Surprising Stories of Climate Change Here in the U.S.

As the Creation Care campaign associate at Sojourners, my job is to get people thinking about God’s call for us to care about the creation. Usually, I do that from behind a desk in Washington, D.C., but recently I got to do it from a boat out on the bayou in Louisiana, in a tiny community that has been hit by eight disasters in eight years (seven hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). I took 100 people out to the town of Jean Lafitte, less than an hour from New Orleans, to hear from people who live on the front lines of climate change.

One of the obstacles to igniting a passion about climate change is that it feels so abstract; it feels like a future problem, a global problem. But it’s really a here and now problem. We took folks out on the Louisiana bayou to meet with those who are living in the midst of climate change – people who don’t think of themselves as environmentalists, but who can bear witness to the impact that climate change and our use of dirty energy have had on their lives, personally.

The town of Jean Lafitte is an old and diverse town, a close-knit community where faith is important to many people, including the mayor. It’s a town that sounds a lot like the early Christian church. We were told that homelessness is not a problem there – if your neighbor loses her home, why wouldn’t you take her in? We were told that when the state government showed up two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the town had recovered so quickly that the government thought the hurricane hadn’t hit them. This community comes together, and because it knows how to survive, it often gets forgotten by government responders and by oil companies like BP.

Ecojustice on the Louisiana Bayou

Photo courtesy Wendy Hammond

Photo courtesy Wendy Hammond

I always thought of climate change as something that affected developing countries. Through my work at World Renew, an international disaster response and community development organization, I am well acquainted with the devastating effects of changing growing seasons in Africa and environmental refugees in Bangladesh. I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that there are ecojustice issues here in the U.S. — but I was.

Last week I had the opportunity to tour the town of Jean Lafitte just outside New Orleans. Hosted by Sojourners, it was one of the “Go and See” options during the Christian Community Development Association conference.

Our tour began with a presentation by the Rev. Kristina Peterson and Mayor Tim Kerner at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. There we learned that since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost a football field of wetlands every 38 minutes. At the current rate, the state will lose an area of wetlands the size of Rhode Island by 2050. According to Peterson, 36 percent of the wetland loss can be attributed to the activities of the oil and gas industry — in particular, the canals they carve out.

Faith and Grace for the Gulf

Photo courtesy Gulf Restoration Network.

Louisiana loses a football field worth of wetlands every hour. Photo courtesy Gulf Restoration Network.

In huge news last week that was largely overwhelmed by the Supreme Court ruling on health care, Washington came together to direct the Clean Water Act fines from BP's oil drilling disaster of 2010 to fund Gulf coast restoration and recovery.  

Attached to the transportation bill that President Obama signed on July 6 was a provision called the RESTORE (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economies) the Gulf Coast Act, which will send 80 percent of BP's eventual fines (likely somewhere between $4-$20 billion) to the five Gulf states and set up an ecosystem restoration council with joint state and federal leadership.

Faith communities should cheer this news for a couple of reasons. First, they asked for it. The legislation has been supported by many different faith-led efforts, such as a letter signed by over 140 religious leaders from Sojourners own Jim Wallis, Mitch Hescox of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and many clergy from around the nation. Local Gulf faith leaders spoke up as well, with the Louisiana Interchurch Conference passing a resolution calling on their member groups to support and lead efforts for Gulf recovery and the RESTORE Act.