Climate change a threat to New Orleans region, officials warn

Environmental groups and elected officials representing New Orleans highlighted the dangers climate change poses to the region at a news conference Thursday.

The event, which comes the same week that President Barack Obama announced new rules aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that help cause global warming, focused on the threat of rising sea levels and disappearing wetlands, a combination that could leave the city surrounded by water within decades.

“If we don’t do anything about it, we’re going to have the Gulf of Mexico at our doorstep,” state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, said.

Climate change poses a number of serious problems for the New Orleans area.

Rising sea levels mean low-lying coastal areas and wetlands will be underwater as the water level rises. That issue is exacerbated by the fact that land in the New Orleans area is sinking, a process known as subsidence. Some experts say the region is experiencing the highest rate of subsidence in the country and among the highest rates in the world.

The effects of those factors already can be seen in New Orleans, Badon said, pointing to areas near Paris Road that were once dry but are now underwater.

The state already has lost about 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s.

In addition, a warming climate is expected to increase the likelihood and severity of hurricanes fed by warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico. Those storms, in turn, would be made worse by the lack of wetlands that would normally buffer populated areas from their surge.

“We need levees to protect the municipalities, and we need wetlands to protect our levees,” Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation Director John Lopez said.

The question, he said, is “whether we can overcome this so New Orleans continues to be here in 50 or 100 years.”

Dealing with the threat is not just an environmental issue, according to those at the event.

State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, noted the importance of the New Orleans area’s maritime commerce and industrial activity to the national economy. Those industries could be put at risk by rising sea levels, he said.

“If we don’t do anything about it, we’re going to have the Gulf of Mexico at our doorstep” REP. AUSTIN BADON, D-New Orleans, on climate change

The challenge for the area, Leger said, is to remain a “leader in energy production” while at the same time encouraging industries in the state to use renewable resources with less of an impact on climate.

While encouraging individuals to do what they can to reduce their carbon footprint — such as driving more fuel-efficient vehicles — the speakers said stemming global warming will depend on changes to public policy.

“We all know things we can personally do. But the biggest change will come from policy changes,”said David Muth, with the National Wildlife Federation’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program.

“Political posturing should not get in the way of public health,” said Telley Madina, of Oxfam America’s Coastal Communities.