Mitigating Sea Level Rise on Hilton Head Island Requires New Identity – 2/27/16

Recently, the Island Packet reported that the Hilton Head Island Town Council is evaluating the community’s interest in “creating a new vision for the town.” Apparently, the Town Council feels that the participation by residents in this process might prove difficult due to “retirees in gated communities, which are like separate towns and their residents often don’t feel engaged with or mistrust local government, owners of rental properties who don’t live on the island, and younger residents in the ungated parts of town who are often the least vocal.” Of course, the Town Council should be concerned about the challenge of overcoming these factional divides to create a new identity. But, the Town Council should be even more concerned about how these factional divides are already undermining how the local community tackles complex issues that require long-term solutions. For example, consider the threat posed by sea level rise. Certainly, sea level rise poses a long-term threat to the safety and security of the local community. Unfortunately, many of the permanent residents on the island will not be around to see the long-term consequences of sea level rise on the local community. This should be a serious concern for the Town Council. Without young families with a personal investment in the long-term future of the island, sea level rise may not receive the attention that it deserves until it is too late.

Local Demographics

Local demographics confirm that Hilton Head Island is deeply factionalized. Let us consider a few statistics. First, the median age of the population has increased annually from 29.6 in 1975 to 50.9 in 2010 according to the 2012-2017 Sustainable Practices Action Plan. This stands in stark comparison with the median age of 37.9 across the state in 2010. Second, the residents of the island are geographically divided. In fact, according to some estimates, Hilton Head Island is comprised of 70% gated communities. Third, a little more than half of the island’s housing units are classified as vacant (rental properties, seasonal, second-home or for sale). In fact, the 2010 census states that of the 33,306 units, 16,535 are occupied housing units while 16,771 are vacant housing units. Fourth, many of the permanent residents do not have children. According to some reports, only 3,039 of the 16,535 households have children under 18 years. Of course, we could go on. But, the point is made. Hilton Head Island is factionalized along at least three important lines (i.e., age; residency; children) that impact the ability of the local community to tackle sea level rise and other complex issues that require long-term solutions.

Sea Level Rise

Regardless of where one stands on the politicized topic of climate change, sea level rise is an objective threat to the coastal region of South Carolina. And, Hilton Head Island is not alone in being unprepared for the growing threat. Overall, South Carolina recently received a D rating for “its below average level of preparedness in the face of an average overall coastal flooding threat.” This is because many coastal communities across South Carolina have taken little action to plan or adapt to future coastal flooding. But, there are exceptions. For example, the most populated city and economic hub of the Lowcountry, the City of Charleston, has recognized that sea level rise is a direct threat. And, they have released a strategic plan to counter this growing challenge. Hilton Head Island needs to be a leader on this issue as well.

One of the environmental strategies outlined in the Sustainable Practices Action Plan is to “reduce and mitigate negative impacts of sea level rise and global warming effects through beach re-nourishment and development regulations.” Unfortunately, both these measures do little to reduce or mitigate the long-term consequences of sea level rise. Beach re-nourishment projects are temporary solutions at the cost of millions of dollars every few years. At some point, these efforts might even prove cost prohibitive for the local community. But, that is not a personal concern for many of the permanent residents of the island. They will not be here when that day arrives. It is only a personal concern for the young families in our community. They will be the ones that will have to bear that burden.

Lack of Identity Undermines Action

While there has never been a better time to address that sea level rise is threat, Hilton Head Island is simply not in position to meet the challenge of sea level rise. And, the lack of a ‘sense of community’ will continue to hinder any future efforts to counter sea level rise. From my perspective, the local community therefore needs to shift the demographics. Hilton Head Island needs more young families who are personally invested in the same long-term aspirations and goals for their local community. Communities with a strong sense of identity are better placed to meet challenges of sea level rise. This is because they face a shared future. Research seems to support this. One study found that communities with a high resiliency to climate change have achieved it through a ‘bottoms-up’ approach where citizens feel that climate change directly impacts their homes or neighborhoods.

