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. […]