A Climate Disaster Is Unfolding Before Our Eyes—And Politicians Still Refuse to Take Action

By Sonali Kolhatkar, the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall off the coast of Louisiana, triggering a slow-moving disaster as floodwaters breached the levees around New Orleans. Nearly 2,000 people were killed over several weeks, hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed, and the city was left in ruins. Environmental scientists warned that Katrina was a taste of what was in store for the Gulf Coast region if climate change continued unchecked.

But greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, and exactly 16 years after Katrina, Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana as a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 miles per hour and up to 10 inches of rain, leaving more than 1 million households in Louisiana without power. The remnants of the storm traveled up the East Coast with flash floods killing at least 15 people in New York and damaging homes and public transport infrastructure.

While some media coverage celebrated the fact that the post-Katrina levees around New Orleans remained intact, the real story is that Ida’s behavior fits the profile of storms fueled by a rapidly changing climate, and no levees will be strong enough to provide enough protection against such relentless hurricanes year after year.

For Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, the wreckage of Ida is a surreal reminder of what he and others in the Gulf Coast region experienced 16 years ago. In a recent interview, Akuno shared that “it unfortunately brings back some painful memories.” As the former executive director of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF), which was founded in the aftermath of Katrina, Akuno has experience witnessing inept government responses to such disasters.

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under President George W. Bush’s leadership, spectacularly failed to address the needs of Katrina’s victims and survivors, mutual aid groups like PHRF stepped in. Today, the same appears to be happening, and Akuno’s newer, Mississippi-based organization Cooperation Jackson is scrambling to aid evacuees.

“The worst effects of climate change are here now, and we have to build the systems and infrastructure to be able to deal with this,” says Akuno. But he admits that “Whatever we can amass is only going to scratch the surface of the overall need, and there has to be broader systemic change in order to deal with these crises in the future.”

Satellite images show the shocking extent of devastation in the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Ida. Whether or not President Joe Biden’s administration responds more efficiently to the needs of Ida’s survivors compared to Bush’s response during Katrina remains to be seen. But government responses to climate-related disasters, while necessary, are part of the “downstream” solutions that center on the symptoms of climate change.

The multiple “upstream” solutions to climate disasters include building resiliency before storms hit, and, most importantly, require swiftly mitigating the causes of climate change. Few political leaders since the 2005 Katrina disaster have been willing to take strong action on that critical front.

At the same time that residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, and New York are facing the horrors of damaged homes, flooded streets, and no power, Indigenous communities in the Midwest are fighting against a pipeline that will transport climate-change-causing fuels across their lands. The Enbridge Line 3 pipeline is being upgraded in order to transport tar sands—which are considered the “dirtiest fuel left on the planet”—across pristine lands where the Anishinaabe people grow wild rice.

The state of Minnesota’s estimate put the social and climate impacts of the completed project at $287 billion over 30 years. The last thing our rapidly changing climate needs is yet another oil pipeline, and yet few leaders appear willing to stand in the way of fossil fuel company profits.

“President Biden can suspend Line 3 right now,” says Tara Houska, founder of the Giniw Collective, in an interview. “All it would take is the stroke of a pen.” Houska has been part of a years-long resistance movement against the pipeline that has been calling on Democratic Party leaders like Biden and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz to stop the pipeline.

In spite of their stated acknowledgment of the dangers of climate change and the need to mitigate it, neither the federal nor state leader has taken action against Line 3. “They say they get it. It’s a lot of talk, and very little walk,” says Houska. “They’re still allowing the [fossil fuel] industry to continue to build and expand.”

Akuno worries that the Republican Party, which has an even worse record on climate change, will try to exploit Democrats’ failures in their bid to resume political control of Congress in 2022. “We’re already hearing signs in some of the local right-wing media trying to make this [Hurricane Ida] an ‘Afghanistan.’”

In just a few months, national leaders and civil society members will convene in Glasgow, Scotland, for the next United National Climate Change Conference known as COP 26. Akuno has been involved in social movement responses to the conference and says without hesitation that the Biden administration has simply not done enough as a global participant. “We’ve been deeply dissatisfied with the approach and orientation that they’re taking toward the mitigation aspects of climate change,” he says.

