Climate disasters—how governments and the rich leave workers and the poor to die

The bushfire crisis has shown the desperate need for disaster assistance in the face of climate change. But the official response can highlight the class divide writes Ruby Wawn

Despite a string of media announcements from Scott Morrison of bushfire relief funding, we are already seeing examples of people left behind.

In the NSW and Victorian fire zones, Centrelink recipients were cut off from their payments for failing to meet their “mutual obligations” while they were desperately trying to defend their homes from the oncoming fires.

Uninsured families who have lost everything in the fires have received as little as $1280 from the government to rebuild their lives, despite massive donations from the public to the Rural Fire Service and other charities. Elsewhere asbestos-contaminated debris remains uncleared, despite the NSW government announcing a $25 million package for bushfire clean up in November.

These failures are starting to show how natural disasters affect people along class lines—and how governments and the rich will leave poor and working class people abandoned, and even to die.

Climate change is wreaking havoc across the globe. Last year the Amazon rainforest burnt at a rate not seen in a decade. Meanwhile parts of regional NSW have completely run out of water after long periods of drought and government mismanagement. And in the Bahamas, one of the strongest hurricanes on record decimated the holiday resort of the rich and powerful, while the impoverished Haitian migrant community struggled in the wake of the disaster.

New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in recent history.

It was also discussed as one of the first major climate disasters, exactly the kind of more intense storm expected as a consequence of warming ocean temperatures and rising sea levels.

But what is most remembered about Katrina is the failure of the Bush administration to adequately respond to the disaster, revealing the race and class divisions at the heart of US capitalism, and causing Kanye West to declare on national TV that, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.

New Orleans is an example of what neo-liberalism and capitalism has done across the US—heightening class divisions across the city with the wealthy and middle class residents living safely out of harm’s way in the suburbs, while the predominantly black and poor inner city areas bore the brunt of the storm.

The state was aware of the risks natural disasters and tropical storms posed to New Orleans, a city well below sea level on the Gulf Coast. Ward Nine, the poorest African American neighbourhood where residents lived on less than US$10,000 a year, was the most vulnerable to flooding and was already under six to eight feet of water within hours of the storm hitting.

For many black residents who lived in the city centre—without state support, without the funds to leave and without a place to go—there was no way to escape.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made racist claims that these people deliberately ignored warnings to evacuate.

New Orleans Homeland Security Director Terry Ebbert even suggested that, “Everybody who had a way or wanted to get out of the way of this storm was able to. For some that didn’t, it was their last night on this earth”.

The storm displaced more than a million people. The death toll is estimated at around 1800 with over 68 per cent of the casualties being black—in some areas the death rate for black residents was up to four times higher than that of non-black residents. Most died in the low-lying, flood prone poor black neighbourhoods.

A total of 20,000 people sought refuge at the Louisiana Superdome. But the National Guard had only provided enough resources for 15,000 people for three days. With tens of thousands of displaced people left in the evacuation centre for five days, the dead were left to rot on the floor, there were no toilet facilities and people were forced outside into 35-degree heat.

In the face of a completely inadequate state response, residents were forced to take matters into their own hands.

One 20-year-old man drove an abandoned school bus of 70 people from New Orleans to Houston. But on arrival they were turned away and the driver was arrested on charges of looting for “stealing” the bus.

The disaster recovery effort was also tainted with racism, with FEMA providing emergency accommodation trailers to 63 per cent of the predominantly white areas but only 13 per cent of the predominantly black—and poor—areas which were worst affected by flooding.

In the aftermath, the poor faced months of homelessness and displacement, while the city of New Orleans became a police state.

Private security firms such as Blackwater, which had been involved in the invasion of Iraq, patrolled the streets of New Orleans with rifles protecting the interests of capital as racist media outlets claimed the black victims of the storms were looters.

Hysteria about the “criminal” black New Orleans residents also affected those evacuating to other cities.

When reconstruction began, the war on the poor continued. Real estate speculation exploded as the government invested millions in redeveloping New Orleans and other affected regions.

Ten years after the disaster there were almost 100,000 less black residents compared to a drop in white residents of 11,500. Congressman Barney Frank labelled reconstruction as, “ethnic cleansing through inaction.”

In 2014, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was convicted of corruption for accepting bribes from developers who received more than US$5 million in public contracts in the aftermath of the storm.

Former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney personally intervening the day after the storm to re-direct emergency service crews restoring power to two rural hospitals to instead repair electrical substations for a diesel pipeline which the Koch Brothers, major Republican donors, had a majority share in.

The project was also closely connected to Cheney’s former energy company Halliburton.

The capitalist vultures also swooped upon the education system, with nearly the entire New Orleans school district being privatised and 4700 public school teachers losing their jobs. The decimation of the public school system was fuelled by an op-ed in the Wall St Journal by Milton Friedman who falsely claimed the system was in disrepair.

But the new private charter schools did not have to educate all students and routinely expelled under-performing, often poor and black, students forcing them to go to what was left of the overburdened public schools where classes were up to 40 students each.

Today, New Orleans is the second most unequal city in the whole United States. For black residents who remain, the conditions in New Orleans are a familiar story of unemployment, over incarceration and disenfranchisement.

Class struggle

As in New Orleans, other climate disasters will also hit workers and the poor the most. And instead of providing support, governments and state institutions are likely, at best, to leave them abandoned and prioritise the interests of corporations and the rich.

This means that natural disasters have the ability to upend people’s lives and in the process generate struggle against the system.

Another example is the threat of rising food prices and food shortages—which literally threaten people’s basic survival.

Currently more than 10 per cent of the world’s population is undernourished—despite the fact that there is easily enough to feed everyone. The problem is that there are millions of people who cannot afford the price of food.

Capitalism’s exploitation of the Earth’s resources at “unprecedented rates” means over half a billion people live in locations which are rapidly becoming unliveable desert, and we are losing soil at a rate of ten to 100 times faster than it is forming.

Higher levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are predicted to affect food’s nutritional value and as demand outweighs supply, the cost of food is also predicted to rise.

Food shortages will disproportionately affect the poor and are likely to increase the number of migrants and refugees. We are already seeing patterns of migration caused by food shortages, with five times the number of migrants leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras between 2010 and 2015 due to drought which severely impacted the food supply in the region.

Food insecurity has already given rise to struggle. In Egypt and Yemen, more than 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Around 70 per cent of Egyptians rely on government food subsidies to survive.

But as the world’s largest wheat importer, government subsidies for staples are propping up private companies in Egypt and in 2011, rising costs of bread inflamed tensions and contributed to the revolution that saw the fall of the Mubarak government.

Food crises also played a role in the revolution that brought down Tunisian President Ben Ali in 2011, after a state of emergency was declared following protests against the rising costs of staple foods.

The struggles of workers and the poor can be a powerful force demanding climate action.

The climate movement needs to take up the fight for working class demands for jobs and a just transition—and side with those left behind following climate disasters like the bushfires.

The only way we’re going to stop climate change is if we replace the system that caused it with one run in the interests of the working class majority—and based on human need, not profit.


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