Riegel: A silver lining among the storm clouds of climate change

As has been well documented by now, the Trump administration released one of the most significant reports about climate change in recent memory on a day when few people were paying attention to anything important—the day after Thanksgiving.

The president later explained the decision to release the Fourth National Climate Assessment in a Black Friday “news dump”— rather than at the originally planned December press conference—by saying, simply, he doesn’t believe in climate change.

This was not a new revelation from our flat-earth-society POTUS. But it was particularly egregious considering the gravity of the conclusions in the report, which was informed by data and analyses from more than 300 leading climate scientists from 13 of Trump’s own federal agencies.

Their conclusion: Not only is the world’s temperature rising, but evidence overwhelmingly points to the role human action is playing in it. What’s more, unless we change our practices and policies, there will be “substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”

Perhaps Trump can thumb his nose at this kind of report. But here in south Louisiana, where we live with rising sea levels, visible coastal erosion, catastrophic storms and increasingly frequent floods, we cannot afford to look away. We know better.

The report, in fact, notes that things are particularly bad—and will get worse—in Louisiana and the other 10 states in the southeastern U.S., which are likely to be hardest hit by climate change because “losses are largest in regions that are already poorer on average.”

Climate change will adversely affect every aspect of life and society—not just buildings and the natural environment, but infrastructure, health, mobility, and access to food and water. Areas with high levels of poverty will be least able to weather those challenges.

Among the other nuggets in the report specific to Louisiana and the southeastern U.S.:

  • As temperatures rise, communities along the Gulf Coast are particularly at risk for a “high potential abundance” of mosquitoes carrying such diseases as the dengue and Zika viruses.
  • The Southeast has more days than other regions of the country with stagnant air masses and higher levels of fine particulate matter, which causes heart and lung disease. As temperatures rise, those diseases will, too.
  • Infrastructure, such as bridges, is vulnerable to climate change and by 2050, the Southeast is expected to have the most vulnerable bridges in the country—not good news for a state where 20% of all bridges are already structurally deficient.
  • Global sea level is very likely to rise between 0.5 and 1.2 feet by 2050—just 30 years from now—which will increase the depth and frequency of coastal flooding and cause many Southeastern cities to experience more than 30 days of high tide flooding a year.
  • Extreme coastal flooding events—“100-year” and “500-year” floods—are projected to increase in frequency and duration.
  • Major inland flooding events, like Baton Rouge’s historic August 2016 flood, are also projected to occur more frequently. The report makes special note of the Capital Region disaster, one of four inland flooding events in just three years.

There’s more, but you get the point. The situation is bleak and it’s going to get worse unless we are willing to make some major changes to the way we live.

Fortunately, there are those within the state and city who are working to help bring about those changes. Louisiana, in fact, is ahead of many states in resiliency and adaptation, not because it’s particularly progressive but because it has no other choice.

“We are on the frontier of resilience because we have to be,” says the Center for Planning Excellence CEO Camille Manning Broome, a scientist by training who is establishing herself internationally as an expert on resiliency and adaptation.

Just 10 days before the national climate assessment came out, Broome delivered opening remarks at CPEX’s annual Smart Growth Summit that seemed prophetically timed to respond to the report’s conclusions and warnings.

“We need to create big, transformative changes during our own lifetimes to ensure that future generations can thrive, Broome said. “This is not just about coastal communities.  It is about all systems, governments and communities at every scale.”

Besides lecturing about sustainability around the globe and leading discussions with planners and community leaders at events like the recent Smart Growth Summit, CPEX is actively helping vulnerable communities around the state plan for the future. It recently was among several organizations that worked with the state on a two-year, federally funded program, Louisiana Space, writing adaptation plans for six south Louisiana parishes, as well as a regional plan.

CPEX also worked with the governor’s office in October to help organize a two-day conference in New Orleans, at which leaders from every state agency met to address not only the risks occurring on the coast but how that impacts every facet of government.

Additionally, CPEX is helping communities like Isle de Jean Charles—a rapidly eroding island in the bayous of south Terrebonne Parish—plan for and carry out a wholesale resettlement. It is the first such community in Louisiana to pack up and leave. Sadly, it will not be the last.

It’s encouraging in the face of such daunting challenges that a local nonprofit is helping lead such important discussions. It’s critical that more of us sit up and start paying attention. It may not matter much to the White House but it matters for the future of our state and our planet. 

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