The United States is a coastal nation, though our coasts are rapidly degrading due to rising seas, sinking lands and increasingly intense storms. As we know well in Louisiana, as our coasts go, so goes the fabric of our cultures and communities, the backbone of our economies, the vibrancy of our ecology, and our safety and security.
The end of this unprecedented hurricane season reminds us that flood risks will only increase with sea level rise and climate change. In 2020 there were more named storms than ever before, an unprecedented five making landfall in Louisiana, including devastating, back-to-back blows for our neighbors to the west.
Even before this season, researchers calculated rising waters could force up to 13 million Americans to move this century. All this makes one thing clear — we need a coordinated national policy to confront the ever-encroaching seas, and we need it now. This national strategy can build on lessons we have learned here in Louisiana.
A national sea level strategy should have three major components: it should create resilient coastal communities, integrate the many uses of our coasts, and do so in a way that increases equity for those most at risk.
Creating resilient communities means creating communities that have the resources to function and thrive despite changing coasts and climate. For example, we need housing policies and flood defenses that allow people to live safely in their homes and storm-resilient transportation networks that ensure minimal disruption.
A national policy must safeguard the diverse, important economic and ecological uses of our coasts — something we have long recognized in Louisiana. Many of our largest cities have coastal ports (think New York, Houston and Los Angeles), and coastal fisheries are an important food source. The coastal zone has large energy resources — buried hydrocarbons, and vast amounts of wind, tidal and solar power. Our national security is also tied to our coasts, through naval bases, air defenses and other facilities. Our coasts are places of recreation, beauty and wildlife abundance.
A national sea level rise policy must also be grounded in principles of equity, and we must do better on that front here in Louisiana too. Historic patterns of racial injustice and poverty have often placed Black, Indigenous and people of color in more flood-prone environments. That pattern cannot continue, and we must work to repair the injustices of the past. We need to rethink federal flood protection policies and get outside the box of cost-benefit analyses and minimal risk reduction, which often advantage wealthier (and whiter) communities.
The policies that currently govern our coastal zones are a hodgepodge of state, federal and local policies, and private actions. Take housing. Currently, household flood risk is typically addressed at the federal level through the National Flood Insurance Program, while housing developments are guided by local zoning decisions. Instead, we need a comprehensive, whole-government approach to the crisis.
Since rising waters impact our homes and schools, there is a role for the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education. Since most people borrow money to buy houses and most businesses use debt to finance investments, solutions must involve financial and insurance regulatory agencies. To manage flood risks to energy infrastructure, energy regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency must be at the table. Our agricultural policies need to be cognizant of the ports that ship America's farm products across the world. To preserve our natural spaces and coastal history, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife must come together. Input from the U.S. Geological Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can ensure these policies are crafted on the best available science.
Developing a national sea level rise strategy will not be easy, though a national office of resilience could help coordinate across federal agencies and state and local governments. We can make decisions and investments to keep our coastal communities, economies and ecosystems thriving, or we can ignore this rising threat and let the seas decide for us.
Alexander S. Kolker is an associate professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Natalie Snider is senior director for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund.