Yes, It’s Okay To Talk About Climate Change Right Now
With the largest evacuation in the history of the province of Alberta displacing nearly 100 000 people as large sections of Fort McMurray burn to the ground in the middle of a spring heat wave, it’s only natural for people affected to ask “why?” Why is this happening? What was the cause, and how were we not prepared?
When tragedy strikes we try to make sense of it. What’s happening now is, undeniably, a tragedy. Thousands of Canadians are losing everything they own. People’s lives are at risk. Life as normal has ceased for a significant portion of the people of Alberta. And while I could point out that this wildfire coincides with record-shattering temperatures across Western Canada, the likes of which we have literally never seen before in recorded history, and join in helping others draw the natural conclusions (or at least, what seem to me to be natural conclusions) about how climate change and natural disasters are causally linked, I will decline. Other people are better equipped to lead that conversation. People like Alberta’s First Nations, like climate justice activists across the country, students and organizers and grandparents and children.
No, what I do want to do, is defend our right to have that critical, and arguably existential, discussion. What I want to zero in on are the usual chorus of people, who turn up reliably after every school shooting in the United States, for example, and shout down everyone.
“Not now.” “It’s not the time.” “You’re being insensitive.” “People are in crisis, they don’t need a lecture.” “Don’t politicize this tragedy.”
But of course every tragedy is political. Every crisis is a contested site. It’s not insensitive to for people to actively and publicly struggle to make sense of this: on the contrary it is precisely an act of sensitivity. People are allowing themselves to be affected by events, and this is good. It would be (and is) insensitive to demand people remain deaf, mute, and numb to what’s happening all around them. And for decades, that has been the precise demand levelled at much of Alberta, Canada, and the globe. What it boils down to is: “Shut up.”
So don’t let those bastards get you down. Keep talking, to your friends, your families, your neighbours. If this sounds like a wake up call to you, it probably is.
ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. — Each morning at 3:30, when Joann Bourg leaves the mildewed and rusted house that her parents built on her grandfather’s property, she worries that the bridge connecting this spit of waterlogged land to Louisiana’s terra firma will again be flooded and she will miss another day’s work.
Ms. Bourg, a custodian at a sporting goods store on the mainland, lives with her two sisters, 82-year-old mother, son and niece on land where her ancestors, members of the Native American tribes of southeastern Louisiana, have lived for generations. That earth is now dying, drowning in salt and sinking into the sea, and she is ready to leave.
With a first-of-its-kind “climate resilience” grant to resettle the island’s native residents, Washington is ready to help.
“Yes, this is our grandpa’s land,” Ms. Bourg said. “But it’s going under one way or another.
In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced grants totaling $1 billion in 13 states to help communities adapt to climate change, by building stronger levees, dams and drainage systems.
One of those grants, $48 million for Isle de Jean Charles, is something new: the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community struggling with the impacts of climate change. The divisions the effort has exposed and the logistical and moral dilemmas it has presented point up in microcosm the massive problems the world could face in the coming decades as it confronts a new category of displaced people who have become known as climate refugees.
“We’re going to lose all our heritage, all our culture,” lamented Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, the tribe to which most Isle de Jean Charles residents belong. “It’s all going to be history.”
Around the globe, governments are confronting the reality that as human-caused climate change warms the planet, rising sea levels, stronger storms, increased flooding, harsher droughts and dwindling freshwater supplies could drive the world’s most vulnerable people from their homes. Between 50 million and 200 million people — mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen — could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change, according to estimates by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration.
“The changes are underway and they are very rapid,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell warned last week in Ottawa. “We will have climate refugees.”
But the problem is complex, said Walter Kaelin, the head of the Nansen Initiative, a research organization working with the United Nations to address extreme-weather displacement.
“You don’t want to wait until people have lost their homes, until they flee and become refugees,” he said. “The idea is to plan ahead and provide people with some measure of choice.”
The Isle de Jean Charles resettlement plan is one of the first programs of its kind in the world, a test of how to respond to climate change in the most dramatic circumstances without tearing communities apart. Under the terms of the federal grant, the island’s residents are to be resettled to drier land and a community that as of now does not exist. All funds have to be spent by 2022.
“We see this as setting a precedent for the rest of the country, the rest of the world,” said Marion McFadden, who is running the program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But even a plan like this — which would move only about 60 people — has been hard to pull off. Three previous resettlement efforts dating back to 2002 failed after they became mired in logistical and political complications. The current plan faces all the same challenges, illustrating the limitations of resettlement on any larger scale.
For over a century, the American Indians on the island fished, hunted, trapped and farmed among the lush banana and pecan trees that once spread out for acres. But since 1955, more than 90 percent of the island’s original land mass has washed away. Channels cut by loggers and oil companies eroded much of the island, and decades of flood control efforts have kept once free-flowing rivers from replenishing the wetlands’ sediments. Some of the island was swept away by hurricanes.
What little remains will eventually be inundated as burning fossil fuels melt polar ice sheets and drive up sea levels, projected the National Climate Assessment, a report of 13 federal agencies that highlighted the Isle de Jean Charles and its tribal residents as among the nation’s most vulnerable.
Already, the homes and trailers bear the mildewed, rusting scars of increasing floods. The fruit trees are mostly gone or dying thanks to saltwater in the soil. Few animals are left to hunt or trap.
Violet Handon Parfait sees nothing but a bleak future in the rising waters. She lives with her husband and two children in a small trailer behind the wreckage of their house, which Hurricane Gustav destroyed in 2008.
The floods ruined the trailer’s oven, so the family cooks on a hot plate. Water destroyed the family computer, too. Ms. Parfait, who has lupus, is afraid of what will happen if she is sick and cannot reach a doctor over the flooded bridge.
Ms. Parfait, who dropped out of high school, hopes for a brighter future, including college, for her children, Heather, 15, and Reggie, 13. But the children often miss school when flooding blocks their school bus.
“I just want to get out of here,” she said.
Still, many residents of Isle de Jean Charles do not want to leave. Attachment to the island runs deep. Parents and grandparents lived here; there is a cemetery on the island that no one wants to abandon. Old and well-earned distrust of the government hangs over all efforts, and a bitter dispute between the two Indian tribes with members on the island has thwarted efforts to unite behind a plan.
“Ain’t nobody I talk to that wants to move,” said Edison Dardar, 66, a lifelong resident who has erected handwritten signs at the entrance to the island declaring his refusal to leave. “I don’t know who’s in charge of all this.”
Whether to leave is only the first of the hard questions: Where does everyone go? What claim do they have to what is left behind? Will they be welcomed by their new neighbors? Will there be work nearby? Who will be allowed to join them?
“This is not just a simple matter of writing a check and moving happily to a place where they are embraced by their new neighbors,” said Mark Davis, the director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.
“If you have a hard time moving dozens of people,” he continued, “it becomes impossible in any kind of organized or fair way to move thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or, if you look at the forecast for South Florida, maybe even millions.”
Louisiana officials have been coping with some of the fastest rates of land loss in the world — an area the size of Delaware has disappeared from south Louisiana since the 1930s. A master plan that is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars envisions a giant wall of levees and flood walls along the coast.
But some places, like the island, would be left on the outside. For those communities, wholesale relocation may be an effective tool, if a far more difficult and costly one.
“That’s one of the things we need to learn from the creation of this model, which is how to do it economically,” said Pat Forbes, the executive director of the state’s Office of Community Development, the agency in charge of administering the federal climate grant.
A vast majority of the $1 billion disaster-resilience grant program is spent on projects to improve infrastructure, like stronger roads, bridges, dams, levees and drainage systems, to withstand rising seas and stronger storms.
But experts see places like Isle de Jean Charles as lost causes.
“We are very cognizant of the obligation to taxpayers to not throw good money after bad,” Ms. McFadden of the Department of Housing and Urban Development said. “We could give the money to the island to build back exactly as before, but we know from the climate data that they will keep getting hit with worse storms and floods, and the taxpayer will keep getting hit with the bill.”
With door-to-door visits, the state is only beginning to find out what the residents want in a new plan, Mr. Forbes said.
The location of the new community has not been chosen. Chiefs of the two tribes present on the island — the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and the United Houma Nation — have debated who would be allowed to live there beyond the islanders themselves, and whether some islanders could resettle elsewhere. One of the planners involved in the resettlement suggested a buffer area between the new community and its surrounding neighborhood to reduce tension. Chief Naquin wants a live buffalo on site.
What has been decided, and what was essential for the islanders’ support, is that the move be voluntary.
“I’ve lived my whole life here, and I’m going to die here,” said Hilton Chaisson, who raised 10 sons on the island and wants his 26 grandchildren to know the same life of living off the land.
He conceded that the flooding has worsened, but, he said, “we always find a way.”
[JBR NOTE: SORRY, MY CHAISSON, BUT NOT THIS TIME ...]
A new wave of refugees has fled northern Syria for the Turkish border after Islamic State opened fire on communities that had sheltered them, killing at least three people and uprooting thousands more.
The killings came as the terror group pushed back Syrian opposition forces who had edged to within five miles of Dabiq, a highly symbolic village that the group’s leaders believe is the pre-ordained epicentre of a clash that will herald an apocalyptic showdown.
The Isis advance appeared to catch the opposition off guard after 12 days of gains in the same area, which had seen it move closer to Dabiq than at any time in the past three years.
Units linked to the Free Syria Army, which led the offensive, said they never intended to seize the village, and were instead intending to push further across the north towards the town of Minbij, which lies roughly halfway between Isis’s two largest hubs in the area, al-Bab and Raqqa.
“We knew they would fight for Dabiq like crazy, so why bother attacking them there,” said a leader of an opposition unit whose forces had earlier this week seized the adjoining village of al-Rai. After being beaten back by Isis, he said: “It was never strategic for us. The east of their so-called caliphate is the target that matters.”
