Drought. Flooding. Extreme heat. Climate change has many tools for destruction, but no matter the disaster, in a 4° Celsius world, parts of the United States will be left uninhabitable. Significant portions of the population will be forced to leave their homes due to climate disasters and will live their lives as internally displaced people. These people will bring with them diverse cultural identities. They will also have left places of significant cultural and historical relevance. The locations may be lost, but the people will endure.

If the United States is to protect culture in the face of climate change, it must shift its focus towards protecting the culture that resides within those people. However, much of the current approach to protecting culture and history is rooted in protecting places. The paragon of this approach is the National Historic Preservation Act. Places deemed worthy of preservation are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which has historically not been racially and gender inclusive, thereby failing to reflect the United States’ diversity. Places that have been recently added to address this lack of diversity are especially vulnerable to climate change.

Executive Order 13146 is an example of historic preservation beyond the National Historic Preservation Act. In the wake of Hurricane Floyd’s devastation of Princeville, North Carolina, President Clinton issued EO 13146 to recognize the historical significance of Princeville as the first city founded in the United States by freed slaves and to create the President’s Council on the Future of Princeville, North Carolina. However, memory is ephemeral, and until recently, the National Museum of African American History and Culture recognized Eatonville, Florida as the first town chartered by Black Americans. This error has since been corrected, and Princeville’s pride in being the first town chartered by Black Americans endures. Despite this previous inaccuracy, residents of Princeville are aware of their cultural significance and the value their community holds in American history.

Many residents of Princeville were relocated following Hurricane Floyd, but the town was rebuilt. Eventually, Princeville’s population returned to its levels prior to Hurricane Floyd. The town of Princeville had the option of a buy-out, but ultimately, the town rejected the buy-out. Princeville instead opted to rebuild its levees to protect it from the 100-year floodplain.

Unfortunately, the 100-year flood came 83 years early with Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Again, the town was flooded, destroying 450 homes. The population was only 2,200 at the time of Hurricane Matthew. The road to recovery has been long with many residents not wanting to abandon the historical significance of Princeville. Following Hurricane Matthew, North Carolina provided funding to purchase a total of 141 acres of neighboring land to relocate the most threatened parts of the town. However, in a 4-degree world, partial retreat will be insufficient. The places communities value most will be lost.

Princeville is an example of cultural and historical resilience. When their history was forgotten by other Americans, the people of Princeville remembered who they were as a community. The attachment to place will endure, but in the face of destruction, governments can choose to invest not just in protecting places, but also in the people who take pride in that culture and history. However, memory is ephemeral, and geography is a part of community identity. Once communities are dispersed, the United States risks losing that community identity and consequently the history and culture associated with that community.

Place is an important and complex aspect of individual and collective identity, but it is not the only source of identity. Geographic communities are just one type of community, just one classification existing among a multitude of identities. Culture and history can be protected if a cultural/historical perspective is taken towards communities. The geography may be lost, but the community will remain if protected. To protect this culture and history, the United States can choose to take an anticipatory or reactive approach to adaptation. The current approach is largely reactive, but an anticipatory approach is necessary to protect these resources [culture and history?] against the advancing threat of climate change.

Documents can be preserved. Oral histories can be recorded. But land, places that are slated to become uninhabitable in a 4-degree world, cannot be saved from climate change. What will happen if America chooses to continue emphasizing place in its approach to protecting and preserving history and culture? If people lose both their geographic community and the proximity geography provides to one’s social community, what culture and history will be lost? Will America take the anticipatory approach to preserving the culture and history existing within these communities? Or will America simply be erased?

Authored by:

  • Michele Okoh, senior lecturing fellow in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke Law School.

*** This blog post is part of a series of essays by the Environmental Law Collaborative (ELC) on the adaptation challenges of the worst-case climate scenario: a world that warms to 4°C by 2100.
Pace | Haub Environmental Law’s GreenLawBlog is co-hosting this series, along with Environmental Law Prof Blog, over the course of this month. ***