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Climate Justice, Hurricane Katrina, and African American Environmentalism

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Abstract

The images of human suffering from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina remain seared in our nation's collective memory. More than 8 years on, the city and its African-American population still have not recovered fully. This reality highlights an important truth: the disturbances that accompany climate change will first and foremost affect minority communities, many of whom are economically disadvantaged. This paper: (1) describes how Hurricane Katrina, an example of the type of natural disaster that will become more prevalent with intensifying climate change, has impacted the black community of New Orleans; (2) explores the notion that African Americans, in the midst of racial oppression, have developed a unique and powerful brand of environmental thought that has much to contribute to mainstream environmentalism; and (3) argues that the voice of the black community, which has a vested interest in climate outcomes, is critically needed in today's climate debate.

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Notes

  1. This is a simplified account of events. Adding to the cause of the flooding was the presence of what is known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a 75-mile-long shipping channel located near the city that acted as a giant funnel to gather the surging waters. Moreover, as Mike Tidwell points out in The Ravaging Tide (2006), the decades-long practice of channeling the silt-laden Mississippi River water out into the Gulf by levees along its banks had caused the marshland to gradually subside, or sink, over the years, leaving open water in its place. Exacerbating this problem were the many shipping channels cut through the marsh by oil companies; these enhanced the encroachment of salt water into the marsh. With the marshland, which had acted as a natural buffer to attenuate storm surge, largely gone, New Orleans has become vulnerable to even less-than-extreme storms.

  2. This idea that the intrinsic connection between environmental concern and social justice is written both on the soul and on the fabric of the cosmos may have informed Carl Anthony's reflection on his life as a black man immersed in the environmental movement. Anthony, an EJ activist and the former president of the Earth Island Institute, says: “As I thought about my own history and who I am, I realized that I am an end product of fourteen billion years of life in the universe. I saw that even as humans have a conscious and expanding role in shaping life on planet earth, the forces of the universe are much larger. Only through reclaiming my sense of who I am, in that largest sense, could I make sense out of these two stories—the story of the environment and the story of the struggle for racial justice” (Anthony 2006, p. 202).

  3. The discussion here has centered on the difficulties that African Americans can have in moving beyond the scars of slavery and racism to appreciate nature for its own sake, apart from social and economic considerations. This is not meant to imply that African Americans are somehow less able to relate to the natural world; rather, it makes a statement about the priorities of the community as a whole. A notable example (and there are many others) of an African American person who developed close ties to the environment was biologist Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941). Just's experimental research, which was informed by his love and appreciation of nature, was focused on understanding how marine invertebrate embryonic development is affected by conditions in the environment (Byrnes and Eckberg 2006). Through his work, which remains relevant today in a number of areas, Just made an indelible mark on the history of biology.

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Dr. Kimberly K. Smith of Carleton College for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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Correspondence to W. Malcolm Byrnes.

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Byrnes, W.M. Climate Justice, Hurricane Katrina, and African American Environmentalism. J Afr Am St 18, 305–314 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-013-9270-5

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