This is the flip side of that confounding Southern insistence on “freedom” that you keep hearing about. It’s the thing that rural people do best: They tend to their own. If they have two of something, they give one to somebody else. If they have one of something, they break it into two and give half away.
And that’s why the hatred that inevitably erupts on social media, or in the comment sections of news reports, is so galling. It’s a constant refrain whenever something terrible happens in the South: a clamor of voices telling us we deserve to suffer because we don’t believe in climate change, because we are too stupid to vote for leaders who do. Such vitriol is never directed at the victims of climate disasters in other regions of the country.
The point is that people are suffering. And if their leaders and pundits insist that climate change is a hoax? If their own lives have never given them any reason to question that pronouncement? If even now they are skeptical of outsiders coming in to tell them that this kind of tragedy will keep happening, and happen more often? The answer is not to tell them that they deserve the terrible things that happened to them.
Instead of engaging in what a progressive, small-town friend of mine calls “misplaced schadenfreude,” we need to learn to talk about climate change in a new way, one that isn’t so politically charged. And we can start, as climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe notes, by making it personal.
That means starting with shared values. “The most important thing to do,” Dr. Hayhoe says in her TED Talk, is “to start from the heart.” We can’t start with data, she says, and we sure can’t start with accusations. We can start with what we share: “Are we both parents? Do we live in the same community? Do we enjoy the same outdoor activities: hiking, biking, fishing, even hunting? Do we care about the economy or national security?”
Some Republican leaders are beginning to recognize that climate change is not a phenomenon they can deny forever, but most elected leaders here can still avoid the subject because doing so is not yet a political liability. Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, professes not to know how climate change affects rainfall events like the one his state has just endured. “Why that occurs, I don’t know the answer to that,” Mr. Lee said at a news conference. “I would guess there are those that do, but I’m not qualified to answer that. I don’t know what caused it.”
Clearly, the conversations cannot begin soon enough.
You’ll forget you ever heard of Humphreys County, Tenn., long before the people of Humphreys County have recovered and rebuilt. Already new images of devastation are coming in from Louisiana, but even the most harrowing of those photos won’t capture the true destruction and pain that Hurricane Ida is bringing as it moves through the state and beyond.
These tragedies will be front-page news again and again and again as the earth continues to warm, and a great many of them will have datelines from rural communities in the South that you’ve never heard of — tiny places where people are hurting but still working hard to help one another survive. They will not need your judgment. What they will need is your compassion.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”
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