Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, environmental justice advocates feel the time is long overdue for the media to start connecting the dots between climate change and social justice.
There may be no clearer example of this intersection than in the impact and aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Between the devastating effects of the storm itself, and the decade-long effort to restore destroyed communities afterwards, the region's African-American population has demonstrably suffered the most.
In media coverage of the storm's upcoming 10-year anniversary, a few reports have discussed how the hurricane's strength was exacerbated by climate change -- warmer seas lead to stronger storms, and global warming-driven sea level rise causes catastrophic storm surges. Others have looked at how African-American communities have suffered -- and continue to suffer -- disproportionately compared to white communities from the storm's impacts.
But rarely do media discuss the relation between the two.
There have been a handful of excellent exceptions, including a Guardian op-ed from Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of Uprose, an organization that fights for environmental justice. Yeampierre wrote:
Those of us from low-income communities of color are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. US cities and towns that are predominantly made up of people of color are also home to a disproportionate share of the environmental burdens that are fueling the climate crisis and shortening our lives. One has only to recall the gut-wrenching images of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath to confirm this.
Yeampierre explained to Media Matters that “understanding the intersectionality” between climate change and social justice is “really important. We can't pick, we can't choose. It all matters to us, all of these issues.” When asked why media should report on the connection between the two issues, Yeampierre said: “On top of generations and generations of struggling to have their human rights respected, now [communities of color] are dealing with climate change on top of that. That's the story for front-line communities all over the country.”
Yeampierre also noted the problem with dealing with these issues in “silos,” adding that climate change “is demanding something different”:
Our communities have always known that there is an intersection, that's not new. We've always known that. ... The way that people usually solve problems is in silos, so because they think and provide resources and attention in a way that's siloed, it slows down the ability to really address our communities' needs in a holistic way. This is a problem that goes across issues.
Climate change is demanding something different. Climate change is demanding that we build just relationships. Climate change is demanding that, because we know that by 2040 people of color will be the majority in this country, at a time when climate change will have fully taken a hold, it's important that we are developing intergenerational indigenous relationships on the ground right now.
Yeampierre is not alone in her views. Tracey Ross, associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, told Media Matters that she hopes the Katrina anniversary will bring renewed media attention to “just how vulnerable low-income communities and communities of color are to extreme weather events”:
Following Hurricane Katrina, news reports revealed to the country just how vulnerable low-income communities and communities of color are to extreme weather events. While days of hurt turned into years of struggle for families, news coverage largely shifted its focus away from the impacts of the tragedy. Today, low-income communities in New Orleans remain in disrepair, and the intersections of climate change, racial inequality, and poverty are more pressing for the country than ever before. We hope that the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina brings renewed attention to these important issues.
Vien Truong, the national director of Green for All -- which works to “make sure people of color have a place and a voice in the climate movement” -- told Media Matters that the real story of Katrina's devastation on low-income communities “has been under-reported”:
Hurricane Katrina showed the country the devastating impacts extreme weather events have on us all -- and especially to low income communities. The impact of the storm -- the loss of homes, lives, and livelihood -- revealed the importance for all communities to engage in the conversation around environmental equity. This is a story, however, that has been under-reported.
She added: “As we remember the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, let us also reaffirm the importance of environmental justice.”
Image at the top from Gulf South Rising, a movement created to highlight the impact of the global climate crisis on the Gulf South region.