Several New Orleans state legislators joined a group of environmental leaders on Thursday to warn that global warming is increasing the threat to the state’s coastal communities from sea level rise and hurricane storm surge.
“By 2050, if we don’t do anything to stop it, the city of New Orleans will be surrounded by the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Walt Leger III, speaker pro tempore of the state House of Representatives.
“Imagine that. When you lose those wetlands, we all lose a piece of who we are,” Leger said. “A piece of our history. We lose communities. We lose places that we’ve been. We lose fishing communities. We lose jobs. We lose energy sector jobs. We lose petrochemical jobs.
“And we lose a part of our souls,” he said.
Scientists say rising levels of human-made carbon dioxide from electric power plants, industrial processes and vehicle exhausts help the atmosphere hold in heat, leading to warmer worldwide temperatures. Those temperatures already are having a variety of harmful effects, from rising sea levels to longer periods of drought and more intense storms, according to a national climate assessment released by the federal government in May.
Some business groups and politicians have argued that climate change is not caused by human action, and have said the economic cost of proposed solutions is far too great.
In the New Orleans area, climate change translates into two problems, rising sea levels and more frequent severe storms, said John Lopez, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
Both exacerbate the area’s risk from hurricanes, and endanger the ability of the city to survive, he said.
“What is at risk? New Orleans’ future itself” Lopez said. “We need the levees to help protect our municipalities, but we need our wetlands to protect our levees, and if our levees are not intact, if we can’t afford to rebuild them, if we can’t make them high enough, essentially the economic underpinnings of New Orleans go away.”
New standards proposed this week by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon pollution from electric power plants offer a glimmer of hope, said David Muth, director of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program for the National Wildlife Federation.
“The importance of delta wetlands and our entire coastal wetlands system to this state cannot be overestimated,” he said.
Southeast Louisiana is the most vulnerable location in the developed world to climate change, he said.
“The reason for that is that we built the city and the world’s largest port, and some of the world’s most concentrated energy infrastructure on top of a delta, and a delta that’s already sinking, and by world’s standards, it’s sinking very rapidly,” he said.
The state’s already lost 1,900 square miles of coastal land since the 1930s.
“What we have to do now is to think about the long term and whether or not the work that we do as a state and as a nation over the next 50 years to undo that loss of land, to rebuild the delta, to restore the system that built the delta in the first place, whether all of that will be for naught in 50 or 60 or 100 years because we haven’t done anything about runaway climate change,” Muth said.
On Monday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency released proposed rules calling for an average 30 percent reduction nationwide in carbon emissions from electric power plants over 2005 carbon levels.
The new regulatory program sets a goal for Louisiana to reduce its electric power plant emissions by an average 39 percent by 2030, according to an EPA web site.
Casey DeMoss, executive director of the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy, said the EPA program contains flexibility that will allow the state to reach its reduction goals while maintaining continued economic growth.
“The goals themselves are very flexible,” DeMoss said. “They allow energy efficiency and demand-side management to be used to calculate those decreases and emissions.”
Demand-side management is a strategy where industries are encouraged and assisted to reduce their use of electricity in manufacturing processes. Similar programs assist residential users to reduce their energy use.
Energy efficiency investments create jobs that can’t be sent overseas, DeMoss said.
“Your house has to get insulated, or your neighbor’s house, or your business needs more insulation in the attic,” she said. “That work cannot be moved to China.”
Louisiana congressional members quickly criticized the administration’s plan. Entergy, the state’s largest utility, said the plan sets “stringent” targets for carbon emissions reduction, but it is not expected to lead to debilitating costs or closures for the company.
Louisiana’s Master Plan for coastal restoration and protection also includes plans to reduce carbon by capturing it in the wetlands being built as part of its restoration projects.
“The idea is that as you create wetlands, you actually capture carbon, remove it from the atmosphere,” Muth said. “We are at the very early stage in developing the science to track how effective that is, but there are some prototypes that have been approved that are now eligible for existing financial markets for carbon trading.”
Existing sequestration projects in the United States are largely voluntary, since there is no federal “cap and trade” regulations that would set a financial value for storing carbon in wetlands, he said. The state of California has set up its own program, and a number of utilities, including New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., participate in a private cap and trade credit market that is founded on the companies’ assumptions that a federal program eventually will pay for their credits.
Entergy has established several experimental cap and trade projects for which it is banking financial credits for carbon captured by growing trees or wetlands.
It also has underwritten the cost of a project led by New Orleans-based Tierra Resources to measure the carbon capture efficiency of such projects.
EPA also has identified a variety of actions that individuals can take to reduce the carbon emissions they are responsible for, including such steps as installing energy efficent light fixtures and bulbs, buying Energy Star qualified appliances, taking steps to reduce power use when heating and cooling homes, and sealing and insulating homes. Those and more energy reduction proposals are available here.