Hurricane Katrina and the sinking of coastal Louisiana stand as a reminder that we must address climate change, competition over resources and marginalisation as the root causes of conflict before it is too late.
Most will remember the horrific pictures on the news in 2005 when hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Nearly 2,000 people died, thousands more were left homeless and displaced, the material destruction was catastrophic with damages well over $100 billion.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina once again proved that marginalised people have the least resources to cope with environmental constraints and natural disasters. Nowhere in New Orleans was the devastation greater than in the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly poor African American neighbourhood. Most residents of the Lower Ninth Ward had fewer options of where to go, did not want to leave their homes behind and lost everything due to the damage caused by Katrina and their lack of financial resources to rebuild the community.
Katrina was not the last and probably not the most destructive disaster to hit Louisiana. Over the past years, a significant discovery has been made: Coastal Louisiana is sinking, at a rapid rate. Some estimate that an area the size of a football field is lost roughly every half hour.
Once again, this will affect already marginalised communities the most. Science Illustrated argues “something drastic must be done” because “the current state of affairs means that they [the affected communities] may soon be the first climate refugees in United States history”.
Climate change sceptics appear to be fighting a losing battle in the face of greater levels of sound scientific data. Yet, governments are still reluctant to take necessary steps like drastically cutting carbon emissions and switching to green renewable energy sources. Hopefully this will change as addressing climate change will be essential in tackling the security challenges of an increasingly interconnected world.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Lord Stern, author of a 2006 UK government review on climate change, admitted he had got it wrong: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then. This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. These risks for many people are existential”.
The risks are indeed existential for many people living in the coastal communities of Louisiana. Rising sea levels, mainly due to melting ice caps, are threatening those who live in the Louisiana Delta.
When interviewed by PBS, Torbjörn Törnqvist, geoscientist at Tulane University who studies Louisiana’s wetlands, said: “there is no doubt that the sinking land is a direct implication of climate change, because it actually reflects what we see worldwide. And if we go forward, we know that sea-level (rise) will continue to accelerate. The only thing there is uncertainty about is how large that continued acceleration will be. But I think the important thing we know now is that, even in the past century, accelerated sea-level rise has already contributed to the loss of these wetlands […] ultimately it [climate change] could very well become the single most important factor.”
Although climate change and the consequent rising sea levels are an important reason why coastal Louisiana is rapidly losing land, there is more to it. To prevent flooding, extensive levees have been built (some more than 100 years ago) around the edges of the Mississippi river and channels and water ways have been carved to redirect flows. However, the levees prevent the land in that area from receiving sufficient sediments to stay above water, and the manmade channels through the wetlands have weakened the buffer zone for hurricanes and storms. So sea levels are rising and the land is sinking.
These factors combined account for “the largest land loss currently on the planet”, says Val Marmillon, the managing director of America’s Wetland Foundation. “The massive land loss is not only threatening to destroy an entire ecosystem, including dozens of endangered animal species, but it could also severely affect local residents. Up to 2 million people are at risk of having to leave their homes.”
DRILLING FOR OIL
In addition to rising oceans, manmade levees and diversions, oil drilling along the coast has also contributed to rapid subsidence of the marshlands. The oil and natural gas industry, with annual revenue of approximately US $325 billion, started drilling in Louisiana in 1901. This has caused the wetlands to collapse and erode as channels are being dug for oil pipes. The process of removing oil from beneath the land is causing it to further sink, letting in salt water which destroys much of the natural habitat.
The Sustainable Security Programme at Oxford Research Group (ORG) sees “competition over resources” as one of the main drivers of global conflict: “there will be greater scarcity of three key resources: food, water and energy. Demand for all three resources is already beyond that which can be sustained at current levels.” A recent ORG publication states that “a narrow resource base for these energy reserves is at the root of the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf and does much to explain recent and current conflicts, but the even greater global concern stems from the potential impact of climate change”.
Oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana is detrimental to the environment, impedes addressing the causes of climate change and most importantly further marginalises already disenfranchised coastal communities.
The political, social and economic marginalisation of the people of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana plays a central part of this story. Frances Fox Pivan in her article Marginalization and American Politics argues that in the case of Katrina “many of the victims had been marginalized before the hurricane and the floods overwhelmed them, which is surely part of the reason that the danger of hurricane and the ensuing floods was ignored. As is amply evident, this was not simply a natural disaster.”
She goes on to link marginalisation, poverty, the effects of natural disaster and violent crime: “Behind those images [of Katrina] was an intricate story of marginalization in the United States. The population of the city [New Orleans] was overwhelming black, and poor. The median income was only 70 percent of the national average, and poverty rates were twice the national average. The main jobs were low wage jobs in the hotels, casinos, restaurants and bars that catered to the tourist industry. Government income support programs, including welfare and food stamps and subsidized housing, that sometimes supplemented the earnings of some poor people, had been whittled away for several decades, and especially under the presidency of George W. Bush. The schools were bad, with high dropout and suspension rates, and the illiteracy rate of the city hovered at about 40 percent. Homicide rates were extraordinarily high, roughly ten times those of New York City.”
In the current situation of the sinking wetlands, most of the 2 million people who are directly affected are also living on the margins of society. According to 2011 US Census data the poverty rate in Louisiana is the second highest in the nation at 20.4% and 9.4% are living in extreme poverty. 14.1% of the population are affected by food insecurity and over 33% are in low-wage jobs as Louisiana is one of the five US states without a minimum wage law.
Small island communities in the Mississippi Delta, such as the Isle de Jean Charles, are inhabited by members of various Native American tribes. Some tribes do not have recognised status from the US government and hence have no access to any help from the state. Many people in the area live off the land they live on and sustain themselves through fishing and other subsistence activities. What will they do when their land disappears? Where will they go?
Marginalised people have much fewer resources to cope with a changing environment. They do not have options. Desperate people are also more willing to turn to desperate means. The case of Louisiana exemplifies the dangerous nexus of climate change, competition over resources and marginalisation. Working towards sustainable security will mean addressing those underlying factors in order to prevent violent conflict.
In President Obama’s second inaugural address, he put climate change centre stage as one of his top three priorities: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”
Words will no longer be enough. We must see action, now.
Anna Alissa Hitzemann is a Peaceworker with Quaker Peace and Social Witness, and is currently based at Oxford Research Group. She works as a Project Officer for our Sustainable Security Programme, with a focus on our ‘Marginalisation of the Majority World’ project.
image source: Brother O’Mara