Even as climate disasters grow more extreme, common, and destructive, our reaction and response may not be matching the moment.
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August 27, 2020 marked the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that ravaged towns from New Orleans, Louisiana to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Week after week, we experienced the depth of the travesty through images of the dead and dying—flood waters trapping families on rooftops, children being handed to rescue teams, scores of people sitting in wait at the Superdome for food, shelter, and help. One of the most powerful images stuck in my mind was of the bridge to Gretna: Black people halted in their attempt to cross a bridge to safety, their path forward blocked by white officers protecting the homes on higher ground. Even in the midst of a national disaster, racism still reigned supreme.
But as we reflect on both the loss and lessons of Katrina, neither the number nor the force of climate disasters has weakened. In August and September of 2020 alone, we’ve experienced the threat of two hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, deadly and record-breaking wildfires that have literally turned the sky the color of burnt orange across the West Coast, and a crop-destroying derecho in the Midwest. The latter is so unique, my initial reaction forced me to look it up while wondering, “Have our climate disasters become so bad that we have to make up new names now?”
Yet 15 years after Katrina, I don’t see the same public reaction to climate news. Climate disasters are happening more frequently but are getting less “top of the hour,” urgent coverage from news and media sources. And it’s no wonder: Between the daily shock of another Trump administration scandal, racial injustice, and coronavirus pandemic updates, there’s scarcely any room for climate incidents of any kind. Disaster philanthropy has shifted in how it addresses major weather events, yet the need for immediate assistance has not. What’s even scarier is that many of the same regions are being hit repeatedly, thereby supporting conservative’s case for “sacrifice zones” across our country. Have we developed a sense of normalcy around these unnatural disasters? Climate complacency is real.
Within a week of Hurricane Katrina, the Concert for Hurricane Relief was organized and aired across the entire NBC Universal television family. On a stage featuring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Harry Connick Jr., and Kanye West, artists encouraged the world to kindness and raised over $50 million in an hour. It was the scene of Kanye West’s famous and controversial, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” statement. (My how things have changed, but I digress.) I was excited to see this enthusiasm to help. I grew up in an era where everything was solved with a good song or a concert. Yet with the onslaught of storms—Rita, Wilma, Gustav, Matthew, Irma, Ike, Harvey, Michael, Sandy, Maria, Dorian—it became too hard to remember what storm hit where and when, let alone the impact to the communities they struck.
According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the amount of funding from charitable foundations has increased, but there’s a significant shift in how the money is spent. From 2013 to 2017, the amount of donations used for resilience, risk reduction, mitigation, and preparedness decreased from 9% to 3% while responses and relief spending increased by 20%. The shift is understandable. An increase in the number of storms across the country in conjunction with both the strength and intensity of the storms will require additional funding and help to respond adequately. Still, it does not negate the fact that we’re putting more resources toward responding versus preparing and reducing. This also creates an environment where, in both feeling and in practice, the perception is that we are giving up on innovation and science to reduce the disaster impacts, and instead, are simply clinging to the past in hopes that this will all one day just go away. We’re living in a constant state of fight or flight, and we are fleeing fiercely.
Acceptance of this new normal also encourages acceptance of sacrifice zones throughout our country. The term “sacrifice zone” originated during the Cold War and was first used to designate areas that had been contaminated with radioactive materials and nuclear waste. Today, in the U.S., these are most likely low-income and minority communities that suffer from a pattern of social and systemic injustices, including environmental pollution, poverty, and economic divestment. It’s Hoover and Mountain Brook, Alabama versus North Birmingham. It’s River Oaks versus Mancester in Houston, Texas. With little to no political power, it’s no wonder these areas of our country are typically the last to receive assistance from climate disasters or protections from future climate events.
To see a real-time example, one need look no further than South Louisiana and the Lake Charles community that has suffered devastating loss from Hurricane Laura. Days before the storm struck the Southern coast, facilities released over 4 million pounds of air pollution, including emissions like benzene, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide. These releases took place in communities of color that sit along the fence line of chemical plants—places like Port Arthur, Texas and Lake Charles. This is not unusual, plants must make the decision to either burn off the pollution and release dangerous chemicals into the air, or risk potential fires and even greater release if something were to happen in the midst of a hurricane. Noted community activist and actor Hilton Kelly said it best in a piece describing what it’s like to live next to a refinery when a hurricane is barreling down on you: “Our environment is in a predicament. When those flares light up, you see this high flame… there’s thick black soot just pouring out and stretching across the blue sky for miles. The particles would then slowly rain down on our community, affecting our health.” People living in these communities are subjected to both environmental pollution and health hazards simply by walking out the front door.
Nevertheless, the petrochemical industry throughout Texas and Louisiana continues to expand, pushing to both set and meet global demand for fossil fuels.. In the meantime, sacrifice zone communities that neighbor the plants repair their homes from the storm— while also fighting the petrochemical facilities that would add additional pollution to their already overburdened air quality, all against a backdrop of a pandemic. These are not the stories we hear in the news; these are not the headlines we see everyday. These are not the tangible physical, emotion driving images that cause us to respond and act.
So how do we shift this climate complacency? In an era when we see climate disasters increase day after day, year after year, what will it take for us to get the message that we neither have the time, energy, or space to be complacent about these issues? Like any good 12 step program, I believe the first step is recognizing that we have a problem. Climate change is happening, and being complacent is tantamount to intentionally ignoring the elephant in the room. It’s why we’re repeating “justice in every breath” at Moms Clean Air Force. As a parent, I can’t afford to be lax about my children’s future. So let’s stop being lazy about the climate crisis and look at every incident with fresh new eyes. We must remain vigilant and persistent, relying on science to guide our solutions and compassion to guide our execution.
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