Hurricane Harvey, which began on Friday 25 August and lasted until the middle of the following week hit Texas, Louisiana and Kentucky and especially the coastal areas of Texas.
Houston, the US’s fourth biggest city, spread out over 1700 square miles, was the worst affected. The hurricane displaced one million people, caused 44 deaths and damaged 185,000 homes.
Flooding on this scale, with such tragic effects, is not unique in the world; in recent weeks there have been devastating floods in Mumbai, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sierre Leone, Niger, Nigeria and DR Congo, none of which were as well reported as Hurricane Harvey. However, because Houston is the capital of the global energy industry, it is worth looking at the relationships between events in that city, the behaviour of big business, and climate change.
Many mainstream media reports in the US made no mention of climate change in the reporting of Hurricane Harvey, but local journalists, academics and independent media did discuss this issue, with some saying that Harvey was not even the worst-case scenario. The well-known environmentalist Dr Robert Bullard, based at Texas Southern University in Houston, and interviewed on Democracy Now, pulled no punches. “[Houston] was a catastrophe waiting to happen”, he said, “given that you have here unrestrained capitalism, no-zoning, laissez faire regulations on the industries that have created the problems of greenhouse gases, the impacts which have been ignored for many years.”
While hurricanes can be unpredictable, several characteristics of Hurricane Harvey pointed to three climate change effects. A hotter atmosphere holds more moisture and this tends to make rainfall events more extreme. The waters in the Gulf of Mexico have been getting warmer over the last thirty years and this year were at above average temperatures. The severity and impact of hurricanes on costal cities are exacerbated by higher sea levels caused by higher temperatures.
But flooding was made worse by the patchy nature of the city’s infrastructure including its drainage systems. Building on wetlands and city sprawl means there is not enough permeable soil to help rain drain away. Environmentalists in Houston are now saying that people who live on wetlands should be “bought out” by the city or federal government and the wetlands should be restored. The logic of building the petroleum economy in the city — the concentrated refinement of fossil fuels and pumping out of greenhouse gases — and consequent growth of the city, does not work with the logic of environment — the natural floodlands of bayous. That natural environment urgently needs preserving and managing.
A survey by the New York Times showed 30% more people from poorer areas making requests for rescue during the flood.
The effects of the flooding was a study in both social and geographical contrasts. Because Houston is a not a zoned city, the building of housing next to oil refineries and other plants is allowed. These “faceline communities” experienced explosions at plants near to their homes (Crosby), emissions of toxins when plants were shut down quickly (Manchester) and storage tanks flooded. People in these areas are predominately from low-income and minority backgrounds. They had nowhere to go and will have to live with the pollution for some time to come.
All this has taken place in a country with a President who claims human-driven global warming is a hoax, who has cut the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of disaster response. Yet Donald Trump also wants to build a wall around his golf resort in Ireland to protect it from rising seas!
Jim Blackburn an environmental lawyer based at Houston’s Severe Storm Centre has called for more and taller levies to be built down the Houston ship channel. But engineering solutions will not be enough to erase the threats to ways of life for working-class people in Houston. And US workers cannot leave it to Trump, city planners or the major energy firms to get to grips with climate change.
Workers’ Liberty’s policy on climate change argues for a radical alternative, for a post-petroleum world, where working-class people do not suffer and the environment is not laid waste. We need a fight for a big programme of research and investment to expand renewable energy generation. We advocate and fight for a comprehensive programme of measures to redesign living spaces, cities, industry, transport and other infrastructures to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions while protecting and improving living standards. This includes fighting for a shorter working week and longer holidays.
While the labour movement is weak in the US, the country has recently seen the a revival of socialist debate and organising, including around climate change. The UK labour movement should make stronger links with our comrades in the US to take develop these debates.
• Information from Cultures of Energy blog