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WC Retro: New Orleans: Everything has Changed

By Alex Steffen, posted September 5, 2005.

Now that the tragic chaos in New Orleans is finally being brought under control, the time has come for us to step back and take a good hard look at the situation in which we find ourselves.

This tragedy was no "Act of God" -- some utterly unforeseen tragedy about which nothing could be done. This was a completely predictable (indeed, predicted) unnatural disaster. For years, scientists and engineers have been warning of the danger New Orleans was in. For years, nothing was done.

We also know that Katrina was just a foretaste of what we should expect in the coming years. We are changing the weather with the pollution we spew from tailpipes and smokestacks, and the bill for that irresponsibility is starting to come due.

Katrina was a watershed moment. From here on out, the debate is over. Everything has changed, at least as dramatically as in wake of 9-11. From this moment forward, there is simply no ethical way to debate the need for a new, holistic, worldchanging approach to tackling the planet's biggest problems. As we begin thinking about how to rebuild New Orleans, we need also to recommit ourselves to a new vision for the future of the planet as whole.

We now live in a post-Katrina world. It's time for our thinking to catch up.

Katrina's Lessons

The tragedy in New Orleans has brought home some blunt realities about our world. We'd do well to recognize them, and begin to act accordingly.

Climate matters

The climate tab is being rung up: how much are we prepared to pay? Climate change cost $60 billion and perhaps as many as 150,000 lives in 2003. In 2004, according to a recent report, "weather-related disasters caused nearly $105 billion in economic losses." Katrina has shown us that the reckoning in coming years may be orders of magnitude more extreme.

Whether or not climate change fueled Katrina, we know that in a greenhouse world, we can expect more and bigger Katrinas to come. As Fortune magazine puts it, in an article titled Katrina's Aftermath: The High Cost Of Climate Change:

To New Orleans residents, Hurricane Katrina must seem like an incredibly bad piece of meteorological luck that could only happen once in a lifetime. But to many climate researchers, it looks like a harbinger of things to come—with catastrophic regularity—as the world's atmosphere heats up.

While the great majority of climate researchers believe that global warming is real (and also that it is partly caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels), no one says Katrina sprang directly from the warming—that would be like arguing that a particular stock's plunge last Tuesday was caused by the onset of a bear market a year ago. But... experts have warned for over a decade that global warming may be creating an environment prone to more violent storms, droughts and other weather extremes, just as a bear market can pave the way for an outsized drop in a particular company's stock price.

Or, as Worldwatch says:

Alteration of the Mississippi River and the destruction of wetlands at its mouth have left the area around New Orleans abnormally vulnerable to the forces of nature. According to many scientists, the early results of global warming—90 degree Fahrenheit water temperatures in the Gulf and rising sea levels—may have exacerbated the destructive power of Katrina.

“The catastrophe now unfolding along the U.S. Gulf Coast is a wake-up call for decision makers around the globe,” says Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. “If the world continues on its current course—massively altering the natural world and further increasing fossil fuel consumption—future generations may face a chain of disasters that make Katrina-scale catastrophes a common feature of life in the 21st century.”

That's our first lesson here: whether or not climate change just destroyed New Orleans, we now know what we're in for.

Poverty and Pollution Are Linked

The second lesson is about poverty, and the ways in which poverty and the environment are bound together.

There's been some loose talk in certain quarters, demanding to know why the tens of thousands of people trapped in New Orleans didn't leave when they were told to. This kind of "blame the victim" mentality is ethically shabby, but as writer Anne Rice points out, it's also divorced from reality:

Thousands didn't leave New Orleans because they couldn't leave. They didn't have the money. They didn't have the vehicles. They didn't have any place to go. They are the poor, black and white, who dwell in any city in great numbers; and they did what they felt they could do - they huddled together in the strongest houses they could find. There was no way to up and leave and check into the nearest Ramada Inn.

The poor were not only the worst victims in this week's disaster: they will also be those hit hardest in the long-term. Those who can least afford it have lost their homes, their jobs, their savings and all sense of security. All along the Gulf Coast -- in some of the poorest parts of America -- hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives utterly destroyed.

When we make the link between environment and poverty, part of the reason is that protecting the environment is one of the best ways to help raise people out of poverty, and protect the gains they've made. This is as true in the Global South as the Global North.

World Resources Institute president Jonathan Lash, interviewed about WRI's latest report showing that environmental protection is critical to the success of the Millennium Development Goals, made the point quite explicit:

"[T]here's never been a time when poverty has been higher on the agenda, but if we don't make the key linkages between poverty, the environment and good governance, it will be impossible to achieve the poverty target.

"Seventy-five percent of the world's poor are rural poor, who depend directly on natural systems for their livelihood.."

For 75% of the world's poor, the "environment" is where they get food, water, medicine and fuel. Destroy that and you destroy their ability to bootstrap out of desperation, much less leapfrog out of poverty.

For the urban poor, the players are different, but the story's the same: poor neighborhoods, both North and South, are the dumping ground for our waste, the sites of some of our worst polluters, the last places to get new infrastructure and better practices. Think of the toxic soup swirling over the Ninth Ward; think of the phrase "Cancer Alley." Environmental justice isn't just a nice idea, it's a key tool for fighting poverty.

