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Essay II
Last Updated: 06/01/2012
Examining the tragedy of New Orleans using Classical Realism, Green theory, and Marxism to champion Climate Debt and Environmental Justice
Mathew G. Ituma

August 23, 2005 remains in history as a turning point for many of us and specifically for the residents of New Orleans. On this day, the infamous Hurricane Katrina was born in the Bahamas. It swiftly transformed itself into a category one hurricane and crossed over to South Florida, killing some people and caused some floods before it grew into a dangerous monster as it transcended the Gulf of Mexico. Landing as a category three storm in New Orleans, it unleashed extensive terror, environmental and economic damage all the way into Central Florida and Texas. Some critics argued that it was act of God. Others say it was God’s way of “cleaning” New Orleans. Others pondered that it was time for business. While this remains contested, it is undeniable that this tragedy was both a climate problem and extensively theorized.

Main words: Climate debt, climate justice, green theory, Marxism, classical realism.

Photo: NASA

This signature chronicle illustrates how people view the world depending on their theoretical paradigms. Capitalists viewed this catastrophic event as an opportunity to do business; politicians saw it as an opportunity to address their political interests but environmentalists saw it as a problem arising from climate change and global warming. Looking at this tragedy from a classical realist perspective and mashing it up with some doses of Marxist and green theory, I hold the thesis that the tragedy of New Orleans is a result of global warming and can only be fully comprehended using the climate justice paradigm. This view holds that it may be helpful to understand the systemic nature of our environment and its interconnectedness in order to fully grasp the effect on global warming from a systems perspective. I argue that it is critical to understand that an act of climate injustice such as deforestation on the coast of Africa can have a catastrophic ramification in the Gulf of Mexico. This knowledge helps us in critiquing the discourse on global warming and the state’s interests in the emerging debate on climate debt and environmental justice.

Theoretical approaches

The Green theory, with some help from Classical Realist and Marxism sheds some light on how states in the international system have been acting selfishly in addressing issues related to climate changes that are arguably the result of the extensive damage witnessed in places such as New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This highbred approach also uncovers the instability that characterizes the international system and the state’s lust for power and their desire to dominate others, including their environment and natural resources. It also illustrates how eradication of inequalities in the international state system remains an utopian conceptualization given that those championing for reparations on climate atrocities are poor nations of the southern hemisphere whose voice on global warming remains unattended. It remains clear that addressing the issue of climate debt as a priority item on international agenda will also uncover the zero sum struggle that characterizes the international system. This struggle between and among nations clearly shows how everything else, including economics and environment is subservient to the struggle for power and security in the international system. It demonstrates how states will do anything to remain relevant on the world map. It is along this grid that a combination of Green theory, Classical realism and Marxism are critical in explaining the tragedy of New Orleans. This interpretation helps in understanding that the tragedy of New Orleans arose from the failure of the international system to addresses climate issues that dog the international environment. To address these realities we now turn to the debate on climate debt through the lenses of green theory, Marxism and classical realism.

Climate debt debate

Broadly, climate justice explores both the judicial and orthodox means of addressing environmental crimes. It views climate debt and global warming as environmental crimes and crimes against humanity. Using classical realism, green theory and Marxist approach, climate justice is anchored on that depleting environmental resources by rich nations, and specifically the emission of carbon into the ozone layer, is a horrendous crime. It concludes that rich nations should pay reparations to third world countries in order for them to transition to clean energy without going through the tunnel of “industrial revolution.” Wealthy nations in the international system have been accused of over-depositing carbon into the atmosphere, an act that has slowed down the Earth’s ability to accommodate future greenhouse gases from countries of the southern hemisphere that are on the road to industrial development. This has also reduced the ecology’s ability to deal with flood and draught among other things, thus a spiral of dessert wind in the deforested sub-Saharan Africa easily transforms itself into a category three storm as it crosses the Indian Ocean to cause untold misery in New Orleans.

The discourse on climate debt is premised on the notion that wealthy nations in the international system should pay developing nations for problems arising from global warming such as hurricanes, draughts and floods and for over-using and exhausting a “shared resource that belongs fairly and equally to all people.” In the words of Naomi Klein, (November 12, 2009) climate debt represents the most controversial among the newest ideas on how to manage this ever growing crisis. As an emerging discourse, Nicola Bullard (May, 2010) defines it as debt accumulated by the Northern industrial countries towards the countries and peoples of the South on account of resource plundering, environmental damages, and the free occupation of environmental space to deposit wastes, such as greenhouse gases. From a Marxist standpoint, climate debt subverts the traditional view of debt and appeals for reparations by rich nations to the poor nations for climate atrocities since the industrial revolution, but an interpretation using the classical realist approach reveals that all this has no meaning to the international system whose interest is mainly interested in military might. Even more controversial is the fact that the nations of the southern hemisphere are asking for repayments, not for capitalistic or individualistic reasons but for moral and social reasons to save the earth.

