Sandy Bridges, the owner of Palmetto Hammock in Charleston’s historic market district, is accustomed to flooding in her gift shop, so she keeps the floor clear of the hammocks, clothing, and tourist knick-knacks she sells. The 150-year-old building she occupies is two blocks from Charleston Harbor, and if it rains when the tide is high, the water comes up to her doorstep and sometimes over it. “The wooden flooring is old ship’s decking,” she says. “They understood we were going to get wet.”
The 19th century South Carolinians who built on the Charleston peninsula didn’t anticipate how wet. Scientists expect sea levels to rise between 8 inches and 6 feet by the end of this century, putting low-lying coastal businesses at risk. To make the threat of climate change clear to her customers, Bridges joined a campaign last week to mark where the high tide in 2100 would be if the worst of those scenarios comes true. A strip of sky-blue tape near the handle of her door indicates the spot. “Where I’m standing right now, the water would be up to my chest,” she says.
About 90 businesses so far have agreed to put tape, decals, or posters in shop windows. The campaign is part of a larger effort to draw attention to the risks that climate change poses to small businesses. “The tourism industry in our state is primarily a small business industry,” says Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, which is recruiting businesses along with the American Sustainable Business Council. “There’s not much greater threat to our tourism industry than a destroyed coast.”Photograph by Kate Thornton for Bloomberg Businessweek
The American Sustainable Business Council and another advocacy group, the Small Business Majority, plan to release a report Thursday showing that “small businesses with fewer locations and limited resources are particularly vulnerable to devastating extreme weather events,” according to a news release from the group.
It’s not hard to imagine Charleston’s low-lying retailers under water, especially after seeing hurricanes flood homes and businesses from New Orleans to New Jersey. When Hurricane Hugo landed in South Carolina in 1989, Bridges says, the property she now occupies had water up to the attic. She knows that businesses near the sea live with the risk of devastating storms, but she’s hoping it’s not too late to keep the coastline from permanently creeping upland. “If the water keeps rising, I feel there’s not going to be much hope to maintain this area,” she says.
Knapp’s group, which has about 5,000 members, hopes that changing tourists’ hearts and minds will prod Washington to act. Visitors to the campaign’s website can send messages to lawmakers urging them to curb carbon emissions and support clean energy sources. There’s little hope of that happening in the current Congress, where Republicans are trying to block White House plans to limit power plant pollution.
Knapp wants at least to show what’s at stake for coastal businesses in the “very red state” of South Carolina. “This is about protecting the South Carolina coastal tourism economy,” he says. The damage from climate change, Knapp says, won’t be felt “in my lifetime. It might be in my daughter’s. It’s definitely in my grandkids’.”