Section 3.5: Confronting Sea Level Rise

A final issue of human adaption to coastal land loss has to do with the problem of sea level rise. It may seem as if sea level rise is something that is impossible to resist. It is primarily caused by rises in global temperature and the melting of Arctic / Antarctic continental glaciers. Global warming, as the name suggests, is a problem that is playing out at the scale of the entire planet and it is therefore hard to frame it as a local issue for Southeast Louisiana. And the nearest melting glacier is thousands of miles from the Gulf of Mexico. How can we, as individuals, resist global warming and sea level rise as worldwide problems?

One answer to this question is actually very local. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Louisiana has benefitted immensely from the extraction of oil and natural gas, especially from along its coast and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. There is a strong scientific consensus that the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels is to blame for the sharp increase in global temperature that has occurred in the last 150 years. If we are to have any hope of stopping global warming and resulting sea level rise, we must reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we burn. It is really that simple.

It is perhaps ironic that Louisiana has had, and continues to have, such an important role in producing fossil fuels, while at the same time, its existence is threatened by sea level rise. The state of Louisiana and many of its residents depend on oil and gas drilling as a source of economic income. We cannot expect those who depend on oil and gas drilling to give up their livelihoods overnight. It is neither an ethical nor a practical expectation. At the same time, we cannot expect other global emitters of green- house gases to slow their burning of fossil fuels while we continue to benefit so much from their production. And as a coastal state, we desperately need the world to slow its emission of greenhouse gases in order to prevent a nightmare scenario in terms of global warming and sea level rise.

Furthermore, given that oil and natural gas are not limitless resources, we must begin the process of envisioning a future in which the economy of our state is less dependent on petrochemical production. One way forward, which has been proposed by Governor Jon Bel Edwards, is to make Louisiana a center for research and innovation on issues related to the protection and restoration of coastlines. Few places on earth are experiencing coastal land loss as rapidly and dramatically as Southeast Louisiana. At the same time, few places on earth have such a rich body of knowledge, experience, and creativity with which to address these issues.

The problems that we are experiencing today along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast are not unique to us, nor are they going to resolve themselves anytime soon. Therefore, there is great economic opportunity in developing innovative solutions to coastal problems having to do with sea level rise, subsidence, and coastal erosion at the global scale.

Reducing our dependence on the mining of fossil fuels will not be easy and it may not always be popular. Yet, our future generations depend on our ability to address global warming and slow ongoing trends of sea level rise. No doubt, this will be among the greatest challenges facing us in terms of slowing processes of land loss in Southeast Louisiana.

Go to: Section 3.6: Exercises