Race, poverty complicate climate resilience — study

By Erika Bolstad | 04/14/2016 08:50 AM EDT

Coastal communities in low-lying Louisiana, threatened not only by subsiding land but rising seas, face social vulnerabilities that must be taken into consideration as the state adapts to climate change, new research finds.

Coastal communities in low-lying Louisiana, threatened not only by subsiding land but rising seas, face social vulnerabilities that must be taken into consideration as the state adapts to climate change, new research finds.

Along the Gulf Coast, the geographic and social vulnerabilities of the region like poverty and substandard housing "overlap to amplify the devastation caused by flooding, hurricanes, and other natural disasters," the paper by the Center for Progressive Reform notes.

"What sociologists who study disaster recovery find is that social vulnerability is in as many cases just as important as what you might call geographic vulnerability," said Robert Verchick, an environmental law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, as well as the president of the center and one of the co-authors of the report.


Race, income, education level, gender in some cases, age and disability can also contribute to social vulnerability.

The paper, titled "Climate Change, Resilience, and Fairness: How Nonstructural Adaptation Can Protect and Empower Socially Vulnerable Communities on the Gulf Coast," which was commissioned by Oxfam America, will be presented tomorrow in New Orleans at a climate adaptation conference that aims to look at risk reduction strategies for Louisiana coastal areas as the state implements a coastal ecosystem restoration plan.

Most importantly, as policymakers build levees or consider programs to lift homes higher above ground — or as they consider even moving communities outright — they need to consider how such strategies are designed so that they ensure the people and the places they’re meant to protect have a say in their design and implementation.

"If you had a healthy bank account and your house floods and you’re insured, then it’s easier for you to recover in a lot of ways than somebody who lost their home and as a consequence lost their car and their job and all these other things at the same time," Verchick said. "One of the things that we’re finding — and this is actually an economic argument — is that sometimes it might be cheaper to address the social vulnerability issues because you can reduce risk either way, by reducing social vulnerability or by reducing the geographic vulnerability.

"Southern Louisiana is one of the places in the country that has very high marks on both of those," he said. "Our point is you have to address both of those — you can’t just address one and not the other."

La., a laboratory for the nation

The paper looks at communities in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, following 2008 floods, as well as coastal New York and New Jersey to see how they considered the threats they faced from sea-level rise or repeated flooding after Superstorm Sandy.

Many Louisiana communities may want to consider less expensive non-structural climate adaptation strategies that can go a long way toward protecting people and natural areas from climate change impacts, said Yee Huang, lead author of the paper.

Those include specific measures like identifying areas at highest risk from flooding, high winds and other damage. Other approaches, which can help address both social and geographic vulnerabilities, include more thorough pre-disaster planning, updated zoning and floodplain ordinances and regulations, and flood-proofing or elevating homes.

Louisiana is home to what are considered the first U.S. "climate refugees," people who are relocating because their homes are threatened by rising sea levels. The Department of Housing and Urban Development this year awarded $48 million to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Isle de Jean Charles, La., to relocate to higher ground.

The paper’s authors suggest that vulnerable communities be involved in planning that integrates nongovernmental, community and grass-roots organizations in climate change adaptation strategies. They would also like to see grants that sufficiently cover the cost of flood-proofing and elevating homes and other resilience efforts. Local communities at high risk of inundation and destruction must be able to collaboratively and cooperatively design adaptation programs, including any voluntary buyout programs, the paper’s authors say.

What they’re doing in Louisiana will be watched by other communities grappling with similar problems, Verchick said. The water is just rising faster in Louisiana.

"We see this as the lab," he said. "This coastal restoration plan is by far the largest ecological restoration plan probably in the history of the United States. These communities here, what they do, it’s not only going to affect their own lives and progeny, but it’s going to affect what other communities do around the country. Because this is where these ideas are being invented and tried out. Right down here."