Why Is No One Talking About Climate Change in South Carolina?

Flooding in Charleston in 2019 after record storms. Image: Chuck Burton/Associated Press

by Miro Korenha, co-founder and publisher Our Daily Planet

As the early contests of the 2020 presidential election unfold, one thing has been evident: for the first time, climate change is a key issue for Democratic voters. There’s been plenty written about how voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially Nevada see climate change as an immediate threat that needs an action plan, but why hasn’t the media written similar pieces about South Carolina and why haven’t Democrats pushed climate on the campaign trail? After all, the climate threats there are anything but understated.

A recent poll by Climate Nexus revealed that 36% of all South Carolina voters view climate change as a very important issue. In a state that’s seeing 100-year floods occur every 11 years, the number of days with dangerously high temperatures drastically increasing, and rising seas causing coastal property values to drop by the billions, South Carolinians aren’t blind to the changes they’re witnessing. So where’s the Democratic climate message to South Carolina’s primary voters?

While Elizabeth Warren made one of her first campaign stops in South Carolina last year to talk about environmental justice and Tom Steyer has made climate a central point of his campaigning in the state, there hasn’t been much attention devoted to the issue by Democratic contenders or the media at large. It seems like South Carolina would be the perfect place to have a climate conversation as it’s estimated it will cost $20 billion to shield South Carolina from rising sea levels and the same Climate Nexus poll revealed that nearly 47% of all South Carolina voters think that the federal government needs to take more action on climate change. Voters want big structural change but the candidates haven’t shown up to hype up their big, bold climate action plans.

In South Carolina–whose official tourism slogan is “Made for Vacation”–voters can see the direct correlation between climate change and the toll it takes on the economy. Tourism is a $19 billion industry in the Palmetto state, mainly driven by its picturesque beaches and close proximity to waterways and coastlines. Climate change is, of course, a direct and immediate threat to many popular vacation destinations in South Carolina. It’s notable that part of Joe Biden’s climate plan calls for a vast investment in climate infrastructure, like the kind that South Carolina will need, yet that hasn’t been part of his campaign strategy down South.

Perhaps Democratic presidential candidates and the media should take a cue from South Carolina Democrats about just how much of a priority climate action is in their state. Charleston’s Mayor John Tecklenburg, was elected and re-elected by convincing voters he is best equipped to save the city from the rising seas. And as Newsweek reported, “Charleston, in fact, has upped its game after years of far too little progress. There was no choice: Much of Charleston’s tax base, its economy and culture, its very soul, are at risk. The cost of saving the place will be enormous; the cost of retreating and allowing it to be lost unthinkable.”

As Richard Wiles, Executive Director of the Center for Climate Integrity, told Our Daily Planet,

“Our polling and focus groups in South Carolina revealed a high level of concern about the coastal impacts of climate change, across the political spectrum. This concern gets even more intense when voters are told that big oil companies knew about climate change 40 years ago and then lied about it. Candidates for every level would be wise to make tackling the climate crisis and the companies who caused it a top priority.” 
We hear time and time again that this election is about the economy and healthcare yet in places like South Carolina candidates can’t have an earnest conversation about either of those issues without mentioning the ways in which a warming planet is impacting them. For South Carolinas black voters especially, flooding, extreme heat, and environmental justice are issues of serious concern. As South Carolinian Bakari Sellers made very clear in his op-ed last year,
“For any presidential hopeful that is serious about wooing Black voters in the South, take note: we expect a clear plan on how you will safeguard the air we breathe and the water we drink. We expect you to explain how climate change affects us, and how our communities will be spotlighted in response efforts.”
Omitting climate change from election coverage and forgoing it as a major campaign issue is a disservice to South Carolina voters and the broader American public watching this election for cues on which issues matter and which candidates are getting the message right. The threats posed by the climate crisis are only expanding. Those threats don’t care if a Republican or a Democrat is in the White House. They don’t care whether you’re a billionaire or a minimum wage worker. They don’t care if you’re for Medicare-for-All or if you call yourself a socialist. These climate consequences are inevitable. Its damage will be catastrophic. Our best chance to mitigate these effects is to keep the conversation about climate at the forefront of our national political discussion–let’s get it right in South Carolina.

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