As we head into the thick of election season, there is one number every Louisiana candidate seeking office should memorize: 96. According to a new poll, that is the percentage of voters statewide who want their elected officials to prioritize Louisiana’s coastal land loss crisis while in office. It’s also the percentage who want their elected officials to do so with science as their guide.
You likely won’t find any other issue where voters are in such alignment — both about the significance of a problem, and how they want their elected officials to handle it. Now, historically in Louisiana, our leaders have not been known to, ahem, always put science ahead of politics. But 14 years ago, our state received the wake-up call in hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The devastation from those storms signaled that politics as usual wouldn’t cut it.
Since then, Louisiana’s governors and legislators, including the late Gov. Kathleen Blanco who deserves much credit for her role in creating the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, have mostly followed the same playbook. To protect areas across our coast, Louisiana would work to harness the brightest minds across science, academia, business and communities to collaboratively develop a plan that balances the restoration of wetlands and marshes with protection efforts, such as levees.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. And the governors and legislators, scientists and administrators who have worked in this fashion deserve all the credit that history will give them for starting us on the right path.
A critical component of that path has been a clear focus on the best science — and on delivering that science in the most efficient manner. We know for certain that the urgency of the coastal challenge demands both.
Recently, that goal has been called into question as a dispute around intellectual property at The Water Institute of the Gulf gained headlines, sowed discord in the scientific community, put respected scientists in peril of imprisonment, and, at a minimum, caused significant reputational damage all around.
For those not deep in the processes of coastal restoration, The Water Institute was initially expected to serve as a centerpiece for collaboration, coordination and convening around the science necessary for our coastal restoration and protection. This mission is still vital today.
In short, attention to the best, most efficient science must be maintained. Every institution of higher learning and science in this state, from private institutions to public universities to community colleges, has a special obligation to marshal their resources and work together to advance the science and expertise needed to meet the challenges we face along our coast.
Not doing so risks squandering our only real opportunity to stabilize our coast, which literally threatens the safety and well-being of our entire state.
The great thing is this: While we do not have the luxury of time, we do have an army of deeply-committed scientists and engineers — state employees, federal employees, as well as staff at Louisiana’s colleges and universities, NGOs, and private companies — who are working continuously and aggressively to develop the knowledge we need to protect this very special place. And we can still take advantage of that now for the good of our entire state, particularly the millions of people living and working across our coast.
The people of our state are clear about the goal, and the approach. Our elected officials need to be armed with the best science as they make really difficult decisions in the years ahead. No less than the future of our state is on the line.
Based in New Orleans, Steve Cochran is director of Restore the Mississippi River Delta, and associate vice president for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund.