Washing Away

Shamed by my failure to sniff out bargain travel tickets, I committed to the most economical one that my Visa could authorize and called it quits. Later, as I watched my group board the bus for a day of caveman hijinx, the you-get-what-you-pay-for sighs were replaced by hot and cold warming musings.


I joined hundreds of scientists, policy makers, professors, teachers, social workers, anthropologists and journalists in Oulu yesterday for the 2016 Fulbright Arctic Symposium: Towards a Sustainable Arctic Future. I officially participated as a Fulbrighter- committed to global understanding and an increased awareness of how local actions impact global issues. But unofficially, I attended as an oilfield-in-my-bones Louisianalainen. Sitting with me was the deep South conviction that the post-BP blowout deep-water moratorium was not as much thoughtful environmental policy as it was an economic blow to the oilfield families couldn’t find work anymore. During the lectures my doubtful science and engineering-heavy family and friends fueled a running internal commentary. I listened intermittently to both channels, knowing those familiar voices are not alone in their climate change skepticism. Princeton-based Freeman Dyson, a giant in his field, and Bjorn Lomburg , a Danish scientist, both believe that the climate change argument is not solid, the approach is misguided and the costs of short-term action are too high. Ivar Giaever, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claims that climate change orthodoxy has become a “new religion” for scientists, and that the data isn’t nearly as compelling as it should be to get such a high level of conformity. At this point, I should probably direct you to the blog disclaimer.  Several symposium speakers also gently prodded at the questionable direction of scientific research as well as the  publishing frenzy to jump on the climate change bandwagon.

292570m4_tsSo, although I sat properly clad in my interpretation of business-casual, I often felt like I was wearing waders and Duck Dynasty camo. When the Greenpeace audience member “asked” the science panel her lengthy, rehearsed “question” regarding how the science community would stand on corporate attempts to first extract oil in difficult locations like the Arctic…and the panel paused incredulously with a “Lady, do you know what a barrel is selling for?”look — I probably smirked. When a Russian research professor stressed that oil companies needed to offer reparations for resources extracted, I comfortably concluded that she must be referring to royalty payments for directional drilling and the oil company had to be either a sleazy national oil company and/or the corrupt state was pocketing the royalties. So my Southern oily roots cooled and fueled the warming issues under discussion.

Photos from Jokkmokk and Sami Market, Arctic Sweden

But my heated oilfield prickliness chilled when the experts were silent and Rector Liisa Holmberg from the Sami Education Institute took the stage. The Sami are the Arctic’s indigenous people, best known as the nomadic reindeer hunters. She helped the audience understand how people and animals and life are impacted daily by climate change. The rector, clad in Sami traditional dress was a warm, likable speaker. Her ability to give flesh and bones to the living beings harmed by the  warming climate and the accompanying rising sea levels, the retreat of glaciers, permafrost, sea ice and the associated severe weather events and species changes had a warm emotional impact that cold science missed. The emotional connection with real folk that she stirred transported me to the Louisiana wetlands.



It’s hard to imagine ecosystems as opposite as the wetlands and the Arctic. Wetlands are areas saturated with water; they are probably the most biodiverse ecosystem. About 40% of US coastal wetlands, sheltering over 100 plant species, and harboring a diversity of marine species, waterfowl, bald eagles and other wild life, are in Louisiana. The Louisiana wetlands are important fishing, tourism, and recreational areas- providing millions in income. These coastal wetlands are especially vulnerable to direct, large-scale impacts of climate change, primarily because of their sensitivity to sea-level rise. In the past eight decades, Louisiana has lost 1,880 square miles of coastal marshes, or an area about the size of Manhattan every year. The National Wildlife Federation page is one of many reliable and accessible wetlands resources for more information.

Years ago, a LSU professor warned about what was happening in the wetlands. Despite this, engineers dredged the Mississippi so that ships could sail all the way to Baton Rouge So sediments that used to slow the river, began to flow directly to the Gulf of Mexico. When the course of the river changed, the Morganza Spillway was built to control the river. It is opened in case of flooding conditions due to high water. For the first time in ten years, it was opened and the spillway water drained into the wetlands. New sediments are needed. The wetlands sink and the sea water slowly encroaches.

Many believe the sea level rise attributed to global warming also alters the species composition, contributes to marine diseases and the expansion of harmful invasive diseases. It has been argued that the stronger weather events, like Katrina, Rita, and Gustave – which many believe are related to global warming- have hit Louisiana harder because its’ protective wetlands do not afford the buffer they once did. The wetlands are disappearing. Louisiana is washing away.

terry2Late into the symposium, a distinguished research professor- Dr. Terry Callaghan, shared the most difficult question posed during his lecture circuit. The question comes from our youngest students, who want to know what they can do. We all recognize that hope must be a big part of sharing the problem. A. There are several useful climate change websites and texts geared toward youth. I’ve used lessons from  A People’s Curriculum for the Earth with my students; it includes hands on lessons that could be easily used or adapted for younger students as well.

Giving youth something to do right away is helpful. But a long term solution demands long term focus. Education about climate change  must include the stories of those most effected to reach our youth. Making the problem real by stripping away the scientific skepticism, data, interpretation, strength worked for me. I was most moved by the least scientific presenter. Early in the symposium the experts congratulated themselves as members of the new science that attends to the expertise of the real people close to the problem. This may be the real foothold into tackling the real problem.

Until then, in Louisiana, we will continue to go for the bargain ticket promising the good life our good offshore jobs give us, manipulating our environment so that these corporations can thrive- peppering it with enough laissez-les-bon-temps-roulez to wait out the oil slumps, staying attached to our lifestyles and choosing the comfortable present because we know we will eat better, live better, dance more and find happiness better right here in this place that is washing away. I hope we don’t get what we paid for.

Queen Bee is always a head turner and a go-to featured image/hook. But the Formation shots echoing Katrina don’t have nearly the impact of the real Katrina photos. 

This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog and the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

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