches if sea levels actually rise according to predictions. With echoes of my realtor Karen, he notes that with a few feet of rising waters insurance would become impossible to obtain. “So, if scientists are right then we might as well close up shop now.”
As I finished my beer I began to understand the problem from Dave’s perspective. If global warming is real it would mean the end of the island’s way of life—not sometime in the future, but now; therefore, it is best to deny it as long as possible.
Importantly, this thinking is supported by the North Carolina legislature. In 2010, a non-partisan science panel of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission produced a report predicting sea-level rise of 39 inches during this century. This report was to be used to establish new coastal land-use limitations and insurance rates. The report indicated that most coastal areas would be highly susceptible to storm damage and some would be outright underwater in the next few decades. Massive increases in hurricane insurance and the end to development on the state’s barrier islands, including Ocean Isle and Holden Beach, would be required. Under pressure from developers, businesses, and coastal residents, the legislature passed a law forbidding the use of this report, requiring a new “report” from a new and more politicized panel.
Two years later the panel produced the new report and, not surprisingly, came to a starkly different conclusion. It predicted modest sea-level rises: eight inches or less in limited areas. Thirty-one inches of rising waters had been effectively erased.
The new report was more in line with the desires of Brunswick County and other coastal areas. As noted by Heather Jarman, a real-estate lobbyist involved in the study, “The report encompasses not only a scientific approach but just plain common sense that is applicable to today’s development world.” Similarly, Dave Burton, another outspoken critic of the original report, says, “The most important fact that everyone needs to understand about sea-level rise is that it has not accelerated at all in response to human greenhouse gas emissions.” So, Jarman supplanted science with “common sense” (read business interests) and Burton absolved people of any responsibility or, more importantly, duty to act in the face of global warming. This fits well with Brunswick County politics: it denies the Democratic claim of man-made global warming while acknowledging the obvious rising sea levels. At the same time, it tempers the data to preserve insurance subsidies and continued development.
In other words, the report is just good business.
The day after Dave’s oyster roast I wandered back to Holden Beach. The reclamation project was finished, the engines and hoses gone, and a new, 30-yard-wide beach gleamed in the sunlight. Vacationers stretched out on towels or read under umbrellas. Dave and Sheila were visiting the island, and their children bounced in the surf. The parents were sitting in beach chairs with a beer-filled cooler, talking with friends. They discussed politics, complaining about Obamacare and the “wasteful subsidization of healthcare.”
Paul Riley has an MA in English from UNC Charlotte. He is presently on Holden Beach, which is recovering from Hurricane Isaias.