3 Ways Inequality is at the Heart of Hurricane Irma’s Destruction

by Leon Sealey-Huggins

11 September 2017


Many of us are as angered as we are saddened to watch the destructive effects of record-breaking weather events unfolding in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Saddened because of our compassion, but angered because of how depressingly predictable such outcomes are. Critical commentators have long been warning that unless we address the causes of climate change, tropical storms will become more intense. A significant oversight of so much of the existing discussion, however, is addressing the role inequality plays in contributing to climate change. Here are three ways in which inequality is at the heart of so-called ‘natural’ disasters.

1. Political inequalities.

For decades, the mainstream dialogue on climate action has tried, unsuccessfully, to abstract the emission of carbon and other greenhouse gasses from the social processes that pattern their release. Doing this means people are unable to understand why, at most levels of government, we are not seeing the action necessary to tackle the issue. A problem with this sociologically naïve understanding, however, is that it neglects important factors shaping how we organise our societies.

Inequality means the world is not organised so as to suit the interests of all of its inhabitants. The dynamics underpinning the constitution of the ruling class are complex, but it is evident that those who are currently doing very well have little to gain and plenty to lose by addressing the root causes of climate change. An aspect of these root causes is that inequalities are manifest in the decision-making processes across our societies. The overwhelming majority of people are denied much of the capacity to make meaningful decisions about how they live their lives. If more people did indeed have a say in how they were organising their lives, it seems unlikely they would permit a system that is so antithetical to meaningful socio-ecological life as the one that currently prevails.

2. Unequal exposure.

Another perhaps more obvious feature of the inequality connected to climate change is that it leaves some people vastly under-resourced to deal with its impacts. Hurricanes are ‘natural’ in one sense, but human actions are inseparable from nature. Whether or not a hurricane becomes a disaster, and of what magnitude, depends on how prepared people and places are, and that in turn depends on access to resources. Contrast the pictures of Richard Branson enjoying the privileged security of his expensive wine cellar with those of the countless homes destroyed by Irma. Attention to the social dynamics of climate change has highlighted the disproportionate impact it has on poor people of colour, and women, globally – hence the focus by Black Lives Matter and others on the connections between climate change and racism. As the pioneering Caribbean climate scientist and policy-maker Dr Ulric Trotz remarked about the lack of funding to support the kinds of actions that would help to reduce Caribbean societies’ exposure: “It’s not that we don’t have any idea about how we need to build resilience […] The bottom line is that we don’t have the resources.”

Predictably, some have rolled out the prejudiced tropes that those in the Caribbean are to blame for their own misfortune because of poor governance, or inadequate buildings. These comments are ahistorical where they ignore global processes shaping both governance and construction. These comments also neglect to recognise that building regulations in the Eastern Caribbean mean buildings are designed to withstand some of the toughest storms. What we are witnessing is a shift toward increasingly unprecedented weather events.

The point also raises questions about who makes regulations. How much does the policy-making process constitute a narrow negotiation between policies acceptable to both corporate and mainstream political interests? To what extent are these able to include the interests of the most marginalised? In short, these are questions about how well power is distributed in decision making processes. By focusing on regulations, however, we risk already committing ourselves to a fairly closed set of assumptions about politics, social organisation and governance. Radical democratic theory and practice might point to alternative ways of organisation that are more robust than top-down forms of regulation. This will, of course, necessitate dealing with political inequalities.

3. Historical inequalities.

In addition to acknowledging the inequalities that leave many people disproportionately exposed to the impacts of climate change, any progressive response must also set contemporary inequalities in their wider historical and political context. The industrial revolution that fed climate change was fuelled by processes of imperialism and colonialism. These processes enriched elites in Europe at the expense of societies formed, or dramatically reshaped, by violent colonialism, leaving people in colonised countries ill-equipped to manage their own destinies.

The voluntarist aid model is clearly not fit for purpose. Firstly, it relies on good will and voluntary action, where obligation and responsibility are obscured. Secondly, it encourages models of reconstructions suited to the interests of NGOs where resources do not reach where they are most needed.


Once we have understood the ways in which inequalities are connected to natural disasters, we will be able to reject reductive or technocratic ‘solutions’ to the impacts of climate change in pursuit of the reorganisation of social life in ways that properly distributes resources according to need. Likewise, if we acknowledge that no disaster is ‘natural’, but rather created by inequality and that inequalities are patterned by imperial and colonial histories, then we are left with no choice but to advocate for the global redistribution of resources and wealth. This also necessitates forms of radical democracy in which people have a direct say in the decisions affecting them. The combination of these changes would substantially undermine the causes, and help to mitigate some of the worst effects, of climate change.

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