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Climate Change and Cultural Adaptation in Coastal Louisiana

Facing the Rising Tide

by JULIA KOPPEL MALDONADO

Climate change, environmental and technological disasters, extractive industries and river mismanagement are drastically transforming coastal Louisiana’s waters and landscape. Coastal Louisiana has lost approximately 1,880 square miles of land in the last 80 years. This is largely due to oil and gas companies dredging canals to install thousands of miles of pipelines along Louisiana’s coast. Administrators have also constructed dikes and levees, dammed the Mississippi River and used other flood control measures to prevent sediment and silt from reaching the Mississippi Delta. These actions, along with large-scale agricultural development and intensive cypress logging and deforestation, result in subsidence, coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion, which have accelerated in recent years.

On top of this poor physical foundation, climate change and intensified hurricanes compound the effects of land loss and subsidence. Southeast coastal Louisiana has experienced one of the world’s highest rates of relative sea level rise – sediment subsidence combined with sea level rise – with an over eight-inch rise in the last 50 years. The area is now predicted to face the highest rate of relative sea level rise worldwide, threatening communities with the risk of displacement.

The injustice of threatened displacement is highlighted most readily for coastal Louisiana’s tribal communities. Compounding the climate-related impacts and environmental degradation, state-led coastal restoration and mitigation efforts, such as the Morganza to the Gulf of Mexico Hurricane Protection System – a flood control project crafted by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District – completely exclude the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. Furthermore, Isle de Jean Charles and other tribal communities, such as the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Bilox-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians and the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, were given minimal attention in Louisiana’s 50-year Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast.

The political decisions of whether or not to mitigate the environmental damages, and thus forcing communities and individuals to consider relocation were based on cost-benefit analysis and designed to protect the oil and gas industry, large ports and cities and industrial hubs further north of coastal Louisiana’s tribal communities.

Cost-benefit analysis used to make coastal restoration and mitigation decisions does not account for what was actually being lost in weighing the costs versus benefits. It does not include the costs of what it means when fishing families are moved inland and they need to seek other means of employment and job training and learn new skills. It does not account for the local knowledge that is lost and cannot be replaced by moving a fisher to other waters or for the mental wellbeing of being removed from the only way of life one has ever known.

While some social costs can be quantified, such as loss of jobs, others are more difficult to measure, such as loss of livelihood and social network and meaning of a cultural site. The cost-benefit based restoration and mitigation decisions, which are legitimized by government authorities, need to be critically scrutinized, as they dictate and determine who is being sacrificed for the supposed greater common good. Such processes reflect and reproduce social inequalities that have turned coastal Louisiana into an energy sacrifice zone.

The federal, state and local governments in Louisiana have had a long-standing partnership with multinational oil and gas corporations that perpetuated turning coastal Louisiana into an energy sacrifice zone. For example, the 1978 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act reflected a political bargain between the state and oil and gas interests to promote offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; the Act specifically singled out the Gulf of Mexico for more mild environmental oversight and safeguards under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The relationship between the oil industry and the state was further highlighted recently when the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed a lawsuit against ninety-seven oil, gas and pipeline companies for destroying Louisiana’s coastal landscape and demanding that the companies restore the damaged wetlands or pay for damages the companies caused that cannot be restored. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who claimed the lawsuit was not in line with Louisiana’s coastal restoration policy, appointed the three members of the Authority board that voted against the resolution for the lawsuit. Governor Jindal has been pushing for a law (Senate Bill 79) that would give him more power in appointing the members of the levee board.

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Interior has historically adopted the recommended practices and standards developed and recommended by the American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, as formal agency regulations. However, the American Petroleum Institute is the oil and gas industry’s principal lobbyist. Therefore, the suggested practices and standards that the Department of Interior has adopted are questionable as to whether they actually make operations safer or encourage industry sovereignty without government oversight getting in the way of the industry’s profit margin.

For example, the Corexit dispersant used to “clean up” the oil following the 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster was banned in other countries and scientists argued it could be deadly to people and sea life. A University of South Florida study found that the Corexit broke the oil droplets down into smaller drops and created a plume that caused the die-off of foraminifera, amoeba-like creatures that are characterized as the basis of the Gulf’s aquatic food chain. In another recent study, one group of scientists found that adding Corexit 9500A to the oil spill in the Gulf made the mixture up to fifty-two times more toxic than the oil itself.

This points to how the 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster, and politically-managed cleanup, was not an isolated event, but rather just one example of the structural violence played out in the region by the government-multinational oil and gas corporate partnerships and a symptom of a greater systemic, socially constructed, long-term legacy of atrocities wrought in the region through this partnership. Such a legacy is the underlying force threatening the displacement of Louisiana’s coastal communities.

The potential displacement faced by communities in coastal Louisiana due to unsustainable development practices and climate change impacts is a microcosm of what is happening around the world. People living in coastal and low-lying areas increasingly face the reality of displacement, with entire communities in the U.S. and globally being forced to relocate.

The Third National Climate Assessment  released on May 6, highlights the impacts experienced by Louisiana’s coastal communities. In particular, the Assessment includes input from a technical report submitted by four of coastal Louisiana’s tribal communities, depicting the loss of livelihoods and social, cultural and spiritual impacts due to severe environmental degradation.

The Assessment includes the following as one of its key messages from the indigenous peoples chapter:

“Climate change related impacts are forcing relocation of tribal and indigenous communities, especially in coastal locations. These relocations, and the lack of governance mechanisms or funding to support them, are causing loss of community and culture, health impacts, and economic decline, further exacerbating tribal impoverishment.”

Our first priority should be to support communities so they are able to remain at home. Only if a community decides it needs to relocate should such community-led efforts be supported by government agencies and organizations. Relocation efforts need to be community-led so communities are not unjustly forced out of a location and because there are important elements that need to be considered beyond just physically relocating, such as choosing a new location, housing configuration, maintaining social networks and livelihood opportunities. A human rights- and social justice-based relocation framework is needed that recognizes the social and cultural components of displacement to help decrease displacement’s impoverishing impacts. Offering support only for individual relocation, instead of by community, further scatters communities and tears apart the social and cultural fabric of what makes coastal Louisiana so unique.

There is an urgent need to employ climate change mitigation measures and adaptation strategies, as climate change is rapidly becoming the overarching social and environmental justice issue of our generation and for the foreseeable future. In addressing the impacts of climate change people are experiencing, we also need to include the complex relationship between climate change, other environmental changes, unsustainable development practices, social relationships and power dynamics.

A socially just adaptation process is needed that includes more equitable distribution of knowledge sharing and integration, multiple perspectives in decision-making and that is done with, not on or for, the affected communities. It is time to re-imagine ways local knowledge and observations can connect to other scientific observations. As communities in the U.S. start making sense of climate change based on unique relationships to the environment, scientists and policymakers must be ready to engage with these communities and make sense of climate impacts from local people’s generational knowledge and perspectives.

Julie Koppel Maldonado is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at American University. Her doctoral research focuses on coastal Louisiana’s tribal communities’ experiences of environmental change. She currently works for the U.S. National Climate Assessment and most recently consulted for the UN Development Programme. She can be reached at jk6582a@student.american.edu.