Elaina Plott Explores Everyday Life on a Sinking Island

Elaina Plott Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

The biggest problem about climate change is, naturally, climate change.

But the second biggest is that climate change has basically become boring. Not boring in substance, but in surfeit: There’s just too much of it to consume with nuance. Existential dread gets old. Ping-ponging between dire headline-grabbing prognoses and the determined optimism of those working to prevent calamity gets exhausting. Sooner or later, readers get the picture that the outlook is bad and getting worse, and neither news updates nor wonky explanations can easily slice through that scarred layer of defensive numbness.

Turning to nihilistic internet humor about the end of the world is one way to respond; another is through stories that are just surprising enough to stick out. Elaina Plott’s September/October 2018 cover story for Pacific Standard offers one such surprising portrait: the tale of an island in the Chesapeake Bay, slowly sinking into it, whose residents have cast their lot with those who reassure them there’s nothing to worry about.

Recent effects of climate change have already included well-publicized fires, floods, and more intense flu seasons. But to magazine editors vying for readers’ attentionreceding shorelines may serve as a more recognizably vivid threat. “The Country’s First Climate Change Casualties” takes Plott to Tangier Island, a picturesque fishing community with its own dialect, a steady population exodus, and as few as 25 years to live. Plott contrasts the island’s underwater future, as outlined in a 2015 study, with residents’ commitment to preserving the island’s culture in the face of intrusions that are both political and literal.

It wasn’t science that drew Plott to Tangier Island. A politics writer for The Atlantic, she first became interested in the story because she wondered what it felt like for the island’s Trump-supporting mayor to get a phone call from the president himself. But with the island’s future looking grim, science emerges as an antagonist to Tangier Island residents’ tenacious optimism—as does the perceived disdain of well-meaning climate activists. In her piece, Plott digs into how the island’s residents are facing the changes ahead of them, not just to their hometown but to its deeply rooted culture.

Plott spoke with Olga Kreimer about the power of asking sources basic questions, the keys to small-town field reporting, and why opinions might be overrated. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


How did this story come about?

I cover politics, but I’m always looking for ways to cover politics in a way that appeals to people outside of the DC bubble. I’m not super interested in the [political] horse-racing and all that; I like to figure out how politics actually touches people’s lives.

The Metro section of The Washington Post had a small stub about Tangier Island, related in some way to CNN going out there, and the president calling later. And I thought, here is a mayor of this little island I’ve never heard of, the last offshore fishing community in the Chesapeake Bay, and he’s talking to Donald Trump on the phone. My question sincerely was: What does that feel like for him?

I started reading more about the island and learning about its plight vis-à-vis climate change. And I wrote up a pitch that day. I didn’t have any earth-shattering angle; it just seemed like every article I read about the island had been more about the news of Trump calling and strictly about the science behind it. But I really wanted to try and figure out how the people of the island interacted with the politics, the science, just as human beings in their day-to-day lives, so that’s what I pitched. And two hours later, I had an assignment.

The science in this story is, in some ways, an antagonist to the island’s residents. As someone who doesn’t usually tackle science topics, how did you learn what you needed to in order to make those sections compelling and clear?

In my AP Bio exam in high school, I drew a hand turkey for one of the essay questions—so this is certainly not how my brain works (scientifically or mathematically)! And I think that insecurity was a good thing, because it made me feel a huge sense of urgency to make sure I got everything right and read absolutely everything I could.

I spent a lot of time on the phone with Dave Schulte [the author of the 2015 study on Tangier Island]. I was really humble in my approach; I asked him a ton of really, really basic questions. At one point in the story, I’m talking about a factor that makes sea level rise worse [a melted Ice Age–era ice sheet], and I described it as “kind of like a seesaw.” And that was because when Dave was outlining how that worked for me, he offered that as a helpful visual, and that’s not something I think he might say to someone who is really versed in science. They wouldn’t need that visual, necessarily; they would just immediately get what he was talking about.

One of the best things about being a journalist is that you’re constantly learning new things, but sea level rise was something I really just did not know much about. So I think, because it’s not my forte, I wrote those science sections thinking, if it were me reading this, someone who is not naturally inclined to pick up a science story, what would I want in terms of pacing, in terms of explaining? It was really important to me when I did those sections to make them read in such a way that a person like me would be interested in that. I wanted my grandparents, who are not scientifically inclined, to be able to read and follow along, and not say, this makes no sense to me, or this feels like it was written in a journal of some sort.

Did you find anybody in your science research who disagreed or who had a different perspective?

I did not. I didn’t find a single person.

This piece highlights this contrast between the science about climate change, and sea level rise specifically, and island residents’ beliefs about it. How did you approach that gap when talking to locals about facts that you knew they weren’t on board with?

When the piece first came out, I remember getting a note from a colleague saying, “I was so impressed by the way you empathize with these people, and the humanity of the story.” And it was a very sincere compliment, but I remember thinking that one big problem in journalism today is that you can say to someone that there’s so much empathy in their story, as if that’s so exceptional.

And I really do not think that should be exceptional when you’re writing about people as a magazine writer, when you have a little bit more leeway in terms of voice. To me, there was no really complex calculus to it. Yeah, I was armed with the facts, but it wasn’t my job to try to change their mind. There are a lot of journalists whose approach with a topic like that is snark, or trying to show how they really got someone in that interview when they laid down the facts.