A press release for the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which was released in early August, spells outdeeply ominous warnings:

“Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.”

Hurricane Ida is clearly illustrating the climate devastation we face, and the Line 3 pipeline offers an equally clear opportunity to do something about it. Yet, a Democratic administration that has a stated commitment to “tackling climate change” and a Democratic governor who has made a similar pledge are both refusing to act.

Gov. Walz in defending his support of the Line 3 project said, “I’ve made the case and shown policies that we need to move away from fossil fuels but, in the meantime if we’re gonna transport oil, we need to do it as safely as we possibly can.” It is not clear why Walz feels such a strong obligation to ensure the transport of fossil fuels in the face of massive opposition and against his own stated desire to address the sources of climate change. “Do we really need to allow a fossil fuel company to do this?” asked Houska. “This oil is meant for foreign transport; it’s not meant for Minnesota’s energy security.”

She’s right. Neither Biden, nor Walz, and certainly not the people of Minnesota nor the United States as a whole, gains anything of value from the Line 3 project. Instead, at stake is—in the words of Enbridge CEO Al Monaco—“lots of free cash flow” to the company’s shareholders.

Even in the infrastructure bill that lawmakers are currently debating and that is a centerpiece of the Biden administration’s legislative agenda this year, few climate-mitigation aspects have survived the aggressive deal-making between the two major parties. In other words, as the nation is ravaged by floods, droughts, wildfires, and other real impacts of climate change, our political leaders have no plan to immediately do something about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

As corporate profits continue to be valued more than our climate and our species, Houska urges us to have, “a radical shift in the way in which we view our place in the world.” Taking the long view—which our politicians appear unable or unwilling to take—she reminds us of what is far more important than corporate profits: “There has to be a recentering of nature in who we are as people and the centering of basic truths: that we cannot live without clean water, clean air, and clean soil.”

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  1. Tom Stone

    The redwoods are dying.
    Oaks are doing relatively well, the drought has slowed Sudden Oak Death Syndrome,
    But the Redwoods are turning brown throughout Sonoma County.
    The Russian River is an algae choked trickle, soil moisture is almost zero and the winds are about to shift into their fall offshore pattern as we enter what used to be the fire season.
    And it’s looking like a La Nina year, no real rains are expected until December.
    It’s going to be a rough rest of the year.

    1. Eclair

      And, on the Right Coast, in NJ, Ida’s heavy rains resulted in storm drains being overwhelmed, with streets turning into fast-flowing rapids, submerging parked cars, and basements filling with water in a matter of minutes. Our daughter remarked on how freakily lush the grass, trees, shrubs and flowers were in her suburb, after a very rainy spring and summer. Only a recently installed french drain (and a sump pump, of course, along with two dehumidifiers) saved her basement from flooding; her neighbors were not so fortunate.

  2. BeliTsari

    Disaster Capitalism is not remotely, “natural.” It certainly IS a tradition however, all along this storm’s path. Just as COVID is here, thanks to commercial class air travel, successive mutant iterations of storm, plague, drought, pestilance, fire & flood is a crisis, used to redistribute wealth, labor, equity of poor workers; privatize delapidated infrastructure, loot former government “services,” to the unremitting feeding frenzy by a sneering tag-team kleptocracy and their media. It’s why our betters sternly warn us to LOTE the sneering, senile zombies in EVERY time?

    1. jefemt

      LOTE : languages other than engrish? I think maybe VOTE?

      I voted for Biden, only as an anti-Trump algebraic move – obviously underestimating the term , “at any cost’.

      No more voting?

      1. BeliTsari

        “Lesser Of Two Evils” voting invariably seems to ratchet us further from Democracy, deeper into kleptocratic idiocracy; where Debbie Wasserman Schultz sneers, under oath, that her multinational corporation has been tasked to fork us to her FIRE, PhARMA and Forever War sector pals as Schumer dumps my death o’ disparity deplorables for white-flight suburbanite Republicans. Guess, there’s no Acela Corridor or 30 Rock equivalent?


