The “South” is not Just a Preposition, It’s Also a Condition
The “South,” both as a global region and within industrialized countries, is where the people most vulnerable to climate catastrophe are located. It is here that we find the highest concentration of fossil fuel sacrifice zones, home to low-wealth citizens who enjoy little to no access to political power in their respective nations. And it’s here that we find some of the more efficacious models of climate resistance and resilience that you’ve never, or barely, heard about.
But in the context of the climate theater, the concept of “South” has ceased to just refer to geography. Globally and locally, it also refers to a set of attributes that engender and maintain a “southern condition.” In the US, the concept applies to marginalized communities in cities as far to the north as New York City and Detroit as much as it does to New Orleans. It applies to any frontline community that has been the victim of Big Green’s “parachute effect”—co-opted, appropriated, and left to fend for itself once the media attention dissipates and theirs is no longer the in-vogue struggle.
The communities situated throughout the US Gulf Coast epitomize the southern condition. Here are people whose standard of living and quality of life are not congruent with the wealth commanded by the nation that presides over them. There are many reasons why the southern condition persists in the United States and around the world, but one of the main culprits is the lack of media coverage these communities receive to portray their struggle against climate disruption. This iniquitous transmission of urgency produces real, lasting effects that encourage our movement to view climate disruption through a hierarchal rather than an intersectional lens.
America’s Favorite Sacrifice Zone?
As the preeminent environmental justice scholar and practitioner Dr. Robert Bullard reminds us, frontline, low-wealth communities of color are hit “first and worst” by the impacts of climate change. Unfortunately, the response of our government to this disparity is “last and passed.” In their seminal work, The Wrong Complexion for Protection, Dr. Beverly Wright and Dr. Robert Bullard remind us that, “Environmental and public health threats from natural and human-made disasters are not randomly distributed. Healthy places and healthy people are highly correlated. It should be no surprise that the poorest of the poor within the United States have the worst health and live in the most degraded and at-risk environments.” No US region is experiencing this reality more profoundly than the Gulf South, and no entity is creating this calamitous condition more than the fossil fuel industry.
Right now, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is considering 5-year leases that will allow big oil companies to access designated areas in the Arctic and the Gulf for deepwater drilling. While there has been much discussion of the implications of this plan for polar bears in the Arctic, including letters from Democratic Senators to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and calls from mainstream environmental groups, there has been far less attention paid to the implications for the Gulf Coast, with its low-wealth Black and Brown people—despite the fact that of the 13 potential leases 10 are in the Gulf, and only three are in the Arctic.
This iniquitous transmission of urgency further demonstrates how the Gulf South remains one of the preferred sacrifice zones of the United States. And it further shows why we must, as a global community, cease thinking about climate change solely as a nefarious natural phenomenon. Climate change is also a system of oppression that forms the intersection of racial, economic, gender, and Indigenous and ethnic injustice. Hence, the climate crisis requires an intersectional response: you cannot deal with climate disruption without addressing the disruption of all forms of justice.
The Gulf Coast includes the nexus of Cancer Alley (a stretch of toxic industrial operations along the Mississippi), sinking land, and the denial of federal recognition and respect for sovereign Indigenous nations and their territory. It also is home to the first U.S. climate migrants, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, which has lost 98 percent of its land to the encroaching Gulf waters due largely to extraction drilling operations—and all the while, it remains one of the most impoverished regions in the country despite the promise of good paying oil jobs. These are all variables of climate change’s oppressive equation in the Gulf and in vulnerable places nationwide, including Native communities. And in her “open letter demanding respect and solidarity,” Gulf Coast activist Jayeesha Dutta adroitly communicates why this imperiled region refuses to be taken for granted any longer by government and mainstream environmental groups alike.
It’s imperative to distinguish between acknowledging climate change and acting on climate change. This discrepancy was put on full display last year during the UN climate summit in Paris, known as COP21. My organization, Environmental Action, was honored to assist students and faculty from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Climate Change Initiative in participating at COP21. We believe it was important to give the stories of the Gulf Coast a global platform in Paris, and many of the HBCU students are themselves residents of the region.
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But while his administration was offering its narrative to the world, back home President Obama and fellow Democrats were negotiating lifting the crude oil export ban, which had been in place since the 1970s. The HBCU students made impassioned pleas via video messages to Democratic Senators declaring, “The Ban Must Stand,” but to no avail. This communicated to us and, I believe, the entire Gulf Coast that the President and Democrats’ calls to address climate change are meretricious, if not vacuous. We knew that lifting the ban would lead to more offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
There’s No Monopoly on Climate Denial
As that episode reminds us, climate denial is not limited to GOP boogeymen like Senators James Inhofe and Ted Cruz. By allowing the crude oil export ban to be lifted, and considering an increase in offshore drilling, Democrats too are denying the science of climate change—the science telling us we must keep 80 percent of remaining fossil fuel deposits in the ground. Our friends from Oil Change International and Greenpeace inform us the proposed five-year offshore leasing program would lead to increased emissions of 850 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over roughly 50 years, the equivalent to the emissions from 3.6 million cars on the road over that same time period.
It was Frederick Douglass who said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” There are no better words to describe the situation in the Gulf Coast. This is why we are seeing so many take to direct action, risking their freedom, their safety, and their lives to disrupt, divest from, and abolish fossil fuels with the same fervor that drove Douglass and his allies in the movement to end slavery. And it’s why author and journalist Wen Stephenson has described climate activists as “the new abolitionists.”
The Only Way Forward
Climate change has pillaged time from all of us, including our time to act. There is no more time for half-measures, perfunctory proclamations, or policies derived from incrementalism. Climate disruption is a radical system that requires radical action. The Gulf Coast cannot afford another BP blowout or another Shell oil spill, and the people will no longer allow themselves to be captive to a circumference of injustice that continues to rob them of clean air, land, public health, and economic democracy. And until we cease offshore drilling in the Gulf and the Arctic, the prescient words of Mr. Douglass will be vindicated as communities, regions, nations, and the entire planet face a climate reality that is bereft of safety.
There is only one choice moving forward. Offshore drilling must be replaced with offshore wind, thereby powering a just transition away from the fossil fuel economy. The fossil fuel empire and its political puppets can no longer use the excuse that renewable energy production is too expensive. Even Bloomberg News recently concluded that “the costs of wind and solar power are falling too quickly for gas ever to dominate on a global scale.” As such, the only things keeping us from a revolutionary shift to green energy are a lack of political will and abject avarice. These are the sentiments I recently communicated while testifying to the Democratic National Committee’s party platform committee.
As a movement, we must do better to ensure we are giving equal transmission to local and regional frontline struggles. We cannot allow the mainstream wing of our movement to pick winning and losing struggles, and decide which ones to fund and support in an effort to appease corporate interests—especially because those interests are often antithetical to the interests of communities and people on the ground.
In her latest work, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, the revolutionary Angela Davis suggests that “the question of how to bring movements together is also a question of the kind of language one uses and the consciousness one tries to impart. I think it’s important to insist on the intersectionality of movements.” Davis, as always, is spot on—and it will take a massive paradigm shift in line with that idea to ensure that struggles from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Northwest to North Dakota are afforded equal communication, funding, and other forms of support as it pertains to the urgency of their struggles, which should also be seen as our collective struggle.