Now, it is well-known that Hilton Head Island is a popular retirement destination. But, a poll released by Pew Research Center on American’s views on climate change exposes that this also undermines any efforts to mitigate the long-term threat posed by sea level rise. When US adults were asked about their views on climate change, 60% of 18-29 year-olds replied that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity compared to only 48% of 50-64 years and 31% of 65+ years. This poll demonstrates the serious generational divide on climate change. While younger generations feel that climate change will directly impact their lives, older generations do not share the same feelings.

Moreover, the number of vacation rentals and second homes paints a picture that a large number of homeowners have their roots planted elsewhere. While these homeowners may share the same concerns about sea level rise as permanent residents, they are not similarly invested in the long-term future of the community. The same goes for family households without children under the age of eighteen. These households are not similarly invested in the long-term future of the community as those with children under the age of eighteen. And, it will be difficult to change these dynamics. With a large percentage of gated communities combined with a median age above 50, Hilton Head Island simply is not in a good place to attract young families who want to become permanent residents.

Local Consequences

While the Town Council’s efforts to push for a new identity should be considered a step in the right direction, simply saying that the local community needs a new identity is not enough. We need to completely revamp the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 so that its focus is on the long-term future of our community. That means that we need to attract young families as permanent residents. And, that in turn means that we need to get serious about tackling complex issues that require long-term solutions. Sea-level rise is just one of these issues. Others might include discrimination and income inequity. Right now. the community is not positioned to tackle these issues. And so, the community cannot attract young families. That needs to change. And, it needs to change quickly. If not, the local community will suffer in the long-term.

Author: James Carroll is a local resident of Charleston, South Carolina. He is also a graduate of the College of Charleston and a former Peace Corps volunteer.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors and not their respective organizations. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

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Tsai Ing-wen: Did You Know that Taiwan is a “Country” in South Carolina? – James Carroll

Words matter in international relations. On January 1, 1979, the United States government ended diplomatic relations with the Government of the Republic of China (ROC). Since then, the United States (U.S.) has only maintained non-diplomatic relations with the “governing authorities on Taiwan.” Of course, many experts argue that this shift on the political status of Taiwan is just a matter of semantics. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. government still maintains de facto diplomatic relations with the governing authorities on Taiwan. It does so through the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, whose representatives possess special powers that allow their offices to operate as de facto embassies. The federal government of the United States is extremely careful not refer to Taiwan as the Republic of China nowadays. That is why the recent reciprocity agreement over driver’s licenses between the State of South Carolina and “Chinese Taipei” warrants special attention.

Reciprocity Agreement

On March 26, 2015, the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (SCDMV) signed a reciprocity agreement  over driver’s licenses with Taiwan to facilitate international commerce and other relations between the State of South Carolina and Taiwan. Following the conclusion of the agreement, SCDMV revised its official website to account for Taiwan’s reciprocity with the state. Those changes included listing Taiwan under a chart that states “only these countries have established a reciprocity agreements” and recognizing that Taiwan requires its citizens to obtain certification letters under the agreement from a “Consulate General of the Republic of China (Taiwan).”

Diplomatic Concerns

The actions of the State of South Carolina entail serious political and diplomatic implications for both the U.S. and Taiwan. Although some experts might claim that one should not attach too much importance to the words “country,” “consulate general,” and “Republic of China” on the SCDMV website, it is likely that the PRC would vehemently disagree. And that is why the case warrants special attention.

Soft Power

To compensate for their lack of recognition at the international level, Taipei has turned to soft power and public diplomacy to meet its foreign policy goals. Over the years, the use of soft power has been utilized by both the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to achieve their priorities. For example, the DPP under Chen Shui-bian promoted Taiwan’s democratization as its most valuable soft power asset, while incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou and his KMT administration valued Taiwan’s traditional culture. This can be interpreted as the DPP seeing democratization as being uniquely Taiwanese to differentiate it from the PRC. On the other hand, KMT’s promotion of Taiwan’s traditional culture is in line with the idea of there being only one Chinese culture, regardless of whether one is on the mainland or the island of Taiwan.

