Babbitt to Southern Louisiana: Look into Gondolas

“New Orleans, at the end of the century, will be an island” — literally, predicts Bruce Babbitt. The city won’t wash away, he says, but “much like Venice,” its long term survival will depend on the maintenance of high, dike-like walls. Most of the roughly 2 million people who now reside outside of the city will eventually have to undergo a “managed retreat from that delta country” as it becomes submerged, he says, a victim of the global sea-level rise associated with climate warming.

Babbitt, who was Interior Secretary in the Clinton Administration, painted a grim picture of southern Louisiana, this morning. It was part of a briefing that had been organized to unveil a new report by the Center for American Progress.

Before any new major federal program can commence, its administrators must sign off on an Environmental Impact Statement — an analysis of how the program might affect the environment or be affected by it. The new CAP report argues that one facet of every EIS should be an assessment of how the program would contribute to climate change or be affected by global warming. Currently, climate change is all but ignored by analysts who prepare an EIS, the authors of the new report say.

Carol Browner agrees. She headed the Environmental Protection Agency throughout the Clinton administration and served as the moderator of a panel, today, that argued there is a need for EIS climate-change assessments. Browner interlaced quips from her own experience between the responses of her panelists – among them, authors of the new CAP report.

But Babbitt is the one who offered the riveting anecdote of the session. He focused on a 2004 EIS that the Army Corps of Engineers commissioned in anticipation of launching a $14 billion Coast 2050 program. Its goal: to reverse a century-long degradation of the Mississippi delta ecosystem – one that has been inexorably washing away into the Gulf.

Since the 1930s, the Louisiana delta has lost more than 1.2 million acres of land (485,830 hectares). “The cumulative effects of human and natural activities in the coastal area have severely degraded the deltaic processes and shifted the coastal area from a condition of net land building to one of net land loss,” the EIS explained. Throughout the decade ending in 2000, the delta was losing some 15,300 acres per year (6,194 ha/year), a rate that was expected to eventually slow down to about 6,600 acres per year for the next half century.

So the Corps of Engineers entertained proposals from a host of stakeholders and research groups to redress the problem. The only problem, Babbitt argues, is that the Corps neglected to account for the region’s topography and the effect global warming would have on it.

More than 95 percent of the terrain in a 10,000 square mile area at the mouth of the Mississippi — the Louisiana delta — resides a mere 3 feet or less above sea level. Due to subsidence, the area is also losing about a foot in height per century, Babbitt notes. Those two features are bad news for the region, he argues, because global warming is already beginning to raise sea levels around the world.

“The ineluctable fact,” he maintains, is that within the lifespan of some people alive today, “the vast majority of that land [the 10,000 mi2 delta] will be under water.” He also faulted federal officials for not developing migration plans for area residents. Then again, he charged that Uncle Sam lacks the “honesty and compassion” to tell Louisiana residents the “truth.”

And the reason this is important for environmental assessments, he argued, is that in some instances — such as the Corps’ efforts to rehabilitate the Louisiana delta — the feds risk throwing huge sums into a money pit. In the end, he worries the $14 billion gesture will have proven “meaningless” if the area is ultimately drowned by seawater.

Clearly, Babbitt offered up some great quotes. The problem, of course, is that the glib orator can’t prove his prognostications will come to pass. Nor can anyone else. He argues that his crystal-ball gazing has been informed by conclusions issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the huge consensus group that has deliberated on the science of climate.

So, do we accept the analyses of a skilled political animal, like Babbitt, to cautiously and accurately apply climate science to the Louisiana delta?

In fact, I don’t think it matters. I think he was really having sport with reporters and climate-policy analysts in the audience today. Deliberately putting a dramatic slant on the situation.

But if his what-if scenario is at least partially right, Louisiana and the nation may find it prudent to indeed begin taking climate change into account during environmental-impact assessments.

Only five days ago, I sat across the table at dinner, with an executive of a major insurance company that insures other insurance companies. These “reinsurance” firms are a very conservative lot. And this executive noted that his company and others reinsurers do take climate change very seriously.

The kind of havoc climate change could wreak to infrastructure threatens to break the bank, he said. It’s that simple. And that disturbing.

And if insurers are worrying about this, then I’d argue that we – and Uncle Sam – should too.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Earth