After interviewing nearly 20 people involved in the coastal restoration process and program — from scientists and engineers, to public officials leading agencies — one of the surprising findings was the consensus among them that people living inside these levees — who live in the most threatened spot in North America due to sea level rise, subsidence and coastal land loss — don’t seem to be fully engaged or aware of just how precarious their situation is.
So, is this common?
“Yes, this is very common, and the answer to the reason why it’s pretty common is what I would call, it’s not a ‘kitchen table’ issue,” says Kevin Gotham, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs in the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University, and a sociologist who studies post-disaster recovery and rebuilding. “Basically, their priority is bills — bills for the home, health care, education and so on. And for many people, climate change, coastal erosion and the other interconnected issues don’t strike them as a central issue that impacts their kitchen table discussions every night.”
One of the common remarks about New Orleanians is that we’re too worried about Mardi Gras, the next party, the Saints season, crawfish season, it’s the city that care forgot, laissez les bon temps roulez… But what Gotham is saying is this is a fairly common reaction in any community in the United States if they’re faced with a problem. Unless the problem is hitting us — unless the water is coming into our houses and it’s touching us physically — we tend to not be worried about it.
“This is really how it is with most environmental problems,” Gotham says. “Unless it’s impacting them in a very direct way, in a very acute way, in a very intense way, they’re probably not going to react to it.”
He says people just feel like they have more pressing concerns. “We all have to prioritize every day, and most people do not see climate change and coastal erosion and subsidence as a major and intense social problem that impacts them on an everyday basis,” he says.
How Gotham would make it more real for more people:
To get it to become a kitchen table issue, it has to be a political issue. Elected leaders must see climate change mitigation and coastal erosion mitigation and issues of flood control and storms as central to everyday life here. So, it has to be at the forefront, and a major agenda for elected political leaders. The other thing is it has to be at the grass roots level — people have to work through their non-profit organizations. Their non-profits have to be really involved, and constantly bringing home to people that we really are in peril if we don’t engage in meaningful public discussions and meaningful public policy changes at the federal, state and local levels to stop the problem now, rather than let it become more intense over time.
Aaron Viles, the Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Network, on what he thinks has been the response in this community as they work to get more people involved:
Well, I think that public awareness is only growing over time. What we know now is that, I think post-Katrina people saw in a very kind of real and tangible way what it means to be vulnerable, what it means not to have effective flood protection out there and that idea that our wetlands are our horizontal levees kind of really hit home with folks. But, then people go back to their bills, they go back to life — and life is hard as it is. So, why would you want to willfully get engaged with some process that seems so cumbersome, that seems so… The payoff is so far down the road, so I absolutely understand the points that are being raised here. What we’re doing this summer — a total throwback — we’re actually going door-to-door. We’re knocking on peoples doors to say, hey, look, this is urgent. With these BP Clean Water Act restoration funds it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put us on a track towards resiliency, so we want to maximize that opportunity and really do get that issue at the kitchen table — get people behind our efforts, but not even just our efforts: we just prefer folks to get engaged, to know that the CPRA is an entity that needs to hear from the public.
This stuff shouldn’t be decided just among the experts and the bureaucrats because it has these kind of real-world impacts on these coastal communities, so they need to have a seat at the table. We need to let them know where the meeting is, because if they’re not at the table they’re on the menu, right? And I think that’s something that’s really critical for the public to understand.
What can people do to get involved?
There’s a whole variety of ways you can do it. We’ve got a whole list of state, federal, local entities that have some role to play in deciding how we’re going to move forward with coastal restoration or if we are. So, I think, start at the local level: ask your City Council member the next time you’re out and about what are they doing on this, and why aren’t they doing more? They’ve got a bully pulpit at the city level; they can certainly get this issue brought up, they can ask the Corps tough questions about what’s going on with the Mississippi River Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Plan — you know, these types of things that have kind of stalled out because there hasn’t been enough pressure and engagement. We can kind of amp that up just by getting folks to take it to their decision-makers. Why is Steve Scalise being let off the hook on climate change action? He’s good on coastal restoration, but he seems to have a disconnect there. That’s because we let him have a disconnect. You’ve got to ask him next time you see him: “What are you doing on climate change to mitigate the risk that we’re facing?” And on and on and on — I think every place that you interact with a decision maker, bring this issue up if it’s something you care about.
Are local leaders, from the City Council to the Mayor and the Governor, involved enough?
I don’t think they are. And I think what they’ll point to is “We don’t really have a role.” But they do have a role, because they are an elected leader: they can ask tough questions of the Corps, they can ask tough questions of our federal and state level lawmakers. They’ve got great lobbyists working for the city of New Orleans in Baton Rouge — how come they’re not tackling climate change up there? There’s lots of things we could be doing, if there was a kind of groundswell urging them to do it.
Is there a place where people can find a list of organizations to join, in addition to the Gulf Restoration Network?
We work well in coalition with a whole set of groups. The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is the state level entity — and, actually, they’ve got a decent list of folks who are engaged with the process, so you can go to their website. But then, locally, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has been doing great work here for decades; the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana has been a leader on this issue — who made this an issue, really, for the state of Louisiana; the Sierra Club is a kind of volunteer-led entity here in the city of New Orleans and at the state level — they’re always looking for folks to get engaged and help them be thoughtfully and usefully at the table on stuff like that.
Support for The Louisiana Coast: Last Call comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an organization that addresses the challenges facing people who live and work in the coastal communities of Southeast Louisiana.
The Louisiana Coast: Last Call is written and reported by Bob Marshall of The Lens, and produced by Fred Kasten.