On hurricanes, global warming, environmental racism and anti-immigrant laws

September 8, 2017
Hurricane Irma wrecks havoc to Guadeloupe as it moves through the Caribbean.

The huge devastation, death and misery that Hurricane Harvey wreaked upon Texas and Louisiana has been seen around the world.

Meanwhile, fresh havoc is being wreaked upon the Caribbean and the US’s south-east by Hurricane Irma. In less reported news, more than 1400 people have been killed in recent weeks by horrific flooding in South Asia. The consequences of such disasters caused by extreme weather reveal the intersection of crises caused by the capitalist system.

Coverage of Harvey has centered on Houston, the fourth-largest city in the US, which suffered the greatest rainfall amount in the country’s recorded history over several days.

The result was huge flooding everywhere in the city and its environs, in much of Texas and western Louisiana, and continuing as Harvey moved north. At least 63 people have died in the unprecedented flooding.

The damage caused by the storm is staggering. More than 40,000 homes have been lost and as many as 1 million cars destroyed.

The body of Alonso Guillen, a volunteer rescuer, was found on September 1, after he disappeared two days before when his boat capsised. He was also an undocumented immigrant and a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which Donald Trump’s administration has just cancelled.

Guillen’s mother told the Houston Chronicle she tried to come from Mexico to the US to bury her son but was turned away by Border Patrol agents.

Climate denial

In the face of hurricane-caused disasters, the media avoided any discussion of the elephant in the room: global warming.

It is not only Republican politicians, most of whom are climate change deniers, who have failed to raise the issue. The Democrats, who often talk about it but do little, are also silent.

Media talking heads say now is not the time to inject “politics” into this national disaster by talking about global warming. By this silence they take a political stand with Trump and the rest of the climate change deniers, including ultra-rightist Texas governor Greg Abbott.

Hard on the heels of Harvey, Irma, with 300 kilometres per hour winds, is one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever. This is “just the weather”, says Trump.

Global warming, caused largely by burning fossil fuels, has made storms far more powerful and destructive, as huge  amounts of scientific data in the last decades has proven.

South Asia

This threatens the whole world. In South Asia, seasonal monsoon rains have become especially destructive. Torrential rains have caused huge flooding.

According to the United Nations, at least 41 million people in Bangladesh, India and Nepal have been affected by flooding and landslides. There have been 1400 deaths reported, a likely low number in the affected areas, with poor infrastructure and government services.

In Bangladesh, one third of the country is under water. Asad Rehman, Executive Director of War on Want, who has worked on climate issues in the region for more than a decade, said: “I spoke to somebody [recently] in Bangladesh who told me there are still communities cut off …  People without food, without access to fresh water.”

Noting that the monsoon rains are becoming more intense and devastating, he said: “This is for two reasons. One, as temperatures increase, and we are seeing warming across the globe, the glaciers and the snowmelt are swelling rivers as they come through the Himalayas, through Nepal, India and into Bangladesh, where they go into the sea.

“At the same time, warming temperatures in the sea means that there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, which means more intense and heavier rains.

“Climate scientists have been telling us and have predicted what would be happening. That these kinds of intense storms, which used to happen every few hundred years, would happen much more regularly … and now have become literally an annual thing.

“A problem is the ability of the people and the government to respond. When you have these floods which wipe away infrastructure, schools, hospitals, roads, it is very hard to rebuild...

“The ability of these poor countries to be able to continuously rebuild is severely limited ... Many of these people are subsistence farmers, people who rely on their crops to both feed their families and to sell some of their crops to be able to survive the year — most of them have lost their crops already.”

Rehman pointed out: “The Ganges Basin is one of the bread baskets, the food baskets of the region. This and the Indus food basket have been severely impacted by climate [change] and are predicted to get even worse.”