Taiwanese Elections

The election of Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP this past month has returned the question of Taiwanese independence to center stage. During President Ma’s term, cross-strait relations improved vastly, which many contribute to his pro-PRC (People’s Republic of China) leaning. President Ma is a firm believer in the idea of “one China,” and even met with PRC president Xi Jinping this past year (the first meeting of any kind in 66 years). The United States and the People’s Republic of China both have expressed their desires that Mrs. Tsai will maintain the status quo. Chinese state-run media warned Mrs. Tsai that any deviation from the 1992 consensus would provoke turmoil. Both parties have different interpretations of the result of the meeting between the PRC and ROC in 1992. So far, Mrs. Tsai’s position on the issue remains largely unknown.

Complex Problems

Any change to the status quo would hamper regional stability and peace, something that Washington and Beijing staunchly oppose. For this reason, any U.S. state that recognizes Taiwan as a sovereign country threatens to impact where the U.S. stands with respect to China and Taiwan. The reciprocity agreement between South Carolina and Taiwan also exposes potential tension that exists in American federalism. If it is the case that South Carolina superseded U.S. foreign policy, the State Department will have to work diligently with South Carolina and other state governments to ensure that federal rights are not abdicated. Of course, this could have political blowback in the United States. Increasingly, a number of state governments are again asserting themselves as actors in international affairs. This has potential benefits and drawbacks for the State Department. There are ways that the State Department could use such initiatives to its advantage. On the other hand, the recognition of Taiwan as a country by individual states risks damaging the U.S. relationship with China. It also threatens to revise the distribution of powers between the federal government and the state governments in international affairs.

Policy Implications

As Taiwan continues to seek legitimacy, its success in South Carolina must not be overlooked by the Tsai Ing-wen administration. They could either ignore the SCDMV’s language as a poor choice of wording with no further significant consequences, or they could publicly champion it as a soft power victory for “Taiwanization.” Meanwhile, the State Department must also not overlook the long-term consequences of the reciprocity agreement. The question of whether the State Department should reign in South Carolina probably will come down to whether it is useful for South Carolina to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country for the purposes of American national security on the one hand, and American federalism on the other. If it is ultimately useful to have South Carolina referring to Taiwan as a country, then the State Department will probably continue to look the other way. If not, then the State Department will probably push for South Carolina to revise the language. Either way, there is little doubt that Beijing, Taipei, and Washington will be watching what happens next in the Palmetto State with interest.


Author: James Carroll is the Managing Director of the Sea Islands Society.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

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Note: Edits made to original on 3/2/16

Islands: At the Forefront of Baltic Security in the 21st Century – Derek Bolton

In recent years, foreign policy experts have been reminded of the strategic importance of the Baltic Sea region. Faced with a severe deterioration in NATO-Russia relations, the NBP9 states – the Nordic Five (i.e., Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), the Baltic Three (i.e., Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), and Poland – have been forced to reconsider their political, economic, and strategic relations with other states around the world. Those with the most at stake in Russian relations with the West are responding to this development, including the United States, Russia, and the European Union. But, their efforts have been largely shrouded from public view.

Part of the problem is that the major stakeholders have little incentive to be transparent about their policy approaches. Over the last year, the rise of Daesh (i.e., ISIS) has displaced public interest in Russian intervention in Eastern Europe and the Caucus. And, the recent attacks in Paris have only added fuel to the fire.

Nevertheless, the Baltic Three have publicly warned world leaders against overlooking the shift in Russia’s relations with its neighbors. As Estonian President Thomas Hendrik Ilves noted, they do so at their collective peril, “I would say that I think we all concerned about this sort of falling behind or some kind of development in which we stop paying attention to Crimea, or we even forgive the annexation because of the newer threats. We cannot allow that to happen.”

