Bloomberg View’s Christopher Flavelle looks at how a small coastal village in Louisiana is set to become a test case, as the first American community to be evacuated because of environmental change (sea level rise, and the collapse of the Mississippi delta).
Early one morning at the beginning of March, two black Chevy Suburbans filled with federal and state development officials left New Orleans for Louisiana’s coast. Almost two hours later, they turned onto Island Road, a low spit of asphalt nearly three miles long with water on either side. At the other end was Isle de Jean Charles, a community of 25 or so families that is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. The officials had a plan to save the town: by moving it someplace else.
Global warming presents governments the world over with two problems. One is to slow the pace of climate change. The other is to adapt to what humans have already wrought, either by protecting buildings and infrastructure from rising tides and extreme weather, or by moving people out of harm’s way. The second part is harder — so hard, in fact, that the U.S. government has never done it. At least not quite like this.
In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it would give Louisiana $48 million to resettle Isle de Jean Charles. The state won the money by promising not just to move its people, who are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, but to do it in a way that creates a model that other towns and cities might share. (Most pressing are several communities in Alaska, which face similar challenges.)
“We have never done anything at this scale,” said Marion McFadden, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for grants. She said the project, still in the planning phase, is an attempt to learn how to explain “the value of relocating” to a community while involving its members in “designing their own new home or homeland.”
In other words, how do you persuade people to abandon their town in an orderly fashion, before it becomes uninhabitable? How do you ensure their new home is one they’re satisfied with, rather than a glorified refugee camp? And how do you safeguard against central planning gone berserk?
If it works, the resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles will show that government-sponsored climate migration is viable, at least on a small scale. If it fails — if the new community never gets finished, if residents refuse to move, if the project runs far over budget — the story of the island will be a cautionary one, demonstrating the political, financial and psychological limits of our ability to adapt to global warming.
Beneath those criteria is one of the most vexing dilemmas in the climate-change debate: How should society choose which communities get protected and which must move? Isle de Jean Charles shows how little progress the government has made in answering that question.