The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina will — as in years past — be commemorated by a second line parade to honor the lives lost in the storm and remember that many are still struggling to rebuild. But this year, activists and New Orleans residents want to make the parade the biggest the city’s ever seen, and they want to connect the disaster to the outsized threat poor communities and communities of color still face from pollution and climate change.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, a group that seeks to organize young people around political causes, is helping highlight the issues of climate and environmental justice in discussions about Katrina. The second line — a parade that, in New Orleans, traditionally follows after a main parade — will commemorate the tenth anniversary of Katrina on August 29 and will feature environmental leaders such as 350.org’s Bill McKibben and Sierra Club’s Michael Brune.
After the second line, Yearwood is setting out on the People’s Climate Music bus tour, which aims to spread the message of climate justice — the idea that the poor and communities of color are particularly at risk from climate change — to cities around the country. Yearwood said that the discussion of environmental justice — that pollution and energy development often disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color — has been wrapped up in discussions of Hurricane Katrina for several years. Louisiana is home to “cancer alley,” a corridor dotted with industrial plants that has a high rate of cancer, and it was also impacted by the BP oil spill. So Louisiana residents know about the impacts caused by environmental pollution.
But this year, Yearwood wants to make the link specifically to climate change, to “draw attention to the injustice inherent in the fossil fuel economy” and call on U.S. lawmakers to embrace clean energy.
“We know from Hurricane Katrina that it is the poor and people of color who get left behind,” he told ThinkProgress. “Climate change is a life and death issue, not only for New Orleans but for communities across the U.S.”
Climate change — and the pollution that causes it — doesn’t affect all regions or communities equally. Globally, climate change and the sea level rise, extreme weather, and unpredictable precipitation that comes along with it is expected to hit poor countries the hardest. Overall, poor people are more highly at risk of climate impacts for various reasons: they might have a manual labor job that has them working outdoors for long hours of the day, putting them at higher risk of heat-related complications as temperatures rise. Or they may not have the money for air conditioning, or the resources to relocate when a major storm comes through town. In the U.S., non-white Americans breathe in air that on average is more polluted than white Americans — according to one study, people of color in the country breathe in air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide than white people.
This disparity is what Yearwood wants to highlight. He said the anniversary of Katrina is the perfect time to do so — research has shown that African Americans were more heavily impacted by Hurricane Katrina, and many Louisiana residents said after the storm that they thought race was an issue in the response to the disaster.
“Decisions made centuries ago exerted their influence in the lives and deaths of victims of Hurricane Katrina,” a 2008 study from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies concludes. “A mindnumbing parade of zoning and land-use choices, highway and seaway budgets, and social and political desensitization helped to bring this nation to the flooded rooftops of the Lower Ninth Ward.”
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Now, especially as the Black Lives Matter movement gains steam, climate and environmental justice issues should be at the forefront of people’s minds, Yearwood said.
“The epitome of black lives matter is Katrina,” Yearwood said. The outsized impact that Katrina had on African Americans didn’t happen in the time of Twitter or hashtags, he said, but it still resonates with the racial justice movement today.
Aaron Mair, president of the Sierra Club, agrees. He said on a press call Tuesday that, though it’s often said that nature doesn’t discriminate, it’s true that communities of color are often on the front lines of climate change.
“Yes it is seen in the police, but it’s also seen in climate,” he said.
That’s why, Yearwood said, the People’s Climate Music bus tour’s first stop will be Ferguson, Missouri — the city where, in 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer, an event that spurred protests in the city and throughout the country. The tour will also be hitting other cities with histories of racial unrest, including Baltimore and Chicago.
Along with bringing attention the the climate justice movement, Yearwood is using the tour to call on world leaders to adopt a strong climate agreement during the U.N.’s Paris climate talks this winter, and on U.S. officials to uphold the president’s Clean Power Plan and implement pro-climate policies. But most of all, he wants the tour to bring in more people from all races into the climate movement — an attempt to diversify a movement that’s historically been largely white.
“We want to expand the frame and popularize the climate movement using culture,” he said.