Up to 10 camps for internally displaced people were overrun by Isis on Thursday. Camp residents told the Guardian that members of the group had first approached them with loud speakers, urging them to move towards areas they controlled.
Some tried instead to cross the Turkish border but were shot at by Turkish troops. The camps were then abandoned en masse, with up to 5,000 people heading towards the main border point in the area, near the town of Azaz.
That crossing has remained closed for most of the year, with Turkey resisting pressure to allow earlier exoduses fleeing a three-month Russian air bombardment of eastern Aleppo and the northern countryside, all of which are in opposition control.
“The border is supposed to be a refuge, but it is a barrier to push us back into hell, said Abdul Aziz Rizk, who had fled the Iqdah camp. “All we want to do is get out of here.”
Azaz is already home to up to 30,000 refugees from earlier in the year, and Turkish officials have insisted they will continue to refuse permission to cross to all but urgent medical cases and essential family visits.
The International Rescue Committee said it would provide aid to the new arrivals. “We are seeing thousands of people arrive at the border, and more than a thousand families supported by the IRC at a displacement camp in Aleppo province have fled to Azaz and nearby villages,” said Turkey country director Frank McManus. “The IRC will be responding by providing clean water to as many of the new arrivals as possible.”
The Isis gains come as peace talks between the opposition and Syrian regime continue to grind on in Geneva. On the second day of the latest round of talks, the opposition said it was ready to share power in a transitional governing body with members of Assad’s government but not with the president himself or anyone else with blood on their hands.
The statement appeared designed to seize the initiative and emphasise a readiness for compromise after the Syrian government repeated that it would not go along with any transition – the central theme of the UN-brokered process.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has made clear he want to see concrete steps towards transition, which he calls “the mother of all issues”.
De Mistura told reporters there was disappointment and frustration that efforts to improve humanitarian access to besieged areas had made so little progress since the start of the partial ceasefire six weeks ago. Douma, Daraya and Harasta - all near Damascus - remained inaccessible to aid workers.
Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that the only way to end the five-year war was for all parties to hold talks, adopt a new constitution and hold early elections.
A wounded farmer is assisted by other demonstrators after Friday's mass shooting by security forces in the Philippines. (Photo: Kilab Multimedia)
Police and army forces shot at about 6,000 starving farmers and Lumad Indigenous people demonstrating for drought relief in the Philippines on Friday, ultimately killing 10. Observers characterized the security forces' action as "a strafing."
"The government's response to hunger is violence," said Zeph Repollo, Southeast Asia campaign coordinator for 350.org, in an email to Common Dreams.
Three protesters were immediately killed, and by Monday the death toll had risen to 10 as more demonstrators succumbed to injuries.
"We don’t have anything to eat or harvest. Our plants wilted. Even our water has dried up." —Noralyn Laus, demonstrating farmer
The farmers and Indigenous people had been blockading a highway in the Cotabato province for four days in a desperate plea for government aid, after this winter's record-breaking temperatures produced a three-months-long drought that has destroyed their crops and now threatens their lives.
The demonstrators were asking the government to provide 15,000 sacks of rice to ease the hunger crisis. Provincial governor Emmylou Mendoza has refused to engage the protesters.
"The government’s policy of systematic land grabbing combined with the intensified El Nino pushed our farmers and indigenous peoples to heighten their struggles with sweat and blood in defense of their right to land and life," wrote Repollo in a statement.
After an especially intense El Nino created a months-long drought and the local government ignored their plight, farmers and Indigenous people blockaded a highway to publicize their need for relief. (Photo: Pinoy Weekly)
On Monday, local farmer Noralyn Laus gave Democracy Now! a firsthand account of the disaster:
"Why we came down here is not to make trouble. We just want to demand for rice, because of the situation of El Niño is leaving our tribes hungry. What happened yesterday, we didn’t start it. They started it by beating us. We wouldn’t be angry if we weren’t beaten up or attacked. We’re having a crisis. We don’t have anything to eat or harvest. Our plants wilted. Even our water has dried up."
"Our farmers—the country’s food producers—are battered the hardest and are left in poverty and hunger," Rapollo said. "Civil disobedience will continue to escalate until the government stops playing deaf and blind to the genuine cry of the people."
Seventy-eight people were still under arrest on Monday, Rapollo said, and a local Methodist Church is sheltering many protesters who escaped the bullets. Rapollo also reported that no members of the armed forces have been relieved of duty or investigated for Friday's shooting.
The state-sponsored violence in the Philippines portends what turmoil may come as the planet continues to warm, creating more disastrous, extreme weather events worldwide, environmental activists note.
"The conditions that prompted the 3-day blockade gives us a glimpse of what’s ahead if decisive and just actions in addressing climate change remain in the periphery," said Repollo.
"This is not a distant reality to anywhere in the world," Repollo wrote to Common Dreams, "unless we change the system that feeds [on] hunger, injustices, and climate catastrophe."