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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

For Gullah Geechee people on the SC coast, climate change is already a threat

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David Boraks
Ed Atkins scoops bait from a tank at his shop on Lady's Island, S.C.

Climate change is on the minds of world leaders gathering for the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, next week. They'll be talking about emissions reductions, carbon markets and other tactics to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. It's far removed from South Carolina's Low Country, where members of the Gullah Geechee Nation are already feeling the effects of climate change.

Seventy-year-old Ed Atkins runs Atkins Live Bait on Lady's Island, near Beaufort, South Carolina. Inside, he has tanks full of live bait.

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David Boraks
Ed Atkins

"That's shrimp right there and finger mullet. The shrimp, good for fish. The finger mullet, good for flounder," he said, leading a tour of the one-room operation.

Atkins is a member of the Gullah Geechee Nation. It includes as many as 1 million people descended from enslaved Africans who have lived, fished and farmed on the sea islands from North Carolina to Florida since the 1500s. Atkins' father started the bait business in the 1950s, but prices — and other things — have changed since then.

"They're $5 per dozen," he said. "It was three dozen for a dollar at one time. As the years go on, everything gets scarcer and scarcer."  

He has watched as over the years higher water temperatures affect oyster harvests, and shrimp and baitfish are harder to find in the marshes and shallow waters where he lives.

"At one time you could go there and you could catch a lot of bait within 20-30 minutes," he said. "Now, it take you two or three hours."

Atkins thinks global warming has something to do with that.

"There's a lot of stuff out there I know that scientists don't know," he said. "I mean, they study this stuff, but they don't know the real history of what's out there and what's going on. That's because I'm out there mostly day and night."

Atkins worries about the loss of Gullah Geechee agricultural and fishing traditions — and his business.

"I wouldn't say it's so much a money-making business, but it's a good business to keep you going," he said. "Part of my culture. Deep part of my culture."

In 2006, Congress recognized that unique culture by creating the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The goal was to protect Gullah Geechee traditions and language, the creole of African and English that still survives.

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David Boraks
Marquetta Goodwine, Queen Quet, is chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation.

Marquetta Goodwine, or Queen Quet as she is known, is a native of St. Helena Island, near Beaufort and trained as a computer scientist. She's the elected chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation and founder of the Gullah Geechee Sea Island Coalition. She said the culture is alive and well, but is facing pressures from development and climate change.

"We continue to have more intense storms, with more impact to these storms," she said. "Then roofs and things get damaged. Buildings are falling literally into the water.

"All the things that these buildings are made of, we're finding are the chemical components that are creating ocean acidification. With ocean acidification, you will not have bivalves, you won't have oysters anymore. You won't have the blue crabs in the abundance you had them. We're even suffering now during shrimp season, finding that we have less of them. All of this is a communal problem and a cumulative impact because of climate change."

Queen Quet has presented at previous U.N. climate meetings, and she'll present remotely at the one starting Sunday in Glasgow. The question of how climate change affects indigenous and low-wealth communities around the world is one she and others hope will get a hearing at the meetings.

Like Queen Quet, Marie Gibbs lives on St. Helena Island, on land passed down for generations. She has 45 acres, where she plants vegetables and harvests timber. Gibbs says she has had to adapt to hotter temperatures (nearby Savannah, for example, had 26 more extreme heat days last year than in 1979) and the advancing sea, which is raising marsh and river levels.

"The water is a spiritual nurturing point. It is our reconnection back to the motherland. It's not a toy, it's not a place of recreation. It's a place of subsistence."
Marquetta Goodwine, or Queen Quet, the elected chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation

"And we are losing farmland due to that," she said. "I find myself losing part of my planting ground, where I plant my okra. Especially my okra, 'cause okra likes the low ground, and the rivers are coming up. And they ruin the land with salt water. … And most farmers have the same complaint."

It's not just the sea islands where Gullah Geechee people are dealing with climate change. They're also dealing with it in urban areas like North Charleston. Carlie Towne recently talked about it in her neighborhood there.

"You're now standing in a community called Union Heights, where climate change does affect the people here, because it's a low-wealth community," said Towne, a Gullah Geechee elder and community activist who grew up in the neighborhood, an industrial area off Interstate 26.

Union Heights was built on swampland about 100 years ago to provide housing for Black workers — most of them Gullah Geechee. Here, the big issues affecting people's lives and livelihoods are higher summer temperatures — which can affect public health — and flooding, especially from more intense hurricanes.

"We are only about five minutes away from the city of Charleston. And of course, it floods there," Towne said. "So it just flows right on here, too. So we've experienced flooding...when the flooding starts, people don't have access to get out. So that's a big issue that we try to address."  

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David Boraks
Carlie Townes and Lesa Wineglass-Smalls of North Charleston. They're helping to educate their Gullah Geechee community about climate change and press for policies and money to fight it.

Towne and other community leaders are working with local and state officials to develop a disaster response system to make sure people have the information they need about flooding and evacuation.

Like so many areas, climate change is a problem alongside other issues that affect communities of color and low income. In Union Heights, add gentrification to the list of threats to Gullah Geechee culture.

Queen Quet has been involved in a variety of environment and climate policy efforts, including one started recently to preserve sea island marshland. For her, it's not just about learning, but also schooling policymakers about how to live on the land.

"So for us, the scientists have been behind. And now they're catching up to saying, 'Oh, wow, the Gullah Geechees were onto something … That something is called balance," she said. "You live in balance."

Gullah Geechees don't build on the beach, she says. They build at a high point inland, and go to the water.

"Why? Because there's a Gullah proverb that says the water ta bring we, the water gwi take we back," she said. "The water is a spiritual nurturing point. It is our reconnection back to the motherland. It's not a toy, it's not a place of recreation. It's a place of subsistence."

In her presentation at the U.N. meeting next week, she'll share Gullah Geechee wisdom with any scientists or policymakers who will listen.

Support for WFAE's climate coverage comes from our members, the Salamander Fund of the Triangle Community Foundation and the l Earth Fund, dedicated to improving local reporting on our changing climate.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.