When Climate Change Displaces a Town, We All Pay for It

Big Oil helped drown the Gulf Coast. Where are they now?

By Reuben Brody

When Climate Change Displaces a Town, We All Pay for It
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07 June 2017

One of the toughest periods in my life was in 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana.

I was living in New Orleans and had to evacuate to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I stayed briefly with my folks. The anxiety of not knowing where my friends were — combined with uncertainty about whether I'd even be able to move back — came flooding back this week with news that residents of nearby Isle de Jean Charles (along with a small community in Alaska) will soon be relocated because the seas are overtaking their homesteads.

We're lucky that we have systems in place to ensure that these folks will be safely transplanted. Truly. But that doesn’t mean their lives will be any easier, and it doesn't make up for the fact that they'll soon lose so many of the comforts, customs and conveniences that make a home, well, a home.

At the time of Katrina, I was working for was then mayor Ray Nagin, and we’d often call attention to the problem of coastal erosion by citing this statistic: Louisiana loses about a football field of wetlands every 45 minutes. The wetlands, we’d argue, were the city’s buffer against a hurricane’s storm surge. It’s such common knowledge down there that they regularly dump used Christmas trees in the bayous to sure up the coastline.

The oil wells off Louisiana’s coast are directly to blame, not only because they are responsible for warming the planet and trapping CO2 in the oceans — which thereby warms the waters, melts icebergs and raises sea levels — but also because the oil companies had to dredge canals through the wetlands to pipe the oil to inland refineries. In doing so, they carved pathways for saltwater to mix with freshwater, which accelerated coastal erosion. Communities like Isle de Jean Charles are the eventual casualties of this erosion.

Louisiana could have prevented all this in two ways. First, they could have netted greater royalties from the oil companies and invested them in land conservation. Instead, they overplayed their hand and didn’t have sufficient resources to build infrastructure to offset the environmental consequences of the drilling and pumping. Second, they gave the oil companies exactly what they wanted: lax regulatory oversight.

As reported by Quartz, the U.S. government is paying $48 million to relocate the 30-something residents in Isle de Jean Charles. Just as was the case with Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. government had to issue grants to pay for this. That means you, I and our grandkids will pay for the move with our tax dollars.

Surely there's a more just way to solve the problem, given that most of us acknowledge that humans are at least partially to blame for global warming and prefer that our institutions switch to renewables. The pool of politicians denying the science gets smaller by the day, and the interests funding them — Big Oil, the Koch Brothers et al. — are also dwindling in number.

Shouldn't they be paying to move the citizens they've helped displace?

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