People live and die by the water in southern Louisiana.
The Gulf of Mexico, the rivers, lakes, and massive marshes that look more like sea than land, are woven into their identity. They’re always there.
The water brings food, livelihoods and culture. But it also takes. Rising seas have swallowed more than 1,800 miles of coastline in the last 78 years, according to the United States Geological Survey.
That puts residents here at the forefront of areas affected by climate changes. But among four people who spend most of the day outside, whose lives are dependent on the weather, who stare at the same horizon each day, there is little agreement on what climate change will bring, or even if it exists. Leo Dotson is among the skeptics. He’s been shrimping in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, for 54 years and he’ll admit the coastline has changed.
“It’s moved,” he says.
But that has nothing to do with man-made climate change, he adds.
Dotson gets red in the face, repeating that scientific studies showing climate change as affecting weather patterns or warming the Earth are simply wrong.
The 67-year-old owner of Dyson Seafood is out on the water every single day. He’s seen nothing out there to indicate climate change is having a disastrous impact on the region. Seven days a week, the powerful weather in the region permitting, Dotson’s boats go up and down the Gulf of Mexico coast, dragging large trawls along the seafloor to scoop up shellfish.
“I work outside in the weather on a boat, and it’s all pretty much been the same for me,” Dotson says, standing on Jetty Pier in Cameron, gesturing toward the ocean. “The climate is exactly the same as when I was a kid. Summers hot, winters cold.”
Any changes to the coast are simply “the world changing back and forth,” he says.
Greenery has given way to water and with a rising sea level and sinking land, what’s left is more prone to flooding.
Cameron Parish and the surrounding Chenier Plain are considered an “extremely vulnerable” coastline by Tulane University researchers.
Scientists say climate change, with warming temperatures and rising seas, are what intensifies that vulnerability. They can point to a 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in average temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, when humans started burning fossil fuels. They can point to last year being the hottest on record, to 16 of the top 17 hottest years occurring since 2000 to show the climate is changing.
But in this parish where fisherman and shrimpers thrive, some people feel differently.
Cameron is home to the highest percentage of people in a county who believe climate change doesn’t affect plants or animals, according to a recent Yale University study. Of the 4,500-plus who live here, more than 36% share those views. The county also places in the top 10 when it comes to those who dismiss climate change overall.
Dotson doesn’t believe climate change would negatively impact the fishing industry on the Louisiana coast. Not based on what he’s seen.
“It doesn’t concern me. What is science? Science is an educated guess,” Dotson says defiantly. “What if they guess wrong? There’s just as much chance as them to be wrong as there is for them to be right.”
Could anything change Dotson’s mind on climate change? Only a very specific scientist.
“If he was 500 years old, and he told me it’s changed, I would probably believe him,” Dotson says. “But in my lifetime, I didn’t see any change.”
‘Living and dying’ with the weather
Jeff Poe is reeling in speckled trout on his fishing boat with his 29-year-old son, Nick, who is helping run the family business, Big Lake Guide Services.
Poe has led fishing tours on Calcasieu Lake and the marshes surrounding the Gulf of Mexico since 1984.
The brackish mix of fresh and salt water in Calcasieu Lake, like much of the Southeast Louisiana coast, has created historically a rare paradise for oysters to thrive. But the oyster population has been declining since 2009, despite the state’s various attempts at restoration. Poe, who “lives and dies with the weather” and who has seen the lake level rise where he takes his boat out each day, does not buy the argument that we’re witnessing irreversible changes.
Yes, the oysters have been dying, but that may not be caused by the changes in the sea level or how much saltwater is in the lake.
Yes, climate change is happening, but it “can change and go the other way, too.”
And if he’s wrong, well what could humans do about it? He doubts whether limiting carbon dioxide emissions would actually lower the temperature enough to make a difference. And why should they try, based on a prediction alone?
“You know I like my AC, I like running around in a boat like this, my livelihood depends on having gasoline to use at a reasonable price,” he says.
All things told, Poe is not alarmed.
Tulane Earth scientist Krista Jankowski could not disagree more. She refers to this area as “ground zero” when it comes to sea-level impact.
Jankowski recently published a study on the imminent threat facing the state’s wetlands, which showed sea-level rise occurs here four times faster than the national average.
Even if she can’t sway minds, Jankowski still hopes to get action.
“The reluctance of some people in coastal Louisiana to accept that there are big challenges ahead is, in my opinion, a reflection of a societal focus on the present and very short-term as opposed to thinking about even 20 to 50 years out,” Jankowski says.
“Even if we can’t agree on the source, can we at least agree that something has to be done based on the changes that we do see? And the problems that are coming up?”
For some, the future is now
The problems aren’t just coming. Down the coast, they’ve already begun.
Two-hundred miles east of Cameron, in the Mississippi Delta, pilot Charlie Hammonds has been flying since the 1950s, when he was 15.
Today as he glides over the wetlands around Houma, he sees dead trees submerged in saltwater. His cockpit has given him a vantage point over the last 50 or 60 years to see a “cancer” spread across the land.
Scientists and locals all agree the fragile wetlands are an extremely complicated ecosystem. And they will admit there are many possible reasons for changes, in addition to the sea levels rising.
Tulane’s Jankowski concedes the land itself is sinking because of the settling of materials brought by the Mississippi River over the last several thousand years.
But she says the “massive” amount of data obtained for the “unprecedented” Tulane study has left absolutely no doubt in her mind that sea-level rise is also playing a big part.
Fishing, shrimping, crabbing and oystering villages like Cocodrie, Chauvin, and Dulac now have to prepare for the worst. It is a scenario that Native American families on Isle de Jean Charles have already experienced.
Eight generations of Biloxi Chitimacha-Choctaws have called the area home since the 1830s. Their land shrank from 2,200 acres to around 350 acres. About 70% of the population has left.
Chris Brunet is one of about 70 people who chose to stay, for now. He’s watched the island die before his eyes. Large trees in full bloom used to fill his yard. They slowly withered and rotted away, and are now gone.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” Brunet says. “It was like a slow process, but then. ‘Wow.’”
The “paradise” where his grandparents caught wild fish 100 years ago is gone. He believes natural factors, human factors, and oil and gas industries nearby destroyed it.
“I believe that the Gulf of Mexico is such a powerful force that it wants to make its way north. And that man did play a part in bringing it to a more rapid process to what it is today,” Brunet says.
Brunet, 51, says the focus now must shift toward moving so future generations can survive.
How to prepare is also on the mind of Jonathan Foret back in Houma, where he shows children around his South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center. As they discuss the possibility their homes, like those on Isle de Jean Charles, may also melt away into nothing but memories in a scrapbook, he thinks of a Bible story as a symbol.
“Just like Noah, we’ve been given some information about what is going to happen in the future, and we can prepare for that future, or we can decide to dismiss the facts,” Foret says. “What we decide to do will directly impact the future of our families and our communities. Me, I’m going to build a boat. Facts don’t change based on my ability to stomach them.”
This story was edited and produced by Mallory Simon.