Coffee and Conversation on Climate Change

Frontline voices pose for a photo at New Orleans' historic Golden Feather
From left to right: Mr. McKibben, Chief Dardar, Ms. Vu, Dr. Wright, and Ms. Pichon Battle

This past Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend Gulf South Rising’s “media-only event” at the historic Golden Feather in New Orleans. Entitled ‘Coffee and Conversation on Climate Change,’ the early-morning gathering featured a panel discussion moderated by Colette Pichon Battle, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy.

As a regional movement highlighting the climate crisis, Gulf South Rising elevates and amplifies the voices of those most affected by the fossil-fuel status quo. Accordingly, various frontline communities were embodied by Saturday’s honored guests: Dr. Beverly Wright, Founding Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University; Thao Vu, Director of the Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese-American Fisherfolk and Families; Chief Thomas Dardar, Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation; and Bill McKibben, Founder of 350.org.

For roughly an hour, panelists discussed the direct consequences of climate change and questioned whether the post-Katrina Gulf Region is a true model of disaster recovery. Themes of inequity, injustice, and resistance percolated. Needs for resource influx, youth education, and industry accountability rang clear.

In particular, Ms. Vu called for all levels of government to make future outreach as inclusive as possible. Without translators for non-native English speakers at public meetings, citizens cannot fully engage in decision-making that affects their homes and livelihoods.

This lack of inclusion stems beyond lazy communication too, as some communities are outright ignored by policymakers. According to Dr. Wright, things will stay broken as long as portions of the population remain excluded from planning efforts.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the table!” echoed Chief Dardar.

The panel was also critical of the narrative of resilience portrayed by elected officials. “Resilience is a word used to throw on something that one doesn’t understand,” protested Chief Dardar. “People are relocated, not recovered,” he continued, “and all these words start with ‘R,’ so you’ve got to pay attention!”

Summarizing the last decade, Dr. Wright noted, “Those benefiting the most, weren’t those who suffered the most.”

Ms. Vu pointed out how immense energy resources, frequent natural disasters, and unprecedented coastal-wetland losses paint a unique climate picture for the Gulf South. It is therefore imperative to learn from Katrina and its aftermath, so the region can build a healthy and sustainable future.

Despite obvious challenges, Chief Dardar was explicit about his people’s intentions: “The land identifies us. We identify to the land. We’re not leaving the land, until the land leaves us.”

Although an uphill climb moving forward, an understanding that the struggles described on Saturday are not isolated can offer partial solace. Chief Dardar drew connections to the First Nations of Canada, while Mr. McKibben looked west to Pacific Islanders. Individuals thousands of ocean miles away are chanting “We’re not drowning, we’re fighting,” just as residents here shout “The seas are rising and so are we!

James Hartwell is GRN's Coastal Wetland Analyst.