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By the time Nicky Alfonso calls me on a Thursday in October, he’s been on the water fishing for two days by himself. He’s settling in for an evening on his boat: a shower, some dinner, maybe a little shrimping by moonlight.

Alfonso’s family has been on Delacroix Island in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, for generations. He started fishing with his daddy when he was a kid, and today, he’s known by locals for his encyclopedic knowledge of the waterways—Lake Borgne, Chandeleur Sound, Christmas Camp Lake. He’s the kind of guy who says “erl” for “oil,” who calls me “ma’am,” even though at age fifty-three, he could be my dad.

It’d be easy to write a story about how Alfonso thinks this will be the last generation of fishermen in the wetlands; how the land where his grandfather once lived six months out of the year to trap for fur is now a lake; how, he says, “The land is what holds the nutrients for the seafood, and when the land is gone, the seafood is going to be gone.”

The thing is, you’ve seen stories about guys like Alfonso before: fast-talking Cajun fishermen whose daddies, great-granddaddies, and great-great-great-granddaddies were commercial shrimpers, crabbers, and oyster trappers. You’ve seen them in media tragedies, cast in the part of those who stand to lose the most—their homes and livelihoods—as rampant sea level rise continues to change the region’s ecological makeup.

In St. Bernard, locals refer to these kinds of stories as sagas in “Climate Changelandia.”

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Capt. Lucas Bissett and Blaise Pezold drive through the marsh on a chilly autumn morning checking on the black mangroves they planted with students.

The script goes like this: Louisiana is losing a football field of land every one hundred minutes, which is trouble, because 7.5 percent (or three million acres) of the lower forty-eight’s forty million acres of coastal wetlands are in Louisiana. So, we’re all losing the natural barriers of protection during hurricanes, which is trouble, because residents are already bracing for the next big storm. And much of the region’s infrastructure, as scientists regularly point out, hasn’t been adequately rebuilt or reinforced since Hurricane Katrina. That’s trouble too, because all those chemical and petroleum production facilities lining the area’s waterways are in danger of flooding.

When journalists go on the hunt for fishermen like Alfonso, here’s what we inevitably see: an afternoon on an old-timer’s boat, all sunburn and saltwater. Then cut to him sitting in his favorite dive bar, the camera zooming in on a toothy smile as he denies climate science, saying there’s nothing he could do or not do to make any difference. And all that trouble seems to land on his shoulders.

The implication is that he’s a fool, and his individual lack of political will to vote for environmental regulation is what’s failing us all, and not, say, the leaders of industry with lobbying power who’ve long been warned about their potentially catastrophic impact. In contrast, we rarely see stories where educated city-dwellers are asked if they’d give up driving their car to lower emissions of particulate matter.

The implication is that he’s a fool, and his individual lack of political will to vote for environmental regulation is what’s failing us all, and not, say, the leaders of industry with lobbying power who’ve long been warned about their potentially catastrophic impact.

As a Southerner, I’m used to this kind of scapegoating, the intellectual schoolyard beating of working-class or rural folks. Similar stories about oil workers, coal miners, and factory employees emphasize their lack of belief in climate change while failing to portray them as individuals. The dichotomy between the reliance on industry and the harm done to communities creates situations rife with personal contradiction. But who better to recruit in shaping Climate Changelandia for the future than those who, by necessity, know it by heart?

“I can see what’s disappearing faster than other places,” Alfonso says. “I’m out there all the time.” Like most folks who live near the wetlands, Alfonso is deeply worried about the future. This year, he bought a piece of land in central Mississippi. He put a double-wide trailer in the middle of the longleaf pines, only an afternoon’s drive but a long way from home on the coast. This is his escape plan.

He says you’ve got to go into “politics really high” to understand what’s happening in Louisiana’s waterways. All he knows is, people have to learn to adapt. That, or get out.

“Louisiana is the great national paradox.” That’s how David Holcombe, a regional administrator and medical director at the Louisiana Department of Public Health, puts it to me. Folks may not believe in climate change, he says, but they see and feel the effects acutely in Louisiana.

