Why Louisiana’s Disappearing Coastline is a Political Problem

I attended a conference last week in New Orleans on the future of the Louisiana coastline, and left hours later—as I often do when I hear experts discuss climate change—in a fog of symposium-induced gloom. It’s not because the challenges facing us are insurmountable or impossible to fathom—precisely the opposite.

For the most part, the people working on these issues have laid out perfectly plausible ways forward. The coast can be saved if we act now, the speakers insisted; here’s what the coast will look like if we do nothing [not much Louisiana left]; here are some of the ways we might address the crisis.

The problems aren’t technical—although there are surely many unresolved issues; they’re political. We possess the know-how; we lack consensus.

This paradox is especially stark in Louisiana. Climate change—and the attendant sea-level rise that accompanies it—is not a “theory” here. It is a rapidly encroaching reality. In southern Louisiana, land is disappearing at an alarming rate of 12,000 acres a year, which works out to about 33 acres a day, or almost an acre and a half per hour. Even though our previous governor was a climate-change denier, state employees working for him definitely knew better. Why? Because, as landscape architect Elizabeth Mossop once said to me, “They see the same fish flopping across the roads on their drives south.”

The disappearing coastline here has a second nemesis, this one decades old. Louisiana was born of and by the river. For seven thousand years, the meandering Mississippi would flood, deposit silt, change course, and leave behind freshly created land. When the Army Corps of Engineers leveed the river banks, following the monster flood of 1927, this natural process came to an end. In fairness to the corps, the project was a huge engineering success and a spur to development in the state and navigation throughout the heartland, but it had unintended consequences. The delta wetlands stopped getting their rejuvenating springtime dose of silt. Moreover, coastal Louisiana had been sinking for millennia, due to the sheer weight of the muck hanging over the edge of a continental shelf that ends somewhere up near Baton Rouge.

Today the combination of subsidence (the city of New Orleans sinks at a rate of about one inch a year) and sea-level rise has accelerated the process. It’s why southern Louisiana has replaced Venice as the fastest sinking land mass in the world. And it’s why climate scientists like Klaus Jacob are skeptical about the long term prospects for New Orleans, even after $14 billion in post-Katrina spending on levees.

And yet, there are smart people, panelists such as Denise Reed of the Water Institute of the Gulf, Clint Wilson from LSU, and Steve Cochran of the Environmental Defense Fund, working on the problem. Our current governor, John Bel Edwards, recently swore that he would not allow the state to be swallowed up by the sea “on his watch.” The state is currently finalizing revisions to its coastal master plan. Rather ominously, it appears that most of the sea level projections described in the 2012 masterplan as “worst case scenarios” are now seen as “best case” in the revised plan.

The masterplan sets out a 50-year vision, exploring a range of approaches: the identification of viable land; the diversion of the river to create new land in the most favorable locations; and a framework for resettling communities likely to be displaced by rising waters. It’s a comprehensive vision of such sweeping magnitude that the price tag remains fuzzy. It could cost $50 billion, or it could conceivably cost double that. A still-to-be-determined amount will come from the settlement wrested from BP after the disastrous 2010 offshore oil spill. A panelist put that amount at $21 billion, but that was a guess.

An ongoing lawsuit against the oil and gas industry, spearheaded by the heroic John M. Barry, seeks restitution from the companies that ravaged the coast. Granted permits to drill, dig canals and lay pipelines, the companies simply ignored their contractual obligation to restore the land to something like its prior condition. Sliced and diced over decades, miles of the coast-building wetlands were invaded by salt water and died off, the suit argues.

It’s a lawsuit our previous governor tried to kill. One strategy was to bounce Barry off the levee board in whose name the suit was first filed. But miraculously, the litigation is still alive. How much it might generate for the restoration of the coast is an open question. (Zero is possible.)

Even with a hefty BP settlement and success in court, there won’t be anything close to enough money to save the coast, without outside help. And therein lies the political rub. Saving the land deemed salvageable (and surrendering the rest to rising seas) will be an extremely complicated and expensive mission. And mission—as in, mission to Mars—is an altogether apt description for what’s needed. It will require a massive, coordinated effort. It will also require something else that’s politically toxic in most of Louisiana: the active involvement of the federal government, for additional funding, if for nothing else. There’s an irony here, of course: Louisiana is second only to Mississippi in its dependence on federal funding for all manner of state programs. And yet, Louisiana’s congressional delegation struts and preens about states rights and our rugged independence of federal “welfare.”

When most of your congressional delegation is both skeptical of climate change and opposed to government spending (unless lavished directly on their constituents), you’ve got a problem. Worse than that, it’s a prescription for continued neglect, at a time when it’s already too late for many coastal towns.

Maybe, just maybe, Louisiana’s congressional delegation will eventually have a come-to-Jesus moment and acknowledge the scientific and political realities. But I wouldn’t count on it any time soon; a pending Senate election is not likely to shake things up. So what are we to do? Is New Orleans doomed to an Atlantis-like future?

The restored levees probably buy us a couple of decades, maybe a bit more if they’re properly maintained and we continue to dodge the bullet of a truly horrific hurricane. But an eventual reckoning with nature seems inevitable. Of course, the same can be said for any number of coastal cities: Miami Beach, Norfolk, Boston, New York City, to name just a few.

All of this underscores once again the national and global implications of our predicament. Southern Louisiana is first in line. If people here are serious about the future of their state, they need to act—and vote—accordingly.

Featured image via nytimes.com


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