Trump Wants to Downplay Global Warming; Louisiana Won’t Let Him
On a recent morning in Baton Rouge, a thousand miles from where Senate Democrats were jousting with Donald Trump’s nominee to run the US Environmental Protection Agency about whether humans are warming the planet, the future of US climate policy was being crafted in a small room in the east wing of the Louisiana Capitol. The state’s 7,700-mile shoreline is disappearing at the fastest rate in the country. Officials had gathered to consider a method of deciding which communities to save—and which to abandon to the Gulf of Mexico.
Bren Haase, chief of planning for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, was presenting his team’s updated Coastal Master Plan. Five years in the making and comprising 6,000 pages of text and appendices, the document details USD 50 billion in investments over 5 decades in ridges, barrier islands, and marsh creation. Tucked into the plan was a number whose significance surpasses all others: 14 ft, the height beyond which Haase’s agency has concluded homes couldn’t feasibly be elevated.
In areas where a so-called 100-year flood is expected to produce between 3 and 14 ft of water, the plan recommends paying for homes to be raised and communities preserved. In places where flood depths are expected to exceed that height, residents would be offered money to leave. “We’re trying to make the best decisions for the most people,” said Haase, adding that Louisiana’s strategy could become a model for other states. “The plan is really a framework to make those tough decisions.”
As Trump’s administration prepares to unravel federal policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, state and local governments are trying increasingly aggressive steps to cope with the consequences of those emissions. In New Jersey, a state program offers residents in flood zones the pre-Hurricane Sandy value of their homes, turning the land into a buffer against the next storm. In Alaska, entire coastal towns are petitioning the federal government for money to move inland.
But nowhere is the rush to adapt to climate change more urgent than in Louisiana. Levees built in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 reduced inundations but also the deposit of sediment that had offset the gradual sinking of the marshlands—a process that accelerated with the expansion of the area’s oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, canals built to service the oil and gas wells let salt water penetrate deeper into the marshes, killing vegetation and speeding erosion. Since 1932, the state has lost 1,800 sq miles of land, roughly equivalent to 80 Manhattans. On top of all that, Louisiana must contend with sea-level rise. If it does nothing, the state is expected to lose as much as 4,000 additional sq miles of land in the next half-century. Its residents have no choice but to retreat from the coast; the question officials are trying to answer is where that retreat can be postponed and for how long.