Anyone who has lived in Louisiana long enough has a story about watching the climate change. Whether or not they describe what they witness in those terms, those who have traversed the wetlands, tilled the fields, or waded through an oft-flooded street can tell that the conditions of life in this state are shifting, fast.
A recent poll conducted by the Restore the Mississippi River Delta shows that 96 percent of Louisiana voters think it is important for elected officials to prioritize addressing Louisiana’s coastal land loss crisis; 71 percent of those polled say they believe in climate change, and 50 percent say they see its effects today.
At the same time, Louisiana’s landscape of oil refineries and petrochemical plants is responsible for an enormous portion of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, the state had more energy-related carbon dioxide emissions per-capita than all but four other states. Fifty-eight percent of those emissions came from the industrial sector—a greater share than any other state.
Louisiana voters head to the ballot box on October 12 for a round of elections that could unseat the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, bring new leadership to various state-wide and local offices, and flip two-thirds of the state legislature. Yet few candidates are connecting the dots of climate change’s causes and effects in their campaigns.
In the gubernatorial race, two Republican challengers, Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone, face off against Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards. All three candidates tout ties to Louisiana’s oil and gas industries.
Edwards has said he doesn’t know how much humans are contributing to climate change, but that Louisiana must be proactive in preparing for more and more forceful storms.
Louisiana’s landscape of oil refineries and petrochemical plants is responsible for an enormous portion of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
He is a proponent of expanding the natural gas industry in Louisiana, at least for an interim period as the country transitions to renewable energy resources. The Advocate noted that Edwards overlooks the emissions associated with producing natural gas—from both the methane flares of fracking sites in northwest Louisiana, and the power plants where fracked gas is turned into Liquefied Natural Gas along the coast. Instead, he emphasizes that the coal plants these facilities are replacing emitted far more carbon.
Abraham is a U.S. congressional representative from northeastern Louisiana and Rispone is co-founder of a construction company that has contracted to major petrochemical plants. Both are self-proclaimed Trump supporters, yet both stray from the staunch climate-denial typical of their party. The two candidates have both noted that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is generally a worthwhile goal. However, they have downplayed Louisiana’s, and the United States’, responsibility to do so. Abraham has said that while China and Russia need to be doing more to cut emissions, the United States is already doing enough.
In this way, Abraham in particular mimics the tack taken by Republican Garrett Graves, U.S. rep for Louisiana’s 6th district and ranking member of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. During a recent congressional climate hearing, Graves addressed 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg with a metaphorical question.
“If you were sailing across the ocean and picking up trash along the way,” Graves posed, “and for every one piece of trash you pick up there’s a boat right next to you dumping out five pieces, how would that make you feel?”
“Well, first of all,” Thunberg replied, “if you use that logic, I am also dumping a lot of trash in the ocean. Then I would stop dumping my trash in the ocean and tell the other boat to stop dumping their trash in the ocean as well.”
Graves has received over a half-million dollars in donations from the oil and gas industry since 2013.
Republicans like Graves, Abraham, and Rispone—as well as moderate Democrats like Edwards—show support for the massive coastal restoration effort that’s underway in Louisiana, with projects designed to salvage land in a place that’s losing swaths the size of many football fields each day. At the same time, they maintain a perhaps willful lack of understanding about how fossil fuel industries are the cause of this crisis.
At a September gubernatorial debate, Abraham said he hoped to bolster industry’s role in coastal restoration. He lambasted lawsuits that some parishes have brought against industry giants to hold them accountable for their role in coastal erosion.
“I want to stop these legacy lawsuits,” Abraham said. “[The oil and gas industry] want[s] to be at the table.”
“I’ve not filed a single lawsuit against [oil and gas]. Congressman Abraham has,” Governor John Bel Edwards responded while holding up a copy of the suit. “He’s filed it for damage to his property caused by oil and gas interests.”
“Even if people aren’t able or willing to admit that what’s going on around them is manmade climate change, I think that people who work with the land everyday are keenly aware that something is changing,” said Marguerite Green, candidate for Louisiana’s Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner, in an interview.
Green is among a small cadre of candidates up and down the ballot making climate a focus of her campaign. She is from Madisonville, a suburb of New Orleans, and the executive director of SPROUT NOLA—a nonprofit dedicated to “growing growers” by making farming accessible to all. She is also a founding organizer of the advocacy group Greater New Orleans Growers Alliance.
The Agriculture Commissioner position in Louisiana has not recently been sought by progressives. For the past twelve years, it has been held by Republican Mike Strain, a veterinarian from another New Orleans suburb, Covington, who prides himself on reducing salaries and slashing positions under his jurisdiction, while protecting industry interests throughout his tenure. He also supports tariffs recently instated by the Trump administration.
Green is running on a platform to end tariffs and “fight for all farming families caught up in our nation’s absurd trade war,” according to her website. She hopes to legalize adult access to recreational cannabis and create space in that industry for people whose lives have been disrupted by non-violent durg-related convictions.
