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Hurricane Katrina and Climate Justice

by Joshua KarlinerSpecial to CorpWatch
September 12th, 2005

cartoon by Khalil Bendib

For nearly five years George Bush has infuriated much of the world by refusing to take action on global warming. Instead, he has called for more study. In a way, he got what he wanted with Hurricane Katrina.

One of the strongest storms on record, Katrina provided an epic and horrific laboratory for observing what happens when corporations and consumers pump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The world’s top climate scientists have long documented the effects of burning fossil fuels--oil, coal and gas-- and predicted dire consequences for the world’s climate, including increasingly severe and frequent storms and floods.

That future is now. Katrina and its ugly aftermath are harbingers of world torn asunder not only by global warming’s howling winds and towering waves, but also by deepening fissures between rich and poor, black and white.

Of course, mother nature does not discriminate by race or class. The flood waters swallowed up plenty of rich folks’ property and billions in corporate capital. But when nature makes her wrath felt, the wealthy are far more able to get out of the way and write off their losses, while the poor are trapped in her fury. In New Orleans, the poorest neighborhoods lay on lowest ground; the people without cash or cars had no way to evacuate. They are now environmental refugees--the ones the government utterly failed to help for days; the ones who will find it most difficult to relocate, to recover, to start anew.

The least powerful—whether they live in New Orleans or in the low-lying coastal areas of Bangladesh, Nigeria, Honduras, or on islands from Jamaica to Fiji to the Maldives—are the ones who will suffer most from the hurricanes, typhoons, and rising tides of climate change. As entire coasts come under threat, the wealthy can buy sandbags and create super levies and sea walls, or just up and move to higher ground. The poor—tens of millions of climate refugees--will be stranded; no gas, no food, nowhere to go; up the toxic creek without a paddle.


It’s the Oil, Stupid

The Katrina tragedy is intertwined with oil. Along with gas and coal, when burned, oil produces carbon dioxide, which makes up the bulk of the global warming gases that the world’s people and corporations release into the atmosphere. The United States consumes vast quantities of these fossil fuels. With 4 percent of the planet’s population, it is responsible for about a quarter of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Ironically, Louisiana is a major center for refining oil into gasoline and many other petrochemical products. The area right next to New Orleans—an area devastated by Katrina—has been dubbed Cancer Alley for all of the pollution its refineries spew onto adjacent poor communities of color, and for the cancer clusters found to correlate with this contamination.

The people of Cancer Alley have suffered the scourge of oil several times over. Every day they breathed the filthy air and drank the contaminated water that the neighboring petrochemcial corporations served up. Many are sick. Some are dead. Now their homes are gone, swept away by a hurricane likely fueled by global warming caused in part by the oil refining that poisoned their community in the first place.

On top of this, almost all 140 chemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge have sustained damage. “At least two hazardous waste sites are underwater, at least two oil refinery sites in Chalmette are shut down and possibly flooded,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley a grassroots Environmental Justice Organizer in Louisiana. Rigzone.com, an oil and gas industry website reports that refineries and drilling rigs in 13 different sites have spilled tens of thousands of barrels of oil. A toxic stew of this oil, gasoline, vinyl chloride, and other hazardous chemicals threatens to profoundly contaminate the area for generations to come.

“In the midst of the flooding, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and an ExxonMobil employee claimed that no toxics were being released," environmental justice organizer Ann Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade told her colleagues. "These institutions may have faced reality by now. However, given the woeful track record, the government and industry need monitoring now more than ever,” she said. Indeed, in the midst of the chaos, the Exxon Mobil refinery manager abandoned his command post, and only one company employee remained in town. “This,” says Rolfes, “is what happens when corporate chiefs with no ties to the community are in charge.”

The corporate leaders weren’t the only absentees. “Where was the government in this hour of need?” everyone asks. Where was the National Guard when the poor people of Cancer Alley and New Orleans needed rescuing? At least thirty percent of them were off in Iraq, occupying a land with some of the largest oil reserves in the world. They took with them heavy equipment, generators, and helicopters that would have been invaluable to rescue efforts.

And soon, the military may also lay claim to some of Katrina’s younger, poorer victims as they try to get back on their feet. With few options, these climate refugees may become new fodder in Iraq, helping secure US access to a resource whose combustion promotes catastrophic climate change and more hurricanes like Katrina. In the beginning, in the middle and at the end of this disaster... there is oil.


Imagining a Green New Orleans

As the 21st century unfolds, the ravages of global warming will only increase. Certainly if the US government does not dramatically reverse course, the whole world will be studying the issue from an uncomfortably, and often lethally close vantage point.

There are, however, many things we can do to address Katrina’s impact, to avoid the scientists’ worst predictions, and to promote just solutions to the climate change that is already happening.

For starters, “This clean up cannot be left in the hands of a state that cannot protect its citizens from toxics even under ordinary circumstances,” says Ann Rolfes. Her organization, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is working to assure that both industry and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality provide an honest and accurate accounting of what toxics have been released. And they are seeking help and funding from experts at all levels to monitor pollution levels once the floods recede. Such efforts can help protect the short- and long-term health of hurricane victims while providing important guidance for addressing issues of chemical safety and environmental justice in the future.

Meanwhile, “America, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast have an opportunity to be visionary and think well into the future in our recovery efforts," says environmental justice organizer, Darryl Malek-Wiley. "In rebuilding New Orleans, and the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast, we can help make America more energy independent by using green building practices that emphasize energy conservation and use renewable sources of energy. We can ensure that the neighborhoods that we rebuild are public transit-oriented and people-friendly. And, we can rethink how toxic chemicals are stored and shipped through our communities. This is also an opportunity to take people who have no hope and give them jobs to rebuild their future while they rebuild their communities.”

Rebuilding a more green and just New Orleans and Gulf Coast could be an example to the rest of the country and the world of how to use clean energy and environmentally sustainable construction and production to diminish our negative impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we need to move quickly elsewhere as well. We need to transcend the narrow interests of the oil, coal, petrochemical, and automobile corporations and institute a grand and just transformation of our economy away from fossil fuels and toward clean, sustainable energy. In doing so we can both create well-paying jobs and stem the rising tides of climate change.

Unfortunately we are faced with an administration that is not only out of touch with what’s happening on the ground, but all too in touch with the most callous side of American society. It abandoned 150,000 mostly African Americans to sink or swim in flooded New Orleans while continuing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the leaders of Exxon Mobil and Halliburton who put oil, power, and profits above peace, justice, and environmental sanity.

President Bush and his far-right administration have “studied” the problem enough. Katrina and the devastation she wreaked clearly demonstrate the need to take serious action on climate change. Unless he changes course drastically, history will mark George W. Bush for time immemorial as GW, the Global Warming president.


1.Joshua Karliner is CorpWatch’s founder. He is co-author of the 1999 publication
Greenhouse Gangsters vs. Climate Justice