damaged beach house

Climate change, coastlands and the most vulnerable who live there

UofSC scientists study coastal communities most affected by climate change

A rising tide might lift all boats, but not everyone fares the same with rising seas. 

Monica Barra has documented that fact extensively in her studies of coastal land loss among communities of color in the bayous of Louisiana. With a focus on the ways that residents, scientific knowledge and the coastal landscape intersect, the assistant professor of race and environment is bringing a similar research perspective to the South Carolina coastline.

“Sea level rise and the shifting of the coastline are impacting different groups of people in different ways,” says Barra, who holds a joint appointment in the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment and anthropology. 

“So many of the policies in place to confront climate change are oriented to homeowners of a certain economic status, and the question of who is most resilient hinges on that.”

Barra is using a National Center for Atmospheric Research Innovator’s Fellowship and a National Academies Gulf Research Program Early Career Grant to further her research with assistance from Teresa Norman, a master’s student in the university’s MEERM program (Master’s in Earth and Environmental Resource Management). The research will ultimately inform Barra’s second book about the intersection of climate change policy making and coastal land ownership

If you experience high tides, hurricanes and flooding and don’t have another house to go to — like so many affluent coastal residents do — that can cause a lot of emotional trauma and damage to a family.

Monica Barra, School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment and anthropology

The College of Arts and Sciences researchers are particularly interested in heirs property law and its detrimental effect on residents in coastal regions who hold land in that manner. Heirs property describes land held without a clear title, often the result of the original landowner dying without bequeathing the property to specific family members. Land parcels held through heirs property can have dozens, even hundreds of owners as the number of heirs multiplies over time. 

“The policies that govern climate change mitigation aren’t written to benefit you if you don’t have clear title to your land. Tidal flooding is becoming more prevalent, but you can’t access federal flood insurance [without] clear title,” Barra says. “And FEMA requires clear title to access their assistance programs. You can’t just say, ‘My family has lived here for 150 years.’”

Dean Hardy, an assistant professor in the School of Earth, Ocean and Environment who also holds a joint appointment in geography, has been studying similar issues on Georgia’s Sapelo Island. A small remnant of Gullah Geechee people, descendants of Africans who were enslaved on former sea island plantations, remains on Sapelo Island, which has undergone a coastal gentrification in recent years.

Hardy noted that coastal gentrification has been shaping coastal development policies for the past few decades. Stir in climate change and regulatory rules that place heirs property landowners at a disadvantage and you have a perfect storm threatening the most vulnerable coastal landowners.

Barra and Hardy often work with geoscientists who are formulating climate change mitigation plans. As social scientists, Barra and Hardy are tasked with bringing a sociological viewpoint to the table.

“It’s difficult for those who don’t have access to wealth and housing security,” Barra says. “If you experience high tides, hurricanes and flooding and don’t have another house to go to — like so many affluent coastal residents do — that can cause a lot of emotional trauma and damage to a family.

“There is a personal cost of having to leave family land in those situations. That scenario leads to cultural changes along the coast, but it’s hard to quantify the impact for those who write policies. It can be frustrating when people’s lives and futures are boiled down to numbers.”

Barra and Hardy see hope in the work of nonprofit organizations such as the Charleston-based Center for Heirs Property Preservation, which helps heirs property owners acquire clear title to their land, gain access to flood insurance and adopt sustainable forestry management practices. 

“It’s not just about protecting people from rising seas but also addressing the systemic inequities that have existed for decades,” Barra says. “You can’t talk about climate change planning without understanding the unique relationships that people have to land and landownership.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about