Because of its low-lying coastline, Louisiana is profoundly vulnerable to rising seas. “On the other hand,” Holcombe says, “it’s a state that benefits greatly from the oil industry.” The tension is clearest in the effects on public health in Louisiana, a state that ranks poorly in nearly every quality-of-life measure, according to Holcombe.

Louisiana is the first state to have climate change refugees: the predominantly Native American residents of Isle de Jean Charles whose former home is unlivable, underwater. The state acknowledges the need to address the effects of climate change in its master plan while also giving billions of dollars in subsidies to oil and gas, industries that employ more than 44,000 people. Fishing is regulated to minimize environmental impact, but it’s been a profitable industry for generations, bringing in an estimated $2.4 billion annually.

Abandoned crab traps rest in a tidal creek by one of the black mangrove rehabilitation zones.

I wanted to talk to Alfonso because I heard he was a “straight-shooter,” a go-to in the very place climate scientists call a “laboratory” for issues of sea-level rise. Because there is trouble on the coast: Since 1932, Louisiana has lost 2,000 square miles of wetlands—roughly the size of Delaware.

St. Bernard Parish is a curved peninsula just south of New Orleans that flattens into a mesh of marshy islands barely above sea level. Alfonso keeps reminding me of the area’s wild history, when “bloody skirmishes between fur-trappers in eastern St. Bernard” around the turn of the twentieth century forged a live-free-or-die spirit that carries on today.

Blaise Pezold, forty, is the coastal and environmental program manager for the Meraux Foundation in St. Bernard, and even he’s not like other scientists I’ve interviewed. When I ask him what he likes about his work, he says he likes riding in boats, “being in the wetlands on a sunny day, going all fast. I’ll put myself in a little bit of danger, but hey, I’m on a mission here.”

His mission is climate change adaptation. The projects Pezold manages are “anything from plantings that cost very little amounts of money to large-scale, earth-moving projects that are in the range of twenty to thirty million dollars,” he says. The goal is to slow down the land loss, caused by naturally occurring subsidence (the separation of root systems and mud), industry (drilling, canals), and global sea level rise. The combination of these three factors is what makes Louisiana the land loss “laboratory,” as nowhere else in the world is experiencing climate change so rapidly.

Diverting water is one process in coastal restoration. Here in Louisiana that means bringing the Mississippi River’s water and mud into the marshes. The process is widely supported by voters, according to local polls, but a lot of fishermen worry the freshwater will alter salinity and marine life, and that opening the marshes to polluted river water will further complicate what they call “marsh cancer.” It’s another trite tension: fishermen versus conservationists.

But Pezold works alongside fishermen, including Alfonso. They sit on a coastal advisory board together, signing off on boat slips or construction near the waterways before any item moves to the parish council. Alfonso also helps Pezold identify potential locations for restoration projects. “As a scientist, I regularly go to him for information on things,” Pezold says. “He has more observations than I’ll ever have. I think of him as an extension of my eyes sometimes.”

It’s the Louisiana state government, not Pezold, which is responsible for diversions. He specializes in natural habitat restoration. He does this by bringing in plants like black mangroves with the hope their roots will help hold the land together.

When I ask how climate change comes up in his work, Pezold says he doesn’t engage in that conversation much locally, unless it’s to secure climate-specific funding. Otherwise, there isn’t much benefit to bringing up a heavily politicized point of debate.

Environmental organizers across the South have told me the same: Bringing up climate change derails discussions of community-based solutions for problems like flooding and the resulting problems of transportation and public health.

Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, who is often credited for turning around Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, has for the last twelve years been organizing around environmental issues in small communities of color in his home state. “I don’t talk about climate change with people in Louisiana,” he tells me. “I talk pollution. Because somehow climate change has been turned into a political myth.”

Michelle Fanucchi, associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, makes a similar point.

“I tend to focus on things like community resiliency,” says Fanucchi. “Resiliency doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in climate change. It focuses on outcomes.”

“I tend to focus on things like community resiliency,” says Fanucchi. “Resiliency doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in climate change. It focuses on outcomes.”

For Pezold, community- and culture-based solutions are as important as his huge planting projects. He leads volunteer-based planting days in the community. With the help of the Chalmette High School 4-H Club, Pezold successfully planted six acres of black mangroves in the Biloxi Marsh. “We’re doing a small project with kids, hoping to kind of develop this on a community scale instead of the current installations of these projects, which are enormous,” Pezold says.

