Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action

How time flies.

It is hard to believe it has already been ten years since Hurricane Katrina made devastating landfall on the Gulf Coast. When Katrina hit and devastated the region, New Orleans’ poorly maintained levees broke and flooded the city. The privileged few were able to flee the disaster while thousands more were left in flooded streets and on the rooftops of their homes.

As soon as the storm hit, my friend, mentor and longtime organizing comrade scott crow [sic] traveled to New Orleans to rescue a friend who’d lost contact during the storm. Out of that rescue mission emerged the largest anarchist-inspired organization in recent U.S. history—Common Ground Relief Effort. When the “state” collapsed and was unable to provide relief, scott, former Black Panther Malik Rahim, and others from the informal network of radicals and anarchists that had emerged from the anti-corporate globalization and anti-war movements stepped in to provide solidarity for those impacted by the horrible storm and its after effects.

Common Ground established emergency food banks, medical clinics, free schools, they gutted mold-covered homes and advocated for residents even as the government (i.e. the New Orleans police, the Dept. of Homeland Security, the National Guard, private contractors like Blackwater, etc.) tried to impede their efforts with violence and intimidation. Common Ground responded not by telling these people what they needed to do, but by knocking on doors and asking the community what they needed. More than 10,000 volunteers went through its doors into the streets of New Orleans in solidarity.

This happened under some of the worst conditions imaginable. Violence, chaos, white racists driving through black neighborhoods shooting people.

scott would later reflect on his experience in post-Katrina New Orleans: “I was terrified, tired, shell shocked already from seeing death and destruction.  I had no idea it would get worse in the coming days with police and vigilante violence.   I also had no idea that others would also have similar dreams and we would begin a process of creating something meaningful as a vehicle to support people in reshaping their worlds n their terms , or at the least helping them to survive.”

Hurricane Katrina was a critical time in the development of climate justice. It was an environmental and human disaster, but also became an occasion to offer no compromise solutions to the power and influence that carbon spewing corporations hold over our lives. It was a series of events that gave birth to new energy around climate and social justice.

Climate Justice

Climate justice has always been the intersection of issues related to climate change (fossil fuel extraction, fossil fuel infrastructure, fossil fuel combustion, extreme weather, super-storms, etc.) and socio-economic justice issues. It is more often than not that those most impacted by industry and climate change are traditionally marginalized communities (i.e. poor communities, communities of color and rural white communities.)

Elizabeth C. Yeampierre of Uprose described climate justice in a recent article as “As descendants of slavery and colonization, our communities have lived and continue to live at the intersection of all these challenges. Both have a long history rooted in the extraction and abuse of our labor and later the extraction and abuse of our resources. Both involve people who are the descendants of historical trauma and are now faced with the catastrophe of a changing climate.”

Looking at it globally, Naomi Klein said: “Climate justice is the understanding that we will not be able to stop climate change if we don’t change the neo-liberal, corporate-based economy which stops us from achieving sustainable societies. The historical responsibility for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions lies with the industrialized countries of the Global North. The production and consumption habits of countries like the United States continue to threaten the survival of humanity and biodiversity globally. It is imperative that the North urgently shifts to a low carbon economy.”

In the streets of cities like New York, St. Louis and Seattle, the waterways of Bellingham Bay and the Willamette river, the hills and hollers of Appalachia, the eastern plateau of Utah, those backcountry roads where blockades, tree-sits and bold organizing stop business as usual climate justice is also about fighting back against Corporate America. A new generation of environmentalists not only defends the forests and the wild places, but also the communities against the politics and economics of climate destruction.

Mountain Justice

In central Appalachia, in the summer of 2005, mountain defenders launched the latest phase of fossil fuel resistance with a strong commitment to climate justice. That summer, grassroots environmentalists from around the country partnered with fed-up residents of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia to push back on marauding coal operators and complicit politicians with grassroots organizing and non-violent direct action in a campaign called Mountain Justice.

Mountaintop removal coal mining had ravaged the region since the 1960s. It has destroyed over 500 mountains, buried thousands of miles of Appalachian streams and rivers with debris from the practice, and polluted and poisoned communities with exploding mountains and waste from mining operations.

Mountain Justice and local community organizations like Coal River Mountain Watch, Keepers of the Mountain and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition transformed the little known practice of mountaintop removal into a national issue as campaigns emerged against Wall Street, the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress and the coal industry. Their model included everything from community water testing to advocating for wind farms along ridge lines to impeding work on mine sites with their bodies. The coal industry often struck back with legal, illegal and violent means. Ultimately, the campaigns against mountaintop removal still continue.


