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Can climate accountability lawsuits advance racial justice? Hoboken hopes so.
The city’s climate liability lawsuit against Big Oil could provide a model for justice in resilience.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Hoboken floods during Hurricane Sandy. Credit: accarrino via Flickr
On September 2, 2020, Hoboken Mayor Ravinder Bhalla held a press conference inside a gymnasium at the city’s “resiliency park” designed the year prior to capture increasing stormwater runoff and help manage low-lying Hoboken’s now chronic flooding problem. There, the mayor made an announcement: Hoboken was suing ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and other oil and gas companies to hold them accountable for their climate deception and make them pay their fair share of the enormous bill to make the city more resilient against climate-worsened storms and floods.
The damages, which include more than $100 million from Superstorm Sandy’s destruction, fall hardest on the city’s low-income communities and people of color, Bhalla explained. The small city is only one square mile, and when Sandy hit, floodwaters inundated its western end. That portion of Hoboken, which lies below sea level and is home to the city’s public housing and a majority of its Latino, Black, and other communities of color, still faces severe flooding during heavy rains and storms — while its whiter, wealthier communities located above sea-level often remain dry.
“Climate change is a racial justice issue in Hoboken and across cities everywhere,” Bhalla said during the city’s lawsuit announcement. A growing body of evidence proves him right: from wildfires to floods and heat waves, communities of color are hit worst by climate disasters and face insurmountable expenses necessary to adapt and recover. New reporting demonstrates that even after these disasters strike, disparities in who receives federal and state aid often leave the communities who need it most empty-handed.
In June, an NPR investigation of FEMA documents found that between 2014 and 2018, low-income disaster survivors were less likely to get housing assistance and federal aid than their wealthier counterparts. The New York Times also reported on an increasing body of data showing that when disasters strike, white Americans and the communities in which they live receive more federal aid than people of color — even when faced with equal amounts of damage.
That’s because of a variety of systemic issues, from racist housing and real-estate practices to bureaucratic processes that favor already-resourced communities — and it means a widening economic gap between those who receive help after disasters and those who are hung out to dry.
Myrtala Tristan, a Mexican immigrant and resident of northeast Houston for nearly 40 years, says she never received FEMA funds when polluted waters inundated her home during Hurricane Harvey. After Tristan and her husband were forced to pull from their savings to pay for the costly repairs, she volunteered with local organizations to develop disaster preparedness and flood mitigation projects in her community. “I realized that we would have to rely on ourselves — our own community — to survive,” she wrote in the Houston Chronicle.
When Houston launched its Climate Action Plan last year, executives from oil industry giants like BP, which donated $2 million to the plan, were invited to speak on the city’s climate panels and working groups while community members remained largely in the dark.
“There is no doubt that Harvey won’t be the last mess we are left to clean up,” Tristan wrote. “But once again, the powerful oil and gas industry has cut to the front of the line, ahead of our concerns and needs.”
Months after she wrote those words, a Texas state agency determined that Houston wouldn’t get a penny of the $1 billion in federal funding awarded to the state after Hurricane Harvey to fund flood mitigation projects — even though the city’s residents, many of whom are working class people of color, face some of the worst climate-driven flooding in Texas.
Lawsuits like Hoboken’s could offer a different way forward. Soon after the city’s case was filed, Mayor Bhalla and Hoboken City Council members sponsored and passed a resolution pledging to prioritize any funds awarded during litigation toward resilience efforts by the Hoboken Housing Authority. As stated in the resolution, the Authority “has more frequent and higher levels of flooding during storm events than in much of the rest of the City,” and “suffered millions of dollars of damage as a result of Superstorm Sandy, some impacts of which are still being felt today.”
“I saw firsthand the decisions required to keep our infrastructure and residents safe,” said LaTrenda Ross, a former resident of the Hoboken Housing Authority, at the city’s press conference. “It’s hard — and it becomes even harder when already underserved communities have to worry about a rainstorm impacting their lives, let alone a superstorm that paralyzed an entire community.”
Mayor Bhalla told me he intends for the resolution to be an “affirmation of our commitment to make sure that those neighborhoods are well protected, that they can withstand to the best extent possible the impacts of climate change, that we can mitigate some of those impacts through investment and through the remedies we’re seeking through this action, and achieve some measure of justice to protect people who are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.”
To do that, Bhalla says, requires significant investment in projects that will break the cycle of destruction and rebuilding and create a truly resilient city. Hoboken is already spending a quarter billion dollars on Rebuild by Design, a comprehensive water management strategy that includes flood protection barriers that are integrated architecturally into the fabric of the city, resiliency parks containing rain gardens and underground storage tanks, like the one where the city’s press conference was held, and many other methods to “resist, delay, store and discharge” floodwaters.
Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy are the new normal, and disasters can no longer be addressed piece-meal. For leaders of communities struggling to secure funds for true resilience, holding the fossil fuel industry accountable is a key part of the puzzle.
“As far back as the 1980s, Big Oil was protecting their own infrastructure from the impacts of climate change — knowing all along that by the time these vulnerable communities that we’re talking about are feeling the impacts, it may be too late to turn back the clock. That type of conduct was knowing, willful and intentional, and extraordinarily egregious, and has resulted in loss of property and loss of life,” Bhalla said.
“Without the accountability, we’re not gonna have the ability to do what we can to correct the injustices of the past and make sure that future generations can resist these impacts in a meaningful way.”
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