Organizers Are Demanding a Green New Deal for the Gulf South

The Gulf Coast is home to “over 47% of total petroleum refining capacity … as well as 51% of total U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Given that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the climate crisis, the Gulf Coast is a primary site driving global warming — and revealing its impacts. Extreme weather has become quite common across the region. Sea levels are expected to rise between 14-18 inches by 2020. according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Green New Deal project, which was proposed by progressive activists as well as lawmakers, is a special case for sustainability on the Gulf Coast. Much of the Gulf South region of the United States — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — is politically conservative, which means the fight against the fossil-fuel economy is a truly uphill battle. However, the Gulf Coast region is full of activism for transformative changes. There are many organizations in the region dedicated to the fight against climate change, even though they might not be well-known and do not receive the attention that they deserve from the corporate media.

The Gulf South for a Green New Deal(GS4GND), a regional organization of 300 organizations working for climate, racial, economic justice across the Gulf South, is a formation. It was launched in May 2019 with hundreds of participants representing tribal nations, neighborhood associations and student groups, as well as community organizations. GS4GND created a policy platform describing what a Green New Deal should look like in order for the Gulf South to succeed a few months later.

People from all over the Gulf Coast will gather at Baton Rouge, Louisiana on June 4th for the Gulf Gathering for Climate Justice and Joy. Get ready for this event! TruthoutJesse George is the New Orleans Policy Director for Alliance for Affordable Energy. George discusses organizing and the need to make the Gulf Coast a just transition. He also describes the challenges faced by organizers fighting the powerful corporate interests rooted in the Gulf South. This fight draws inspiration from the “rich legacy of liberation” in the region, George noted.

C. J. Polychroniou : What would a peaceful transition look like in Gulf South?

Jesse George: The Gulf South has suffered from the degrading effects of the fossil fuel sector for generations. We face more frequent and severe storms, increasing land loss, and the compounding impacts of climate change. It is crucial that we move from a fossil fuel-based economy towards a renewable energy future that prioritizes Gulf South residents, particularly the Black and Indigenous communities that have suffered the most from this extractive economy.

Across the region, corporate interests have told Gulf South residents that they have but two choices — surrender their resources to industry in exchange for promised (but never realized) prosperity or risk complete economic destruction. And now, as we seek to protect our homes and communities from the worsening impacts of climate change, polluters are ready with another set of lies that could cost us our lives — dangerous and unproven technologies backed by false promises like carbon capture and biomass. The truth is that polluting industries have offered little in the way of economic security and their latest scheme to continue extracting the region’s resources will do nothing but line the pockets of the very executives responsible for polluting our land, air and waterways.

But a just transition — one that uplifts the workers and fenceline communities that have shouldered the burdens of the petrochemical industry — is possible and presents tremendous opportunities here in Louisiana and the entire Gulf South. For example, Louisiana has long been known as an energy state, and that doesn’t have to change. We only need to change how we produce that energy. Across the Gulf South there is tremendous potential for offshore wind, and yet we’ve seen practically no development. The infrastructure and workforce currently servicing offshore oil rigs could easily transition to installing and maintaining offshore turbines. A just transition means funding job training to help those workers make the transition into renewable energy. We have a duty to ensure the economic benefits of the new renewable energy economy don’t just flow upwards but benefit the people who have suffered most severely from the impacts of the extractive economy.

Finally, a just transition involves building climate-resistant communities. Hurricane Ida, the strongest hurricane in recorded history, devastated south Louisiana last year before moving northward, still strong enough to flood New York City’s subways. Our energy grid was destroyed and people were left without power for several weeks or even months due to extreme heat. People died. People died. Renewable energy, especially local solar, where people are equipped with panels or batteries that feed into microgrids could save lives. We have the technology. Only we need to create the political power to transform the economy.

