Despite consistent warnings from scientists on rising sea levels and extreme weather, the mainstream dialogue surrounding climate change and fossil fuel use remains focused on the idea of a future threat, rather than tangible effects we’re already being forced to adapt to. In 2017, now almost two years ago, a report found that climate change had already cost the US $240 billion through extreme weather damage and health effects from fossil fuels. Last year’s National Climate Assessment, by 13 federal agencies, projected hundreds of billions in additional losses by 2100.
But even these quantitative measures remain abstract in the minds of much of the public. While the number of Americans concerned about climate change has certainly been trending upward over the last two decades, many measures of climate change awareness have actually declined slightly in the last two years. In 2017, 71 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll agreed that most scientists believe global warming is occurring. This year, that number has declined to 65 percent. And crucially, the percentage of Americans that believe the effects of global warming are already happening has declined from 62 percent to 59 percent.
Climate change coverage might be more effective in communicating the dire nature of climate change by portraying the human cost associated with these effects. In some cases, like the role of climate change in exacerbating extreme weather events, scientists admit that it’s difficult to quantify the degree to which a hurricane, for example, was worsened by climate change. But in some parts of the world, like islands in the South Pacific that have generated the world’s first climate refugees, the concrete effects have been apparent for years.
Increasingly, these kinds of effects have been changing the lives of Americans too. The Gulf Coast in general, and the Louisiana coast in particular, have arguably borne the brunt of the climate change effects in the US. Not only was the area forever reshaped by Hurricane Katrina, which research last year found was intensified by climate change, but the US Geological Survey says over a football field’s worth of land is lost every 100 minutes. Sea levels are rising faster there than virtually anywhere else in the world, with some areas seeing over three feet of increase over 100 years.
To be clear, rising sea levels are only one factor in this loss of coastline. Naturally sinking land is another driver of land loss, but many locals chiefly blame the digging of canals to support the oil and gas industry, which have allowed saltwater to spill into the wetlands. This destroys the marshes, erodes the land, and creates more open water for saltwater to flow into, perpetuating a vicious cycle of land loss. Leveeing projects to protect local populations from floods have also cut the wetlands off from the Mississippi River, reducing sediment flow into the wetlands.
“When I was a kid, the oil industry dug a lot of canals. And those canals cause coastal erosion. But they didn’t care. They just wanted to get the oil, and the state of Louisiana just took the money and let them do it,” Dean Blanchard, the owner of a local seafood company, told CNN. “In the past 15 years, I’ve seen more erosion than the first 50 years I was alive.”
The same wetlands have been crucial for local trapping, fishing, and shrimping. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, Louisiana faces over $12 billion in business and infrastructure losses from disappearing land. And the coastal islands and marshes that are being lost served as the first and second lines of defense against storms – which are themselves being exacerbated by climate change. The EDF projects another $138 billion in losses as a result of the lost coastal buffer. But these numbers obscure the way these losses impact human lives.
Climate change isn’t the only way that fossil fuel use has hurt coastal Louisiana. The effects of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill are still felt today, with deep water ecosystems, wetlands, and marine mammals with longer lifespans still affected. And in 2016, USGS scientists found that petroleum exposure from the oil spill had killed plants that held the wetlands together, speeding the loss of shoreline. Another spill, caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, is still leaking oil today, 14 years later. On Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, it’s clear that people’s lives are already being reshaped by fossil fuels and the effects of their use.
Today, the Pew Research Center published new data for Earth Day, showing that almost six in ten Americans say they’ve experienced some effects of climate change in their own lives or communities. Of the four in ten that said they weren’t affected, most were living far from coastal areas. If scientific data and financial projections aren’t making enough of an impression for Americans to demand action from politicians, maybe a clear view of the human costs of climate change would change some minds.