Talking Points

Hurricane Ida, jazz, and how climate change destroys our history

The Karnofsky Store is no more. The building — a jazz landmark known as a "second home" to young Louis Armstrong — collapsed Sunday, buffeted by the fierce gales of Hurricane Ida. A little bit of what makes New Orleans New Orleans is now just a pile of rubble.

It's a hint of what climate change holds in store for humanity.

We tend to think of climate change in terms of what it means for our future — how much the seas will rise, how many acres will burn, how many people will be displaced or worse as temperatures increase and the world changes around us. What is already clear, however, is that the warming Earth will also rip away pieces of our history, as bits of it are burned or drowned or simply knocked over by the wind.

This history might be personal: Think about how many wildfire stories you've heard about families losing old pictures and other heirlooms, keepsakes of parents and grandparents and other relatives gone forever. But it's also true on a collective scale. In 2017, a group of scientists reported that a one-meter rise in sea levels could result in the loss of more than 13,000 different historic and prehistoric archaeological sites in the American Southeast alone.

"The displacement of millions of people due to rising seas will cause additional impacts where these populations resettle," the researchers reported. "Sea level rise will thus result in the loss of much of the record of human habitation of the coastal margin in the Southeast within the next one to two centuries and the numbers indicate the magnitude of the impact on the archaeological record globally."

This matters. So much American discourse in recent years has been about our history — how we remember it, how we preserve it, how we think and talk about it. We make sense of that history, and who we are, by seeing and touching the things our ancestors carried, by walking where they walked, and — yes — by building physical monuments to them. The knowledge can be digitized and passed on, perhaps. But it won't be the same.

When we lose the stuff of our history to climate change, we'll lose a little bit of ourselves as well.