Is Climate Apartheid Inevitable?


Monday, 12/10/12, marked International Human Rights Day. As a native of New York City and a participant in the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, I've been asked to write a little bit about human rights in the context of this new domestic crisis.

While Sandy has faded from the news in the past month, the public health crisis is just getting started. As I write this, close to 12,000 New Yorkers still are without power. Many neighborhoods are also without grocery stores and health clinics, or any indication that a return to normality is on its way. Mold is growing in the hardest-hit areas, raising serious public health concerns.

After the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa, Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey, and Bolivian former UN representative Pablo Salon used a new term to describe the pattern of suffering and exploitation caused by the world’s lack of response to climate change: climate apartheid. The invocation of South Africa’s struggle with inequality in this context struck a nerve with me, possibly because I recently cited the apartheid myself in a text mural I created in collaboration with the environmental group Specifically, is looking specifically to the global anti-apartheid movement as they imagine organizing strategies that could successfully cope with climate change. In my representation of 350’s current vision, you can read some scary new statistics about climate change, and review its long historical connection to other structures of oppression. (The reference to apartheid is in the lower-right-hand corner.)

Though there’s a lot different about these two struggles, I think the phrase ‘Climate Apartheid’ is a clarifying way to understand what’s happening in New York.  Apartheid was not only a set of immoral attitudes, but also a set of laws. To understand the human costs of climate change, in my city, we have to look at structures: weather patterns, law, urban planning, politics, economics. I also think we need to look carefully at the structures being built to help the city recover from Sandy. The successes and failures of the response to Sandy that we are currently building in NYC strikes me as critical for figure out how climate apartheid can be fought back.

The part of that response I’m most familiar, with, Occupy Sandy, gives me cause for both concern and hope.

Occupy Sandy is a grassroots aid effort assembled by participants in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, but it has also drawn in thousands of first-timers to the Occupy network. In the huge disparity of ability to recover from Sandy’s damages, the Hurricane has sharpened the focus on the depressing distance between my city’s poorer and richer residents. Occupy Sandy represents a much blurrier space of the great powers and pitfalls of empathy and care in this class-stratified city.

Fueled by the acute urgency and the collective trauma of our city, participants in the Occupy Sandy relief efforts worked (and still work) tirelessly to address the immediate physical needs of people in the hardest hit communities in New York. Their efforts provide a surprisingly rapid example of the common organizing adage of ‘building power’. Some stories from the first week have gone viral: residents recounting the Red Cross and FEMA showing up on a block, days after Occupy arrived, and asking the volunteers what to do; a picture of men in National Guard uniforms, taking instructions from a young woman with an Occupy armband; policemen joining Occupiers in a day's-end chant of “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”

To the surprise of some, the overall efficacy of Occupy Sandy has been validated by elected officials and the mainstream press. But when I step back from the satisfaction of this positive publicity, I start to worry. As we move from the immediate humanitarian crisis- not that it’s over- to a wider view of our post-hurricane city, I find myself imagining Occupy Sandy from the perspective of the corporate and political interests driving climate apartheid in the first place.

I had a sinking feeling last week, when watching this video clip of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s surprise visit to a hard-hit area of Queens. A visibly uncomfortable Bloomberg, rushing to avoid a crowd of unhappy Occupy volunteers, blurts out: "Thank you for everything you've done. You guys are great. We really do appreciate it, all kidding aside. You really are making a difference.” And then, tersely: “Goodbye."

Bloomberg does have real reason to thank Occupy Sandy: the effort is filling the gaping holes in relief left by FEMA and the Red Cross. By providing an avenue for volunteers to donate goods and volunteer, Occupy created a means of engagement for New Yorkers who “just wanted to do something to help” as they watched the news of their neighbors suffering. By stepping up to fill the holes left by the public sector, Occupy created an effort that relied entirely on the generosity of the affluent and the availability of resources in the private sector.

In Bloomberg’s eyes--and thus the eyes of the business interests he advocates for in New York--an effort like Occupy Sandy must seem like a dream: it provided relief to those in the most need, proved the ingenuity and responsiveness of the private sector, calmed the anxious-but-comfortable masses, and kept those pesky activists too busy to protest. Much of Occupy Sandy’s work, I worry, reinforces rather than undermines the political structures responsible for our city’s economic stratification.

But, 6 weeks after the storm, the tone of volunteer recovery efforts is starting to shift. All around NYC (literally, as the storm hit communities around the periphery hardest), we are seeing how the storm provided the impetus for battered neighborhoods to self-organize and try to rebuild stronger and more sustainably. On December 15th, some of these neighborhoods will come together with allies across the city for a first day of action, under the heading “Rebuild the City: Restore Power to the People!”  Just after this day of action was called, Bloomberg announced the leaders of the city’s recovery effort: Seth Pinsky, president of New York City Economic Development Corp (a nonprofit that helps the for-profit sector) and Mark Ricks, Vice President of Goldman Sachs.  So even before the first major moved towards capitalist exploitation of Sandy have been publicly made, the people’s resistance is organizing to fight back.

We know many New Yorkers will keep volunteering in hard-hit neighborhoods. What we don’t know is if we can turn this outpouring of concern into a real movement that can fight to win a real recovery--a recovery not only from the disaster of Sandy, but from the conditions that created the disaster. If we can do this, we have the opportunity to show--here, in our country’s largest and most closely watched city--that a disaster can serve to mitigate rather than compound inequality. We can show that climate apartheid is not inevitable.


Rachel Schragis is a flow chart maker, accumulator, native new yorker, and educator. In addition to the endeavors on this site, Rachel works as a Teaching Artist with Wingspan Arts, Inc.