In the Southeast, Climate Change Finds a Landscape Already Ravaged by Inequality

Meet the groups demanding climate justice that fits the region’s unique needs.

Paul Gordon

Homes destroyed by Hurricane Laura in August 2020 in Cameron, Louisiana. Getty Images

The southeastern United States sees more billion-dollar disasters than any other region in the country. The region also sees more different kinds of natural disasters than other parts of the country. In 2020, six billion-dollar hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast, tornado events caused 76 fatalities and torrential rainfall, up 30% since the 1950s, caused severe flooding. 

And climate change is making everything worse by turning up the dial of intensity on the region’s existing environmental and social vulnerabilities. If, for example, flooding was a problem historically, climate change will make it endemic. If environmental racism already puts stress on people of color, climate change will make the burden even heavier. According to a 2017 study published in the journal Science, some U.S. counties could lose as much as 20% of their annual GDP as a result of damage from unmitigated climate change. Many of those hardest-hit counties lie across the Southeast.

Such a future is less and less hypothetical. In 2020, the Southeast broke several weather records, continuing an alarming year-to-year trend of record-breaking weather. Annual temperatures in the region soared far above average, with a majority of weather stations reporting a two-degree Fahrenheit increase of annual mean temperature from the previous year. Precipitation was well above average, too, with 25 weather stations across the Southeast logging the wettest year on record. Severe weather reports saw a 30% increase from median annual frequency since 2000 and tornadoes and hurricanes are thrashing with greater frequency and intensity.

But it’s not just the hurricanes. When these storms come ashore, they find a landscape already ravaged by a variety of environmental and social disasters.

In short, the numbers show that climate change is progressing and the Southeast is feeling it more than any other region of the country. In the midst of partisan gridlock, grassroots organizations are stepping up to address their unique needs in response to climate change in the Southeast. Black farmers, for example, are feeling the effects of climate change disproportionately and are turning to collective action to chart a path toward a more just and resilient future. Other grassroots organizations have formed coalitions of social and environmental groups to put forward climate action plans and advocate for a Green New Deal that meets the needs of Southern communities. 

The Unequal Shore

Climate change is changing the weather in dramatic ways and nowhere, perhaps, is the change more dramatically visible than in hurricanes. Hurricanes are likely the biggest meteorological phenomena that is tied to climate change,” says Chris Gloninger, a meteorologist and climate expert. We are seeing rapid intensification and shorter recharge periods that have devastating effects.” Hurricanes now deliver punches so big that some scientists are calling for the extension of the Saffir-Simpson scale to include a new category 6 classification. And they are increasingly disruptive to daily life: In 2020, Hurricane Zeta left rural parts of Louisiana without power for weeks.

But it’s not just the hurricanes. When these storms come ashore, they find a landscape already ravaged by a variety of environmental and social disasters. In Louisiana, hurricanes are doing more damage due to the continuing loss of coastal wetlands to subsidence caused by the control of the Mississippi River. The disappearance of hundreds of square miles of salt marsh means that there’s no longer as much land buffer to slow hurricanes and absorb the storm surge before the storms hit populated areas.

Likewise, centuries of inequality and racism ensure that poor people and communities of color suffer the worst of environmental problems, including climate change. Gloninger attributes the disproportionate effects to several issues, including vulnerable land and proximity to pollution sources that increase health problems. After a big disaster, environmental justice communities take the longest to recover. Essentially,” he says, social justice and climate change are tied together.”

That’s in part because of what type of land marginalized people can live on. According to Savi Horne, executive director of the Land Loss Prevention Project (LLPP), the land that farmers of color were, and still are, able to afford is often land within the floodplains of river systems and marshes. As hurricanes reach further inland with greater intensity, the flooding devastates farming operations by washing away soil and crops and destroying infrastructure in surrounding communities. The LLPP was founded in 1982 by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers to curtail epidemic losses of Black owned land in North Carolina. From our standpoint as a law firm, we work at the intersection of environmental justice and land loss,” says Horne.

