Beginning tomorrow, March 4, 2010, the Environmental Law Society at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law will host the 2010 Annual NAELS Conference -- Staying Afloat: Adapting to Climate Change in the Gulf Coast and Beyond.
The Conference will bring together top attorneys, engineers, business leaders, environmentalists, scientists, and planners from New Orleans, Louisiana, the US, and the world to discuss how New Orleans, hundreds of low-lying coastal cities like it, and an interdependent world community will adapt to ever-increasing populations and a rapidly changing climate in the coming century.
But beyond its speakers, workshops, service trips, and Lower 9th field trip, the Conference itself is a story of impressive adaptation.
About five years ago, this Conference would have been unthinkable. As the world watched, Hurricane Katrina swept through a large swath of the Gulf Coast -- killing more than 1800, leaving another 700 missing, causing an estimated $90 billion in damage, and creating approximately 1 million "refugees" who fled to better-off Gulf cities like Houston.
New Orleans took a direct hit, losing some 300,000 of 450,000 residents as 80% of the city flooded, including a jaw-dropping 60% of its African American residents according to one report.
But in a testament to human resiliency, just four years after the population bottomed out, New Orleans is showing signs of recovery. Since 2006, by some estimates, the city's population has nearly doubled -- now back to an estimated 335,000 residents.
And over the last month, from a community-uniting Superbowl victory to the city's Annual Mardi Gras celebration, the city has hosted an estimated 1.2 and 1.5 million visitors. Not only are these the highest numbers since Katrina but according to a Fox News story, 2010 was one of the biggest tourism years ever.
From Recovery to Adaptation
But New Orlean's impressive and inspiring resiliency won't matter if the city is not prepared for the coming century.
Many of the world's top scientists predict a rise in sea-level and an intensification and multiplication of extreme weather events along the Gulf Coast. Very scary news for a city that sits below sea level at the mouth of the 3rd largest drainage basin in the world (after the Amazon and Congo).
And while momentum is building for global climate solutions that will mitigate this projected impact, many warn that we have already locked in centuries of warmth. Co-organizer, Samuel Steinmetz, sums it up well: "the idea is to figure out what we can do to combat global warming, while recognizing that we must prepare for, and look ahead to, changes we cannot prevent."
Refreshingly, in the face of cataclysmic, doomsday predictions from many respectable corners, the dedicated group of student organizers are framing this as a broad-based "solutions" conference. And I mean broad based.
According to conference co-organizer Whit Remer, a joint JD/Urban Planning graduate student and one of a new breed of interdisciplinary problem-solvers:
The theme of the conference reaches far beyond the initial impression the title invokes- that someday sea level rise will inevitably consume us all. In fact, climate change presents a huge assortment of real risks that affect most all of us. To meet these consequences, it is important that we conduct critical research, evaluate trends, and adjust our actions accordingly. That is to say, our communities must adapt to climate change.
A quick glance at the list of panel moderators tells the interdisciplinary and multicultural story, with the Presidents of the Black Law Students Association, National Lawyers Guild, Tax Law Society, Action Coalition for Racial, Social, and Environmental Justice, and Maritime Law Society represented in addition to Environmental Law Society leaders.
The dozens of student organizers for this Conference are part of a community of 150,000 aspiring attorneys at US law schools. This group will go on to be tomorrow's Supreme Court Justices, Presidents, Ambassadors, Members of Congress, Judges, Professors, CEO's, Executive Directors, Lobbyists, and Politicians.
Many will spend their careers inventing a low-carbon future -- figuring out how to bring greenhouse gas emissions released from global human activity down from 30 gigatons to about 6. All of this in a world that will, between now and their retirement, add:
• The populations of California and Texas every year
• The population of the State of Louisiana every month
• The population of the City of Dallas each week
• Between the publishing of this blog and the Conference kickoff tomorrow night, a new New Orleans.
Many others will work on transforming today's most vulnerable cities to adapt to the world ahead - literally rebuilding coastlines, ports, water fronts, levees, and sea walls.
From Here to 2050
So where will New Orleans, the US and humanity find ourselves in 2050 -- looking back on 2010 like today's soon-to-be retirees look back on 1970?
That answer will depend centrally on folks like these ambitious graduate students from around New Orleans, many of whom lived through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, who refuse to wait until their college careers are over to lead transformative efforts today.
They are the surest sign yet that humanity itself is already adapting in an effort to stay afloat.