      2. d w

        well that is one option, but dont complain if nothing at all gets done that you want. course some states are making it lots harder to vote, so it will be harder to do than before. course its odd that some the strictest restrictions are vote by mail. odd because the biggest users of that, are retired people, who tend vote…GOP. course never mind more than few states have nothing but vote by mail. and have less ‘ fraud’ than those for in person (which it self is so tiny that some one really has to look for thing like bamboo in the ballots

        all that said, dont stop, or the results wont be what you want at all, and some of the problem now, is that state are redistricting now…and so many states are one party states with no opposition. what we need to do is get better at organizing, and getting the votes out. even if it can be very frustration with how federal and state districts are drawn. the goal should be to win back the state house, cause as shown today, win that the Federal government will become your toy, because of how stats redraw districts. hint, the legislature does that (with a few exceptions) that doesnt include any thing to do but help them get re-elected again…and again

  3. Otis B Driftwood

    Two popular politicians come to mind who take this seriously – Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Look what the establishment did to them.

    1. CarlH

      I’m not convinced Bernie takes any of what he said seriously. After all, his good friend Joe could set a lot of this right, no? Bernie and the squad’s Great Disappearing Act has been a show to behold.

      1. topcat

        yes, we are really deep into Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football territory. Just when you think that you can not be fooled again the powers that be come up with an even more convincing scam tht makes you try to kick the football just one more time. AOC and friends were a wonderful sleight of hand move from the dems, I mean really really good. Like the KGB having 20 year sleepers in the system and just pulling them out of the hat when needed. That is planning for social control at its finest.

  4. Chas

    It’s going to take a revolution to defeat the polluters and that will be very difficult because the polluters control the USA, including the media. I don’t see much hope for human life on earth. I suppose the revolution will happen when enough people are willing to risk their lives to form monkey wrench gangs to take on the polluters.

    1. James Simpson

      Nowhere near enough people in the wealthy countries, including here in the UK, grasp the seriousness of the situation. We live our lives as best we can, letting the politicians and the activists argue. As the climate worsens, we will try to defend our privileges against the rising billions in the Global South who flee the chaos we cause to face the unashamedly hostile environment that capitalist regimes impose against them.

    2. The Pale Scot

      The issue is that stonk values are directly related to a corp’s ability to continue to do business as it currently does. 5.4 trillion of oil reserves are in the ground. That oil is on the books and is a major part of an oil corp’s value. If that oil is designated as unrecoverable the stock price will drop like a stone. All the RWNG trumpers in the fields will be cut in places like Sd, ND, Tex. Places that have zero unemployment services. But the can needs to be kicked only a another twenty years down the road. According to prospectuses released a decade ago by LoL, GEM etc those authors predict famine and government overthrows after 2040. The authors were pessimistic about traditional reinsurance lines remaining profitable.

      But don’t despair! New prospectuses published in the last couple of years state that “yea, things are going to hell, but we have plans about how to make money off of new kinds of suffering. Paging Naomi Klein to the disaster desk

  5. TimH

    Katrina was used to clear the low-income housing out of New Orleans and gentrify the place, and gov didn’t care about FEMA poisioning the ex-residents in the temporary trailers with outgassing.

    Looting is not by the poor, but for the rich.

  6. Petter

    Civilizations have always had to deal with climate, witness the Babylonian lament in yesterday’s Water Cooler. What’s different now is that we know, or think we know, that it’s not the gods or nature that are responsible for the climate but us, humanity itself. We rage against our kings and look to new priests who can assuage our fears.

    1. saywhat?

      but us, humanity itself. Petter

      Yes so, for example, if we can only get CO2 under control we can ignore things like economic injustice and other things that tend to anger a just God.

      Yet, according to the Bible, God is clearly in control of weather (eg. 1 Kings 18:41-46) and, by extension, the climate too.

      But hey, let’s ignore root causes like government privileges for usury and no limits to the concentration of land ownership and see if we can really forestall Judgement that way. /sarc

      1. d w

        so maybe climate change is God trying to convince us to change our ways (ala the Bible)? since we (the people) that in many ways are cause of climate change (but not the only ones ). since the early 20th century (actually much earlier…..but…it took off more in the 20h century..) to improve work (even as bad as the early 20th century, arent as bad as say the 13th or 14th centuries were) as up till that time most ‘jobs’ were from farms. thats not the case today, that represents less than 1% of today US work force, and then there transportation improvements (car etc). and to top it off, we improved health care (if not how to pay for it). birth rates in the US are histiric lows….and getting lower….we havent caught up Japan..or China….but it seems we are trying to keep up…even a party seems dead set on reversing that. and some how it legal for private enterprise to use state power of eminent domain….even if its not for any public purpose. or that law enforcement can confiscate your property/cash without charging you for any thing, and then you have to sue to get your property/cash back. we could add that the courts look to be corrupt now, and not even able to do much more than what their bosses want

        1. Tom Bradford

          “so maybe climate change is God trying to convince us to change our ways (ala the Bible)?”

