An aerial view of a street with homes hit by Hurricane Harvey

After Harvey and Irma, we must talk about climate justice

As Hurricane Irma continues to push north just days after Hurricane Harvey, let’s finally recognize that doing anything less than connecting these disasters to climate change and injustice is a very political choice. It is a choice to value fossil fuel billionaires over poor people, people of color, and the Global South.

In case you missed it, from August 25th to 30th, the Houston area received over 50” of rain from Hurricane Harvey, the greatest amount of rain ever recorded in the lower 48 states from a single storm. Over 70 people have died, including rescuers, and over 40,000 have lost their homes. Recovery is projected to cost up to $190 billion (resources Houston’s low-income black and brown communities will least be able to recover on their own). And the storms aren’t over yet: Hurricane Irma has already caused 42 deaths in the Carribean and continental United StatesThe island of Barbuda was ripped apart by Irma — and then had to evacuate just four days later to avoid a third storm, Jose. Irma is the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. This is also the first time in history that the Atlantic has seen back-to-back-to-back hurricanes of Category 4 or higher.

This is not just happening in the Americas. The worst floods to hit India, Bangladesh, and Nepal in years have killed over 1,200 people this season and affected 40 million people.

It’s all terrifying, and it’s exactly what a climate-changed world looks like.

Though climate science doesn’t pinpoint whether a specific event would have happened at all or not, scientists tell us that climate change definitely made Harvey more severe. Our warming atmosphere — a product of the fossil fuels we burn — is expected to increase the frequency and strength of storms we experience. In other words, we can expect more Hurricane Harveys and Irmas.

Not only is climate change happening, but it is not merely an accidental side effect of industrial progress. The heads of fossil fuel companies including Exxon knew about climate change in the 1970s and purposefully started spreading a trail of misinformation rather than changing course on their businesses.

Climate change is manmade and preventable; so, too, are its disparate, human impacts.

In Houston, for example, city planners and government officials carry responsibility for the damage. Just a year ago, Houston’s head of flood planning called climate change studies “absurd,” refused to assess the effect of climate change on the region, and refused recommendations to mitigate future flooding (such as the twenty-seven trillion gallons of water from Harvey). This past summer, the Texas GOP state legislature voted to cut Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding (which they will likely be asking much more of now). ProPublica has done critical work showing how Houston’s unchecked development strategy has made the city uniquely vulnerable to flood damage.

In light of all of this, it is quite literally absurd that people who name these truths – that climate change is impacting us, and we really ought to do something about it – are accused of “politicizing a tragedy.” We’re told to instead stick to the topic of disaster relief and attend to the human suffering in front of us.

Let’s be clear then: the project of stopping climate change is an effort to prevent catastrophic levels of human suffering. And discussing the extreme weather events going on while actively choosing not to talk about climate change is also a political choice — one that is considerably more harmful.

It is a choice made in favor of fossil fuel corporations who have convinced the American public that we don’t have to do anything about climate change, so that they can rack up profits and continue being the most profitable industry in global history. It is a choice made in defense of billionaires like our Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who literally used a secret alias to hide climate change-related conversations while heading Exxon.

And most importantly, it is a choice to abandon poor people, people of color, and those in the Global South who bear the brunt of climate change and who can’t afford to abandon their lives and rebuild without significant pain.

In a disaster, people tend to ask the same questions: Why did this happen? What can we do to make sure it won’t happen again? And how can we be better prepared when it does happen again? To avoid those questions is irresponsible. To avoid their answers because they would reveal some ugly truths about our systems of wealth and government is arguably criminal negligence.

We must talk about — and organize for – climate justice in the wake of disasters. It is the most meaningful thing we can do to support those already impacted as well as for ourselves, our kids, and our grandkids.

If you feel moved to support the victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, do two things today: contribute what you can to the Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund and the Hurricane Irma Community Recovery Fund. Each is administered by a collective of several grassroots, state-based organizations.

Then, join Sunrise Movement, a new youth-led movement working to make climate justice a decisive issue in the 2018 elections by asking whether we want representatives who will protect people or profits.

Header image credit: WIRED / Marcus Yam / Getty Images

Daniela Lapidous is a writer, researcher, and climate organizer at heart. She currently lives in New York City researching decentralized social movements and organizing with Sunrise, a new movement of young people committed to stopping climate change, transitioning our country to a renewable energy economy, and creating thousands of good jobs in the process. She is a Columbia University alum and Bay Area native.

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