Vehicles at a standstill on Interstate Highway 35 in Texas on Feb. 18, 2021, amid historic cold weather and power outages in the state.
Over the last several years, extreme climate disasters have increasingly rocked this country, destroying homes and taking lives. They happen so often — freezes in Texas, wildfires and deadly heat waves on the West Coast, and devastating hurricanes across the South and the Atlantic — that they hardly register as blips on people’s news feeds.
And soon after they occur, the public forgets about these communities and the harm they’ve suffered. Unless, of course, you have experienced the destruction of one of these “natural disasters.”
That’s how many people describe these events, but there is nothing “natural” about what this country is experiencing. In reality, these tragedies are the predictable results of the deliberate actions of greedy and callous corporations — corporations that choose to pollute our air and water, pump our environment full of greenhouse gases, and oppose renewable energy, even though they know they are killing people and making others sick.
The villain in each and every one of these stories is the same. It is always some industry, aided and abetted by the politicians who take industry donations and then refuse to pass the regulations or climate legislation that would keep people safe.
When a crime occurs, reporters and politicians are quick to say who did it and how, and these cases often dominate discussions and coverage during legislative sessions and elections. Reporters, elected officials, and we, the voters, should be giving the same treatment to climate disasters, which cause so much more physical and economic damage than the crimes plastered across news media. If we start placing the blame where it rightfully belongs and electing leaders who care more about the death and destruction caused by fossil fuels than about someone on the corner selling a dime bag, we might see an end to climate change and healthier, safer communities. We have to get these stories right, and we have to get our priorities straight.
The most recent example of the fossil fuel industry’s ability to duck responsibility and accountability for a climate disaster is in East Palestine, Ohio. Just last month, a train derailed, pouring toxic chemicals into the air and water, potentially poisoning the town for decades to come. The media barely touched on one major cause of this monumental catastrophe — the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel industry produced the vinyl chloride that the train carried, a product used to manufacture plastics that are terrible for the planet but good for corporate profits. Then, despite knowing that vinyl chloride is extremely combustible, the rail industry effectively lobbied to ensure that stringent federal regulations did not apply to the trains carrying this chemical.
And yet this scandal is already out of the mainstream national news, leaving the general public blissfully unaware that people in East Palestine will grapple with life-long health risks because rich executives deliberately made dangerous choices, knowing no one would hold them accountable.
Icicles hang off the State Highway 195 sign on Feb. 18, 2021, in Killeen, Texas, during Winter Storm Uri.
It is a hard pill to swallow, but race and poverty are the primary reasons reporters, elected officials and the voting public fail to name or hold responsible the culprits in these climate disasters. Time and again, the people who suffer the most from our destructive climate policy are people of color and those who live below the poverty line — people who have fewer resources to demand answers, accountability and change. Our attitude towards the fossil fuel industry’s predatory behavior in these places mirrors our anemic response to failing schools, food insecurity and homelessness — we shake our heads and then ignore it.
We ignore it even though the fossil fuel industry’s willingness to jeopardize the health and safety of vulnerable communities is on constant display in these places. Last month, an explosion occurred in Warren, Ohio, at a plant that produces coal-derived fuel to manufacture steel. Nearly 30% of Warren’s population lives below the poverty line. In Port Arthur, Texas, a William Koch-owned plant knowingly pumped dangerous pollutants into the community, at one point topping the public health standards for emissions 25 times, Grist reported. To make sure the plant’s emissions went undetected, employees altered the facility’s operation, unconcerned about the damage they caused to their neighbors, who are 90% Black.
This behavior should be national news — instead, it is a blip. In southwest Detroit, there is an oil refinery that abuts a community that is 71% Black; in one year, the refinery put out more climate pollution than is produced by 100,000 homes.
When a crime occurs, reporters and politicians are quick to say who did it and how. … Reporters, elected officials, and we, the voters, should be giving the same treatment to climate disasters.
If East Palestine or Port Arthur happened in Hollywood, California, or on the Upper West Side, New York, it would be national news for a year, and we would know the names of the people who allowed these incidents to occur. Those corporate executives would end up at a defense table in a criminal courtroom, and voters would oust the politicians who let this behavior go unchecked.
But instead, our nation permits the fossil fuel industry to operate with impunity, as long as it stays out of rich people’s backyards. We pretend what is happening is “natural” and “normal.”
It is time to stop pretending and giving the fossil fuel industry a free pass. That means reporters, elected officials and the public have to recognize that our bias is allowing fossil fuel companies to get away with murder. Instead, we must give these events and communities the outrage they deserve. We have to start talking about what happened in these places and who did it until the right corporations and politicians are held accountable and the full extent of the damage is recognized.
Once we start changing how we talk about who is causing climate catastrophes, even the ones that don’t happen in our backyard, we can start to slow down the planet’s warming and the disasters harming our health. Maybe then, we can all live in the safe and healthy communities we deserve.
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