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 natural 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.

But, you still may wonder how a warming planet could have a meaningful effect on hurricanes. Put simply, the planet warms as a result of increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, 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 hotter it becomes. 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 was demonstrated so recently by the destruction brought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, increasingly severe natural disasters will inevitably have a negative effect on many people and communities that are unlucky enough to live in the wake of their destructive power.

Because the consequences of climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, such as low-income and minority communities, conversations about climate responses increasingly focus on equity.

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

However, few have explored the link between intensifying hurricanes and their consequences for people in prisons. For our podcast, my group delves into this topic, specifically by interviewing experts and collecting testimony from prisoners affected by Hurricane Harvey.

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.[2] We had the excellent opportunity to interview Panagioti about the effects of  climate change on people in prisons. His comments highlighted the deleterious effects of extreme weather events linked to climate change on vulnerable communities. Examples of the horrors faced by incarcerated people in the event of natural disasters are difficult to fathom; including, being denied medical treatment, being forced to drink toilet water or 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 avoiding the development of effective response plans to natural disasters. In fact, the precautionary principle of environmental policy tells us that we should introduce regulations regardless of uncertainty to mitigate consequences.  We must organize disaster management protocols to protect exposed and suffering communities.

Everyone deserves access to support and necessary resources. Even those behind bars. This podcast 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. Take action today.

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

[2] “The Prison Ecology Project.” Working Narratives. 2016.


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