Sunday, August 21, 2016

Climate driven gentrification

We probably will never save the Louisiana coast from destruction.  But, as sea levels rise all over the world, coastal communities threatened by climate change might look to us for a vision of their future.  Unfortunately, as Zack Kopplin observes in this Slate article, the rest of the country is more likely to continue blaming us for our own predicament.
But because we, as a country, have collectively endangered our future by overusing fossil fuels, that doesn’t mean Louisiana has sacrificed its right to exist and its people should leave. Climate change could sink all of our major coastal cities, but Louisiana is being held to a different standard, because we’ve already been hit with so many disasters. We’ve suffered so much that people are tired of hearing about us. In fact, we’ve suffered so much that people outside of Louisiana assume that we want to leave.

But the thing is that we don’t. The people who do leave Louisiana after this flood probably won’t have left because they’ve decided it’s time to give up on their home. They’ll leave because they can’t afford to come back. Since many homes weren’t in a flood zone, most people did not have flood insurance. The Baton Rouge Advocate calculated that the average Federal Emergency Management Agency check would only come out to about $10,000. The FEMA money is “only to keep disaster victims safe, sanitary and secure,” the Advocate wrote. It’s not for repairs.

When you’re hit by a natural disaster, you can sandbag, you can stock up on candles and water, you can evacuate. The government and nonprofits can provide aid. What you can’t do is uproot your house or your community. Those things don’t move.

At least not without extraordinary measures. The U.S. is currently debating whether and how to relocate several small towns in Alaska that are existentially threatened by climate change, but we have no idea how we’re going to foot the bill. To move all of Louisiana would be an insanely expensive undertaking.
Alaska isn't alone in that. We're also already relocating people here in Louisiana at Isle de Jean Charles.
Looking out from the house he built in 1959 with lumber brought by boat to this island at the south end of Terrebonne Parish, Wenceslaus Billiot remembers when the view from his back porch was thick forest and solid marsh.

Now there is just open water.

With their homes growing ever more vulnerable to hurricanes, the 89-year-old Billiot and other residents of Isle de Jean Charles soon will have the choice of whether to stay on this slip of land or relocate, hopefully with their neighbors, to higher ground. This opportunity comes thanks to a $48 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to move the entire community. It’s a first of its kind for Louisiana and a test case for the choice other coastal communities will be facing as land loss continues: Leave or stay and be overwhelmed by storm after storm.
We are now coming to the time when Louisiana begins to feel the full consequences of decades of inaction over coastal loss.  While we're mostly beyond saving at this point, we can nonetheless serve other coastal regions threatened by climate change as well as posterity in general as a political case study. Don't expect our lesson to be especially inspiring,  though.

For some reason we expect the politics of disaster to be more heroic than they are in reality. Coastal loss is an existential threat to all of us. Therefore we expect its approach to unite us, to galvanize us, to bring us together to "get things done" as might happen in the plot of one of some superhero movie. But real life doesn't follow Hollywood logic. The plot does not arc toward climax. Instead it just sprawls about driven only by its own inertia.

Here's a story from today's Advocate about the flood mitigation systems that might have saved homes in South Louisiana this year if they had ever been built.
Officials spread the blame for the lack of progress, from the general — like lack of funding from the state or the federal government and sluggishness from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to the excruciatingly specific — such as bickering over which specific areas can be set aside as wetlands mitigation to counteract the ecological damage to swamps caused by building the canal.
In other words, we are dealing with a lot of shit here and none of it ever gets dealt with neatly.  It's a wonder anything ever happens at all, frankly. But, as the saying goes, every crisis is an opportunity. Whether it's an opportunity to do good, though, is another matter.

Desperate circumstances do not, in fact, override political differences. On the contrary, they heighten contrasts.  What is a crisis, after all, if not a moment of high stakes decisions with lasting ramifications? A crisis brings with it opportunities to quickly force choices that might be politically unworkable during ordinary circumstances. And more often than not such situations favor the wealthy, the more connected, the factions already closest to the levers of power. This is the essence of the now familiar Shock Doctrine. We should understand it well in Louisiana having lived it for much of the past decade.

The mass evacuations forced by climate change Zack writes about in Slate are going to happen whether we organize them and compensate the refugees or not. But they also aren't going to happen all at once in a neatly polished drama. There isn't a moment when the whole population of, say, Houma just leaves together and turns out the lights. Instead the retreat comes piece by piece as occasional shocks like this flood cause everyone to reshuffle and reassess whether or not it makes sense for them to continue on living where they were.

And so the population gradually shifts away as homes and livelihoods wither and as individuals are essentially priced out of the area. Left behind in the interim are those residents and industries that remain viable. Witness a Louisiana coastal plan that will settle for protecting oil infrastructure rather than saving communities. Witness also the conversion of New Orleans from a living, breathing city to a tourist-centric boutique resort. Eventually it all washes away. But not before every last bit of profit is sucked out.

Think of it as a kind of environmentally driven gentrification if you want. But what is happening in practice is the costs of climate change are not being shared but instead are being paid in the broken lives of the poor in order to extend the viability of wealth for as long as possible.

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