Why is it important for a region to be organized? What unites the region

The Gulf and other waterways connect our region as if they were the circulatory system within a human body. We share many of the same struggles — from extractive petrochemical industries to continual climate disaster, to the fight against the false solution of carbon capture. We should all stand shoulder-to-shoulder in facing the same challenges if we share them. Our region has been treated as a “sacrifice zone” by industry for too long. And our elected officials are all too willing to auction off our resources for the highest bidder.

Two years ago, a pipe carrying compressed CO2 burst in Yazoo County Mississippi. This is a predominantly Black county. The area was filled with noxious gases and people were taken to the hospital by the burst pipe. What happened in our neighboring state could be a tragic harbinger of what’s to come to other parts of the region if we fail to stop the false promise that is carbon capture. The whole concept of carbon storage and carbon capture is a fabrication. There is no evidence to support the claims of underground storage or long-term carbon capture. The few completed carbon capture projects aren’t removing carbon from the air, they’re capturing just a small percentage of the carbon a facility is actively emitting. Even though carbon capture projects haven’t failed completely, they have not come close to meeting their carbon capture goals.

Yet, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is supporting carbon capture technology. President Joe Biden is essentially allowing polluting industries to continue their business as usual. It is essential that we stand in solidarity with residents from across the Gulf South to share knowledge and ensure that industry can’t shuffle false promises from one place to another. Our ability to work together to create a just climate for the future is crucial to the health of our region.

What obstacles are there for organizers in Gulf South?

The Gulf South has been dominated by extractive and petrochemical industry. As industrial expansion continues apace, the idea of our region as a sacrifice zone becomes self-fulfilling. People who want to maintain the status quo have a lot more money and power than those who want it. They have bought politicians of both major parties.

The corporate interests fighting to maintain the status quo are entrenched and they’ve been spreading lies for generations. For years, they’ve convinced us that we have no choice but to surrender our resources to them. Industry has done a tremendous job of scaring people. They’ve scared everyday people into thinking these extractive industries are the only source of steady employment in the region. Our elected leaders are also afraid that industry will turn against them if they refuse to stand up for polluters.

These extractive industries have kept this scare campaign of lies for generations. They’ve told us they’re the only economic option for the region. They’ve told us industry isn’t responsible for elevated cancer risks and other poor health outcomes. They’ve told us that their ill-fated plans to capture the very emissions they create and pump them underground is safe. And now they’re telling us complete lies about renewable energy options that could employ thousands and drastically reduce carbon emissions. The oil and gas and petrochemical industries don’t want to cede control of our region and they’re not going to let it go easily.

The Gulf Gathering for Climate Justice and Joy (Gulf Gathering for Climate Justice and Joy) is free and open for all, even those who are not involved in the fight against climate change. So what do you hope attendees take away?

We want attendees to leave with a sense that there is hope and a vision for the region’s future where human lives and health are valued more than corporate profits. We hope that attendees leave the gathering with a sense of hope and a vision for the future of our region where a just, joyful climate is possible through collective action.

So many forces in our contemporary society are at work to atomize people — from the gig economy where everybody’s got their own hustle to society’s movement away from shared workspace to the isolation of internet culture. For the last two years, we’ve been even more isolated as a result of the pandemic. There’s a lot to keep people apart from each other and when people are forced apart it’s only natural that we feel powerless. We hope that people will see the possibility of change by coming together at the gathering. We want folks to know they’re not alone in knowing that things need to change and we want them to find an organizing home in Gulf South for a Green New Deal.

How does the gathering fit in with the legacy of resistance in Gulf South?

Our region is home to the Civil Rights movement, the German Coast Uprising (the largest rebellion of enslaved Americans in U.S. History), Native resistance, marronage, anti-colonial efforts, and many other things. Our ancestors have stood up against oppressive systems throughout history. Gulf South for the Green New Deal, a Black-led and Indigenous-led formation draws on this rich legacy of liberation.

Like all movements before it, ours is centered on joy and hope for brighter futures.