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Friday, 08 September 2017 06:57

Irma Is No Equal Opportunity Hurricane

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HarveyArt 0908wrp opt(Artwork: Daniel Arrhakis)With winds surpassing 185 mph, Hurricane Irma will leave a path of destruction so widespread that people might be moved to proclaim -- as Slate magazine writer Henry Grabar and others were regarding Hurricane Harvey -- that Irma is "an Equal-Opportunity Disaster." Hurricane Harvey "did not discriminate in its destruction," wrote The Associated Press on this theme, for the storm "raged through neighborhoods rich and poor, black and white, upscale and working class. Across Houston and surrounding communities, no group sidestepped" Harvey's "paralyzing deluges and apocalyptic floods." While "Houston's poor and working class" will likely "struggle most to rebuild," opined Juliet Linderman of KWES NewsWest 9, at least for the time being, Houston residents "of all colors and socio-economic statuses find themselves united in their loss, despair -- and resilience."

Though well-intentioned (and perhaps even a much needed narrative after the Nazi hate and violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, just weeks before Hurricane Harvey descended on Texas), this "equal opportunity disaster" argument is nevertheless a subtle form of climate change denial that hopefully will not be repeated as Irma churns through the Atlantic. It certainly should not go unchallenged if it is.

How is this argument a form of climate change denial? First of all, it effectively depoliticized Hurricane Harvey by implying that since all races and classes were harmed by the storm's force and floods, then the storm was merely a natural event, as opposed to a political event.

And yet Hurricane Harvey was both, for the warmer seas that intensified the storm (and that are making Irma downright terrifying) can be attributed to climate change -- itself a product of systems of exploitation and domination (for example, colonialism, capitalism and racism) that powered the industrial and fossil-fuel eras and shaped the socio-economic inequalities that have come to define life in Texas and beyond. To characterize the storm, then, in ways that reduce it merely to a natural phenomenon denies the politics that produced the conditions that made the intensity of the storm possible in the first instance.

The argument that Harvey was an "equal opportunity" hurricane also precluded any discussion of the ways that its victims not only contribute unequally to the carbon emissions that will cause future climate changes and catastrophic storms; but also how its victims benefit unequally from such emissions. Just as "particular people and particular cultures, nations, industries, and economic systems" have caused, contributed to and profited from "the pollution that created the industrial greenhouse effect," as feminist philosopher Chris J. Cuomo argues, particular people, cultures, nations and industries cause, contribute to and benefit from greenhouse gas emissions today.

In fact, "we know who the main emitters, the 'few per cent', are," writes Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. "Large portions of those residing in OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries. Anyone who gets on a plane once a year." These main emitters surely include many of the wealthy people whose mansions and neighborhoods were inundated by the floods Hurricane Harvey produced. Some of them may even work for or invest heavily in Texas and other fossil-fuel industries. Without a doubt, some of them contribute to climate change-denying politicians who are presently dismantling federal climate change policies and programs. That the homes of the few percent may have been flooded like everyone else's does not change their status as main emitters.

None of this is to suggest that we should not have compassion for their loss and experience. We should, absolutely. But we can do so and still maintain some perspective.

Finally, the "equal opportunity" frame also reinforced the notion of colorblind justice, already used in the context of rights both to affirm the fiction of a level playing field and to deny structural inequalities. In this way, equal opportunity as colorblindness refuses consideration of reparations, accountability, structural change and redistribution -- all of which fits quite nicely with Western states' refusal both to be held accountable for producing climate change and to consider seriously climate justice and reparations for the Global South. The "equal opportunity" argument, in other words, denies historical and future accountability. Meanwhile, Irma devastates the Caribbean islands and upends the lives of poor people in its path, just as Harvey did to those in its path. The poor will be forgotten soon enough as mansions get rebuilt and refineries get restored.

Hurricane Irma (or better yet, Hurricane Chevron or Hurricane BP or Hurricane Scott Pruitt) has and will continue to upend the lives of a broad swath of people. But this does not -- and will not -- make her an equal opportunity storm. What she is, instead, is our invitation to critique, relentlessly, climate change as the politics of exploitation and domination -- of people, of nature and of Earth herself -- as well as to demand just climate change action that starts from the bottom-up.


Alycee Lane is author of Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign's Promise of Peace (Lantern Books, 2015). Follow her on Twitter: @AlyceeLane.