Demanding Climate Justice in the Wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma
The price we pay for a fossil fuel-powered civilization.
As the floodwaters from two devastating back-to-back hurricanes recede in Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina and several Caribbean islands, it is tempting to think that Mother Nature, supercharged by global warming, has impacted Americans of all races and classes equally.
The mainstream media certainly seem to think this is the case: The New York Times, for example, headlined a story about Hurricane Harvey in Houston with the words, “Storm With ‘No Boundaries’ Took Aim at Rich and Poor Alike.” Celebrities and billionaires like Richard Branson lost mansions on their private islands. President Trump’s 11-bedroom villa on the island of St. Martin called Le Château des Palmiers, which boasts marble flooring and tennis courts, barely managed to withstand Hurricane Irma, while his Florida resort and “Winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago, had to be evacuated. Right-wing shock jock Rush Limbaugh, just days after criticizing the media for creating what he considered undue hype over climate change and hurricanes, was forced to flee his Palm Beach home. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott, whose tenure launched a virtual ban on the phrase “climate change,” at state agencies and who oversaw defunding the protection of wetlands that guard against flooding, was forced to appeal for federal funds to help rebuild his state.
It is tempting to hope that when climate change impacts wealthy elites—who most benefit from industries that fuel both their bank accounts and the world’s greenhouse gases—they may rethink the price we are paying for a fossil fuel-powered civilization. But climate denialism is a phenomenon so persistent and well-funded that we cannot rely on the self-preservation instincts of the rich. Right-wing former Breitbart columnist, white supremacist and misogynist poster child Milo Yiannopoulos, falsely said, as “a joke,” that he had lost his home in Florida. Ann Coulter made light of people in the path of the hurricane, tweeting “Residents at risk of dying from boredom.” (At least 12 people died because of Hurricane Irma.) The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, wasted no time in trotting out its standard denouncement of links between extreme and unpredictable weather and global warming.
One of the Trump administration’s chief climate deniers, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, went even further, saying he found it crass to discuss the actual cause of the devastation. “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced,” he said, adding that it was, “very, very insensitive” to Floridians to bring up climate change. Such sentiments are reminiscent of the reactions from the National Rifle Association and gun-proliferation activists who gasp in horror at the mention of lax gun control in the wake of mass shootings, as if discussing the most direct causes of events in order to prevent future tragedies is the greatest insult to victims and survivors.
Those elites who deny the existence of climate change are the same ones who refuse to see the pervasive inequality underlying these disasters. After all, capitalism combined with structural racism is exactly what drives inequality and environmental injustices. Vulnerable communities pay a disproportionate price for climate-related disasters, just as they do in other aspects of life. In Houston, people of color were, unsurprisingly, hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey. Unlike billionaire Richard Branson, most poor Americans on coastal communities do not have an underground wine cellar in which to ride out storms, or unlimited private resources to rebuild their homes. Even if the storms impacted all Americans, certain Americans are able to survive climate disasters and recover from them far better than others. And this may be precisely the fact that the rich are counting on to tide them over through the next decade. The idea of climate justice is anathema to the wealthy elites who prop up our oil-soaked economy. They prefer Darwinian outcomes.
Elites invested in climate denialism would like to see more vapid and laudatory celebrations of the natural—and very human—responses to disasters. As Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax,” declared in his social media message to Americans, “In times such as these we see the strength and the resolve of the American spirit and we see the kindness and courage of our people … America stands united—and I mean totally united.” Similar messages are commonplace in social media feeds and dominate the rhetoric of cable news pundits. Obviously, residents of Texas and Florida are proud of the resiliency of their communities and have done what most people do in times of crisis: feel empathy for neighbors and fellow humans and go to their aid.
Groups like Black Lives Matter and Indivisible are busy gathering donations to help victims, much as Occupy Wall Street veterans mobilized under the banner of Occupy Sandy to organize relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy hit New York in 2012. But while it is important to uplift the self-sufficiency and resiliency of disaster-stricken communities, we need to demand justice and draw attention to the larger systemic reasons for how we got here and what the responsibility of elites and institutions are in causing the crisis of climate change in the first place.
Government aid and private charity efforts are no substitute for justice for climate disasters and provide no protection against future ones. In fact, since the recent devastating hurricanes hit, Trump had reportedly not been questioned about climate change by anyone in the media for days; and when reporters did eventually ask him on one occasion, he simply did not respond.
We have to accept that hurricanes like Harvey and Irma are the new normal. Even if we stop using fossil fuels this instant, climate change is already underway and will continue to cause untold damage and cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars. There is no doubt that climate change has fueled a far deadlier hurricane season than usual. Scientists have warned for years that global warming will make hurricanes stronger and less predictable. But we did not foresee, even though we should have, how deeply climate change would impact us. We did not plan for the cost of rebuilding impacted parts of Texas and Florida, which will run into the tens of billions of dollars. We need to accept that such disasters are happening and plan for them accordingly.
But we don’t have to accept that our current fossil-fuel economy is the status quo for the foreseeable future. Even as we struggle to adapt to today’s frightening reality, we have to demand just responses and challenge the continued emitting of greenhouse gases. A new, well-timed study just published in the journal Climatic Change helps to link specific energy companies to the amounts of sea-level rise and temperature change that their emissions have directly caused. We can literally name investor-owned corporations like Exxon Mobil and Chevron in legal actions to hold them accountable for the damage they have wrought.
As for politicians, the words that Trump, Pruitt, Scott and others say out loud in denial of scientific consensus that climate change is real is a clear enough indictment. We can easily identify climate criminals, but we need to start treating them as past societies have treated criminals responsible for mass acts of violence against humanity, and demand justice.