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Coastal Desk

Climate change could prove more deadly in Louisiana without immediate action, report says

Ida aftermath in Houma, LA
Kezia Setyawan
/
WWNO
A woman sits on a balcony of the Lake Houmas Inn after the roof caved in and floodwaters cover the parking lot on Aug. 30, 2021 following Hurricane Ida.

Life in Louisiana will only get wetter, hotter and more humid in the coming decades, according to the latest international warning on climate change. And the extreme weather will be more than just uncomfortable — it will be deadly, and already is.

The report, dubbed “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership” by a top United Nation official, examined how people, especially those in coastal communities like in Louisiana, are already suffering from the effect of an increase in global temperatures of 1.1 degrees Celsius, or about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The inability to curb greenhouse gas emissions has ensured the world will warm by at least 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 3 degrees Fahrenheit, come 2050, and those effects are locked in.

“With only 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming so far, we're already seeing a rapid acceleration of harmful impacts all around the world,” said National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Kathleen Miller, one of the report’s lead authors. “That is ringing the alarm bell.”

Hurricane Laura satellite imagery
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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Hurrican Laura made landfall over Cameron, La. on Aug. 27, 2020 as a Category 4 storm. Southwest Louisiana was hit by another hurricane in the weeks after in a devastatingly active hurricane season.

Coastal Louisiana residents are already on the frontlines of more intense hurricanes, rising seas, flood-inducing rain showers and extreme heatwaves due to climate change, said Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for climate and land use change with the U.S. Geological Survey. By the end of the century, Louisiana might, on average, be 12 degrees hotter, allowing the air to hold even more moisture and worsen storms.

“You couple sea level rise with the increase in storm intensity, and you have basically an existential threat for coastal Louisiana,” said Burkett, who also serves on Louisiana’s Climate Initiatives Task Force. “Without adaptation and mitigation, communities and natural systems along the northern Gulf Coast, particularly in coastal Louisiana, will continue to decline.”

There’s still hope, Miller added. Steep cuts in fossil fuel emissions in the coming decades would keep global warming within a range where people can adapt to the impacts of climate change, according to the report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Monday.

But it won’t be easy. The windows for climate adaptation and mitigation are the same if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change and protect against the warming that’s already locked in.

“What we’re finding is there are things that can be done within limits. If warming gets too far, then we're going to increasingly run into what we call ‘hard limits,’” Miller said.

These “hard limits” come after warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius, resulting in impacts that people can’t adapt to — like having the Gulf of Mexico overcome their community. As it stands, sea levels are already predicted to rise by up to 2 feet in Louisiana by 2050, and could rise by more than 4 feet by 2100, according to projections by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

temperature projections for louisiana
Data: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information Louisiana State Climate Summary, 2022
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A graphic depicting the observed and projected changes in temperature for Louisiana spanning 1900 to 2100. The red shading illustrates how the temperature would change should greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase while the green shading illustrates temperature change with lower emissions. The graphic is in Louisiana's Climate Plan.

Without reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, sea level rise could eventually render some coastal areas uninhabitable, according to the IPCC report. If action is taken, the report emphasized the need for “transformational adaptation” through regional collaborations, investment in nature-based solutions over gray infrastructure and encouraging climate-resilient development.

Some of these issues are addressed in Louisiana’s first-ever Climate Plan, which lays out policies that would align the state with the global effort to achieve net-zero by 2050.

For Louisiana officials, Hurricane Katrina offered a tragic wake-up call around the need to adapt and mitigate against the compounding effects of intense storms and extreme land loss along the coast.

But each disaster aggravates the next, and it gets harder to balance forward-looking adaptation with recovery, said Camille Manning-Broome, the executive director of the Center for Planning Excellence. The nonprofit works with the state on climate adaptation and disaster resilience.

“Because our vulnerabilities in Louisiana make it hard to get ahead of these compounding disasters, we have got to focus on a whole of government approach,” she said.

That means all state agencies need to consider their own role in dealing with the effects of climate change, Manning-Broome said, which is a process that the governor’s office has already begun with the center.

Ida aftermath in Houma
Kezia Setyawan
/
WWNO
Children ride bikes and march through floodwaters in the parking lot of a Dollar General in Terrebonne Parish, La. on Aug. 30, 2021, after Hurricane Ida blew through the region.

State and local governments will also need to revamp how they think about water management and development, Manning-Broome said, shifting away from Louisiana’s traditional approach of transporting what with ditches and culverts to living with water and constructing more water retention areas and green spaces to deal with increased rainfall.

It also requires all levels tackling larger issues that harm a community’s resiliency, including racial divisions and the state’s high poverty rate that leave residents without the tools to deal with disasters alone.

People are already migrating from high-risk areas within miles of the state’s eroding shoreline, but it isn’t happening equitably due to gaps in federal disaster recovery programs. With each storm, those without the means to move are left behind with no other choice than to rebuild.

“We're going to need to think creatively about buyouts and human migration and what that looks like,” Manning-Broome said. “Otherwise, people will just slowly get strangled out, and we'll continue to see outward migration out of Louisiana.”

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