Mike Stagg: Climate Change as Existential Threat

Tropical Storm Cindy was a tiny storm that had an outsized impact on south Louisiana. Coastal flooding cut off LA 1 and extended westward to Cameron Parish. Again, this was only a tropical storm. Not a hurricane.

Cindy revealed our extreme vulnerability. Flooding in south Iberia Parish has revived calls for a levee to keep some storm surge out of some communities in that parish. A similar proposal was defeated four years ago.

There is more of this to come in our future — all across south Louisiana. It’s because of climate change. The atmosphere is continuing to warm up, driven primarily by the the burning of fossil fuels which create the greenhouse gases that drive the process. The floods of August 2016 had all the earmarks of being powered by climate change.

CPRA map showing coastal wetlands loss within 50 years without an effective response to climate change.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) has just implemented its third Coastal Master Plan. Like its 2012 predecessor, the 2017 plan is an amalgam of projects and approaches to restore wetlands, protect people and property. Like the 2012 plan, it carries a $50 Billion price tag. We know that this is a low-ball estimate. And, oh, by the way, we don’t have the money to cover even half of the low-ball estimate.

One path to getting some of that money leads to the federal government. Good luck with that. The Trump administration (like the Obama administration before it) has proposed cutting off Louisiana’s access to GOMESA money which is a new stream of offshore oil and gas royalty money that CPRA leaders include in the $19 Billion in revenue they thought they could count on as part of the minimum $50 Billion needed to implement some significant portion of the Master Plan.

That leaves the oil and gas industry. The industry is responsible for some significant portion of the wetlands loss Louisiana has experienced over the past 70 years. Studies in which the industry participated have found that industry activities — particularly the dredging of access canals for drilling locations and trenching through wetlands for pipelines — contributed between 30 and 70 percent of wetlands loss in particular areas, depending on the amount of oil and gas activity and the topography of the area.

Six parishes have filed Coastal Zone law suits against oil and gas companies under the powers given them by the Coastal Zone Management Act. There are 20 parishes included in Louisiana’s Coastal Zone. Governor John Bel Edwards wants all of them to join the state in suits against the industry as part of a strategy of bringing them to the negotiating table.

The industry has a legal, ethical and moral responsibility to help pay for the damage their activities have caused to our wetlands. The profits they have extracted from Louisiana have made them rich but their activities are setting us up for disaster.

Climate change — rising seas, sinking land, higher humidity, stronger storms — threatens the future of everyone living in south Louisiana. The core business of the oil and gas industry is fueling climate change. Climate science indicates that relative sea level rise in Louisiana (the combination of rising seas and sinking land) could be as much as six feet within the next half century.

Sea level rise of that magnitude will force many of us to abandon our homes, businesses, and communities. For people like us —  people who are deeply attached and connected to place — this will be a traumatic event. We might be able to avoid it, but only if we are willing to confront climate change — the existential threat to south Louisiana.

May, 2016 map from The Advocate which accompanied a Bob Marshall article on the impact of projected sea level rise on south Louisiana.