A Lesson from Katrina

In climate movement circles, folks often ask, “When are people going to wake and do what is necessary to really address the climate crisis?”  There was a time when the nearly constant answer to that question was that people would only respond when there was a disaster that puts a human face on climate change.  The logic went that climate change was too abstract, and people needed a clear picture of what the human impacts of climate change would look like in order to be sufficiently motivated.  Once people had a tangible picture of how climate change hurts human lives, surely they would connect emotionally to the crisis and demand the drastic action necessary to avert such suffering in the future.

Then, ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina gave us that picture in stark human terms.  The picture turned out to be black people on a rooftop.  Given that poor people and people of color disproportionately suffer the impacts of the climate crisis, it was a picture that is likely to continue to accurately reflect the human face of climate change. 

And yet, and yet, even after seeing that picture of the human impacts of climate change, this country did not mobilize to seriously address the climate crisis so that we would no longer have to witness the suffering of black people on a rooftop.  If climate change meant that black lives would be lost, then black lives didn’t matter enough to our society for us to actually address the problem.  Of course, there are many obstacles to mobilizing the political and public will to fight climate change.  But what we learned ten years ago was that one of those obstacles to fighting climate change was deeply entrenched racism in the United States. 

For much of the white climate movement, Katrina was a turning point toward a paradigm of climate justice and an understanding of the connection between the climate crisis and white supremacy.  In our movement history, Katrina was one of the key milestones of the grassroots shift from working for a cleaner, greener version of the world we have now to instead fighting for collective liberation from interconnected forms of oppression.  With a problem that predominantly hurts the marginalized, and solutions that often hurt the rich and powerful, it became clear that we will never effectively fight climate change without also fighting other forms of injustice.  

In the ensuing ten years, the climate justice movement has made great strides toward building relationships and alliances with other social justice movements.  As expected, those relationships have at times struggled to overcome the challenge of a historically white, middle class movement working with more marginalized communities.  But I think a remarkable amount of progress has been made, especially for young people.  I don’t know any activist younger than me who is a single-issue environmentalist.  For young people in the climate movement, intersectional justice is not an afterthought but the basis of their activism.  What we learned from Katrina is that the only road to climate justice is through racial justice. 

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