That’s not really my job at all. I saw my job as trying to understand why these people believe what they believe, even as they’ve been inundated with information that contradicts it. And that’s the thing; it’s not like they were totally unaware that scientists felt differently about the situation; they were [aware], but they still chose to believe that it’s only erosion and that climate change is not a reality. So I saw my job as a journalist as just trying to understand why they stick to that belief in spite of everything.

Still, it can be hard to talk to somebody, as much you might care about them, or as much as you want to be open to what they have to say, when you feel that they’re fundamentally wrong about something. Kind of like the Thanksgiving dinner dynamic. Did you have any specific strategies you carried with you to have the conversations and build the trust you wanted to have?

I think that if you’re doing your job right, as a reporter, it is pretty easy to personalize the experience. I’m not talking to people on this island as someone who believes something different; I’m just genuinely enthralled by why they believe what they believe. To me, it’s a very morally neutral thing. It’s not really something I had to sit down and try to sketch out, like how am I going to do this without getting riled up; it’s just very natural to me to say, this is my goal for this story, and these are the conversations I have to have, and not let the opinions of Elaina Plott get entwined in all this.

And really, I just don’t think my opinions matter that much. My opinions are not that interesting to me; I imagine they’re not that interesting to the reader. My job is just to give them the tools to make up their minds for themselves.

As a politics writer, did you bring any different approaches to a science story than you might otherwise bring?

Politics can be just as wonky in its own way as science can be jargony. But I think one of the most fun things about politics writing is that you always have, especially in the Trump era, a pretty colorful cast of characters. Especially when trying to appeal to a broader audience, it was helpful for me to have a story that was driven by characters.

The stories I’m most proud of, whether it was this Pacific Standard piece of science writing, or politics writing, deal with how those respective subjects affect people in their day-to-day lives. That was certainly the frame for my Tangier Island piece. I did a piece recently about Heidi Cruz, Ted Cruz’s wife, and the reason I was proud of that story was not so much that it had to do with politics in a very Washington Post front-page sense, but it was more about how the experience of politics affects this woman’s life on a day-to-day basis. So I think of science and politics more as frames for talking about interesting people and how they live their lives. So I actually don’t think my techniques are entirely different. Ultimately, I’m interested in understanding people.

There’s a part of the piece where you mention some locals’ resentment that they were being blamed for believing what “everybody else” believed until recently too. That part struck me, since there’s never a unanimous “everybody” in situations like this! Did you find anyone living on Tangier who didn’t fit the consensus? Did those who did have anything to say about local disagreements?

I certainly looked, but I didn’t meet a person who disagreed with the general vibe. And I think that kind of goes to the point that if you are growing up there, and you see the world differently, you’re going to be anxious to get out of a place like Tangier. So it was hard to find someone who disagreed with the zeitgeist of the island.

But I think it’s important that their beliefs on climate change … They don’t see it as just one specific issue. They see it as part of this larger cultural shift that they believe is taking place in the country, or that is taking place in the country. To be resistant to the idea of climate change is not so much just to be resistant to the idea of climate change. It’s also to be resistant to things like evolving definitions of marriage and gender dysphoria.

Because the island is so remote and has such a specific culture of its own, it felt at times like reading a report from a foreign correspondent of sorts. How did you prepare for that, and how did you avoid “parachuting” into this story? Did you find local reporting or literature to fill in your sense of the place?

I read a ton before I went out there, so I knew what to expect. In some sense, I would say the most complicated part was just figuring out transportation-wise how to get out there, since the ferry schedule changes with demand and weather.

I’ve reported on a lot of small towns before, just covering politics, and I really like to get to know the mayor ahead of time. I think the best way to really understand the town is to have a shepherd of sorts, who can introduce you to people, show you places that matter most in the town, so it was really nice having him as a guide. I also spent a lot of time on my own just kind of looking around and observing.

They also have a great little history museum and that was really, really helpful to me. They have pretty much a clipping from every article ever written about Tangier. There’s one part in the story—it says that in the 30s, Newsweek printed an article that someone got shot for not going to a church service—and the reason I found that was that it was literally under the glass in this history museum. I basically had this treasure trove of an archive right there. Obviously, I Nexis-ed a ton of stuff, but to have that all right there was such a blessing. They just care about their history so much that everything was impeccably preserved. I mean, it really was a dream as a journalist.

If you were thinking about how you’d frame a follow-up story, say, 20 years down the line, what would you be most interested to come back to?

The biggest question, of course, is whether the island is even there. If it’s not, if they’ve had to evacuate, I’d be most interested in whether the residents had any regrets with how they viewed the entire issue of climate change and sea level rise.

But also, at a procedural level, I would really want to know how that kind of evacuation takes place, because one thing that was interesting in reporting this story and talking to lawmakers was that nobody really has an answer yet for what the government can and can’t do, in terms of forcing people to leave.

What happens if the island is literally underwater, and there are still a few people clinging to the highest point of ground? Those are questions that I just don’t know the answers to. I think even our elected officials don’t know the answers. So I’d be really interested to see procedurally how that works out.


Olga Kreimer Tailyr Irvine

Olga Kreimer is a freelance journalist based in Missoula, Montana, and a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She writes about science and culture, reviews books, and hosts an aggressively earnest advice column. Her work has been published in High Country News, The Washington Post, the LA Review of Books, and more. Find her lurking on Twitter @kreimero and learning to see through a camera on Instagram @foto.kreimero.

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