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The Right Way to Build Climate Change Resilience

Louisiana's comprehensive 50-year master plan for mitigating the impact of extreme weather on vulnerable coastal communities can provide guiding principles for every region.

An aerial view of a wetlands reclamation project in Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta.
An aerial view of a wetlands reclamation project in Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta. The state’s $50 billion, 50-year climate resilience and adaption plan aims to mitigate the impacts of climate change on its coastal communities. (David Kidd/Governing)
The climate crisis has reached every corner of our country. As rivers run dry, fires consume neighborhoods and coasts disappear, state and local leaders are grappling with how to address an emergency of seemingly impossible proportions. In many states, developing and investing in effective policy that matches the scale of the problem has understandably felt just as daunting. Just recently, new research projected that vast new swathes of the country will be at risk of hurricane-force winds in the coming decades.

Fortunately, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are offering all-too-rare opportunities for state and local governments looking to bolster their resilience to climate change — but only if they have a clear plan of action.

Those looking for inspiration should turn to Louisiana, which is investing record amounts of funding in climate change resilience projects. You may know the Pelican State for its natural beauty, its petroleum and fishing industries, or for the spectacle of Mardi Gras, but you may also know it for the fact that its coastal wetlands are vanishing faster than almost any place on the planet. But what you may not know is that Louisiana is a global pioneer in taking action to mitigate the impacts to its communities from the climate crisis. Louisiana’s $50 billion, 50-year comprehensive plan offers a critical blueprint for how state governments can plan for the future by harnessing the latest science and preparing to make the most out of investments in climate resilience and adaptation.

For too long, actionable and measurable plans to bolster vulnerable coastal areas and protect communities from worsening climate impacts have been framed largely in terms of their short-term economic costs. Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan takes a different tack, putting coastal communities, along with engagement with and feedback from the people who live in them, at the center of its approach. The unique circumstances of these coastal communities today and in the future are front and center, with strategies designed to prioritize investments to address the needs of vulnerable communities that identify how specific projects will promote long-term economic and ecological stability.

Resilience also means more than infrastructure — it means building adaptive models of management in which agencies across government collaborate on people-centered solutions. Louisiana is the first state to take steps toward adapting such a whole-of-government approach to ensure that essential community services are provided to help communities rebuild and thrive in the face of future flood risks.

Measured in expected annual structural damage, the plan reduces coastwide risk by up to 78 percent. By using new and innovative analytical tools, including an online viewer that allows users to see how specific areas fare under different scenarios, we not only get a fuller understanding of community risk but also are able for the first time to evaluate risk-reduction projects in a way that ensures the planning process results in solutions that treat all communities equitably.

The Coastal Master Plan also gathers the best-available science on the dynamic ecosystem that is coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi River Delta. Its blueprint is firm and decisive enough to inspire action while remaining adaptive as to how to operate various restoration projects as projections become reality.
A Louisiana community threatened by loss of coastal wetlands
A Louisiana community threatened by loss of coastal wetlands. (David Kidd/Governing)
The current update is the fourth iteration of the Coastal Master Plan since it was adopted by the Louisiana Legislature in 2007. The plan is reviewed every six years to ensure that the science it is built on is up to date and that the solutions proposed are as effective and attuned to the current needs of constituents as possible. Taken all together, this process creates a virtuous cycle that uses the latest science to better integrate data from Louisiana’s sophisticated coastal modeling system on an ongoing basis.

It is through this process that the state has advanced two of the world’s largest coastal restoration projects, the Mid-Breton and Mid-Barataria sediment diversions. These gated structures will be built into the Mississippi River levee to allow river water, sediment and nutrients to flow into degrading wetlands to help sustain and rebuild land along Louisiana’s coastline. By harnessing the power of the river, sediment diversions mimic the natural processes that built coastal Louisiana — a prime example of a creative solution arising out of a thoughtful and scientifically informed policy planning process.

To be sure, the challenges facing every state are distinct in scale, impact and potential solutions. Louisiana’s strategy is specific to its landscape, future projections and available natural resources like the Mississippi River. The state’s unique approach cannot be copied as-is elsewhere, but the guiding principles behind Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan — its emphasis on long-term resilience and adaptation, its flexible and inclusive process for incorporating new science, and its overriding concern for vulnerable communities — can and must be replicated nationwide.

Chip Kline is chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Simone Maloz is director of the Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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