Science Informs Art, Art Informs Science

By Dr. Jessica Hardesty Norris, Biohabitat and Audubon 

Last Saturday, I added my PhD to my nametag and joined over two thousand other scientists and allies in Liberty Square to celebrate the simple idea that evidence-based claims are superior to those without factual support. The marchers carried signs reminding us of the power of science and noting its most important discoveries: antibiotics, space travel, x-rays. But I left there thinking more about what science can’t do than what it can.

It has become clear that science cannot convince people to act on climate change. This is one of the reasons I am working with a broad coalition of local scientists, advocates, and artists on Enough Pie’s Awakening V: King Tide.

Eight weeks ago, I sat in the auditorium at Main Library downtown and listened to Gus Speth describe the report he handed to President Jimmy Carter on climate change. The estimated values for the tipping points on atmospheric carbon dioxide were just a shade off from where those estimates are today. That was forty years ago.

Cornelia Carrier, my dear friend and predecessor at Charleston Audubon, recently wrote a letter to the Post and Courier suggesting that “Mayor John Tecklenburg, the City Council and the Planning Commission should place a moratorium on all development of sea-level land until they have a plan in hand to protect those developments from tides that will inevitably rise year after year.”

Her letter closely echoed articles she wrote for the New Orleans Times-Picayune on the risks of insouciant development on marshes in the 1970s, when she was the first journalist in the country to hold the position of Environmental Reporter. The year I was born, Cornelia won a coveted Nieman fellowship for a year at Harvard’s program for groundbreaking reporting. The ground was broken then—thirty years before Katrina.

So today, with the accumulated data of 40 years of diligent work by scientists and journalists and disaster planners on sea level rise, heat-trapping gases, and climate justice, how much progress have we made?

I don’t mean to belittle the great work that has been done. The City of Charleston has a sea level rise plan. The Southeast and Caribbean Climate Community of Practice meeting in Charleston this week is a timely testament to the valuable partnerships and proactive work that the science community has engaged in.

But today more than ever, it is clear that science alone cannot shine a bright enough light on rising waters to build adequate grassroots support for sea level rise planning. Not even in Charleston, where I was unable to drive to work on Monday because of an inch of rain at high tide.

Learn what Charleston is doing to prepare for sea level rise and where we need more effort. Talk about this issue with neighbors and friends. And join your community members at Awakening V: King Tide from April 29 – May 26. More information can be found at enoughpie.org.

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