Sparked by natural and man-made disasters in the Gulf and campaigns against mountaintop removal, the climate movements continued to build momentum through the Bush years and into the era of Obama. In 2011, after many years of fierce organizing by First Nations in Alberta and landowners in Middle America, the Keystone XL pipeline was elevated into an international political issue. During that time another climate justice campaign brought together conservative land owners and radical environmentalists to fight the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in deep East Texas.

In the summer of 2012, the Tar Sands Blockade launched action after action on Canadian oil giant TransCanada’s clear-cutting operations up and down the pipeline route.  They launched an 80+ day tree-sit that impeded Keystone construction. Police responded with pepper-spray and Tasers against peaceful protestors. Prosecutors responded with elevated felony charges. TransCanada also filed lawsuits, aka Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), against individuals and organizations to impede the progress of the campaign.

The Tar Sands Blockade captured the attention of the world as pressure built against Obama to reject the northern leg of Keystone XL. The group coined the term “Blockadia” which has since been popularized in Naomi Klein’s book “This Change Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.”

As the campaign progressed, the Tar Sands Blockade then also began to support community organizing in the east end of Houston and other parts of the Gulf. Many blockaders moved to Houston and other parts of the Gulf Coast to work with community groups like Bridge the Gulf, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) and Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition.

Climate Justice in Action

In the past ten years, since Hurricane Katrina, the emergence of Mountain Justice and the Tar Sands Blockade, the BP oil spill and the escalating climate crisis, we’ve seen a flowering of both climate justice and fossil fuel resistance. Frustrated with the endless political gridlock in Washington D.C. and overwhelming amounts of financial and political capital that Big Oil and Big Coal wield over the political system the climate justice movement has moved more and more into challenging fossil fuels and injustice with people power.

Lately, few days go by without bold action and civil disobedience disrupting oil, gas or coal operations in North America. Most recently, street heat has escalated into a mass movement to stop oil drilling in the Arctic. The Pacific Northwest has mobilized to stop Royal Dutch Shell Oil’s operations in the Arctic. With a window of time that the company can drill in the Chukchi Sea, the climate justice movement has mobilized in mass to prevent them from making it with hundreds of kayaktivists and high flying aerial blockades.

On the issue of hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) for natural gas extraction, dozens of groups have begun waves of action against pipelines, export terminals and the practice itself. From New England to the Chesapeake Bay to Dallas-Ft. Worth area to numerous western states, the anti-fracking movement regularly battles the dirty practice while building connections with rural and suburban populations not typically found in activist circles.

With Keystone on an indeterminate hold, and even facing the possibility of rejection, the oil industry has moved to expand with its infrastructure with a number of other pipeline projects. As those projects multiply, so does the climate justice movement’s effort to stop them. In Michigan, the Michigan Coalition against Tar Sands has taken a number of bold actions to stop the Enbridge pipeline. In Vancouver, the Unist’ot’en continue to hold off a number of oil pipeline projects threatening to go through their traditional lands. This week, over 20 Midwestern youth were arrested while locked to John Kerry’s Georgetown home as a part of “Midwest Unrest” in protest of the expansion of Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper pipeline.

The Gulf Coast has remained a case study in climate injustice. Not only does the region suffer from Big Oil’s pollution and some of the worst impacts of climate change, but issues of structural racism and poverty continue to oppress people in the Gulf. Earlier this year, Gulf South Rising formed to coordinate efforts to shift power structures in the five states impacted by the reckless behavior of the oil industry. The coalition has planned a dozen actions to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The climate justice movement has evolved in the past ten years and is a spreading quickly and effectively. But people working together in great numbers, being bold and courageous and accepting no compromise remains the decisive piece to counter the political and economic systems which wreak havoc on our communities. Furthermore, dreaming big and leading with our hearts against CEOs and politicians has made the great difference.

Writing recently, scott crow reflected: “Bad governments and the non-profit industrial complex will never build the total liberation that these communities want or need, and we, those who build from below, can only do so much with so little. Our hearts are big and our commitments are unwavering despite all this. There was beauty in the devastation. From the open hearts of people helping people only because it mattered at that moment to the flowers that pushed up through the concrete.  The facts are that thousands upon thousands who took great risk with what they had-whether it was a little or, a lot- to help, support and make the lives around them better beyond the immediate disaster despite government warnings or roadblocks.”

On a final note, along with scott, many other friends of mine, too numerous to name, but including Kerul, Lisa, Brian, Nick, Kim and many others, were part of Common Ground. I’ve met most of them through years of climate, anti-fossil fuel and direct action organizing along the highways and byways of North America. Their efforts were heroic and moving.

Their work in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast remains an inspiration for building this climate justice movement.

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Scott Parkin is a climate organizer working with Rising Tide North America. You can follow him on Twitter at @sparki1969

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