In 1910, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there were 25,000 Black-owned farms in the United States and one million Black farmers. At that time, between 16 and 19 million acres of land were under Black stewardship, but legal battles plagued Black farms from the start. Because of discriminatory practices, 90% of that land was lost over the next hundred years. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. government doled out loans to smaller scale farms through locally elected USDA boards. The purpose of these boards was to support farmers during hard times or small yields, but Black people were systematically excluded from participating in them as their votes were suppressed in the Jim Crow South. Emboldened segregationists filled the local USDA boards to block Black farmers from receiving the federal support and push them off their land. The loans were given to or withheld from Black farmers to manipulate their business and political involvement. Today, local USDA boards still disproportionately delay and deny Black farmer’s loan applications. 

Often, Black farmers have had to deal with what are called heirs’ property” disputes. Since Black farmers often didn’t have the legal resources to officially transfer their land ownership, the property became heirs’ property, the ownership split equally among the deceased farmer’s descendants. After several generations of this process, the land might have hundreds of legal owners. In such cases, maintaining, selling or developing the land becomes a herculean task of tracking down all of the heirs. Without a clear owner or title to the land, Black farmers are often hamstrung and forced to give up their property under market value. With the little money made off of the forced sale, less desirable land, in a floodplain for example, can be the only affordable option to continue as a farmer.

The LLPP is working with the Rural Coalition to help farmers of color secure their land tenure and stay attached to the land. BIPOC farmers in the South, in particular, have smaller, more environmentally vulnerable pieces of land that is often the least desirable,” says Lorette Picciano, director of the Rural Coalition. Helping them hold onto their land is increasingly important, Picciano says, because small-scale farms are more nimble and faster to adapt to the challenges of climate change, but they also struggle to get loans and government support. There is a growing recognition of the importance of the work that BIPOC farmers are doing just feeding their community,” she says. The huge factory farms raising monoculture crops are not resilient systems of agriculture.”

Flooded with Debt

Wayne Swanson had long dreamed of being able to raise food to feed his family and friends. Since starting Swanson Family Farm on 32 acres of pasture land near Hampton, Georgia, he has worked hard to make that dream a reality. Recently, however, Swanson has been worried by unusual weather patterns. He’s seen bees swarm in the dead of winter. His cows lose their winter coats late. He can’t count on crops that he has grown for years.

“Give farmers of color money to put that oxygen mask on first and let them have some peace of mind. You can’t move your business forward if you can’t get your parents to dialysis."

I am just some guy in some dirty jeans and boots standing in the middle of a field looking at stuff,” Swanson jokes, but he knows what he’s seen. Climate change is a concern for him, but, like most Black farmers, he needs to bring products to market now and struggles to find the time and money to start making his farm more climate resilient. Swanson himself isn’t in debt, thankfully, but he knows plenty of farmers who are. If you’re behind on bills, you have to pile as much as you can into that land,” he says.

Married couple Angie and June Provost, multigenerational farmers in New Iberia, La., face similar obstacles. The Provosts’ neighborhood is in the floodplain and most of the homes on their street are elevated — but not their home or the homes of many other Black people who live there. Every hurricane season, we are scared,” says Angie. Scared for our home and of our land being flooded and that the insurance won’t cover it.” As climate change exacerbates weather extremes, the burden of debt keeps the Provosts from being able to adapt to this existential threat. According to the Provosts, chronic indebtedness cripples many farmers of color. 

Swanson says Black farmers need resources and funding so they can better navigate the stresses climate change puts on their farms and finances. He compares government grants for farmers of color to the oxygen mask on an airplane: When there is an emergency, you put your oxygen mask on first.” Black farmers, he says, can’t put their oxygen mask on. Their kids, spouses, and parents have needs, and if they are inter-generational farmers, they probably take care of their grandparents as well. There is a financial need that goes beyond cows and chickens,” he says. Give farmers of color money to put that oxygen mask on first and let them have some peace of mind. You can’t move your business forward if you can’t get your parents to dialysis. Give them the money and let them do with it as they see fit, and American agriculture will be better for it.”

