The tide is rising fast on Louisiana. A report late last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that along the Gulf Coast, the sea level is surging three times faster than the global average—and studies have for years singled out New Orleans as the U.S. city most vulnerable to destruction from the effects of climate change. Louisiana’s rapidly rising threat from the sea was even the subject of a 2012 Academy Award-nominated film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which depicts an impoverished community devastated by rising waters and vicious hurricanes.
“Louisiana might just be the most vulnerable state in the country, in terms of climate change,” said Barry Keim, the state’s official climatologist. It faces a double whammy: The sea level is rising above miles of slowly sinking and eroding wetlands. That combination means, Keim said, “relative sea-level rise here is off the charts compared to anywhere else.”
Climate change presents Louisiana with an existential crisis—and its lawmakers with a wrenching political problem. The Pelican State is at the nexus of two profoundly conflicting forces: fossil fuels and global warming. Oil is the economic lifeblood of the economy in this state at the heart of the nation’s offshore oil- and gas-drilling industry, home to thousands of jobs at refineries, ports, construction firms, and other industries that together account for up to 20 percent of Louisiana’s jobs.
That’s why many of its lawmakers don’t even acknowledge the science of climate change, and why even those who do are opposed to tough regulations on fossil-fuel pollution. “It’s just a shibboleth that you have to protect and shill for the industry—that’s the key to being seen as taking care of Louisiana,” said Pearson Cross, who heads the political-science department at Louisiana State University. “But it all takes place in the context of the most threatened coastline in America. There’s this disjunction that exists between the full-throated defense of the oil industry and the vulnerability to the sad, and what appears to be inevitable, rising sea levels and a changing climate.”
Louisiana’s two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, exemplify that bind. Both rank among the top 20 members of Congress who have received the most campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry since 1990, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That allegiance appears to put them on a collision course with President Obama’s State of the Union vow to fight climate change, likely by using the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate fossil-fuel pollution.
As the new top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Vitter is tasked with leading the fight against that agenda. His predecessor in that seat, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, for years rallied conservative opposition to climate-change policy, famously calling climate science a hoax. In past speeches, Vitter has called himself a “big cynic” on the science of global warming, and he has slammed EPA’s “garbage can of regulations and failures.”
But those expecting Vitter to be the new conservative field general in the war against regulating carbon were surprised when Gina McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to lead EPA, came before the committee last week. Vitter barely mentioned climate change, instead using his time to question McCarthy on EPA’s e-mail practices, following up on complaints that her predecessor, Lisa Jackson, had used an alias account. Did his silence mean Vitter recognizes the tight spot he’s in? He wouldn’t say. The senator doesn’t speak to reporters in the hallways of the Capitol. His office declined a request for an interview and refused to answer questions on the subject.
Landrieu, too, is in a precarious position. She’s running for reelection next year—and as a Democrat in a Republican state, she is viewed as one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbents, one who is determined to protect jobs at home. “Beating up on the fossil-fuel industry and the petrochemical industry is not the way to move forward,” she said in an interview. “I don’t agree with the Obama administration and their approach.”
In the same breath, she was quick to praise Beasts, the Louisiana climate-change parable. “I absolutely thought it was spectacular … and accurate,” she said. “I have been thinking about sea-level rise since I arrived in the United States Senate, and I’ve been a leading proponent of mitigating against it by building levees that don’t fail, restoring wetlands, and leading the fight to secure billions of dollars for funding necessary to protect the Gulf Coast.”
In 2006, Landrieu pushed through a law that rerouted a portion of revenues generated from offshore drilling from the federal treasury to Gulf Coast states. So far, the law has sent $29 million to Louisiana, to be used in part to rebuild the state’s eroding coastal wetlands that serve as protective barriers against storm surge. It’s projected that in the coming decades the law could funnel up to $40 billion in fresh funds to the state.
Vitter differs from his conservative colleagues when it comes to government aid. He’s been a vocal advocate of federal spending to prevent and repair damages from extreme weather and was one of a handful of Republicans who voted for the $50 billion in aid for recovery from superstorm Sandy. This week, he introduced a bill to reauthorize the $47 million Wetlands Conservation Act. Earlier this month, Vitter slammed Obama for cutting spending on levy construction in Louisiana in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal.
It may be, however, that as the rising sea begins to damage Louisiana’s economy, the politics may start to change. According to the draft National Climate Assessment prepared by 13 federal agencies earlier this year, climate change is already posing a threat to Louisiana’s oil and gas industry, as more-extreme storms damage offshore infrastructure and trigger profound economic consequences. Said LSU’s Cross, “My guess is that after 2016, it’s not going to be a political issue anymore. By 2020, we’re not going to be able to be climate deniers.”