Politics of Poverty


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Communities already struggling to make ends meet are most vulnerable to natural disasters because they lack needed resources to bounce back.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the weather – and for good reason. Some of the most massive, violent storms in recent memory, coupled with ruthless, fast-moving tornadoes, have hit cities and towns throughout the midwest and southeast hard, leading to more than 500 lives lost with the death toll continuing to mount.

And it isn’t just the spring storms that are wreaking havoc on the country.

Historic floods along the Mississippi River, caused by a mix of intense rainfall and snowmelt, are of the largest experienced in the past century. In direct contrast to all of this unwanted water, areas throughout the southeast and southwest are experiencing unprecedented drought. In fact, one of Oxfam’s organizers who also remains active in a family ranch and farm operation in south central Kansas (a resident overachiever) tells me that this is the worst event to hit the region since the 1950s.

There’s a whole lot of buzz already linking such events to climate change, and it can’t be ignored that while no scientist will link individual weather events to climate change, the sheer intensity and unpredictability of such events are consistent with what we’re going to experience with global temperature rise. But, regardless of this link, it’s clear that we should stop to reflect on who is most vulnerable to these catastrophic events and which communities are likely to suffer most in the long-run.

In 2009 Oxfam published a report and associated interactive website called Exposed: Social vulnerability and climate change in the US Southeast. This report was the first of its kind to look at the characteristics of both climate change risks and social demographics to identify the people and places most likely to be hit worst when natural disasters strike. What we found is that while social variables such as income and age don’t determine who will be hit by a serious weather event, they do determine a communities’ ability to prepare, respond, and recover when disaster does strike.

It turns out that the biggest losers from climate change hazards are communities that are already struggling to make ends meet. Although we don’t yet know all the details about who exactly has been affected in the US recently, some of the communities that we identified as highly socially vulnerable to hazards like floods, drought, and high winds are the same communities that are being hardest hit now and that lack the resources to bounce back. Here are some examples:

• People living in the Louisiana parishes of St. Landry and Pointe Coupee are just returning to their homes after a forced evacuation due to the opening of the Morganza spillway. Although not as voluminous as previously thought, the water is still expected to hit the coastal parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche that lie at the center of multiple climate-related hazards, not least of which is sea-level rise. Communities living throughout these parishes are highly vulnerable due to a combination of social factors associated with poverty and race among other factors. With each disaster, whether it can be tied to climate or not (e.g., last year’s BP oil spill), it becomes more and more difficult to pick up and start again.

• Crockett County in Texas is high and dry ranch country. Not a lot of people live there but the ones that do have few job options and tend to find work in the oil and gas industry or cattle ranching. The current drought has decimated what little beef production is possible in the county and poverty levels continue to rise. This county stood out in Exposed because of high poverty levels, a high concentration of immigrants, and its risk to severe drought. The 2011 drought could serve as the tipping point for agriculture workers whose families are already teetering on the edge.

There are many more examples throughout Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and other states where high levels of social vulnerability correspond to high exposure to disasters. Take a look at Oxfam’s interactive maps of vulnerable communities in the US. Let’s push government at all levels to build climate resilience in these communities and communities around the globe who are already being hit first and worst by climate change impacts.

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