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Denial is not a river in Louisiana

NEW ORLEANS – A standard Monday night on Bourbon Street is rowdier than Homecoming Saturday on Frat Row in the public school college town where I spent my undergraduate years. There’s an air of carefree revelry, and libations run freely down throats and sidewalks. It’s 10 p.m., and the party is just getting started.

While partying on Bourbon Street, you’d never know that just fifty miles away on the Gulf Coast, Louisiana is experiencing the greatest rate of land loss on the planet.

The emerging – or rather, submerging – environmental catastrophe is as grand in scale as it is complex in its origins. Since 1930, Louisiana has lost 1880 square miles of its coastal marshes – an area eight times the size of San Francisco. Every hour, Louisiana loses at least one additional football field’s worth of land.

It’s not hard to figure out why the land is giving way to sea. Human ingenuity is a blessing and a curse on the coast. We’ve channelized and contained the mighty Mississippi, providing some measure of flood security, but also preventing the river from replenishing the land with continental sediments carried to its delta. We’ve pock-marked the region with oil wells, extracting the fuel that sustains Louisiana’s economy, but also leaving the physical structure of the coastline vulnerable to collapse. And, to add insult to injury, we’ve started warming the Earth’s climate, causing ice melt and seawater expansion that will elevate sea levels by up to four feet by 2100.

Hurricane Katrina made the consequences obvious. Today, half of New Orleans lies below sea level. Its hold on dry land is already tenuous, subject to the frailties of human construction. Pumping away storm surges and heavy rainfall will only get harder as the sea moves inland and upward.

But the Big Easy is in a big state of denial.

Yes, politicians and citizens agree that something must be done to better protect New Orleans from flooding. That “something” includes restoring and maintaining Louisiana’s coastline. There’s even a master plan for this restoration – though it may or may not work, and may or may not be affordable. (Some very interesting politics surround attempts to get oil and gas companies to pony up for part of the bill.)

But there’s a big lumbering elephant missing from all the plans and calculations, and that big lumbering elephant is climate change. Despite a grim outlook already foreshadowed by dramatic land loss on its shores, Louisiana is one of 28 states without a plan to address climate change either finalized, or in the works. Its governor remains unconvinced of the science. He’s not alone, no doubt thanks to generous campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, which has thrown three-quarters of a billion dollars at its favored candidates this year alone.

One can only hope the local head-in-the-sand maneuvers are the tactics of a dying breed. Around the world, other countries are taking action. Here in the United States, the Pentagon recently announced that climate change is a national security threat affecting our global interests, not just the high-water marks on our coastal military installations.

But achieving a social consensus paralleling the scientific one on climate change is actually the easy part. We must then motivate ourselves to action, which means prioritizing painful changes to our lifestyles to address environmental impacts that seem vague and nonthreatening compared to more immediate concerns.

That’s why we’re seeing concrete plans emerge slowly and sporadically, largely in areas experiencing the biggest direct threats. For example, South Miami commissioners, frustrated with the state’s overall apathy towards climate change, recently staged a largely symbolic vote proposing to split Florida into two. The proposed state of South Florida, as they’ve drawn the borders, has an average elevation of only 50 feet above sea level and needs to address sea level rise now, while the northern parts of the state, sitting pretty at 120 feet, are currently dodging the issue.

You’d think Louisiana would be equally concerned, and indeed, some citizens are. But here, oil pockets run deep and political will runs shallow. Ignorance, however willful, provides temporary bliss. The festivities rage on, and the most immediate danger comes from alcoholic, rather than salty, liquid.

Just four blocks off Bourbon Street, the first St. Louis Cemetery houses its dead above ground. In New Orleans, graves are built, not dug, because the ground is too swampy for burial. Walking amongst them, just out of earshot of the revelers in the French Quarter, fills me with a sense of foreboding. Someday, perhaps in my lifetime, those resting here may be the only occupants of a watery grave.

Contact Holly Moeller at hollyvm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Holly Moeller

Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).