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Dumb and Dumber: Foregrounding Climate Justice From Harvey to Haiti’s Matthew

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Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

Yes, to not ask questions about climate change is indeed dumb, as Senator Bernie Sanders pointed out.

It is dumber to not also question the current global economic system and policies perpetuating racial inequalities. The conversation must shift toward climate justice.

We cannot pretend to be surprised by the impacts of Hurricane Harvey when policies have consistently prioritized corporate over public interests. Preceding Hurricane Harvey, Republican lawmakers delayed implementing safety rules for a local plant while just days before Trump removed Obama’s Flood Protection orders in favor of quick for-profit infrastructure developments.

Houston residents have been feeling the impacts of increased flooding for years.

Yes, Hurricane Harvey must be a turning point in the discussion on climate change.

And. Since Kanye West’ s support of candidate Trump, we don’t expect a similar off-script outburst about “not caring about black people.” But how can the racial disparities be washed over when reports of strong oil and chemical smells are coming from vulnerable fenceline communities, communities of color, who have disproportionately been unable to evacuate.

Particularly after the events in Charlottesville and other cities, we must understand how these inequalities are entrenched in our free market system. Just as it’s important to not see Harvey as somehow isolated or exceptional, we need to make the connections, confronting particular, local, contemporary outbursts of white supremacy while addressing the bigger picture.

This past bleeds beyond our own borders and shapes the limits of our empathy in what Tiffany Willoughby-Herard called “global whiteness” as a value system that renders people in what Vijay Prashad calls “Darker Nations” insignificant, invisible even.

We witness the effects of this value system in the limited coverage of the heavy monsoons and the high death toll in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. We witnessed it when category-four Hurricane Matthew pummeled the southwest peninsula of Haiti. Little to no conversation has occurred regarding Haiti’s rapid rise on the list of most climate-vulnerable nations from 7th to 3rd in the past six years.

Hopefully Harvey’s visibility will inspire solidarity rather than competition over whose lives matter.

Ironically headquartered in Houston, the fossil fuel industry has been funding a half-billion-dollar, decades-long climate change denial campaign. But as Naomi Klein argues, this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.

Climate justice explicitly confronts basic inequalities: the world’s biggest polluters are not those directly affected by climate change. The big polluters are also the biggest “winners” in this economic system. It is no coincidence that higher climate vulnerability communities are largely communities of color and disenfranchised communities within the Global South.

To achieve climate justice requires making sure that communities most directly affected are directly involved in discussions, as well as solutions.

While we must kick the capitalist system’s fossil fuel addiction to stem climate change, we must also take a critical closer look at our industrial food system, the world’s largest industry. According to GRAIN, between 44% and 57% of all Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) come from the global industrial food system.

Like in many places in the world, peasant communities in Haiti have waged an ongoing struggle against corporate/private interests which seek to maintain control over natural resources, exploit cheap labor, and increase profit. These peasant communities are on the frontlines which may offer approaches to cool the planet, rather than the proposed solutions that bar those most affected by climate change from the discussions.

Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall on Haiti almost eleven months ago on October 4, was mostly forgotten, ignored and underfunded. Tellingly, those who died in the days after the storm passed were not included in the death toll. To put it simply, they were andeyò, “outsiders” who, as poor, black, and rural, their lives didn’t matter and deaths don’t count.

Matthew was certainly a disaster foretold. For many preceding years, farmers across the country had been talking about drought, desertification, intensified labor due to the changing rainy seasons. As determined communities attempted to replant and rebuild after the hurricane which took 80-100% of agricultural crops and 50% of livestock, an onslaught of rain, drought, flooding, and heavy winds conspired to render people struggling to access food over nine months after the storm.

Imports arriving from outside of Haiti or from big cities have skyrocketed, forcing formerly self-sufficient families to spend much larger amounts of money on food while sacrificing school and hospital fees among other needs. Drought-resistant crops which had sustained communities in the three years of drought preceding Hurricane Matthew rotted at the roots or were taken away by the winds, including pigeon peas, millet, and tubers such as sweet potato. Adding insult to injury, fierce winds ripped down fruit that had started to appear on mango and breadfruit trees months after Matthew.

Grassroots organizations in Torbeck are doing what they can. Jean Molin of the Lafrisilien Peasants Association denounced that “the government never once came and checked on us,” while Oscar Romero TKL’s Rachelle Moïse critiqued “paternalistic” foreign agencies for “failing to address our needs with their top-down, pre-determined aid.” While their food security continues to be precarious, those living off footpaths in the mountains – who can still be found living in caves – fare much worse, with little to no hope of receiving aid or relief.

These are the stories that must be illuminated when we talk about the warming climate, justice, and human rights.

To silence these stories makes us complicit, not just dumb, in the devaluing of human life and the ongoing destruction of our environment.

Food sovereignty and agroecology needs to be a part of our approaching future. The method of agriculture that emerged after the green revolution exacerbated global hunger and inequality while simultaneously exploiting people and nature. Reports by GRAIN indicate small landholders produce 70% of the world’s food consumed, on less than a quarter of the land, directly addressing both global hunger and climate change.

We must hear, understand – and heed – the voices of fenceline communities in Houston, Haitian families most affected by Matthew, indigenous peoples, hunters and gatherers, family farmers, rural workers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk, among others. The knowledge of frontline communities is crucial to a cooler climate and a more just global economic system.

 

K. Jessica Hsu is an Anthropologist and solidarity activist who has spent most of her last 15 years working with communities in rural Haiti looking at issues of labor, agriculture, gender and community development. She is currently based in Port-au-Prince working with various Haitian civil society organizations as International Advocacy and Communications Officer and is Secretary of the Lambi Fund of Haiti Anthropologist Mark Schuller has three dozen scholarly publications on NGOs, globalization, disasters, and gender in Haiti. Schuller wrote or co-edited seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti and co-directed documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Recipient of the Margaret Mead Award, Schuller is chair of the Lambi Fund of Haiti.

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