The Tulane Hullabaloo

Staff editorial: Tulane must take action to combat coastal erosion

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New Orleans is a sinking city.

The phrase is echoed so often it almost begins to lose meaning. Its meaning, however, should not be forgotten.

New Orleans is currently estimated to be subsiding underwater at a rate of nine to 12 mm per year, far higher than previous estimates of one to six mm. While coastal land loss has slowed, it is still continuing at a rate of 28 square kilometers, roughly one football field, every 100 minutes.

Over the past 80 years, Louisiana has lost more than 5,000 square kilometers of coastal land. This land loss has caused New Orleans and other coastal cities in the region to become much more susceptible to damage from hurricanes, as Louisiana’s wetlands act as a buffer protecting communities from storm surge.

There are many contributors to coastal degradation. Among them is the rising sea level caused, in part, by climate change. Universities, like any other economic institution, play a role in contributing to man-made climate change. Recognizing this trend, many universities have taken action to reduce their environmental impacts.

One method for reducing a university’s environmental impact is divesting from industries that contribute to environmental degradation, namely the fossil fuel industry, which, by its own estimates, causes 36 percent of Southeastern Louisiana’s total land loss.

As a leading research university in Louisiana, Tulane must ask itself what role it is currently playing in the disappearance of coastal Louisiana. Furthermore, Tulane must take steps to mitigate its contribution to Louisiana’s land loss.

From 2011-14, 32 colleges and universities chose to divest from fossil fuels. Despite student demands, Tulane continues to invest a portion of its endowment in the fossil fuel industry — an industry that fuels coastal erosion in Louisiana and threatens New Orleans’ future.

In the 2017 spring semester, a bill was proposed by Tulane’s Undergraduate Student Government supporting the university’s divestment from oil. The university never responded to this bill, which was not the first of its kind. DIVEST Tulane, a student organization that has existed for more than a decade, has consistently demanded action from the university to no avail.

What are the consequences of Tulane’s actions in a city that will feel the effects of climate change sooner than almost any other city on the globe? That remains to be seen. They can, however, be predicted.

Because of both the susceptibility of New Orleans to hurricanes caused by the loss of coastal land and the increased global susceptibility to hurricanes due to rising ocean temperatures, the possibility of New Orleans experiencing another major hurricane at some point is incredibly high.

Considering how long it has taken this city to begin to resemble its vibrant self following the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, the damage that would be caused by another major hurricane cannot be overstated.

Tulane often preaches about its role in the city, using New Orleans as an attraction, a tourist trap to draw students in. Should New Orleans experience another storm like Katrina – or a storm worse than Katrina – what will the impact be for Tulane? What will the administration do when there is nothing left of the city?

Satellite projections show that the entirety of New Orleans could be underwater by the year 2100. The university cannot just wait it out until then. Divesting from fossil fuels and moving toward a carbon-neutral campus is the only solution for a campus so near to the issue.

Staff Editorials are written weekly by members of the Tulane Hullabaloo Board and approved by the full Board by a 2/3 majority vote.

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4 Responses to “Staff editorial: Tulane must take action to combat coastal erosion”

