Idea #19

From EJ (Environmental Justice) to CJ (Climate Justice): The Lessons of Iconic Katrina

by Regina Austin

Although attributing Hurricane Katrina fully to climate change may not be possible, the power of its imagery nonetheless suggests the need to include important considerations associated with environmental justice in the conceptualization of climate justice.  Consider three “climate risk solutions” supported by lessons from Katrina the Icon:

  • Expand the role of storytellers of all kinds, including not only ethnographers, sociologists, and philosophers, but also visual and literary artists, folklorists, documentary photographers and filmmakers, journalists and nonfiction writers. We need their creativity in conceptualizing climate risk problems that are local, national and global in origins and their experience in imagining and identifying solutions that build understanding and solidarity across races, ethnicities, classes and genders.
  • Develop a mechanism and a terminology by which to assign human responsibility for climate harms. We know that those who are most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change and other environmental harms are the most vulnerable and marginalized people,  such as racial and ethnic minorities, women, the poor, and persons with mental and physical disabilities.  They are members of groups that are typically blamed for their own situations whatever the origin.  Alternatively, they are treated like victims of ambush, perpetrators unknown.  Confronting climate change requires an assessment of who is creating risks and how benefits are being distributed.
  • Train those who, in justice, have a right to be fully involved in all aspects of the actual work of climate risk mitigation, adaptation and substitution and decision making related thereto. Means must be found to maximize the inclusion of disparately impacted groups that have been excluded from roles as “players” in development, climate science and high finance and that are likely to be ignored on account of their lack of “expertise and sophistication.” Paternalism borne of conceit is not a substitute for real equitable participation, nor does it facilitate self-representation. Here again tools utilized by diverse reflexive humanistic multidisciplinary academics and artistic practitioners may be helpful.

These solutions draw on the iconic images associated with Hurricane Katrina as captured in documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) and Trouble the Water (2008).  Such films provide an enduring record of what transpired.  In addition to interviews, these films incorporate the visual documentation of the disaster by professional broadcast and print journalists, photographers and videographers, as well as their lay counterparts; the entire body of work had an enormous impact on audiences who were unaware of the extent of environmental injustice or racism in the United States.

The images of the devastation of Katrina spoke louder than words.  There were black people trapped on rooftops and in attics, black people floating on makeshift rafts, black people wading in armpit-high water, black people lined up outside the Convention Center, black people begging for food and water with outstretched arms.  The government’s slow response left these residents of Louisiana, these citizens of the United States of America, to fend for themselves in a way that the federal government surely would not have allowed had they been white, middle-class, and Floridian.  The images confirmed that America too can be a failed state if you are a person of color, poor, sick, uneducated and undereducated, or homeless and thus desperately in need of governmental assistance.  Because the images made it nearly impossible to attribute the slow federal response solely to bureaucratic ineptitude and partisan cronyism, race, class and the sharp political divide could not be ignored as likely explanations for the tragedy that developed before our eyes.

As the coverage deepened, the audience learned more about the lives of people whose evident distress generated genuine empathy across a broad spectrum of the country.  We came to understand that many of the poorest people had not evacuated New Orleans because they lacked private transportation and at the end of the month to pay for gas and other related evacuation expenses.  Or they were too sick and infirm to be moved out or too conscientious and caring to leave the weak behind.  Or, lacking insurance and other forms of protection against the risk of storms, they feared that their homes and their possessions would not survive the hurricane or the breakdown of social order that might follow if they left behind all they owned for higher ground.  We also came to understand that many of the poor people seen on the screen or in photographs lived in the most geographically vulnerable and precarious parts of New Orleans and that what was happening before our very eyes was an environmental justice disaster.

The visual images, and accompanying commentary, of poor and minority people largely abandoned by their government in the wake of the disaster and grossly unprotected by the flood prevention infrastructure and disaster planning had an enormous impact because they captured what seemed to be the pure truth, unmediated by synthetic theories and ideologies.  In addition, the media found a way to make the geography of Coastal Louisiana, the engineering of the levee system and the logistics of disaster preparedness and response explicable to a lay audience willing to assign blame.

The story told in the imagery was, of course, more complicated than it appeared.  On the one hand, the imagery played into widely-held preexisting suppositions and predilections about the groups from which the victims came, as well as their entitlement to sympathy and tangible assistance.  Consider the heavy focus on poor blacks to the exclusion of poor whites, Latinos, and Asian-Americans and on New Orleanians to the exclusion of other Louisianans and Mississippians.  On the other hand, the images confirmed that the storm and its aftermath literally obliterated the context, the causes and extent, of the victims’ reduced social and economic circumstances along with the people themselves. They set the stage for the seeming “inevitability” of what followed: Thousands of black New Orleanians were permanently displaced, the city is richer and whiter than it was before, and the federal government has invested in an enhanced flood control infrastructure which many of those forced to weather Katrina will never enjoy.

Climate-related disasters are on the rise.  Perhaps the stories told about the Trump Administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Camp Fire’s destruction of the working class town of Paradise, California will better grapple with the complexity of those situations and delve deeper and wider into the linkage between environmental justice and climate justice than was done in the case of Hurricane Katrina.

Regina Austin is the William A. Schnader Professor and Director of the Penn Program on Documentaries & the Law.