Volunteers fight to save a Plaquemines Parish wetland using piped-in river water laden with sediment. Photo courtesy of Governors Office of Homeland

December’s climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, was, as these conferences usually are, more style than substance. Small steps were taken here and there – the Green Climate Fund, formation of new ad hoc committees, increased support to developing countries – but ultimately, delegates walked away without a legally binding agreement to reduce the emissions that cause global warming.

The events in Durban reflected that science holds shockingly little sway over the political process, be it domestic or international. Successive administrations in the U.S. have failed to make climate change a priority and the voting public has not punished them for their complacence.

This is particularly problematic in the Gulf region, the most vulnerable in the U.S. to the effects of climate change. Louisiana is dealing with rapid loss of its wetlands, a phenomenon that impacts everything from hurricane defenses to the fishing industry. Texas is facing the worst droughts in half a century, and the region as a whole has had to contend with ever more vicious storms and flooding. And those are only the obvious manifestations of climate change, a reality that is changing the way we live – from how we build our houses to the ways we make a living.

Monique Harden is one of the co-directors of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans based organization that frames questions of environmental justice as human-rights issues.  “The outcome in Durban wasn’t unexpected,” Harden said. “But it does have critical ramifications for the Gulf. It means that we continue to go without protection from the climate-changing effects of co2 emissions and that without a firm commitment to reduction, communities in the Gulf and all along the coastal United States are placed at risk. It’s a vulnerable and precarious position.”

The existing legal framework is part of the problem. As things currently stand, the federal response to environmental disasters is discretionary. Decisions are made by the government without any input at all from the citizens who are directly affected. As a result, some of these decisions actually prolong or entrench the displacement that follows disaster. There is no legal guarantee that ensures residents are able to return to their homes after a hurricane or that those homes will be restored in the event of flooding or tornados. Ironically, the U.S. has helped set standards overseas for relief and recovery assistance but has adopted no such standards domestically. This hypocrisy only serves to undermine what’s left of America’s moral leadership.

Political deadlock, economic crises, legal wrangling — these only exacerbate our vulnerability to climate change. The lack of a legally binding agreement in Durban — and America’s part in failing to obtain such an agreement —  sends a horrific message to those people who will pay the steepest price for our worsening vulnerability. To the residents of the Gulf, it says that the government – those officials elected to represent us – do not have our best interests at heart.

Bryan Parras works with the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) and he offers this explanation for why Gulf residents aren’t more outraged about the government’s lack of action on climate change:  “People have other pressing concerns,” Parras said. “The large Latino community, for example, is worried about immigration. Folks are also concerned with job security and in this region a lot of jobs are tied into the oil and gas industry.”

This has given government officials across party lines tacit permission to continue voting against legislation that could help protect the environment. At higher reaches of the power structure, where politicians and big business constantly rub shoulders, Parras sees validation of Canadian writer Naomi Klein’s contention that disaster has become profitable. In her book, “The Shock Doctrine,” Klein wrote:

Today, global instability does not just benefit a small group of arms dealers; it generates huge profits for the high-tech-homeland-security sector, for heavy construction, for private health-care companies, for the oil and gas sectors — and, of course, for defense contractors.

So while corporations make huge profits from disaster (and share millions with politicians and lobbyists for the right to remain FEMA’s camp followers), the victims pay a heavy price. We’re seeing homes and livelihoods destroyed, farmlands and fisheries contaminated and aquifers depleted. Hurricane Katrina gave the world a glimpse of what climate change looks like, and yet public officials are rarely held accountable for their stunning indifference to the threat we face.

Last week Louisiana made what appeared to be a step in the right direction, with release of a 50-year Master Plan to save coastal wetlands. Inaction’s toll is already enormous. Some 1,700 square miles of Louisiana have washed away – simply disappeared – in the past half-century or so. Proposed measures to save what’s left range from freshwater diversions to replenish wetlands with river sediment to a voluntary cap-and-trade carbon emissions program that could offset costs. They’re good ideas in theory, but with a number of potential pitfalls when it comes to implementation – if it ever does. While stakeholders seek to streamline their competing interests in the Master Plan’s final version, the effects of global climate change continue unabated. Unless those effects are factored into the equation, we may find ourselves devising plans to shore up coastal acreage that will have already been lost in the interim between the Plan’s unveiling and its implementation.

The state has been brave enough to admit, in the plan itself, that there will be winners and losers in this fight. The Gulf will never again be able to sustain all the communities and industries that have relied on it in the past, but the loss goes beyond that. In a national failure to squarely address the global climate crisis it is the people of Louisiana  and its neighbors along the Gulf that truly lose.

Journalist Bia Assevero reports on the human costs of climate change. She recently moved to New Orleans.