Connector of the Gulf South, 15 Years and Counting
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
How did Hurricane Katrina—which displaced more than 1 million people in the Gulf region—propel your work, and how does it shape your mission today?
I got into this work in the aftermath of the hurricane in 2005, and it's been 15 years as of August 29. Katrina was a massive disaster that I felt compelled to respond to. It was my hometown. I stayed because I began to understand how that disaster was a manifestation of a global climate reality.
We are anchoring the Movement for Black Lives work that's centered around a national black climate agenda, and part of that will include in-depth communications to bring climate into the realm of Black lives—into communities that have been marginalized and targeted by our colonizing system. Part of our work is to begin a process of acknowledging the trauma that comes with being a person of color in this country, being in an environmental justice community and being poisoned every day, and going through a climate disaster. We are on the frontlines.
How do you help communities heal from this trauma when the underlying problems have not been solved?
The most difficult and time-consuming layer is building, healing, and strengthening relationships between different communities and acknowledging that many of us, especially people of color, have been systematically pitted against each other as part of a broader social infrastructure. What does it mean to reconcile these communities with each other? For example, we're making a Sacred Waters Pilgrimage down the Mississippi River for Black and Indigenous women to address the tensions between those two communities in the U.S. and begin to heal those relationships. In the climate movement, these are the people who are tokenized; it's just assumed they can stand on the frontlines together with no acknowledgment that there's a deep history of mistrust and tension between these groups—not of their own creation, and rooted in colonization. You've got to take some time to understand how the cultures are different and how people are perceived. You've got to reconcile and heal before you can work, and only then can the work that you do together stand. Otherwise, the work that you do together will fall.
In addition to building coalitions, what kinds of services does the GCCLP provide to help residents cope with the impacts of extreme storms?
We started out providing free legal services to folks recovering after a disaster. We are there as service providers but we also offer a political education about what is happening to you and why. We don't just get your FEMA paperwork completed for flood remittance, although that's part of what we'll do. You're also going to leave with an understanding of the frequency of flooding, the climate impacts, and how your area in particular has just been affected and is going to be affected in the future.
Today, we have four main programs, and in each, we have a level of advocacy within them: We do Equitable Disaster Recovery; Water Equity/Water Economy; Sustainable Economy/Energy Democracy; and Land, Labor and Just Transition. Our federal disaster advocacy work centers around the modification and re-envisioning of the Stafford Act, which controls and activates FEMA. We also do some state-level advocacy around mitigation planning here in the five Gulf South states. That involves educating decision makers not just on what the community needs but pointing out what's out there and within our budgetary reach or legislative duty.
A lot of the initial recovery work following Katrina centered around building climate-resilient communities that could withstand future storms. Has that work been successful?
Over the years, as we've watched people trying to create resilient communities that are more physically ready for the storms that are coming, we've seen it either lead to gentrification or segregation or investment in non-Black, non-Native places. Money never makes it to the frontline. So we've got to put in our own infrastructure systems at the community level, rooted in political education around economy, racialized capitalism, and wealth-building.
In our understanding of climate change, the economy plays a major (if not the major) role in how we got to this place. The economic philosophy of this country is one of extraction; it's an extractive economy that started with the attempted genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, all for profit, power, land, and control. So, we help communities to practice receiving, making decisions about, and distributing money to places where they want to see their dollars go—which is basically holding Black wealth. We help local organizations set up community-controlled funds all across the Gulf South region after every disaster. Yes, the community receives dollars, but they also go through a 12-month process to collectively develop a system of shared governance so that, should this happen again, we have systems of our own around our own money and its destination.
The practice of "blue-lining" is a new climate-driven threat that withdraws support for vulnerable communities living in high-risk flood areas. How did that manifest in New Orleans after Katrina, and how might it impact other areas?
It's happening already in places south of New Orleans where decision makers have understood we will not make it. We're going to lose those areas. My community is one. You watch as federal flood insurance becomes impossible because of the designations of flood risk by the Army Corps of Engineers. A point comes when you can't even get flood insurance to protect your home. After Katrina, officials said, "Everything below Interstate 10 is pretty much written off so if you live below I-10, you should begin to plan to move."
I think we're going to see false information about flood lines. On flood maps of south Louisiana, the city of New Orleans is not shown in the flood zone because of the levee system, which was only rebuilt to the standards that failed the first time. As a result, people in New Orleans can get insurance but people south of New Orleans can't.
How do you reach community members who are not already part of the climate conversation but face climate change impacts in their immediate futures?
Outreach is mainly folks just talking to the people they know. And we're part of larger coalitions that help us build new relationships. The problem is that the climate conversation has not yet made it into the daily rhetoric of Black, Indigenous, and brown communities, so giving generic information is not good enough. We're going to do more virtual education because video and social media are just how people get their information now in this COVID reality.
But the majority of folks we're trying to reach do not sit on a computer all day so there's still the problem of how to make it real. You have to understand that communication is not just words, especially down here in the South. You can sit under a tree next to somebody for a long time without words, yet a lot is actually being communicated, and they can feel that your energy is serious and authentic. I never had a problem communicating urgency to people of the Gulf South. They know I'm from here, that I love this place, and that I wouldn't be taking their time talking like this if it weren't serious.
Reposted with permission from Natural Resources Defense Council.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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