Climate, Poverty and the Environment Are All Linked

Katrina was a predictable failure of several systems at once: a climate disaster, worsened by both the destruction of coastal wetlands and the poor state of repair of the the systems of levees and dikes which protected New Orleans, crashing down upon some of the poorest people in North America.

One of the lessons this tragedy makes clear is that there is not an environmental problem out there that can't be made worse by heavy weather, and that, when that heavy weather arrives, it's going to be those among us who can least afford it who pay the biggest price first.

Again, this is as true in Niger as New Orleans. As I wrote last year:

Evidence is mounting that it the world's poor who will suffer the worst if the climate continues to change (or changes even more quickly than we expect). A recent report from the International Institute for Environment and Development, Up In Smoke (big PDF) says that weather extremes may be making the Millennium Development Goals impossible to achieve.

Sustainable development, without a massive effort to check climate change and deal with its consequences, is a hollow phrase.

Security, Climate, Poverty and the Environment Are All Linked

We are all appalled at the chaos which unfolded among the desperate people trapped in New Orleans after the hurricane. But we shouldn't be surprised. New Orleans was one of the poorest cities in North America, with a heavily strained social fabric and gutted services even before Katrina hit. Desperate people do desperate things. Evil people exist. But when the system as a whole is working well, extreme events (whether a hurricane in the Gulf or a famine in Rwanda) are less likely to lead to catastrophic security failures. Indeed, the links between sustainability, good governance and security are increasingly well-understood:

We're in the midst of a sea-change in understanding of global security issues, especially in the U.S., with figures as diverse as military strategist Thomas Barnett, former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, economist Jeffrey Sachs and out-going Secretary of State Colin Powell all embracing the idea that security, development, human rights and sustainability are all inextricably bound together.

Or, as Mikhail Gorbachev says:

"I believe that today the world faces three interrelated challenges: the challenge of security, including the risks associated with weapons of mass destruction and terrorism; the challenge of poverty and underdevelopment; and the challenge of environmental sustainability."

Climate change and environmental destruction, insecurity and violence, poverty and crisis all feed on one another. But a clean environment, poverty alleviation and sustainable development, climate stabilization, democracy, human rights and international security agreements all fuel each other.

These aren't separate issues. These are different facets of a single global challenge, for which the consequences of failure have just been illustrated in the most depressing of ways. As I wrote in Winning the Great Wager:

Designing a system which would lead to ... sustainable prosperity would already present an epic challenge. But we're not done yet. For that system also needs to work in the real world. It must be rugged and shock-proof. If the answer to our ecological crisis does not also lead to greater security for everyone, and help spread democracy and open government and business practices, it is in fact no answer at all.

We need a future which is bright, green and tough.

We Do Have Better Answers

There is a way forward. We have the know-how, the money and the power to remake our energy systems, redesign our cities, re-conceptualize our industries, re-imagine our agriculture, and end poverty in the process. We can do this. It won't be easy. Indeed, it's work that will take much of the rest of our lives, but we can do it.

That's what WorldChanging is all about. We have 3,500 pieces on this site detailing a variety of approaches to getting these jobs done, and we've only scratched the surface. There are millions of us out there working to solve these problems.

We can change the world. But the time to act is now.

The Debate Is Over

That's Katrina's most important lesson: the time to debate whether or not to act is over. That debate's history, like the Berlin Wall. Katrina flattened it. In the aftermath of Katrina, we can no longer scruple self-interest masked as caution, short-sightedness masked as responsibility, and lies masked as patriotism. To see the pictures and hear the stories coming out of New Orleans is to know one thing: whatever moral credibility professional environmental "skeptics" once claimed is as shredded as the Superdome roof.

We aren't trying to build a bright green future because we have nothing else to do. We aren't scrambling to reinvent our industrial civilization because we're bored. We aren't working for a more just global economy for kicks. We aren't fighting for democracy and human rights and good global governance in order to have something to talk about at parties. We aren't ringing the alarm sirens over global warming because we like the way they sound.

We're doing all these things because the future of our planet is at stake. People's lives are at stake, millions of them.

We're doing them because we knew Katrina, or something like it, was coming, just as we know now that more Katrinas are on their way. The world is unsustainable. That which is not sustainable does not continue. Katrina just showed us precisely what that means.

This is not about partisan politics. It's not even about Left or Right (for instance, a conservative German politician has been the one to most loudly draw the connection between the U.S.'s disastrous climate policies and the tragedy in New Orleans). If a Republican comes us with the best plan to move us forward, I'll happily vote for him or her. The keyword here, though, remains "forward." For too long, progress has been blocked by a small, powerful cabal of greedy men with outdated ideas, the apologists for (and beneficiaries of) business as usual.

We're done with that chapter of the global debate. We're not taking it anymore. Those who persist will be publicly confronted, thrown from office, fired by their shareholders, ruined by boycott and lawsuit, indicted and tried. We're not playing.

This is the fight we're in now. We mean to win it.

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