Climate Justice in Prisons

Hurricane Harvey, intensified by climate change?!?

Headlines similar to this one popped up all over the news recently in response to the climate disasters in Houston, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean islands, and Florida. Many scientists have explored and seek to further understand the connection between climate change and extreme weather events.

You may be wondering how a warming planet impacts the intensity of hurricanes. Put simply, the planet warms as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide and methane.

The warming effect of greenhouse gases is similar to the warming effect of layers of clothing, which trap heat to regulate body temperature. The more shirts, pants, and jackets that are added to your body, the more sweaty and uncomfortable you become.

Just like clothing layers can affect your movement and even cause you to sweat, a warmer planet affects rainfall and wind speeds, because of increased energy circulating in the climatic system. Both rainfall and wind speed are key characteristics that influence the intensity of hurricanes[1].

As demonstrated by the tragedy and destruction brought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, increasingly severe natural disasters will inevitably have a negative effect on people and communities that live in the wake of their destructive power.

Communities of color are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, like the increase in extreme weather events. After Hurricane Katrina, while 71% of Caucasian Americans returned to New Orleans, only 51% of African Americans returned. Pre-existing vulnerabilities and systemic barriers made it more difficult for communities of color to respond to these impacts– such as having their homes built in the flood plain, being underinsured for housing and health, and being less mobile.

Climate justice is the resulting idea that people from all backgrounds deserve to be included and supported in the fight against climate change.

Many people are committed to moving the needle on this issue.

However, few have thoroughly explored the link between intensifying hurricanes and their consequences for people in prisons. For our podcast, my team delved into this topic, specifically by interviewing experts and collecting testimony about the effects of Hurricane Harvey from people who are currently incarcerated.

A prominent advocate on this issue is Panagioti Tsolkas, the director of the Prison Ecology Project an initiative that maps the intersection between environmental issues and mass incarceration. We had the privilege to interview Panagioti about the effects of climate change on people in prisons. His stories highlight the horrors faced by people who are incarcerated in the event of extreme weather events; including, being denied medical treatment, being forced to drink toilet water, and watching the water rise around them while trapped helplessly in their cells.

Uncertainty demonstrated in climate models with the link between climate change and intensifying hurricanes does not justify the lack of effective disaster management plans at the federal and state level. In fact, the precautionary principle of environmental policy tells us that we should introduce regulations regardless of uncertainty to lessen consequences.  It is our imperative to organize disaster management protocols to protect exposed and suffering communities.

The podcast below sheds light on stories of imprisoned climate warriors affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please listen and share this story with your own network to build understanding for the urgency of responding to climate change. It is time to take action to shed light on the struggle of those behind bars.

[1] Burch, Sarah L. and Sara E. Harris. “Understanding Climate Change: Science, Policy, and Practice.” University of Toronto Press. Buffalo, NY. 2014. pg 206.

The narrator in the podcast is my colleague, Emily Sullivan. I wrote the script and edited the audio.

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