Enabling the social sciences to plan flood risk and sustainability in Louisiana and beyond.

Climate change is increasingly threatening the homes, health, livelihoods and cultural heritage of communities along the Louisiana coast. Bayou State is experiencing the fastest rate of coastal land loss in the country and has already lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s. Louisiana is taking important steps to address this risk by implementing the country’s most comprehensive coastal planning with huge infrastructure investments for recovery and sustainability.

While the country’s master plan for coastal areas includes state-of-the-art technology and engineering, it must also include an understanding of individual and community behavior and what motivates people to act in response to climate risk, a critical component of sustainability. Many factors can influence the actions people want to take, whether they change jobs, vote on climate policies, protect their home or business from flooding, or even choose to relocate. That is why we need to understand the unique motives that stimulate individual and community action in order to allocate resources fairly.

To fill this information gap, we need a scientific analysis of how people and their social networks in coastal Louisiana perceive, respond to, and adapt to extreme environmental change and climate impacts. Working with partners at Cornell University, we set out to do just that.

This is how we looked at this issue and the key conclusions that politicians and planners need to take into account as they lead the planning of flood risk reduction and climate adaptation in their communities.

Two approaches to studying Louisiana’s coastal communities.

EDF and partners at Cornell University have launched a two-part social science study to examine Louisians’ perceptions of the risk to coastal land loss and climate change.

We got organized first six focus groups in many parishes in southeastern Louisiana, as well as in the inner community of Alexandria. During these discussions, participants pointed to a strong connection to Louisiana’s ecosystems and cultural history, but felt they had little control over the loss of coastal land and the associated climate risks. Participants noted a history of mistrust in public institutions and believe that both state and federal governments can do more to build the resilience of coastal communities.

We used the results of the focus groups to develop a nationwide telephone survey focusing on residents’ willingness and perceived ability to change their behavior to avoid or adapt to an increased risk of flooding, coastal land loss and other climate impacts. .

From nearly 800 responses, we found that people who are attached to their community are less likely to relocate, change jobs, or engage in other life-changing behaviors, even when their perceptions of flood risk increase. On the other hand, strong attachment also means that people are more inclined to take action to increase the resilience of the community, such as voting for new policies, especially with increased perceptions of flood risk. In addition, participants who had negative emotions such as anger or anxiety about land loss were more likely to take life-changing actions to avoid flood risks, such as relocation or job changes.

It is important to note that more than one-fifth of participants are likely or very likely to change jobs (21%) or move to the state (23.3%) or out of the state (20.7%) in response to perceived perceptions. of which risk. Even when participants were willing to take on life-changing behaviors, they also acknowledged that barriers to taking this action were incredibly difficult to overcome.

Credit: Leslie von Ples, EDF.

Recommendations for community planners and politicians.

The results of these studies can help generate more effective, scalable, and sustainable solutions for communication, public relations, and coalition building for community adaptation efforts in and off the coast of Louisiana.

Based on our research, these are four considerations for planners and policymakers involved in planning community climate adaptation in their communities.

1. Understanding motivations – To help people cope with the growing risk of floods, we need to understand the cultural and social indicators that drive their behavior. Without this information, we could inadvertently develop policies and programs that are ineffective.

2. Move at the speed of confidence – Many communities still bear the brunt of systemic marginalization, deinvestment and environmental injustice. Planners need to meet with communities where they are, prioritize transparent communication with communities, and pursue the necessary resources, staff, and actions to enable people to engage when and how they can.

3. Assess and remove barriers – Climate adaptation actions that are considered more difficult will have less support unless they are formulated as the most effective actions to reduce the risk of floods. Assess and remove barriers that prevent residents from changing their behavior to reduce climate risks.

4. Start difficult conversations now – Talks about managed retreat and strategic relocation can be emotionally charged, challenging and time consuming for both retreating and host communities. Residents may be more likely to take part in these talks sooner or later, provided that this means that they will also have a say in the end result and how political decisions affect their future.

In general, planners and politicians need to use more social and behavioral research as an opportunity to learn about the details of the communities they work with and represent. Integrating social and behavioral science into ongoing sustainability efforts can help inform strategies for both individual action and wider public action to reduce the devastating effects of disasters and build community resilience.

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