From the Green theory and Marxist views, there is escalating tension between the rich and the poor nations. The Group of seventy seven nations of the south (The G77), classified as victims of climate injustice accuse the rich nations of the northern hemisphere for stealing their share of space in the atmosphere and classify them as perpetrators that befit trial in the court of climate justice. This is a classic example of the tension and capitalism that characterizes the international system. The reparations being talked about in the climate debt discourse include payment of adaptation costs to developing nations as they push for commitment by developed nations to cut down the carbon emission to the ozone layer even though the G77 thinks that it is impossible for rich nations to fully repay the climate debt.

Climate justice stand-off

The current stand-off on this issue indicates that rich nations in the international system do not want to pay up or to acknowledge the historical environmental injustices arising from carbon emissions since the industrial revolution, but their main interest is to dominate the world system, including the environment. Further, countries of the northern hemisphere don’t concede to the subsequent damage they have done to the atmosphere that cause ecological damage such us draughts and floods as illustrated buy the case of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in New Orleans. They therefore don’t find any need to pay for the adaption costs even though it is evident that their accumulated wealth, military and financial security emanates from the benefits of industrialization and is directly correlated to climate injustices at the expense of poor nations of the south. In a Marxist fashion, their industrialization came through extraction of natural resources and destruction of the environment, leading to exhaustion of the ozone layer but they have put up a strong fight against any reparations. Instead, wealthy nations want to continue controlling the world’s economy and international security. They have spelt stern economic and environmental conditions including the sanction that developing nations should ironically cut their emissions too!

The U.N system recognizes transitional justice as activities that attempt to settle scores between the victims and perpetrators in order to equalize and possibly reverse the effects of past abuses. From a climate justice perspective, this involves activities such as support for green initiatives such as solar projects, biomass plants and any other recycling efforts or clean energy activities in developing nations as methods of re-paying climate debt. It also involves funding of these projects by rich nations so that poor nations can make an industrial leap to industrialization and avoid dominance without using fossil fuel in order to cut down future and further carbon emission. It also involves setting industrial standards that ensure the control of carbon emission. But in a situation where the victims (the G77) are being asked to comply and cut their carbon emission before any talk of reparations can take place, climate justice is not feasible and addressing catastrophic events such as the Katrina tragedy from a global warming paradigm becomes a futile exercise.

In my view, this proposition is unfeasible for two reasons: first, the developing nations have a moral, social, economic and political obligation to develop in order to uplift the standards of their people, failure to which their economic and technological development will be limited or stunted. Helping them to develop is tantamount to helping the masses to stage a revolution against the ruling class; the west is not going to allow this to happen. Second, there is need for third world nations to progressively claim their share of the atmospheric space either through industrialization or compensation for not using it. This escalating stand-off between the rich and poor nations of the world underscores the need for the international system to address environmental crimes which have adversely affected the environment, causing excessive and reiterative climate ramifications that are labeled as global warming but are dangerously experienced as catastrophic hurricanes such as the case of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Using a blend of classical realist theory, Marxism and green theory approach, it is easy to understand how these transnational environmental crimes result to climate induced poverty, disease, animal and human migrations, animal-human conflict, storms, drying rivers, reduced coastlines due to rising sea levels, untold stress and losses of arable land, ecology and biodiversity, landlessness, floods droughts and the climax of these ramifications is climate conflict.

Climate justice advocates therefore argue that for an effective intergovernmental climate justice process; rich nations need to help poor nations to cope with natural catastrophes arising from global warming and; rich capitalist nations of the northern hemisphere should help developing nations to transition to clean energy. The US, a leading voice and for a long time a model of true capitalism and democracy is among the biggest contenders who are against this emerging discourse on climate debt and climate justice. In the interest of trying to retain its dominancy in the international system, the US ironically rallied behind the Copenhagen Accord in December 2009 to call for redefining who is responsible for what portion of climate damage. In this misguided context alone, the US technically avoided the hook for being held responsible for the biggest chunk of climate debt for the moment. In capitalist and Marxist fashion, achieving climate justice remains a pipedream.

It is along these lines that I conclude by posting that the tragedy of New Orleans, when read through the lenses of green theory, Marxism and classical realism reveal a different layer of the interconnectedness of the world system that the capitalistic nations of the north have either downplayed or ignored, yet are directly dealing with the ramifications of such ignorance at their own doorsteps. That the effect of wanting to satisfy the lust to dominate the world, including ecology in order to retain the ideological superiority is slowly leading to self-destruction that characterizes the anarchical world system and unless climate issues are addressed, we are likely to experience even more catastrophic “Hurricane Katrinas.”

The author is a Ph.D. student at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Department of Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, FL and can be reached at