In 2016, a local television station ran a story called “SproutingDefenses,” with a cheery video of the high schoolers in their greenhouse and Pezold teaching them how to tend to the seeds. The spot cuts from Pezold cupping a seed in his palms to the wetlands, where fishermen discovered a grove of young black mangroves in an area with frequent flooding and reported them to local officials, spawning the idea to expand the evergreen shrub throughout the wetlands.

Blaise Pezold uses the green house at the Meraux Foundation to propagate black mangroves. He collects mangrove seeds from an island just off the coast.

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The idea of using students to plant mangroves came from Captain Lucas Bissett, thirty-eight, who runs a fly-fishing guide service called Low Tide Charters in Slidell, Louisiana, on the other side of New Orleans from St. Bernard Parish. He’s been “addicted to fly fishing” since he was a kid. It was selfish at first, he says, explaining that the idea was to create a windbreak on the water that would make smooth sailing for his guided fishing tours. But it grew into a larger conservation effort. He led a successful campaign, procuring 1,000 black mangroves through donations.

“I’m scared to death that Louisiana’s not going to be what it is even in the rest of my lifetime with land loss and the coastal erosion we’re experiencing and the added detractor of climate change,” Bissett says. “It only made sense to try and help other kids get involved, to educate them and their parents.” He’s hopeful the next generation of Louisianians will recognize stewardship as a way to preserve what makes their home so remarkable.

Pezold is also partnering with Martin Mantz, a teacher and program manager of the coastal restoration project at Nunez Community College. He’s thirty-one and a recent transplant from East Texas, where he grew up fishing. He’s part of a team of scientists at community colleges across Louisiana who are developing curriculum and workforce development programs for coastal restoration. They’re in the early stages at Nunez, offering a crane operation course to students to help fill large-scale restoration jobs.

Mantz is building on the high school’s career technical education program, where upperclassmen take trade courses to earn college credits. So far, students have learned to weld, blending metal with coquina shell stone to create engineered reefs and boost marine life viability.

The program’s goal is to give students an understanding of their environment. It’s “a very complex system,” Mantz points out. “The wildlife, the biology, the chemistry, the hydrology, the land, the geomorphology, the physical processes that change with global changes.” And they’ll learn marketable skills applicable to the field of coastal restoration.

“People’s perception of which is the villain just depends on which industry they’re in, which family they’re in, and the specific location where they live,” Mantz says. “I do think that the global perspective is missing in St. Bernard Parish, and that’s a component I plan to include in coursework.”

Mantz is hoping to show students how global problems are relevant locally and how local solutions might impact the larger world. “If coastal restoration efforts are proven to be effective, then it’s very likely that funding and entire careers in this area will become an entire industry,” he says. With Pezold and other scientists in St. Bernard, Mantz is building something completely new.

I ask Pezold if the coastal restoration projects in schools can help restructure the next generation’s relationship to the environment and employment. Could he create momentum by tying conservation to money, creating an industry of adaptation, restoring land instead of extracting from it?

“That’s spot on,” he says. The kids, he adds, are all very aware of the problems on the coast and what that means for their employment opportunities.

Pezold doesn’t want the stories leaving Louisiana to be ones of apocalyptic horror. It’s the stories of success he’s interested in.

Bissett, too, is determined to forge such a success, especially as he thinks of the world his seven-year-old son will inherit. “I just had an innate fear that he wasn’t going to be able to experience the wonderful bounty of Louisiana that I did,” Bissett tells me. Even though they come from different experiences, Bissett and Alfonso, and many generations of commercial fishermen, arrive similarly at a kind of realist resolve. “There is no way to fix things completely,” Alfonso says, but it’s not stopping him from trying.

How differently would we think of the people in Climate Changelandia if this is what we saw in the news? Zoom in on a weary smile in a seaside bar, as Captain Bissett nods in agreement.

“If tomorrow, they came to me and told me I had to stop guiding in order to save the state of Louisiana,” he says, “I would do it.”

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Katherine Webb-Hehn

Katherine Webb-Hehn is a mama, multi-media journalist and artist in Birmingham, Alabama.