The Tidal Basin Diaries:  More Adventures in Using Coastal Flooding To Start Conversations with D.C. Tourists About the Green New Deal

The Washington Socialist<>July 2019

By Andy Feeney

As this issue of the Socialist goes to press, an estimated 37 million Americans face an enhanced risk of severe weather events, according to a recent National Weather Service statement cited in the Washington Post.  Massive floods triggered by record rains have recently disrupted towns and cities across the Midwest, devastated farm buildings and machinery, killed livestock and human beings and inundated stretches of highway in several states ranging from Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota in the west to states like Ohio at the eastward edge of the Farm Belt. 

As mainstream media sources have reported, the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi, is showing its highest water level since the town’s historic 1927 flood – the worst in the town’s history.  At the same time, flooded fields and inundated roads and railroads are threatening big reductions in this year’s Midwestern corn and soybean crops and potentially hamstringing farmers’ ability to get harvested crops – to the extent there are any – to market next fall. 

In Iowa and Nebraska alone, according to a recently edited Wikipedia article, estimated economic damages to the farm economy could total $2.9 billion.  And it’s not clear that the year’s rainy season has ended yet.  In a USA Today article dated June 4, reporter Doyle Rice cited Weather Channel forecasts that predicted an additional 1 to 3 inches of rain could douse much of the Central Plains, the Mississippi Valley and parts of the Ohio Valley by June 11. 

The National Weather Service, Rice added, also predicts that a developing weather system in the western Gulf of Mexico – which may or may not turn into Tropical Storm Barry – could hit already soggy areas in South Texas with more moisture soon, “with heavy to excessive rainfall a concern especially across regions with current and ongoing moderate to major flooding.”

As Judy Woodruff of PBS Nightly News, Juan Declet-Barreto of the Union of Concerned Scientists and other commentators have reported, there are plausible reasons to link this year’s unusually severe floods to climate change. 

In general, warmer temperatures facilitate faster evaporation of ocean water into the atmosphere, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor – temporarily – until the water is released as rain.  The result is heavier flooding.  And during colder winter months, “global warming” by increasing the air’s moisture content can even generate bigger snowfalls. 

In the view of many experts, millions of Midwesterners are currently living with these negative side effects of a warming climate. Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, who as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has seen the town suffer through one “1,000-year” flood and another “500-year” flood in just the past five years, is one of several Democrats who have recently mentioned the climate and flooding connection at Midwestern campaign stops. 

Yet as The New York Times reported a few weeks ago, many Midwestern mayors in flooded river towns have been downplaying the climate issue, or ignoring it entirely, as they rally their constituents to rebuild damaged communities once the floodwaters recede.  Bringing up the climate change issue, a number of these mayors reportedly believe, will only trigger local political controversies that will get in the way of recovery.

For ecosocialists in DSA and for mainstream environmentalists anxious to rally support for a Green New Deal that will mobilize our society to tackle climate change on any significant scale, the time should be ripe for a major effort to educate voters about heavy rains, flood risks and climate change in Midwestern states that continue to support Trump’s anti-environmental, racist and demagogic politics.  

But how can the climate issue be raised with Midwestern voters, when many Midwestern mayors are ducking it? 

How can it continue to command attention nationally, when the national media is rightly obsessed with other public issues – issues ranging from the future of Roe v. Wade and the Democratic Party’s internal debates about impeachment to the foreign policy risks of Trump’s increasingly aggressive moves against China, Mexico, Iran and Venezuela?

The Marxist poet Bertolt Brecht once lamented that he lived in such hard times “that to speak of trees is almost a crime, since it implies silence about so many horrors.”  Today out-of-control climate change is itself a horror that even Brecht would find worthy of everyone’s attention, but with so much else for us to think about, the urgency of the IPCC’s Nov. 29, special report on climate risks may be hard for even progressive U.S. voters to keep clearly in mind.

As the Socialist reported several weeks ago, I’ve been trying to bridge the public awareness gap since mid-April by trying to draw the attention of tourists at the D.C. Tidal Basin, the site of the famous Japanese cherry trees that millions of visitors celebrate each spring, to the increasing flood risks that the site faces because of climate change, and because of other factors.

I began my personal public education campaign at the Tidal Basin in response to articles that have recently appeared in the Post, the Washingtonian and other local media about the flooding and other threats to the Tidal Basin, which a WUSA TV 9 report has called one of the 11 most endangered national monuments in the country. 

One of the problems with global climate change as an environmental issue, as climate activists have long realized, is that to a great extent, its threat has been invisible to the public.  But at the Tidal Basin, especially at high tide, climate-related flooding is all too visible.  And it’s not that difficult to draw the attention of most tourists to the evidence.

Since I began my informal campaign in mid-April, three other local DSA members have joined me, at least on occasion, for Tidal Basin climate education and advocacy.  About a week ago, three enthusiastic high school juniors from the Maryland suburbs joined me for climate education work at the Basin, and they seem eager to take part in further learning and advocacy on climate change and the Green New Deal once their summer vacations begin.

