America's Vanishing Coastline: Climate Adaptation and Decision-Making in Southern Louisiana

When Spring ’17 student Natalie DiNenno stumbled across an article about climate refugees in Alaska, she wondered if she had found her marine policy research topic. Studying sociology at Williams had taught Natalie to “think about research in terms of people and places,” and she hoped to carry this approach over to her policy research project at Williams-Mystic.

Guided by marine policy professor Katy Robinson Hall (S’84), Natalie decided to explore climate adaptation not in Alaska but in southern Louisiana — and, in particular, in many of the communities we visit during our Louisiana Field Seminar.

“I never would have thought about this in terms of policy,” Natalie notes a year later. But as she explored the topic further, she “realized that people can’t just decide,” in isolation, whether to “restore the coast or retreat.” They require “government organization, legislation, and funding.”

Just over a year after Natalie’s Williams-Mystic semester began, Natalie and Katy presented their research at a Log Lunch, a weekly gathering hosted by the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies and featuring speakers on a range of environmental topics.

In advance of their talk, Natalie reflected on her research, on how her experiences on the Louisiana Field Seminar complicated it, and on the lessons it has to offer other communities imperiled by rising seas. Read on to hear her thoughts. 

Describe the basics of your project: its origins, your research question(s), and the takeaways so far.

When I was originally looking into project ideas, I found an article about Alaskan climate refugees. I thought that might be interesting to explore, but I didn’t know how it intersected with marine policy. I’m a sociology major, so I tend to think about research in terms of places and peoples. [Marine Policy Professor] Katy [Robinson Hall] suggested that I look into land loss into Louisiana, and the decision that the people living there have to make: restore the coast, or retreat? I never would have thought about this in terms of policy, but as I did further research I realized that people can’t just decide to do either of these things by themselves without government organization, legislation, and funding. Another key takeaway: land loss is fast, and governments are slow. This is a dangerous combination.

Approaching the project, I asked questions including: Why restore the coast? Can it be done? What work has to be done in order for people to conduct organized resettlements? Who advocates for restoration, and who advocates for retreat? Where does funding come from, and what happens if there is no funding?

My conclusion, in brief, is that while Louisiana should pursue restoration where possible, due to the rapid loss of land, the government should prioritize resettlement and dedicate funding to this effort. Land loss happens more rapidly than restoration. It is better to save communities by moving them than to focus purely on restoration (particularly in places that primarily benefit energy and oil interests), because if they are not saved now, they will simply break up and wash away as residents move individually.

Describe a moment of the Louisiana Field Seminar that stands out to you.

I distinctly remember meeting Chief Shirell [Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou-Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw Indians] and being surprised by how young, energetic, and passionate she was. The way she spoke about her tribe and what they will lose if nothing is done was heartbreaking, but she also had an incredible amount of joy and hope despite how desperate their situation is.

How did your experiences in Louisiana shape your research — either the way you carried it out or the questions you asked in the first place?

Katy told me before we left that I would return from the field seminar even more confused and conflicted than I already was, and she was right. Without the field seminar, my analysis of the issue would have been much colder and less personal, with more emphasis on advocating for retreat. But seeing the people who live there, and how connected they are to their land, made me reconsider how difficult it really is to just pick up and move.

I think that if I had written the same paper for a class at Williams, and not at Williams-Mystic, I would have lacked an understanding of the coastal way of life and just how important the ocean is to people’s lives. Williams-Mystic allowed me to see the world in a way that was completely different than learning that takes place solely in a classroom.

What do you wish more people understood about climate adaptation in coastal Louisiana and regions like it?

For these people, climate change is happening now. That’s true for a lot of places — in the form of extreme weather conditions, storms, and changing temperatures, but the actual physical loss of land is more concrete. There are people living in these regions who can point to a body of water and say “there used to be a beach/house/restaurant there.” It doesn’t even matter if there aren’t any more storms; the land will continue to sink and the sea will continue to rise. When people think about climate change, I don’t think they often picture land disappearing. But it is.