What’s the next step for a science-denying former politician? Launch a new business venture that will be utterly destroyed by human-caused climate in the coming decades. And if you wanted to pick a business venture that would be the most vulnerable to climate change, you could hardly do better then Ken Cuccinelli’s new oyster farm on super-low-lying Tangier Island, Virginia.
You remember Ken Cuccinelli. As Virginia Attorney General, he infamously launched a (losing) witch hunt against leading climatologist Dr. Michael Mann. Then, in the tight Virginia gubernatorial race of 2013, his climate science denial became a focus, and he lost to pro-science candidate Terry McAuliffe.
What did he do next? On Sunday, the Washington Post wrote a huge piece discussing “Ken Cuccinelli’s post-politics endeavor: oyster farming.” Amazingly, the Post managed to write a 1,600-word puff piece on this subject without ever mentioning climate change, the threat ocean acidification poses to oysters, or sea level rise.
“The outspoken conservative now seems focused on creating a new source of sustainable jobs for people on Tangier,” the Post’s story reads.
Sadly, there are no sustainable jobs on Tangier. The Post notes that the island is home to about 700 residents, since “only 83 acres of the island high enough for human habitation,” but the Post has nothing whatsoever to say about the island’s inescapable future — even though for every other major news outlet, near-term inundation is the defining feature of the island.
In the Associated Press’s AP images, nearly half the photos that show up when you search for “Tangier Island” are titled simply, “Disappearing Island,” with captions noting how the island is “especially vulnerable to climate change.” Most other news articles on Tangier Island in recent years are about how rapidly it is losing land to the combination of subsidence and sea level rise. Case in point: the Virginian Pilot’s 2012 piece, titled “Residents of drowning Tangier Island look for lifeline.”
The Chesapeake Bay magazine’s piece, “That Sinking Feeling,” explains Tangier islands “will likely be inundated if sea level rises one meter (3.28 feet) or less,” which is the middle of current projections. They link to National Geographic’s interactive map at www.chesapeakeadaptation.org, which allows you to see the future of the doomed islands in the Bay. Business Insider had a piece in September headlined “The Twilight of Tangier: What It’s Like To Live On An Island That’s Disappearing Because Of Global Warming,” which notes the island is “only 4 feet or so above sea level at its highest point” and suggests it’ll be almost entirely submerged in 50 years.
Heck, even Fox News ran an extended AP story in 2013 that explains at length how “this island is disappearing,” and how global warming is accelerating the process: “Climate change is simply accelerating what they say will be increasing flooding along the bay and the foreseeable demise of Tangier.”
But hey, why should the Washington Post spoil a great human interest story about Ken Cuccinelli by mentioning that the island he’s putting his new business on is rapidly disappearing — and that the policies of climate denial and inaction by Cuccinelli and his buddies have sped up its death? No need to mention that in 2012, a Virginia lawmaker called sea level rise a “left wing term,” and removed it from a state report on coastal flooding.
The Post’s story seeks an uplifting spin, claiming that “for a figure who has seemed to attract controversy throughout his career in Virginia politics, Cuccinelli has found his way into an enterprise that isn’t the slightest bit controversial.” Not the slightest bit controversial? Certainly it is the slightest bit ironic.
The Post seems to have stumbled over the idea of “sustainable.” The fact is oyster farming is environmentally very sustainable and worthwhile, as the Post notes:
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation actively supports oyster farming. According to Tommy Leggett, an oyster restoration and fisheries scientist for the foundation, more oyster farming would mean a healthier bay.
“It’s a very sustainable and green business,” Leggett said, listing some of the environmental benefits of oyster farming. Oysters and their reefs provide a habitat for many other species, he said, and at certain water temperatures, adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.
I spoke to Leggett. He meant “environmentally sustainable.” He was speaking in terms of the environmental benefit to the Chesapeake, not whether the business itself was sustainable given climate change.
Ocean acidification driven by carbon pollution has already proven to be a major threat to the West Coast oyster industry, as was clear from the “The Great Oyster Crash” of 2007, in which “oyster seed (larvae) off the coast of Oregon and Washington began dying by the millions.” It turns out that rapidly acidifying coastal waters make it difficult for larvae by to build the shells needed for survival.
The Washington Post itself reported on this oyster crash and the growing threat from acidification in a July piece, “Marine industries at risk on both coasts as oceans acidify.” The Post noted:
On the East Coast, instead of upwelling, acidification is a result of nutrification — adding nutrients like agricultural waste, fertilizers and waste water treatment facilities. The Chesapeake Bay, which receives runoff from one of the most densely populated watersheds in the United States, is acidifying three times faster than the rest of the world’s oceans.
That July Post story explained that “the last time the oceans changed so dramatically, about 59 million years ago, during a geologic time known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, the rate of change was 10 times slower than is occurring today.” Worth noting, too, is that a 2010 Nature Geoscience study pointed out that the PETM saw a mass extinction of marine species. As a leading climatologist pointed out that year, “when CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans.”
We’re currently at 400 ppm, rising at a rate of more than 2 ppm a year (a rate which itself is speeding up). The good news is that so far carbon-pollution-driven acidification does not appear to be harming the oyster industry in the Chesapeake Bay, according to Leggett who is also an oyster fisherman. But again, in a 1,600-word piece about a leading climate denier co-founding an oyster farm, you’d think it deserves at least a passing mention. The website “Blue Virginia” also points out the irony.
Bottom Line: It may be newsworthy that prominent climate science denier Ken Cuccinelli has started a new business venture on Tangier Island that is “environmentally sustainable.” But such a story certainly must discuss the fact that, while oyster farming is “environmentally sustainable,” our environmentally unsustainable climate policies — which are championed by Cuccinelli and his fellow deniers — make it unsustainable as a business enterprise. If acidification doesn’t devastate the industry in the next few decades, sea level rise will inevitably inundate the island.