I’ve probably held up my signs on Tidal Basin flooding, climate risks and the Green New Deal before thousands of U.S. and foreign tourists over the last month or so, some of whom have been sympathetic to the message.  Of these thousands of individuals who have seen the signs, probably as many as 150 to 200 have stopped to talk to me about the issue, sometimes very briefly, but sometimes at length. 

Trying to educate tourists at the site also has given me the opportunity to remind dozens of Green New Deal supporters, young and old, about the merits of supporting the Sunrise Movement and reading the full Green New Deal resolution, H. Res. 109, which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced in Congress in February.    

Admittedly, I’ve encountered a handful of hostile skeptics and hardcore opponents of the Green New Deal in doing this kind of advocacy.  One huge white man, middle-aged and with unruly dirty blond hair, recently bellowed as he brushed past me not far from the Jefferson Memorial: 

“Climate change doesn’t exist!  GOD IS IN COMMAND OF THIS!  Get your head out of your butt!”

On another day, a younger man in a red shirt looked at my sign on basin flooding and shouted, in what almost seemed like panic, “But the solution can’t be the Green New Deal!  That’s socialism!”

“What else would you do fix the problem?” I asked him.

“We can’t have the Green New Deal!  It would mean government control over the whole economy!” he repeated.

“Well, what else do you want?  How can we fix the problem?”

“It can’t be the Green New Deal!” he shouted again, sprinting away from me in the direction of the tourist buses.

A much, much more irritating encounter, in my view, was one I had with a rather well dressed young guy with a preppy attitude and an amused smile on his face a week ago.  “You are so funny!” he said as he walked past, leaving me wanting to hit him. 

Two days ago, another wiseacre critic of the Green New Deal yelled in a mocking tone, “But we’ll lose our airplanes!”  He sounded as if he were gloating over having delivered an unanswerable argument in favor of continued use of fossil fuels.

The same day, a polite middle-aged woman who said she was from Pennsylvania stopped in front of my sign, read it, and quietly asked what the Green New Deal might entail.  Climate change certainly is a major problem, she said before I could provide her with real answers; everyone needs to develop much more environmental awareness and take individual steps to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. 

For example, she said, she wasn’t ready to give up her car, but for the sake of the planet’s future she would be willing to paying higher taxes on gasoline to fix the problem. Everyone could make other personal adjustments, too; it’s really important that better public education be done to keep Americans informed on the environment and the climate. 

But when we create big government programs to address a problem like climate change, she said, who knows whether the money will be spent the ways the politicians promise? How much of it will go into private pockets?

What I suspect responses like these demonstrate is just how serious major conservative organizations, the fossil fuel industry and the libertarian right all have become in trying to denounce and discredit the Green Deal as well as AOC as a major champion of it.

Conservative web sites that I’ve visited since last fall have variously describe the Green New Deal as an endorsement of corrupt “crony capitalism” that will chiefly benefit favored corporations; as a terrible danger to the traditional American diet, the American automobile and the airline industry; and as a new “road to serfdom” that can only lead in the end to a new kind of Stalinist totalitarianism, while leaving the average American penniless. 

Right-wing religious broadcasters on some TV networks are calling on their followers to reject mainstream climate science as a false account of Creation that clashes with the Christian Bible, and they, too, are warning that “democratic socialism” is a fundamental threat to traditional American freedoms and capitalist prosperity. 

I think, although I have no way of verifying this, that several of the negative encounters I’ve had with tourists at the Tidal Basin reflect one or more of these basically elitist critiques of the GND by fossil fuel interests. 

Generally speaking, though, my Tidal Basin experiences have been positive.

The places where I stand with my sign to bear witness to the flooding, to begin with, are generally beautiful.  On days with bright sunshine, the waters of the Tidal Basin seem to dance with thousands of tiny points of light, somewhat like the French seashore and the waters of the upper Seine in some French Impressionist paintings.

On cloudier, darker days, there’s a bleak beauty to the flat expanse of blue-gray water that covers part of the landscape just up from the paved walkway bordering the Tidal Basin, roughly a hundred yards or so past the Jefferson Memorial.  The local population of Canada geese that visits this tidal mud flat in the making sometimes numbers as many as 70 elegant black and white adults, accompanied by a dozen or so fuzzy brown goslings, funny and attractive to watch. and along with the tourists I’m entranced by them.

But the stretch of land along the Basin that appears to be turning from a support for cherry trees into a small salt marsh, with a clump of reeds replacing the dead grass in one area and the stink of methane rising from soil that’s wet almost permanently- though it also supports redwing blackbirds and mallard ducks and ducklings. 

Standing with my signs at the Tidal Basin, I tend to discount the possible political awareness of teenagers heavily engaged in flirting and talking with each other, but perhaps that’s a superficial assessment by an old person who doesn’t get around much anymore. 

I also have to wonder about individuals, young or old, who stay glued to their smart phones while on prepared tours to visit Washington’s national landmarks.  Do they have any political, social, environmental or economic interests that the progressive left will be able to mobilize for good ends?  If so, how can we discover them?

What kind of challenges do tourists like these pose for the environmental movement, I wonder, not to mention for DSA and any future movement for ecosocialism?