  1. Chris McLindon on October 26th, 2017 7:54 am

    Effectively addressing the challenges presented by climate change and sea level rise must come from a foundation of accurate scientific assessment. We must be able to rely on our leading academic institutions to be at the forefront of accurate scientific assessment. In that regard this editorial is a source of some concern. The essential elements of accurate scientific assessment – the careful reporting of factual information, the citation of peer-reviewed scientific research in support of each contention, and the representation of data within the context of a range of uncertainty have not been followed with the rigor that should be expected from a highly regarded academic institution.
    There are much more applicable measurements of subsidence for the New Orleans Metropolitan area than the Nienhuis et al. study referenced here. The Dixon, et al. 2006, and Jones, et al. 2016 studies that used InSAR satellite data to measure subsidence rates are directly applicable to the New Orleans area, while Nienhuis relies on data derived from CRMS stations that not intended for the evaluation of urban areas. More importantly, the Dixon and Jones studies point to the importance of the role of subsurface geology, and in particular faulting, in determining variations in the rates of subsidence. The real take-away of these subsidence studies – that south Louisiana will experience the impacts of relative sea level rise first because of subsidence due to geologic processes – is not well represented in this editorial.
    The authors have also fallen into the common misrepresentation of the rate of wetlands loss derived from USGS Scientific Investigations Map 3381. The rate of a “football field every 100 minutes” is clearly intended by the authors of the study to represent a long term rate, not a current of land loss. The summary of the study to which this editorial links clearly states that data shows that coastal Louisiana actually gained 16 square miles of wetland area between 2010 and 2016. While the long term rate is still a trend of net loss, the recent variations in the rate change point to broad ranges of uncertainty within the data, and to the fact that long term rates should be clearly differentiated from current rates of change. These accurate representations of the data are not presented here.
    By far the most egregious representation in this editorial is the use of a piece of poorly-edited journalism to support a rather profound scientific contention. Among a series of unsupported contentions the author of this New York Times Magazine article makes the following statement: “Beneath the surface, the oil and gas industry has carved more than 50,000 wells since the 1920s, creating pockets of air in the marsh that accelerate the land’s subsidence.” This is not supported by peer-reviewed science, it is not demonstrable by any real-world scientific evaluation; it appears to have arisen as a fabrication from the author’s mind. Republishing articles of this type is nothing short of an attack on science literacy.
    The truth is that the best way to address the challenges presented by relative sea level rise is through a cooperative engagement with the oil and gas industry. South Louisiana is the “canary in the coal mine” for the impacts of sea level rise precisely because of the higher rates of subsidence being measured across the coastal plain. A significant body of active scientific research is indicating that subsurface geologic processes are the principal drivers of these higher subsidence rates. The best way to evaluate subsurface geologic processes is with the data and knowledge base of the oil and gas industry. Through cooperative engagement with the industry, universities like Tulane can rightfully take their positions at the forefront of scientific research into the impacts of climate change.

  2. Eric Smith on October 27th, 2017 1:39 pm

    As a former college newspaper associate editor(Ga. Tech Technique 1961-65) and a current faculty member at Tulane University dealing with energy matters, I am disappointed at your one sided, ideologically driven, characterization of the energy industry. Further, I note a a singular lack of interviews with informed parties, here on campus, from both sides of this issue. Finally, I also note a less than balanced review of the outcomes at similar academic institutions subjected to similar ideological campaigns around the US.

    Typically, the chief investment officers at schools targeted by disinvestment activists, have responded with a policy of continuing to invest in energy for the very logical reason that it is good for the schools’ endowment and operating budgets where it helps to limit tuition, housing fees and all of the other myriad expenses today’s students face.

    I realize that Tulane does not have a journalism school, but then neither does Georgia Tech. However, at Ga. Tech we had professional journalists as advisors on content. Perhaps Tulane could do with a similar approach, as your “2/3rds of the full board” approach obviously needs revision. Alternatively, your reporters and student editors can always take a few courses at either the business school, the law school, or the school of environmental studies before embarrassing the whole school with your ill researched opinions.

    Eric Smith

  3. Joey Wall on October 27th, 2017 4:28 pm

    “While coastal land loss has slowed, it is still continuing at a rate of 28 square kilometers, roughly one football field, every 100 minutes..”

    That is a very big football field!

  4. Steven L Dehmlow on October 30th, 2017 5:22 pm

    The Hullabaloo Board should lead by completely discontinuing their personal use of fossil fuel-burning vehicles. To not do so could mean the Board is sinking into a sea of hypocrisy.

    For my part, I will ask my mother-in-law, who is a long-time Exxon Mobil pensioner, to discontinue making annual donations to Tulane that get matched 3:1 by Exxon Mobil.

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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans
Staff editorial: Tulane must take action to combat coastal erosion