That's the bad news. The ecological change, researchers say, is inevitable. The good news is, we might be able to prevent much of the damage brought on by the changes.
"The question in the scientific community is not 'why?' but 'when?' and 'how much?'" says Dr. Robert Twilley, an ecologist with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Twilley is a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit coalition of researchers from several institutions who last week released a comprehensive study documenting the expected impact that climate changes will have on the Gulf Coast.
The study is sobering. Temperatures in Gulf Coast states are predicted to rise in the next 50 to 100 years from 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and up to 5 degrees in the winter. Louisiana's climate would, in essence, climb a step from sub-tropical toward tropical.
At the same time, the state is expected to sink. Warmer temperatures will cause sea levels to rise, topping out at a possible 44 inches along the Louisiana/Mississippi Delta, according to the report, Confronting Climate Change in the Gulf Coast Region: Prospects for Sustaining Our Ecological Heritage. Pair that with Louisiana's already rapidly deteriorating coastline -- 25 to 35 square miles per year, most experts agree -- and you've got the double whammy of rising water and disappearing land.
That would lead to greater surges even during mild storms, says the report. Worse yet, higher, warmer waters generate stronger storms. Factor in the deterioration of Louisiana's coastal lands -- the state's first line of defense against storm surges -- and the door opens for hurricanes to hit Louisiana residents much harder they have in the past.
This report blames the rising global temperatures on fossil fuel burning and land deforestation. Others in the scientific community may not agree with that theory, acknowledges Twilley, who maintains that one thing cannot be disputed: the earth's temperature lately has been climbing. "The climate change is a fact," Twilley says. "The theory as to what's causing that may not be universally agreed upon, but the empirical evidence remains the same."
Twilley and other authors of the report stress the need for top-notch hurricane preparedness in every Louisiana community. During a time of enhanced vigilance on other fronts, state and local agencies should not ignore this reminder to examine hurricane preparedness strategies, identify and correct problem areas, and make sure flood protections such as levees and drainage systems are in top form. We also urge local officials to make hurricane preparation a top priority when planning future budgets, and to regard excellent storm protection as an investment in lives.
"People in the community have to have expectations of their leaders that there will be a response," says Dr. Denise J. Reed, a University of New Orleans geologist and co-author of the report. "The thing about climate change is, it's not going to go away."
The report, released jointly with the Ecological Society of America, points to another potential disaster if Louisiana land mass continues to degrade at its current pace. Saltwater marshes, which are rapidly dying and disappearing, serve as a habitat for various species of fish and birds. Such marshes "provide free services for economic development," Twilley says. He lists the seafood and commercial fishing industries, and tourism-related industries such as hunting and fishing, as the beneficiaries.
Twilley points out that such habitats can be artificially duplicated, but at a steep cost. "These are the free goods and services that nature provides. To what point are we willing to protect and maintain them?"
For the first time in recent memory, state leaders appear to be listening. In an encouraging step last August, Gov. Mike Foster pledged his support of Coast 2050, a proposed $14 billion federal-state program aimed at curbing Louisiana's coastal erosion. Foster said he would press President Bush and the state's congressional delegation to support the plan.
We hope they do. At the same time, we hope our congressional representatives take this opportunity to consider ways to wean America off its dependence on fossil fuel.
We urge lawmakers to draft and support legislation that funds the development of higher fuel efficiency standards and renewable sources of energy, such as wind, water and solar power. Tax incentives should be offered to encourage companies to buy technologies that reduce their use of fossil fuels.
National and local leaders should consider this report a wake-up call and take such actions that are, at worst, good common sense -- and at best, a way to prevent future damage.
"We can deal with this," says Dr. Reed.
We agree. And we should start now.