Of course, the Baltic Three are not alone. Victoria Nuland, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the State Department Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs recently stated, “Even as we focus on ISIL, we must not forget that barely two years ago, almost one million Ukrainians …demand that their government give them what we have: human dignity, democracy, clean government, justice… Now we have to help Ukraine see it through. We must maintain pressure on Russia and its separatist proxies to complete the unfinished commitments of Minsk.” And, the Ministers of Defense from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland signed on to a joint op-ed on Nordic defense cooperation that was published in the Oslo daily Aftenposten in August. In that post, they argued,

“The Russian aggression against the Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea are violations of international law and other international agreements. Russia’s conduct represents the gravest challenge to European security. As a consequence, the security situation in the Nordic countries’ adjacent areas has become significantly worsened during the past year…. we must be prepared to face possible crises or incidents”

It is important to note that such calls from world leaders do not only stem from concerns about further Russian intervention in Ukraine. Consider the Aftenposten OpEd. It portrays Ukraine as a potential indicator for Russian aggression in other states, including those on the Baltic Sea. And, this is stoking debate over Russian relations among foreign policy experts across the region. For example, Wilhelm Unge of Säpo recently claimed, “Russia is the biggest intelligence agent in Sweden … they are interested in really everything — political, economic, technical and military information… It is one of the few countries that has the very broad intelligence interest in Sweden.”

Of course, Baltic Sea residents have quite a few reasons to be concerned. For example there was the incursion into the waters off Stockholm by a foreign submarine, widely believed to be Russian. And, some claim that Eston Kohver, a convicted Estonian spy in Russia, was in fact kidnapped on Estonian soil. Although he was swapped for convicted Russian spy Aleksei Dressen, that prisoner exchange did little to allay fears in Tallinn.

Moreover, Finland and Sweden have repeatedly complained of Russian fighter jet incursions into their airspace. For Finland, anxiety over these incursions are heightened by military drills along its border and the assertion of former Putin assistant Andrei Illarionov that the Russian President would, in an ideal world, like to reclaim Finland. Although regional experts largely agree that military intervention is unlikely, many in Helsinki continue to fret land purchases along their border with Russia, and close to military installations, by Russian citizens.

Whether or not these concerns are founded remains open to debate. But, they are fueling major shifts in the Nordic defense posture. In the event of a crisis, Nordic defense initiatives will need to focus on the islands of the Baltic Sea region. This was made evident during widely reported Russian war games that appeared to simulate the invasion of Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In these war games, the islands of Gotland, Åland and Bornholm seemed to feature prominently. And, analysts have concluded, “If carried out successfully, control of those territories would make it all but impossible for NATO allies to reinforce the Baltic states.”

To help explain why, let us turn to Ari Shapiro. In an early 2015 piece with Keir Giles of Chatham House, he noted, “Northern Europe is a complicated chess board and Gotland is a crucial square. Just to the east of this island are the Baltic states – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania… the United States and the Baltics are NATO members. That military alliance says an attack on one member is an attack on all. But Sweden is not part of NATO, which means the island of Gotland isn’t either. And whoever controls Gotland has the Baltics in their crosshairs.”

While Shapiro puts the emphasis on Gotland, Åland is of equally strategic importance. As Kimie Hara writes, “The islands’ proximity to the Swedish mainland creates an obvious danger for Sweden from a military bases in the hands of a hostile power. The Islands hold the key to control of the Gulf of Bothnia, and their demilitarization and neutralization has significance for the security of not only Sweden, but also the region.”

It is perhaps not surprising then that we have already seen a shift in defence strategy across the region. For his part, Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinistö has called for a reappraisal of defense policy vis-à-vis Åland, claiming that Russia still does not recognize the region’s neutral status. Meanwhile, Sweden has begun to station troops on Gotland and recruiting home-guard volunteers after a 10-year hiatus. This has been coupled with further investment in naval capabilities that will be stationed out of Gotland. There are even discussions between the Nordic states of jointly purchasing a missile defense system on the island.

As Baltic islands continue to grow in importance and play a greater feature in foreign affairs and Nordic defense, it will be in the national interests of the major stakeholders in Russian relations with the West to engage local communities across the Baltic Sea. This includes investing in subnational initiatives led by subnational organizations that target sub-national identities. Fostering regional integration and ensuring voices in the Baltic Sea region are not only understood, but also represented, in foreign policy is more important now than arguably any time during the Cold War.

Derek Bolton is the Managing Director of the Baltic Islands Society. He is also a Young Leader at Pacific Forum CSIS and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center on Island Security. Prior to pursing a PhD at the University of Bath, he served as a Research Associate at Global Co Lab Network, where he worked to foster greater international cooperation on Science and Technology (S&T) between Americans and Europeans.

Commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

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