Emily Raboteau is the author of Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, which won a 2014 American Book Award. She is a professor of English at the City College of New York. (November 2019)
The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts
by Gilbert M. Gaul
My grandmother Mabel Raboteau fled the coastal town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and the terror of Jim Crow along the northern pathway of the Great Migration, to Michigan, in order to save her life and the lives of her children. The youngest of them was my father, Albert Jr. He was still in her womb when a white man shot and killed her husband, my grandfather, practically for sport. I probably don’t need to tell you that Albert Sr.’s murderer went scot-free. The courage it took Mabel to escape from harm’s way and start her life over was no less extraordinary for being such an ordinary African-American story. What other choice did she have but this? As Mary Annaïse Heglar points out in her vital essay, “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat,” there’s a shortsighted arrogance to the environmental movement when it claims ours is the first generation in history to face annihilation.
When word came on the evening of March 15 that the city was finally closing public schools, my relief was laced with panic. My husband and I still have our jobs, can both work flexibly from home, and share the responsibility of schooling our two kids. Compared to my brother, who makes his money delivering food on a bike for Uber Eats while parenting, and other invaluable low-paid workers like him, we’re lucky. We aren’t sick—yet. Yet even for us, the lucky ones, the school closure felt like a grim prognosis.
At two degrees, our best-case climate scenario, melting ice sheets will still pass a point of no return, flooding NYC and dozens of other world cities. In fact, we’re on track for over four degrees of warming and an unfathomable scale of suffering by century’s end. For my part, I’m only beginning to see that the question of how to prepare our kids for the horrors to come is collateral to the problem of how to deal as adults with the damage we’ve stewarded them into. What helped me see this was a road sign—one of those LED billboards you normally spot on a highway alerting drivers to a hazard. Oddly, the sign was standing on the grass of a public park. How did that get there, I wondered.