Sticking the Poor with Climate Change: People, Power, and Privilege

disaster-responseAs I write this, I am sitting at my kitchen table while my ten-year old, home from school today with a fever, watches a movie upstairs. It is a bright, beautiful fall day in Austin, Texas—and part of me wants to turn off my computer and my cell phone, make a pot of soup, and sit on the couch under the covers with my son. Maybe I’ll do those things later.

Now, though, I’m watching my news feed for more stories about last week’s floods in Southeast Austin, receiving texts from a friend who is speaking today at the EPA Listening Session in Dallas about carbon pollution standards for existing power plants, and thinking about the role of faith communities in climate preparedness. It’s been a busy couple of travel-filled months for me, and some of the stories I’ve heard from people are swirling about in my head. 

Two weeks ago I met a minister from Galveston. She spoke to me about how Hurricane Ike permanently changed not only the geographic landscape of her city, but also the economic and social landscape. After Ike, she explained, many good jobs left the area, taking much of the middle class with them. In the aftermath of destruction, those with means moved away.

What’s left in Galveston now are the vacation homes of the wealthy and a lot of poor people—and those poor are squeezed by high housing costs, whether they’re renting or buying, because aid hasn’t come for them and insurance rates are so high. Insurance companies know the area is sure to be hit again. They know climate change is real.

This is a story I’ve heard before. Earlier this year I met some ministers who live along the coast in Gulfport, Mississippi. Their community, hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, was similarly stuck, and many poor and mostly brown people have not received adequate rebuilding assistance.

Last month, I attended a conference at the LBJ School that explored various aspects of climate adaptation needs and strategies here in the Central Texas area. The Austin Fire Department gave one of the presentations; their title slide read, “Texas Fire Storms: The New Normal.” The speaker said that the 2011 Bastrop Fire was like nothing firefighters around here had ever experienced—and yet, it is part of what we can expect going forward. “Ask any veteran firefighter,” he said, “and they’ll tell you climate change is real. They’ve seen it. They know.”

Another presenter spoke about other climate trends expected for this area. Many of these trends I’d heard about before: mainly, increased drought and, when it does rain, floods. But this presenter focused in on Central Texas in a more specific way than I’d seen before, highlighting the fact that the areas of town most likely to experience damaging floods are also the areas of town populated largely by poor people and brown people.

In fact, it’s mostly poor people and brown people that were affected in last week’s floods in Southeast Austin. I am well aware that as a well-educated, generationally middle-class white person living north and west of Austin, I am privileged. I get to sit in my kitchen and think about soup, while others have lost homes and in some cases loved ones.

Climate change isn’t just about melting glaciers, thawing tundra, and polar bears. It is also about people. It is about privilege. It is about money. It is about power.

My pastor friend who is speaking today at the EPA Listening Session texted me this morning, marveling at the number of coal lobbyists present at the hearing. One of their main messages, she said, is that “coal is cheap.”

Coal that, when burned, causes climate change is not cheap for the people who are hit hardest by its effects. Increased drought, flooding, storms, and wildfires are not cheap. Eroding coastlines and submerged islands are not cheap. Factor those costs into the cost of coal, and it is the most expensive form of energy on the planet.

The fact that the people who are and will be most affected by climate change are disproportionately the poor among us—those least able to move and adapt—is why we speak about climate change as a justice issue.

In Central Texas and I know in other cities and regions of the state, people are beginning to take seriously the need to plan for the climate-related disasters that will increasingly come our way. On the national level, too, these conversations are taking place. Just last week, President Obama issued an Executive Order on Climate Preparedness, which establishes a task force on climate.

As these conversations take place in our cities, states, and our country as a whole, it is vitally important that people of faith be involved. Religious communities are on the front lines of climate change impacts—from our involvement in disaster relief efforts around the world to our ministries in communities like Galveston, TX; Gulfport, MS; and Southeast Austin.

The role that clergy and chaplains play in caring for those suffering the effects of air pollution such as asthma and heart disease is significant, too—and these same leaders will be called upon to minister to those whose jobs disappear or move away, or those whose way of life is not longer viable due to climate impacts.

It is important that religious leaders share the knowledge, perspective, and expertise that comes from ministering to and with impacted communities. As we work with others to create communities that are more adaptive and resilient, we must not leave poor people behind to suffer the worst impacts. Religious leaders are uniquely qualified to speak to the justice aspects of climate change, and to advocate for ways forward that lift up all people—not just those with money, power, and privilege.

Much courage, conviction, and love will be required. The time is now.

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To donate money to help Southeast Austin flood victims or to volunteer, click here.

To submit a comment in favor of carbon pollution standards for new power plants, click here.

To submit a comment in favor of carbon pollution standards for existing power plants, click here.

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Above photo used courtesy of Chuck Simmins via Flickr Creative Commons.

This post first appeared at the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

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