For decades, Black farmers have campaigned for such relief. Among other organizations, the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) has pushed for debt relief and fair loan access since its founding in 1995, lobbying on Capitol Hill and mobilizing its tens of thousands of members through door-to-door canvassing campaigns.

This advocacy is beginning to bear fruit: The $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, signed into law in March, allocated $5 billion toward debt relief for farmers of color. The debt relief provisions in the American Rescue Plan were borrowed from two bills introduced in the first two months of the 2021 U.S. Congress: the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act the Justice for Black Farmers Act. Both bills have received widespread support among Democrats but are currently stuck in committee. 

According to June Provost, the benefits of debt relief are not only political but personal, even physical. It adds years to your life,” he says. To have that constant worry of debt on your shoulders affects every part of your life — mentally, physically. [The debt relief provision in the American Rescue Plan] relieves that burden of having to worry about that every second of your life.” 

Angie Provost also supports the debt relief but notes that it’s only a first step,” it’s a tenth of a percent” of what’s needed. It’s not reparations,” she says, but it is an avenue for Black and Brown farmers to breathe a bit. It shows us the result of collective action.”

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The Green New Deal in the South

A state-level voting map of the Southeast gives a deceiving portrait of the region. The South has long been a conservative stronghold, and in presidential elections Republican candidates can usually count on the Gulf states. A closer inspection of county and district-level maps, however, shows the more diverse, complex side of Southeastern politics, and the 2021 Georgia Senate flip illustrates this reality.

The region is home to 56% of the total Black population in the United States, with large rural and urban populations. Despite small pockets of extreme wealth, it is the poorest region in the country. According to the Yale Climate Opinion Map, between 60% and 70% of adults in Southeastern states think global warming is happening and a majority think it is already harming people in the United States. In short, the Republicans who mostly represent the region in Congress — who are, overwhelmingly, white, rich, climate skeptics — don’t really represent the region at all.

Faced with inaction at the state and federal level, many city and county governments in the Southeast have taken it upon themselves to make climate resiliency plans and environmental and community groups have formed broad regional networks to advocate for climate policies that fit the region. 

For example, more than 225 community groups in the five Gulf states forged the Gulf South for a Green New Deal around the collective assertion that the Gulf South must be included in the development of national policy.” And in 2020, the Southeast Climate and Energy Network (SCEN) and several other organizations started a project called Southern Communities for a Green New Deal (SC4GND). More than 100 social and environmental organizations across the South have signed onto the policy platform, which borrows the framework of the Green New Deal but with a focus on the needs of Southern communities. The platform’s key demands include policy changes related to energy use and generation, agricultural land use, water infrastructure, economic development and civic engagement. SCEN organizes meetings across the South and offers financial support and guidance to its member organizations. Alexander Easdale, executive director of SCEN, says the diverse perspectives the various groups bring to the table are helping to shape policy that reflects the medley of political ideologies in the Southeast. 

Rev. Leo Woodberry, faith leader, environmental justice activist, and member of SCEN, says our hope is that policy makers, both federal and state, look at these community-led climate solutions that are being done with very little resources, and pour some financial support into that and also let it be replicated.” 

Ben Lilliston, director of Rural Strategies and Climate Change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, thinks that both Democrats and Republicans need to be doing more to support community voices in the Southeast. He says that climate change policy needs a partnership between locals and experts. We really need a bottom-up climate policy and not just a top down,” Lilliston says. How can we empower communities to make their own climate plans? They know their community, they know their needs best.”

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Paul Gordon is an environmental journalist and restoration conservationist based out of Chicago. His reporting on the far-reaching impacts of climate change appears in The Nation and Belt Magazine.

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