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Black Louisianans Brace for Impact of Climate-Denying Governor-Elect

Louisiana, the state most threatened by climate change, has elected a governor who claims climate change is a “hoax.”

Exxon Mobil's oil refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the second largest in the country.

This story was originally published by Capital B.

Every 100 minutes, a football field-sized piece of Louisianan land is swallowed by rising seas. But the state, the second-Blackest in America, recently elected a governor who says that climate change is a “hoax.”

Just a year removed from Louisiana’s release of its first climate action plan, Black activists fear that Republican Gov.-elect Jeff Landry may stifle the state’s much-needed climate adaptation efforts as they seek to protect their quickly disappearing homes.

As Louisiana’s attorney general for nearly eight years, Landry has been a staunch defender of the state’s influential oil and gas industry and worked against attempts to increase clean energy options. After his win, the state’s Oil and Gas Association praised Landry as a critical ally, signaling his continued support of their interests. This alignment with the oil and gas industry poses a considerable challenge for Black people in Louisiana. Beyond the heightened vulnerability to flooding, hurricanes, and land erosion, many Black communities also are close to numerous polluting oil, gas, and chemical facilities.

Across the state, Black folks have watched cancer ravage their communities generation after generation, residents have told Capital B. Yet earlier this year, Landry made national headlines for blocking the Biden administration’s attempt to clean up air pollution in the state’s “Cancer Alley,” which is 40% Black and home to more than 200 petrochemical plants.

In Cancer Alley, pollution contributes to residents being diagnosed with cancer at a rate between 7 and 50 times higher than the rest of the country. They’re also the least likely to recover from the state’s constant onslaught of severe weather events.

Given that the Republican Party already dominates the State Legislature, Landry’s victory moves Louisiana even further to the right.

In 2022, Capital B reported on how Landry used his office to withhold funding for a flood prevention tool in New Orleans because the city wasn’t enforcing the state’s strict abortion ban. This year, he sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency over its update of the country’s flood insurance pricing system, a climate adaptation tool that was created to deter Americans from living in flood-prone areas.

Still, Davante Lewis, a Black politician on Louisiana’s utility regulation board, said that Landry’s election is only a small “deterrence” to the state’s improving outlook on climate change adaptation because public opinion is shifting.

Last year, Louisiana became just the seventh Southern state to release a climate action plan, outlining a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 compared with the 2005 averages. Landry hasn’t signaled whether he’ll follow his Democratic predecessor’s plan, but he’s announced who will lead his administration’s environmental department: a former Trump administration employee.

“While [Landry] wants to use his Fox News talking points,” Lewis said, “there are real-life climate consequences that we’ll face, and he’s gonna have significant pressure from us, who care about our environment.”

Political analysts chalked up Landry’s victory in part to poor turnout among Democrats and Black Louisianans. Estimates place turnout around 36%, the lowest in a decade. The state Democratic Party’s mobilization efforts were thin and lacked cohesion, Lewis and others said.

He added that the low voter turnout highlighted how much Black Louisianans have lost faith in their state government. Others have expressed similar sentiments.

“I just think the state party has to get together and decide what direction it wants to go in,” former Louisiana U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond told NPR. “The one thing I’m not sure that I’ve seen from this state party now, or maybe even in my career, is — do we adopt a statewide Democratic platform, so people know what we stand for and what we’re trying to do?”

The state is also involved in a plodding legal battle over its congressional map. A federal judge has granted Louisiana until the end of January to draw district lines that comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Civil rights groups and Black Louisianans sued the state in 2022, arguing that the new map dilutes Black voting strength. Just one of Louisiana’s six congressional districts is Black, even though the state is 33% Black.

The diluting of Black voting strength has serious implications for environmental protections and adapting to climate change, experts told Capital B last month. When Black voters aren’t allowed to meaningfully participate in political contests, policies related to climate change and equitable city planning might fall down a candidate’s list of priorities.

Ultimately, Lewis, who’s one of the state’s five elected officials tasked with guiding the clean energy transition, said that Louisiana’s adjusting to climate change has as much to do with communities’ willpower as it does with who’s sitting in the governor’s mansion.

“This is a state where people, especially Black folks, have been oppressed by voter suppression and been racially gerrymandered, a state that’s been locked by the oil industry into deadly jobs that pay unlivable wages. People want change,” he said. “If Landry wants to pick that fight with the thousands of Louisianans fighting for a cleaner future, we’re ready to meet him in the arena.”

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