          If so I’d rather He used a scalpel than a club.

          1. saywhat?

            If so I’d rather He used a scalpel than a club.

            Per the Bible, by the time God uses a club*, it’s well deserved. Meanwhile, we should appreciate that God is long-suffering and repent while we still can.

            *while sparing some, eg. Jerimiah and Ebed Melech, the Ethiopian who rescued Jerimiah from the pit.

            1. Christopher Horne

              Jesus made a whip and used it on the Pharisees.
              That was what got him hung on a cross.
              Jesus Christ, radical anticapitalist. Pretty Cool,

    2. Temporarily Sane

      What’s your point?

      Sure, civilizations “have always” had to deal with changing climatic conditions but a) not to this degree and b) we’re not presently dealing with it, which is the point the piece is making. Btw, the available evidence suggests, with a very high degree of certainty, that human activity is responsible for the rapid temperature rises the planet is experiencing. (If you don’t know this by now you haven’t been paying attention.)

      Is expecting the leadership class to, well, lead and get sh!t done really all about “raging against our kings and looking to new priests who can assuage our fears” or is it a reasonable expectation given that functional societies need competent leadership that can take appropriate action when required?

      You seem to be implying that climate change is no big deal and that the public expecting governments and elected officials to actually do what they are put there to do is a weakness borne out of irrational fears.

      It’s not 1982 or 1996, pal, it’s 2021. The “do nothing” model of governance is a busted flush. If you haven’t realized this by now…

      1. d w

        you might think that politicians are suppose to lead, but not any more, its power nothing else they want, to they want to protect that as much as they can (like choosing their voters as opposed to voters choosing their politicians

    3. James Simpson

      No, it’s not humanity that is causing the rapidly increasing climate disasters. It’s capitalism. Most of the world’s people emit so few GHGs that they make little impact compared to the wealthy nations.

      1. Synoia

        Climate disaster It is caused by the use of fossil resources. That includes Iron and Steel. Thus this problem has root backs to before the Bronze Age.

        Or the problems is humans. The only solution to the fault of humankind is appears to be extinction.. One can muse over the postulate that intelligence as we humans practice it is not an evolutionary advantage, because we humans appear to be heading for an extinction event.

        I do wonder if that’s why the SETI experiment failed to detect other “intelligence life like ours” in the Universe. Given the ranges of distance in the Universe, we should have discovered some radio signals form some Alien Civilization.

        However, One must also consider that the emergence of life on earth was based on an uncommon, possibly unique, set of incidents experienced by our planet, a collision which redistributed elements in the Earth’s crust, creating our unusual Moon, and the tides created by the moon as factories of life.

    4. Richard Matthews

      The responsibility rests not with ‘humanity’ but with a very thin layer of Wetikos that dominate our world…….and it is not in their nature to do anything about it. Snakes can’t fly.

  7. Tomonthebeach

    Maybe the US should consider a national building code enlightened by climate change. One thing the MSM seems to ignore while posting pictures of devastation is the clear evidence that many of these disaster areas flood all the time. That is why many houses are off the ground on pilings. Rebuilding at taxpayer expense in barely-reclaimed swampland is irrational. Nobody should even be issued a building permit to live there in the first place. It is echoes of Mexico Beach. FEMA should be focusing on migrating these people further north; not helping to rebuild.

    I read that as many as 90% of US homes are of wood-frame construction. Such houses do not stand up to wind either from hurricanes or tornados. That is one reason concrete homes are far more prevalent in Florida. Similarly, shingle roofs can be blown off with 70MPH winds. Once a roof is compromised, it can blow off completely in one piece exposing the inner walls of the house. Roofless, one or two good puffs of wind will easily blow down the remaining walls. That is why homes in Florida are more likely to have flat tar&gravel roofs or heavy tile roofs lashed to the concrete walls. Tile roofs rarely blow off in cat 5 storms – the tile is not a fashion fetish.

