Monday, June 11, 2007

Why Greenland's Icecap Matters to Louisiana

Saturday's Washington Post carried an article on attempts to measure the rate at which Greenland's icecap is melting.

The relevance of the article comes in these sentences:
If all the ice on Greenland were to melt, the seas around the world would rise by 23 feet, submerging countless coastal cities. A modest three-foot rise would endanger 70 million people. "Greenland has the potential to put a lot of water, a lot of ice, into the sea," said Tsoflias, a researcher from the University of Kansas.

Greenland's ice cap contains 800 trillion gallons of water and several outlet glaciers, huge rivers of ice that act as faucets from the ice cap. Those faucets are running faster. The Jakobshavn Glacier where Tsoflias works has doubled its speed in five years and every day dumps enough ice into the sea to supply 20 to 30 New York Cities with water.

The image from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development at the top of this entry explains why everyone in south Louisiana should be paying attention to what's happening to the icecap in Greenland.

The dark purple areas represent areas that are, according to the legend accompanying the DOTD image, one to five feet above sea level. The lighter purple areas are six to ten feet above sea level. The tan areas are 11 to 15 feet above sea level.

Depending how much and how quickly Greenland's icecap melts, places like St. Bernard, Terrebonne, Lafourche, Plaquemines, St. Mary, Iberia, Vermilion, Cameron, Calcasieu, St. Tammany, Ascension, Iberville, Jeff Davis, Jefferson and Orleans parishes are going to be in danger of being submerged.

The cause of the melting of Greenland's icecap is greenhouse gases which have set in motion a process of climate change.

Louisiana, by way of its positioning on the Gulf Coast and with most of the land in the southern part of the state having been formed by river deposits, finds itself as something of the canary in the coal mine when it comes to the impact of climate change. That is, because of our flat, marshy coast (it's more of a membrane of both land and water, rather than a hard coast line) we are susceptible to the impact of warming and rising oceans — with their stronger storms (think Katrina/Rita) — as well as the sinking of the muddy land that constitutes so much of the southern part of the state.

Given that climate change is real; that a significant portion of it is being propelled by greenhouse gases resulting from the carbon-based fuels we use to heat and cool our buildings, power of vehicles and our factories; and that our state is particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, here's the question: Why have we not heard a single candidate for statewide office raise climate change and what the state can do about it as an issue in this campaign?

What can the state do?

Well, for starters, the energy we use to heat, cool and light our buildings now constitute one of the greatest source of greenhouse gases in our energy mix.

The state of Louisiana is, as you may have noticed, rents, owns and operates a lot of buildings across the state. There are universities and colleges, agencies, field offices, hospitals, clinics, highway maintenance barns, etc., that can be found in every parish and parish seat, in addition to a lot of other places.

The state also operates large fleets of automobiles and trucks.

I'm not sure what the total cost of operating these facilities and these fleets are, but they must constitute a significant contribution to the total energy demand of the state and, thus, to the production of greenhouse gases in our state.

So, what are the questions that we should be asking candidates for governor and the Legislature this year regarding state policy on the operation of its own facilities as a contributor to climate conditions that imperil significant segments of our state?

Should the state be converting the fuel source that powers its automotive fleet? What steps could the state being taking to improve the energy efficiency of the buildings it owns? In the wake of the Bush administration's "what, me worry?" approach to climate change, what policies can state and local governments adopt to fill the void left by federal indifference and inaction?

Louisiana cannot afford another term or two of leaders who believe recruiting more chemical plants to this state is the path to growth, nor can we afford another term or two of leaders who fail to recognize state government's ability to be a force for change here because of its sheer size (after all, it's got a $29 billion budget and about 60,000 employees).

While we cannot allow the rest of the country to forget that the fate of our state is vital to the economic, cultural and social well being of the United States, we also need to demonstrate that we, as a people, are capable of recognizing our own self interests and are equally capable of acting on those interests.

Ultimately, it comes down to us. We need to raise the issues. We need to force the candidates to face these issues and to respond to them.

What are you prepared to do?

1 comment:

JDD said...

It is striking how Louisiana remains oblivious to the "big picture". On the political front, this talent for delusion is demonstrated by the state's flirting with a Republican takeover after most of the rest of the country has rejected the GOP's disastrous policies. On the environmental front, the delusions cover the spectrum of responses (or lack thereof) to the storms of 2005 and projections for the future.

Currently, the largest investments in energy production in the state are for a massive new coal-burning plant northwest of Baton Rouge, and a massive new coal-gasification plant in St. James Parish. The latter is somewhat less destructive than the former, but both show the absolute refusal of most of Louisiana's political leadership to acknowledge the reality of environmental issues until a disaster takes place. The new coal-burning plant will not utilize a "clean coal" design to minimize emissions. Other states would have insisted on it, but not Louisiana.

So, our state continues to play a major role in planning its own decline. For Louisiana, the coastal aspect of the greenhouse world we're moving into should be of paramount concern. The state does have the advantage of 2 large river deltas that can be used to counter sea-level rise to some degree with coastal and deltaic restoration projects.

The effectiveness of such efforts will depend in large part on the impacts of climate change on the Mississippi River's flow (which includes the flow of the Atchafalaya, the other large delta). There are "dry" and "wet" scenarios suggested by current climate models for the Mississippi River Basin. All of the major rivers that flow through Louisiana - the Mississippi, Red, Ouachita, Sabine, and Pearl - have their headwaters outside the state, and we're thus at the mercy of what happens upstream, both in terms of climate and management.

An excellent report released a few years ago by the Ecological Society of America and the Union of Concerned Scientists, Confronting Climate Change in the Gulf Coast Region (, makes the point that our climate here should be much more Mediterranean - i.e., drier. But wind and water currents like the Bermuda High and the Gulf Stream have given us the moist, humid climate that we're used to. The climate models for the Gulf Coast also posit dry and wet alternatives, either of which would pose major problems for agriculture and infrastructure in their own ways.

Louisiana is for the most part sitting out the emerging trend of states to craft aggressive and progressive climate change policies in the face of inaction by the Bush administration. We do have some helpful programs for energy efficiency in the Department of Natural Resources. But most of our funds for transportation are going to road construction. The opportunity for implementing the long-discussed but dormant plan for a Baton Rouge-New Orleans passenger rail line have lost energy after a surge of post-Katrina interest.

But the state will eventually have to implement the same solutions, even after waiting (characteristically) late enough to weaken their benefits for the populace:

1) Diversify the energy system, integrating solar and wind with the "grid", and making homes and businesses energy efficient;
2) Build an effective public transportation system to deal not only with climate change but the other emerging trend being ignored by the state - the "peaking" of global oil and gas production, which at some point will make cars unaffordable for most of the population;
3) Institute land use policies that protect the land and water, rather than degrading them, as investments in quality of life and health. This will include protecting wetlands rather than developing them.

The power structure in the state hates each of these suggestions, but that merely points up the only effective engine of change, which is democracy, something that also needs restoring in Louisiana.

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