Harvey & Irma: Climate Injustice in Action

In the past three weeks, tens of thousands of people around the world, from Texas, to Barbuda, to Bangladesh, have been impacted by disasters exacerbated by climate change. Our hearts and prayers go out to everyone impacted now. But one of the more devastating aspects of this unfolding story is that we’ve known, for decades, that all of this could happen.

As we’ve seen time and again, those who pay the ultimate price for climate inaction are not the people driving this crisis. They are not the CEOs overseeing the reckless burning of fossil fuels, which supercharges storms like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. And they are not the elected officials who continue to deny the existence of human-caused climate change. The people who have always suffered the most from environmental disasters are Black, Brown, poor, and the least resourced to cope with a climate changed world.

Despite the popular narrative, the climate crisis isn’t only about polar bears and melting ice-caps. Climate change exacerbates systematic violence against the poor and communities of color. The continued denial of climate change and unpreparedness for the impacts that follow has racist implications—and it’s time we started talking about it that way.

It’s crucial to zoom in on what’s currently unfolding across the Gulf right now because it’s illustrative of a larger problem: climate change compounds every other social injustice we face, from the spread of disease to mass incarceration to displacement. While Hurricane Harvey brought unprecedented flooding that was exacerbated by a warming Gulf, some of the worst human health and community impacts have yet to unfold.

Hurricane Harvey and the floodwaters that it brought to Texas and the Gulf highlight how the legacy of unjust development spreads the impacts of climate change to communities of color first and worst. It is no accident that communities of color live in the most flood-prone, polluted areas of Houston and the surrounding region. Across the country, these communities are also statistically more likely to live in proximity to polluting industries.

In Manchester, a community in East Houston, 97 percent of residents are people of color, and 37 percent of them live in poverty. According to a study by our partners at the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) and the Union of Concerned Scientists, 90 percent of Manchester’s residents live within one mile of an industrial facility. Compounding all of this is the fact that Houston lacks zoning laws, meaning that residents are often living directly adjacent to oil refineries and petrochemical facilities.

As regions hit by these hurricanes currently ravaging the Caribbean and Gulf look to recover, the following considerations will need to be made:

  • Contaminated sediments: Of great concern are toxic materials that get moved around from flooding and put in places where humans can be more readily exposed.
  • Mold: Once the floodwaters recede, they will leave massive mold problems that can become recurring if not properly and quickly treated.
  • Debris management: The eventual cleanup will amass enormous amounts of debris that will be difficult to handle and dispose of properly. Post-Katrina, we saw the build-out of hundreds of illegal, unlined waste pits that continue to harm communities.
  • Rebuilding issues: Who gets to move back and who does not? Are we going to continue to build and permit construction in areas that are prone to flooding?
  • Climate gentrification: As we’ve seen in post-Katrina New Orleans, the rebuilding plans in the wake of the storm could seek to capitalize on the investment potential of vacated spaces, leaving low-income families with nowhere to return to and little voice in determining the pattern of recovery.

A just recovery will mean that we follow the leadership and expertise of those on the ground, namely those Black and Brown communities that are most impacted. They know how to rebuild and recover from Harvey given their knowledge of the local geographic area, those most in need, and previous experience with disasters. And we need to follow their leadership as we lean into a just transition, away from fossil fuels that are driving the climate crisis, and towards a more resilient and equitable future.

You can support efforts by our allies on the ground to recover from Hurricane Harvey by contributing here.

About the Authors

Rob Friedman

Policy Advocate, Environmental Justice, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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