“There’s no such thing as a natural disaster.” A gripping title and, perhaps, a seemingly controversial statement. During my undergraduate studies, I was assigned to read Neil Smith’s article on the subject in three separate classes. It captivated me from the beginning and began to shape my views as a budding social scientist and geographer.
So what exactly is meant by, “There’s no such thing as a natural disaster?” When we look at natural hazards, like hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes, they cannot all be coined as “disasters.” The location of a natural event determines whether or not it is a disaster. Hurricane Katrina, which was analyzed by Smith, can be deemed a disaster because it struck New Orleans, an area with deeply embedded socioeconomic issues. After Hurricane Katrina, then-Senator Barack Obama released a statement, saying that “the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago.”
A long history of race and class abandonment led to countless disadvantages and the marginalization of the Black community in New Orleans. Historically, they have been disproportionately affected in regards to health inequity, unemployment, economic difficulty, and police violence. Hurricane Katrina, in particular, is a prime example of an environmental justice issue, illustrating the deep divides in society that have been present since the nation’s founding.
While white households were able to evacuate the city, much of the Black population was left to fend for itself in New Orleans. The more privileged individuals had money, insurance, transportation options, and places to go outside of Hurricane Katrina’s projected path. Unfortunately, the only option for a vast majority of the poorer residents of New Orleans was to remain in the city. Over 16,000 of these residents took refuge in the Louisiana Superdome, where conditions necessary for health and safety quickly devolved.
Hurricane Katrina turned the tides from the environmental justice movement towards the climate justice movement. It brought together the issues of environmental justice and climate change by spurring the incorporation of climate-related concerns, like emissions and energy costs, into environmental justice approaches. This helped pave the way for a more serious examination of climate vulnerability and inequity.
Environmental justice emphasizes the inequitable distribution of environmental risks and governmental policies and focuses on correcting these racial, ethnic, and income disparities between poor and minority communities and richer, white communities. Climate justice takes it one step further, highlighting the disproportionate effects that climate change has on different populations based on their socioeconomic status. It focuses on personal experiences, amplifying the voices of the disadvantaged, and on addressing inequities.
Climate justice tells us that the impacts of climate change are not equal for all groups or communities. Those who are most vulnerable to climate change effects include low-income communities, people of color, the elderly and younger populations, Indigenous peoples, disabled people, and women. Climate justice is a newer concept than environmental justice, but rising concern about climate change has made its significance increasingly clear.
For instance, while hurricanes might arguably be a strictly natural event, it was human actions that were behind the Bush administration’s delayed and mishandled response to Hurricane Katrina. In the crucial days leading up to the disaster, the president was on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He was still there when Katrina made landfall in New Orleans and did not return to Washington, D.C. until six days later. A photo of the president gazing at the destruction from Air Force One circulated the media and made him look unconcerned and detached.
According to Michael Brown, the director of FEMA, the federal government was unaware that levees had collapsed and residents were left stranded in the Superdome. Some evacuees attempted to make their way to Gretna, Louisiana, but were blocked by police officers who told them to turn back while firing shots above the evacuees’ heads. There is little doubt that the Bush administration’s poor response and lack of urgency to visit the affected areas reinforced a legacy of inequities not only in New Orleans, but in the entire nation.
For most, if not all, environmental hazard events and disasters, poor and minority populations are more vulnerable due to systemic inequalities, and in the case of Katrina, they were disproportionately affected by flooding and storm surge. These communities resided in floodplains, and when the levees broke in New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward was overtaken by rapidly moving floodwaters. If maps of poverty based on socioeconomic factors were compared to maps of the areas most flooded after Katrina, they would be nearly identical.
In the settlement of New Orleans, wealthier and whiter residents built homes on the higher ground leaving the poorer, minority residents to settle in the more vulnerable floodplains. Over time, this segregation continued and the Lower Ninth Ward was solidified as a primarily Black, working-class neighborhood. The vulnerability of the Lower Ninth Ward was heightened when officials claimed that the area was “uninhabited” and began building the Industrial Canal in 1918 directly next to the neighborhood, leaving the Lower Ninth Ward trapped between the canal and the Mississippi River.
After Hurricane Katrina, wealthier and whiter neighborhoods were rebuilt while the Lower Ninth Ward sat in disrepair. Officials advised against rebuilding the neighborhood and a plan was announced that would make it the residents’ responsibilities to rebuild. This unequal investment and other structural and institutional vulnerabilities continue to exacerbate inequalities and racial disparities still present in New Orleans.
As we look at the world today and into the future, we see this sort of inequity everywhere as climate change becomes a more prominent global issue. For example, those who live closer to sea level are more vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise. While there may be richer individuals living on the coast in multi-million dollar waterfront properties, they are less vulnerable than the poor and working class. Richer individuals often get more help from disaster relief programs post-disaster and have more opportunities and resources to relocate.
Despite the fact that the most disadvantaged populations are not leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, they continue to be affected disproportionately. The Pacific Islands in particular are at the forefront of climate change effects. These nations are among the most vulnerable in the world, and some islands have already gone underwater due to rising sea levels. Indigenous people on these islands are facing the difficult decision of relocation and outmigration as a result of climate change. However, they also see people, land, and culture as eternally connected and non-existent without the others. Land is an extension of one’s identity and the meaning of life for many Indigenous communities. Forced migration due to climate change would mean severing the link between people and land and leaving behind one’s culture and identity.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in the conversation around disasters and climate change. Solely focusing on a disaster’s “naturalness” ignores the fact that natural disasters have social aspects and that they deepen social divides between and within communities. When tackling the effects of climate change and global warming, it is vital to address climate justice. Poorer and minority communities are particularly vulnerable due to their socioeconomic status and are less likely to receive help from the government after a disaster.
However, at-risk communities are not and should not be defined by their vulnerability. Black communities have suffered through slavery and Jim Crow laws and continue to resist their oppressors at home and abroad. Indigenous communities continue to mobilize and persist in the face of inequities caused by colonialism, imperialism, and industrialization. Minorities in the United States have pushed forward with strength and resilience despite inequalities written in the Constitution, starting with “We, the People” which has historically meant: “We, the free white men.”
These frontline communities around the world are at the forefront of both climate change effects and solutions, adapting and coping through traditional methods, like Indigenous Knowledge, and leading the way on climate action. We should honor these communities, their activists, and their experts, and provide them with the tools that they need–be it power, funding, technology, or other resources–to continue to lead the climate justice movement.