I’ve been meaning to write a post about New Orleans for weeks now. This month – in the midst of the bad news from Bali and congress – a new climate-provoked crisis, one in the works since just after Hurricane Katrina has hit New Orleans hard. It’s been called “Hurricane H.U.D.” [HUD is the government office of Housing and Urban Development].
What’s at stake is the bulldozing of 5000 homes, or what politicians and reporters euphemistically call “units”, of public housing. These units, some moderately damaged, some unimpacted by Katrina, have been neglected for decades, but nonetheless were homes for some of New Orleans neediest and most disenfranchised people before the storm. Since the storm, rent prices are up by 50% and the homeless population is far larger than pre-storm levels. After nearly 2 and half years of all types of neglect and abuse toward survivors of a global warming related disaster, this has become a hugely symbolic battle against the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans.
And it has been the last straw for many of New Orleans’s most oppressed people.
While I’ve been following the housing struggle as its gone from grave to worse for two years, I reached a breaking point of despair these last 2 days when it got personal. At least 2 people I know in New Orleans, including one close friend, were TASERed by police while loudly, but peacefully, demanding entry into their city council meeting where the approval of the demolitions of these homes. Despite (police initiated) physical strife both inside and outside the chambers, the council approved the demolitions. Dozens more people, public housing residents and supporters alike, were pepper sprayed and beaten by police. 4 people, including my friend, were hospitalized.
I came into climate activism after arriving in New Orleans, 3 weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Planning for a two week trip to do relief work, I ended up dropping the rest of my life and spending in all 6 months there during 2005/6.
R. K. Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, has observed:
Most notable as a major issue of concern is the nexus between climate change and the widespread prevalence of poverty in the world. The impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately upon developing countries and the poor persons within all countries, thereby exacerbating inequities in health status and access to adequate food, clean water and other resources.
It would be putting it very lightly to say that after my time in New Orleans, detached academic statements like this seem almost callous. Climate change influenced disasters are a here-and-now reality, and at least for the oppressed within our society, and they go well beyond the moment of the storm, lasting well beyond the attention span of media and activists…even climate activists who should – must – see these events as part and parcel to the struggle for a safe climate future. Catastrophic weather events exist as ongoing, daily life-or-death struggle for thousands of people, and in troubled memories or the occasional nightmare for thousands more like me who had the privilege to come and to go.
As we endevor for an end to the fossil fuel empire and a safe climate future, we cannot forget places like New Orleans, the gulf coast as a whole, Tabasco, Mexico and dozens of other places effected by increasingly frequent catastrophic weather events.
But these places can never merely be symbols for the climate crisis, as the reality is much deeper. Poverty, neglect, exploitation, racism, the neglect of society’s most disenfranchised when crisis strike: these have been life-or-death crisis in New Orleans and countless other places for far longer than cars and smokestacks have puffed out CO2.
It’d be easier if we could say that these social crisis are separate issues, that our issue is stopping this global warming before it causes serious problems. Or to say we do care about social issues and global warming, “have you check out our green jobs demand?”.
But it’s time to get serious and look at where things are and where they are headed. We know we are already experiencing climate change and are already locked in to several degrees of warming and corresponding extreme weather events,. Increasingly, Climate Justice means not just keeping the fossil fuels in the ground, but acknowledging and preparing for the current and coming climate disasters. If you suggest anything less, I’d be forced to wonder what is motivating you, if not helping people stay safe from a changing climate?
There is no question in my mind that preparing for climate disaster means nothing less than facing head on existing systems of oppression in our world: poverty, racism, sexism. These systems, and their intersection with climate change, are what made Hurricane Katrina a climate catastrophe rather than just an extreme weather event. Their existence will make the difference between a changed planet and an unlivable planet, at least as much as 10, 20, or even 50 more parts per million.
What’s also interesting is that the conjunction between these systems of oppression and the prevelance of dirty energy in across our country and the world. If we go for carbon capture and storage instead of stopping coal extraction, what will we say to the people of Appalachia, who live in some of the poorest rural communities in America, when abnormally strong rains and landslides from mountain top removal mining wash away their towns? (Which is already happening).
What will we say to the people of Lousiana, where impoverished urban communities have dealt with oil related environmental problems long before climate change became an issue, next time a hurricane spills and oil refineries and petroleum superfund sites overflow into neighborhoods? if we just plant some trees and offset our driving instead of kicking the addiction to driving on dirty fuels?
Oppression from a changing climate and the existing forms of oppression in our society is and will increasingly be one and the same. If we are serious about a livable just climate future, it’s time we climate activists consider the struggle for a just future in New Orleans, in Appalachia, in Nigeria, Columbia, in Burma as one as the same, a struggle for global justice and against oppression in any form.
We must connect with energy impacted communities in our towns — who are all almost always disenfranchised by class, ethnicity or other forms of oppression — as a way for us to integrate our work for the climate with the one-and-the-same struggle for social and environmental justice.
For really good coverage of the protests and issues, check out the news program Democracy Now!
Below is a news reports, with some footage from the protests. Please know that the “vouchers” the TV anchors are speaking of are totally bogus, only temporary, and don’t work in most places in New Orleans.