Mississippi’s coastal towns haven’t been this quiet in the summer since 2010, when the BP oil spill—the worst environmental disaster in history—ravaged the ocean, beaches and wildlife throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
The latest disaster to hit the region is smaller in scale, but is still taking a serious toll on local communities. It’s a widespread toxic algae bloom caused by unprecedented flooding in the Midwest, which has been attributed to climate change. The algae has killed off marine animals and rendered the water unsafe for people, bringing two of the area’s most important industries—fishing and tourism—to a grinding halt. For Gulf Coast communities, it’s yet another indication that climate change can’t be ignored if they are to thrive.
The Green New Deal is congressional Democrats’ path out of the climate crisis, calling for a just, equitable transition of our carbon-based economy to one that runs on clean energy. It’s progressive, it’s idealistic and it technically does not exist yet.
As a non-binding resolution, the landmark bill brought forward by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez represents policy aspiration more than policy itself. The Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy (GCCLP), a Louisiana-based public interest law firm and nonprofit focused on climate justice, sees this gap between aspiration and legislation as an opportunity.
Ocasio-Cortez-Cortez plans to introduce legislation by March 2020 with specific policies that will make the Green New Deal a reality. GCCLP wants to make sure that the laws propelling the United States to a greener future fully take into account the unique challenges and opportunities of one of the nation’s most vulnerable regions, the Gulf South. To do so, they are spearheading the Gulf South for a Green New Deal policy initiative.
“We see time and time again that national policy leaves out the Gulf South, and the broader South, honestly. Southern realities often don’t make it to national policy conversations,” said Emma Collin, GCCLP Director of Programs.
The Gulf South qualifies as what the congressional Green New Deal calls a “frontline community,” one of those most directly impacted by the climate crisis. Though the resolution uses the term often, it speaks in generalities, glossing over the specifics of who and what the communities are.
As a recent, peer-reviewed study in Science Magazine pointed out, the Gulf South is at a higher risk than other regions when it comes to the negative impacts of climate change. This, the study said, is particularly true in the region’s the poorer counties.
Collin explained that gulf states of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida stand to face more severe storms, extreme heat, sea level rise, and flooding, as well as an increase in migration and disease vectors like mosquitos—all due to climate change. These problems will be pitted against an infrastructure that is not currently equipped to handle such intensity.
The Gulf South Green New Deal will make the term “frontline community” more granular, defining what this community looks like in the Gulf South. It includes those who have been generationally oppressed—people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, and refugees who have often been pushed to the margins of society and left to live on the least desirable land. These are areas that most easily flood or edge up against factories with their plumes of toxic, disease-causing pollution. Unlike those who come from more privileged communities, they do not have the same economic resources to combat the degradation of health and home that climate change is causing.
The Gulf South Green New Deal will lay out a set of legislative priorities centering these communities, which can then be used as both the basis for new legislation and to hold politicians accountable as they actualize the national Green New Deal.
Organizers all over the Gulf South have been fighting this tide of environmental destruction for decades. To create a Gulf South Green New Deal platform, GCCLP is gathering these voices from across the region—with an emphasis on indigenous people and people of color—and facilitating conversations between them. From these conversations, GCCLP and their partners will develop a policy platform.
“None of this work is new per se, and there’s generations of organizing around all of the same fundamental issues like equity and dignity,” Collin said. “Often times our work has been to serve as an anchor and advance alignment in the region, but we aren’t starting anything new.”
GCCLP hosts a monthly phone call with their almost 50 community partners. Their partners include longtime organizers from the region like the Steps Coalition in Mississippi, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center and the United Houma Nation in Louisiana.
The Gulf South Green New Deal is still in development. GCCLP expects to release their legislative priorities in November.
Collins said conversations have centered around self determination, allowing for the frontline communities in the South to step into power and have a say in their own future. She said the group aims to challenge the economy of extraction, where the profits from work done in the South is reaped by a wealthy few largely outside of the region. She used the example of Louisiana, which is one of the biggest energy producers in the country, but one of the poorest states. In 2018, the International Energy Agency valued the United States energy sector at $350 billion.
While still in development, any organization in the Gulf South can join the coalition. Collin said education level does not matter. In fact, she said some of the best learning has come from hearing about the lived experience of their diverse community partners.
GCCLP would like to incorporate more organizations from Texas and Florida, members from the oil and fishing communities, and what Collin described as “everyday Southern people.”
Next, GCCLP will leverage their platform nationally, connecting with politicians, think tanks and other activist groups. They have already been in contact in New Consensus, a Washington D.C. think tank that helped Ocasio-Cortez draft her Green New Deal legislation.
“If we can figure out a Green New Deal, or whatever we call it, an economic transformation … in the Gulf South, then we can figure it out everywhere,” Collin said. “This is the belly of the beast.”