The floods came weeks after MIT researchers released a report saying that soaring temperatures could make parts of South Asia, with 1.5 billion people, too hot for human survival by 2100. In a heat wave in 2015, some 3500 people died in India and Pakistan. That heat wave reached 49.5oC. Rehman noted: “Earlier this year in May, Pakistan recorded a temperature level of 51oC.”

Global warming brings not only more intense rains and more violent storms, but also more intense heat and droughts, in different areas and sometimes in different seasons in the same area.

Global and local

It is often said that hurricanes are local phenomena, and we cannot say global warming is responsible for any one. But let’s take a closer look at the local and global.

Fossil fuels produce the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The effect of these gases is global. The hurricane that hit Houston was a local phenomenon greatly strengthened by global warming.

The production and burning of fossil fuels are likewise local, taking place at specific locations. One of those locations is Houston. The irony is that Houston contributes to warming on a global scale, which in turn produced the extent of the local destruction of Houston.

Houston is home to a quarter of petroleum refining capacity in the US. The entire Gulf Coast hosts half the country’s refining capacity.

Some of the major refineries in the region are run by ExxonMobil, Valero and the Saudi-owned Motiva. These have the higher capacity needed to refine the especially dirty tar sands oil piped in from Canada, as well as dirty crude from North Dakota via the Dakota Access Pipeline that First Nations peoples protested at Standing Rock.

The refineries in Houston were forced to shut down rapidly with Harvey’s approach. As a former refinery worker, I know shutdowns and startups of refineries cause the extra release of toxic chemicals — rapid shutdowns even more so.

Houston is also home to petrochemical plants using products from the refineries. They had no infrastructure or plans to deal with disasters.

Flooding wrecked cooling equipment in these plants, causing many to explode and catch fire, releasing more toxins. These companies have refused to make public what poisons they produce, claiming such information could be used by terrorists to bomb these plants. It turns out the terrorists were the companies themselves.

The Center for Biological Diversity reported flooded oil refineries and chemical plants released as much as 2.25 million kilograms of pollutants into the air during the storm. 

All Houston residents were exposed, but Black and Latino communities were hardest hit. Throughout the US, those living closest to toxic industries are most often minorities.

Environmental racism

Dr Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice” said: “When we talk about the impact of sea level rise and the impacts of climate change, you’re talking about a disproportionate impact on communities of color, on poor people who don’t have health insurance, access to grocery stores…

“Even before Harvey, this storm and flood, people of color bore a disproportionate burden of having to live next to, surrounded by, these very dangerous chemicals … We have a name for it. We call that environmental injustice and environmental racism.”

Just before Harvey hit, Trump revoked a Barack Obama-era standard that required federal infrastructure projects to factor in the effects of climate change like flooding. This means federal projects for infrastructure rebuilding in Houston can freely disregard planning for future storms.

Trump’s proposed budget slashed funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for federal aid for the victims of Harvey, by 50%.

Anti-immigrant measures

When Harvey hit, undocumented migrants were fearful of seeking rescue or going to shelters because of the possibility of being deported. Trump’s unleashing of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents has terrorised Latino communities and especially the undocumented. Many Latino families have undocumented members, so whole families were frightened.

Compounding the problem for immigrants, during the flooding a new Texas state law was scheduled to go into effect that outlawed “sanctuary cities” like Houston — whose city government has ruled that its police will not aid ICE in rounding up and deporting immigrants without papers.

The law was scheduled to go into effect on September 1, but a federal judge temporarily blocked important provisions of the law a few days before, pending rulings on several lawsuits filed against it.

However, the judge left intact the law’s “show me your papers” provision. This allows law enforcement officials to ask about immigration status during routine detentions for anything from speeding to jaywalking — in other words, racial profiling.

Now Trump has rescinded the DACA program Obama created in 2012. DACA gave undocumented immigrants brought into the US as children by their parents a temporary reprieve from deportation. It also granted them work permits.

This move affects about 800,000 people, who are now on tenterhooks about their status. Of these, 85,000 live in Houston, giving them and their families another reason to be fearful. 

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