Let’s Not Talk About Climate Change

Louisiana’s two senators worry more about oil than the rising water level.

Work is underway at the storm surge barrier that is under construction in Lake Borgne just east of New Orleans, on Thursday, June 4, 2009. The project is expected to be completed in 2011 and designed to keep storm surge waters from entering the Industrial Canal. 
2009 AP
Justice Gilpin-Green and Coral Davenport
April 18, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.”