    In Germany, nearly all homes are solid brick and stone construction (age depending), then later concrete block with stucco like Florida. Recent horrendous floods did not move entire blocks of houses down river as we often see in the Carolinas. In fact, the only pictures of German houses floating down the river are of only 2 or 3 wood ones that floated off their foundations. A few centuries-old brick walls did collapse, but that was as due to deteriorating mortar exposed to floodwater. Until FEMA or the insurance industry gets woke, we are throwing good money into the storm winds and waters.

    1. d w

      or building in a reservoir like they did in Houston. and they wondered why it flooded? problem even if you could basically push people back from coast lines (you could…just raise their home insurance premiums. and not rebuild them..a few hundred fold) and watch people leave. but its nit just the coast, many of the largest US rivers, have flooding too, and its usually a lot more often. and you almost never hear about, because it happens so often..that its no longer news. but what do you with the farms?

    2. Ian Ollmann

      Wood frame houses do stand up better to earthquakes, and so remain the preferred solution for California where the weather is mild (or on fire) and extreme storms vanishingly rate.

      California is requiring solar on new residences and is phasing out piped natural gas service, so there are some places where the building codes are forward looking.

    3. Aumua

      These particularly vulnerable areas are just an early warning system. It’s not only these areas that people are going to have to migrate from when this sh*t really gets going.

  8. José L. Campos

    Technology drives climate changes. Twenty five years ago I fell from a ladder and fractured my right femur. I was transported to the hospital radiographed operated upon and I recovered, Each step of the way was based upon the design manufacture and use of instruments whose production required energy. Should the fabrication of hypodermic needles be restricted or that of rubber gloves or that of anesthetic production in order to eliminate climate change? Or should medical care be rationed and only those with appropriate social credentials be part of civilized life and the rest left to die on open fields? I happen to believe that the world is as perfect as it can be, if it were possible for it to be differently, it would be. The world will end and nobody will be left to be nostalgic about it.

    1. Ian Ollmann

      It bears repeating that since we need to bring carbon emissions to zero (or less) any scheme that attempts to solve this problem through rationing and scarcity is untenable. Use less electricity? How about zero electricity! Carpool? How about carpooling your way to 0 ICE miles driven. Eat less meat? How about zero veggies too. Reduce population? We need population zero. None of these diet our way to success approaches work because we need to go to 0, not 80%, not 50%, not 20%, zero. That is not a diet. That is starvation and death, which is why we aren’t going to do that and why it is dumb to even talk about it.

      We are only going to get to where we need to be by investing in new tech which doesn’t produce CO2. That means no saving our way out of this crisis. We can’t save enough! We have to *spend* our way out of this crisis. That means an end to 40 years of defeatist “we can’t afford it!” thinking. We have to spend money, yours and mine, to replace combustion driven tech with electric alternatives. There is no alternative.

      And of course people would be nostalgic about the world. What if you suddenly knew, knew for sure the world would end in 6 years. No more light. No more art. No more laughter of children. No more ice cream? Just silence and emptiness. You would be overwhelmed with nostalgia and suddenly everything around you would seem so fragile and wonderful and temporary.

      The only reason we haven’t solved this problem already is that there are many many people who just don’t believe it, not really, in part because they are paid not to. They are paid to do other things and saving the world would be a distraction from that.

      1. Synoia

        We are only going to get to where we need to be by investing in new tech which doesn’t produce CO2.

        Zero new tech then? Don’t omit that us Humans are heat engines driven by combustion — and greed.

    2. d w

      the choices to go to green energy, or production, may or may not actually support the number of people we have now, and some seem to want to go back to the 17th century, which means that billions would have to die, as they cant be supported by what was available back then. never mind that farms would have to change drastically, today, lots are owned and operated by one person, removing tractors, etc, wouldnt just reduce the efficiency, but would also reduce how much they can produce, plus increase the cost of food. they would also likely have to hire workers to help them.

  9. Ian Perkins

    The US military has taken climate change seriously for quite a while now, though of course their main worries are security and control, and their solution more military spending.

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