One group of tourists who seem open to education centered on flooding problems and climate change, on the other hand, are those who walk slowly past my signs, look past them to the waters of the Tidal Basin and the nearby land, and take in the geese colonizing strips of land that are becoming less and less hospitable to the cherry trees.  Some of these individuals, though not all, will reread my message with some suspicion, then nod slowly, and give me the thumbs-up sign. 

In this way, I like to think that I’m reaching even a few older white Trump voters, who can recognize flooded land when they see it, even if they have no use for AOC, the Green New Deal or democratic socialism.  It’s even easier to believe that linking Tidal Basin flooding to climate change is conveying the urgency of the climate crisis to those individuals and families from New Jersey, the Houston area, the Florida peninsula, and climate-afflicted states like Missouri and California who have stopped to read the signs and talk with me about how to tackle the issue. 

A second group of Tidal Basin visitors who are sometimes open to thinking about climate change and flooding are the large parties of high school and middle school students who troop around the Jefferson Monument grounds accompanied by teachers and other adult chaperones. 

On several days over the past month, the high school and middle school students, and sometimes even elementary school students, taking part in school trips to the Tidal Basin and other Washington DC landmarks have numbered in the high hundreds, and huge numbers of them have passed me and my messages. 

At their best, at least some of the visiting students are curious and open to learning about the climate.  Some already are Green New Deal supporters, and cheer for me as they pass; some are wearing Trump T-shirts and blank or skeptical expressions, however. 

Out in public, younger folks – students and young adults – show some gender differences in their attitude toward the climate message that may reflect different “public performance” styles. Women and girls seem less averse to being caught actually paying attention to something in public.

Then there are the teachers and chaperones, some of whom welcome the chance to use my message and the flooded landscapes as a “teachable moment” for the students.

To reach the visiting teachers and students with the information that flooding at the Tidal Basin is at least partly linked to climate change, however, it has proved helpful to change my signs to meet the evidence.

Because of land subsidence in the Chesapeake Bay area, some sources say DC today has the fastest rate of relative sea level rise of any place along the East Coast, and that’s part of what’s contributing to Tidal Basin flooding. Inadequate management of storm water runoff in our region, due to extensive impermeable surfaces like roads and roofs upstream that keep rain waters and snow melt from percolating naturally into the soil, also causes more water to run off into local rivers that help to feed the Tidal Basin.  Again, this contributes to higher flooding.

More politely than some, a public official from Georgia took me aside a few weeks ago to say that I wasn’t giving enough credit to storm water runoff in my message.  In Georgia, he said, the state has implemented strict storm water management controls that are currently the best in the nation, and I should be recommending that the National Park Service do something similar at the Tidal Basin.

I’ve therefore created several new signs that mention land subsidence, the ongoing breakdown of the Tidal Basin’s aging infrastructure and storm water runoff problems from overdevelopment as co- contributors to flooding along with climate change.  And for rhetorical purposes, I’ve headed up with the new signs with questions – about why the Tidal Basin is flooding and what should be done about it – rather than headlines pleading with tourists to help in fixing the problem.

The new signs aren’t as effective in triggering cheers for the Green New Deal among already converted groups of high school and middle school students, I think.  But they’re much more effective at attracting the attention of tourists, young and old, who have the patience to do a little reading about the issues.  I think the newer, more inclusive signs also are significantly better at inducing some older, skeptical adults to think about the climate change and flooding, because my messages now read less like political ads, which almost everyone in our society learns to discount, and a little more like efforts at science education.

For visiting teachers and the more open-minded of their students, I think the more complex and nuanced signs are more effective than straight appeals to support the GND.  They turn the question of Tidal Basin flooding into an educational opportunity encouraging individual learning and thought. I think they please the more progressive teachers, and they probably somewhat enhance my credibility in speaking on the subject.

Does my experience with the revised signs hold any possible lessons for other DSA members working on climate issues, I wonder? 

In my propaganda for the Green New Deal at the Tidal Basin, I’ve taken the step of acknowledging the contributions that non-climate factors make to the flooding, so that I’ve answered some of the arguments of the climate deniers.  This makes the newer, less simplistic signs better, I think.  

What I haven’t done with my signs, partly because I don’t have room, is also try to answer the objections that climate denialists raise about the GND meaning “total government control over the economy” and a stepping stone to Stalinism.  Nor have I addressed God’s alleged dominion over future weather patterns or opined on whether private airplane travel will still be possible in a sustainable, climate-friendly economy. All these have been tossed my way in the course of my Tidal Basin sojourns.

As DSA members and other climate activists organize for the Green New Deal over the coming months, I wonder if we may need to do more two-sided propaganda addressing the major arguments of our antagonists.  But for now, I think my advocacy at the Tidal Basin is helping the cause, and I warmly welcome any DSA member who would like to join the effort.

The Washington Socialist is the newsletter and editorial publication of Metro DC DSA. The views and opinions expressed here may not reflect those of the chapter, and publication of any information should not be considered an endorsement. For our chapter's official statements, please visit the Statements section of our main site.

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