She also aims to address climate action and coastal protection. Green wants to develop an industry of wetlands plants to use in restoring Louisiana’s coastline, and to encourage farmers to diversify crops and sell their produce within the state. She also says she would appoint a special task force dedicated to working on a plan “to sequester massive amounts of atmospheric carbon and incentivize industries to enact sustainable practices that protect our communities from climate changes’ inevitable impacts.”
At a candidate forum in September, Green, Strain, and Peter Williams—a tree-farmer from rural North Louisiana and another Democratic candidate for Ag Commissioner—sparred over climate change.
Strain and Green disagreed over the amount of carbon emissions produced by the agriculture industry; by some accounts, agriculture and forestry account for 23 percent of the heat-trapping gases warming the planet. In an interview with Antigravity Magazine, Green shared a vision to incentivize sugarcane, cotton, and soybean growers to practice carbon farming, an approach focused on trapping carbon in the soil while reducing the use of fossil fuels. She also called for taxing oil and gas companies and for carbon trading programs.
During the forum, Strain said that “No one can disagree that the climate is changing. Is man part of that? Absolutely. And man’s got to be a part of that solution.”
Williams offered that the best way to combat climate change is “to plant a tree,” and suggested tearing down blighted property to create areas to grow trees.
“Planting trees won’t even make a dent,” Green quipped.
Though Green doesn’t publicly endorse the Green New Deal, the language she uses mirrors the policy proposal’s values. Jobs and the environment are too often purposefully pitted against each other, Green said in an email, and nowhere is that more evident than in Louisiana. As Agriculture and Forestry commissioner, she hopes to develop industries that offer many clean, good, unionized jobs and create a Louisiana where agriculture and forestry “support more people better.”
At the local level this election season, New Orleans is watching several races crowded with progressive candidates focused on specific issue-areas.
In District 91, which encompasses a narrow swath of New Orleans from the Irish Channel to the parish line, five Democratic challengers are vying for the state House of Representatives seat vacated by Democract Walter Leger, who, along with many other Louisiana legislators this year, is unable to re-run due to term-limits. Nearly all of the District 91 candidates have addressed New Orleans’ crumbling infrastructure and the need to ebb city flooding in their campaigns.
“Planting trees won’t even make a dent.”
Pepper Bowen Roussel is an environmental attorney and the only woman of color running in the race. “The sun has set on waiting for somebody to step forward and do the things that I want to see done,” she said in an interview with the local branch of Democratic Socialists of America. Roussel’s key issue is ensuring equity through redistricting: an effort to guarantee that residents of different neighborhoods don’t compete with each other over resources—especially environmental ones.
Roussel emphasized the need to get everyone, including undocumented immigrants, counted in the upcoming census, so that the city can best account for where updates to infrastructure need to happen first. She recognizes that the way districts are drawn now allows for these sorts of resources to be distributed without differing neighborhood needs in mind.
“In an area like the Lower Garden District where there aren’t as many potholes, they’ll get a lot more bang for their dollar than in Hollygrove, where it’s almost like driving on the surface of the moon, trying to avoid the craters that are in the ground,” she said. District 91 also includes Gert Town, where radioactive materials were long left un-remediated under neighborhood streets, and Central City, where an abandoned incinerator site releases high levels of lead into the community. “Believe me when I tell you I do feel the misery of the pothole, but it is certainly not the same thing as having some radioactive sludge running down the street every time it rains,” Roussel said.
“Insofar as climate change is concerned, we’re contributing to it in so many ways down here,” Roussel said. She referred to the pollutants released by the many petrochemical plants in the region that ultimately warm the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, creating the heavy rainfall and increased hurricanes that put stress on New Orleans’ built environment.
In neighboring District 98, one of seven Democratic challengers is competing on an entirely climate justice focused platform. Marion “Penny” Freistadt is a retired research microbiologist who said she is running out of a sense of frustration that elected officials are not making climate a priority. If elected, her first two points of action would be to call for a climate emergency, and to place a moratorium on all new petrochemical or fossil fuel related projects in Louisiana. “We need all brains on board” to fight the climate crisis, she said.
“I do feel the misery of the pothole, but it is certainly not the same thing as having some radioactive sludge running down the street every time it rains.”
Freistadt admitted that voters may not know about her because her campaign hasn’t produced any signage, in an attempt to avoid sending plastic-coated cardboard to the landfill. She hopes her door-knocking and her appearance on local candidate forums can serve to get her message out, and perhaps push other candidates to talk about climate, too.
Yet few are. Candidates have tended to stick to their respective wheel-houses, and forums have generally covered topics such as raising the minimum wage, reforming the criminal justice system, and providing more affordable housing in the city. Louisiana activist and writer Mike Stagg has called Louisiana “a petro-chemical state.” Here, industry and politics are intimately intertwined, and all other aspects of life fall into the mix. Jobs in oil and gas are abundant and lucrative—and some of the most desirable and accessible to those recently released from prison. Companies like Chevron and Shell advertise themselves as partners to Louisiana’s environment. Affordable housing is often built on the cheapest, most flood prone land. Though Louisiana residents bear witness to all of these facets of climate change up close, talk of the expansive issue gets silo-ed or pushed to the margins of conversation, if brought to the stage at all.