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LSU Helps India Prepare for the Impact of Climate Change

There is no doubt about it – we live in a society that is growing smaller by the second. Technology has literally put the world at our fingertips, making borders and boundaries less and less significant. But as we hurtle toward becoming one really big small town, we run the risk of forgetting to take into account the most essential aspect of the planet – our environment.

“Even though most carbon dioxide emissions come from just three continents, the repercussions impact everyone living on this planet,” said Robert Twilley, associate vice chancellor of research and economic development at LSU, director of the Coastal Systems and Society Agenda, and professor of coastal sciences. “It’s very important that, as we move toward a global economy, we also move toward a global outlook on the environment, too.”

LSU Takes Charge

In April of 2007, Twilley joined an international science team with the goal of helping India – which was poised to overtake China as the world’s most populated country in as little as five years – find ways to combat global warming’s impact on its delicate coastal systems.

“The whole idea of the science and technology initiative that President (George W.) Bush signed with the premier of India was to develop a partnership between our two countries,” said Twilley. “Louisiana exports its oil and gas technology all over the world. There’s no reason we can’t do the same with our coastal expertise.”

With India’s large population and significant carbon footprint, the country faces severe coastal threats. Historically, it has been extremely vulnerable to potentially catastrophic events such as typhoons, monsoons, and tsunamis. Given LSU’s expertise in coastal environments, it makes sense that the University takes a leadership role in setting global precedents and develops a comprehensive program that will improve technology and save lives.

“The statistics are staggering,” said Twilley. “Twenty-three of the 25 fastest growing counties in the United States are coastal communities. To put a global spin on it, 2.75 billion people throughout the world live in coastal areas. That’s out of a total world population of 6.5 billion.”

Basically, that means that nearly half of the world will be at risk due to the effects of climate change impacting our continental margins.

Emission Coalition

The international team associated with the April 2007 workshop is working to develop a unique program for India that could easily become a prototype for the rest of the world to follow. The system is two-pronged. First, they must come up with ways to measure and then reduce India’s greenhouse gas emissions. Second, once the initial phase is complete, countries would receive “credit” for reduced emissions. It is called cap and trade, and it is already being developed here in the United States and throughout the European Union.           

In a cap and trade system, emissions are limited, or “capped,” and measured at set intervals. If a company – or in this case, a country – were to fall below its allotted rate, it could sell the points to other countries, increasing world trade and benefiting the global economy.

“It’s essentially a program that would promote positive behavior, so it has every chance of being successful once implemented,” said Twilley. “We have to work together and plan for economic and environmental sustainability. There’s simply no future for any plan that doesn’t take both into consideration.”

Adapting for the Future

In June 2008, Twilley plans to bring five LSU graduate students to India’s Andaman Islands, where they will study at-risk coastal environments. He is interested in looking at communities frequently hit by monsoons and other events, but also at a few areas that are rarely impacted by such occurrences. His goal is to gain a better understanding of the adaptations ecosystems – natural and social systems – in frequently affected regions have undergone when compared to ecosystems generally spared from disaster.

“There are two critical things coastal communities everywhere will have to adapt to in the near future,” said Twilley. “The first is rising sea levels; the second is increasing frequency and/or intensity of storms. Both of these are due to global warming.”

According to Twilley, this adaptation is critical. Using the example of Katrina, he explained that the same storm 10 years from now would cause much greater damage.

“If we don’t start adapting now, we become increasingly vulnerable with each passing year,” he said.

Twilley’s Coastal Systems and Society Agenda, or CSS, a subset of the Flagship Agenda, came about as a reaction to these harsh realities. The University recently focused part of its Multidisciplinary Hiring Initiatives on accepting proposals specifically targeted to bringing in prominent new faculty considered experts in areas beneficial to CSS.

“The idea is that coastal systems, like deltaic wetlands in Louisiana and the mangrove forests in India, have to adapt,” said Twilley. “We have to learn why some of these ecosystems are thriving and some are wasting away. But social systems, or ‘built environments,’ also have to adapt, and we have to make plans that consider both. Developing countries are going to set the precedent on how we survive – they have a huge responsibility in the stewardship of this planet. Ignoring India during this time would be a travesty.”

Ashley Berthelot | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2008

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