Most people can be divided into two groups – those who live and breathe the pulse of New Orleans life and those whose appreciation for the city just doesn’t extend beyond temporary tourism. When Tulane University reopened for the 2006 Spring semester, this split manifested in the student body’s response, as some students decided to leave Tulane permanently in favor of schools in hurricane-free cities and others, like myself, didn’t think twice about returning to the Big Easy.
Hurricane Katrina utterly devastated New Orleans, but the city has made giant strides in its recovery. As a Tulane alumna and NOLA lover, I still hold my breath every hurricane season because I know that this special place is in an extremely precarious position and that climate change is adding to this vulnerability. Meanwhile, Tulane University continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry, which is warming our planet, causing sea levels to rise, and contributing to a host of detrimental effects on our environment. Tulane owes it to the city, to its alumni, NOLA lovers, and those of us who took a leap of faith by returning that Spring after Katrina to stop investing in the fossil fuels.
In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, I was particularly haunted by the memory of one prescient National Geographic article I had read for a class during my freshman year. Reporter Joel K. Bourne, Jr. predicted Hurricane Katrina’s toll with eerie accuracy and detail, even the number of body bags. Every year, on the anniversary of Katrina I reread that article and can’t help but think how different things might have been if we’d heeded the warnings about the shortcomings in the city’s hurricane protections and response abilities. We can never change the fact that we failed to protect New Orleans and its residents, but we can learn from our past mistakes. The threat has not disappeared – our climate is changing, and as a result, New Orleans is even more vulnerable to future hurricanes due to sea level rise and worsening storm predictions. We can no longer ignore the threat that global warming driven by greenhouse-gas emissions poses to our university, our beloved city and our world. And by divesting Tulane’s endowment we have the opportunity to heed the warnings this time around.
And the warnings are all around us. Just this year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on climate change. In this fifth, exhaustive review of all the science to date, the report found that climate change is not only happening, it’s accelerating, and it will have severe consequences globally. Scientists are more certain than ever that human activities are the primary cause. The U.S. Global Change Research Program also released the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA) this year and the findings are similarly alarming, but with a greater focus on impacts here in the U.S. In Louisiana, climate change is already causing sea level rise and increased temperatures, and these impacts will only worsen with further global warming.
Global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Katrina. But, climate change did play a significant role in the damage Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the crescent city. Climate change worsens all hurricanes by contributing to heavy rainfall. Coastal states like Louisiana remain increasingly vulnerable to storm surges because of rising sea levels – another exacerbating effect of climate change. In a case study of Hurricanes Katrina and Ivan, human-induced warming was actually found to be responsible for six to eight percent of storm rainfall (Trenberth et al. 2007). Also, about eight inches of global sea level rise since 1880 can be attributed to the effects of global warming: melting ice sheets and a warmer, expanding ocean. Additionally, the land that once separated New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico, which offered it protection from hurricanes, is disappearing rapidly. Fossil fuel extraction along the Louisiana coastline has worsened the problem by eroding wetlands and causing the soil to subside. In the past 80 years about 2,000 square miles of the Louisiana coastline have been gobbled up by the sea, and the state loses an additional football field sized-chunk of land every hour. Continued climate change poses a very real threat to the very existence of this magical place.
So it’s time to face the facts, Tulane. We underestimated our vulnerability before, and the loss of lives and livelihoods Katrina caused can never be replaced. This time we have a chance to do better, to recognize the severity of the threat posed by climate change before it’s too late. As a proud alumna of Tulane and a life-long lover of NOLA, I’m asking you to face the facts and take responsibility for the role Tulane’s continued investment in fossil fuels plays in driving our climate’s warming. We still have a chance to save New Orleans and other vulnerable, magical places if we can prevent warming beyond 2°C. The opportunity to keep temperature increases below this critical point is closing rapidly, and it will require 60-80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves to remain unburned. Fossil fuel companies have reserves far in excess of what remains in this carbon budget and by divesting Tulane’s endowment we can send a powerful signal to keep that carbon where it belongs.