MEDIA NOTES FOR THE RSE MISSISSIPPI SYMPOSIUM
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This symposium, which brings together religious leaders and many of the world's leading scientists and environmentalists plus prominent political figures, is one of the last major gatherings before the critical climate talks to be held in Copenhagen in late November and early December. While there are signs that both the US and Chinese administrations are anxious for the Copenhagen talks to succeed, many feel that the world's politicians do not understand the urgency of the situation or the need for radical thinking and action. Climate change does not respect national boundaries yet too often narrow national interests and goals take precedence over matters concerning the future of the planet as a whole – and the well being of future generations. Religion and science should transcend national boundaries: both forces need to make their voices heard and galvanize the politicians at Copenhagen into action.
In many ways the Mississippi Basin encapsulates many of the climate issues being faced by communities around the world. If the richest country on earth cannot confront and solve these problems, what chance has the rest of the world? If New Orleans can't get it right, what chance Lagos, Cairo, Shanghai, Dacca – or London and New York? Last month hundreds died and more than two million were made homeless in floods in the Philippines as the result of a tropical storm. Last year at least 140,000 people perished when Typhoon Nargis hit Burma. Coastal communities are among the most vulnerable to climate change, in particular to increased storm activity and rising sea levels. There is an urgent need to confront some of the ethical and political issues being faced round the world concerning, for example, whether to retreat in the face of sea level rise or build higher defences. How will this affect local communities and their rights? As is the case of low-lying island states like the Maldives, the disappearance of whole countries seems to be inevitable. What happens to populations forced to migrate? This mass migration of peoples is one of the great challenges of the century yet is one that politicians are reluctant or fearful to address.
During the course of the Symposium religious leaders, theologians, scientists, environmentalists and statespeople will all be available to talk to the media. Paul Brown, Kieran Cooke and Brian Cathcart are the media coordinators: please let them know of any specific requests you might have.
Specific story ideas and background
1. Economy v Environment
The preservation and restoration of the Gulf's wetlands – some of the most extensive and environmentally rich on earth – is vital. The wetlands act as a sponge to soak up and prevent such storm surges as happened in the aftermath of Katrina, Rita, Gustav and other recent hurricanes. Yet despite all the official pledges and the handwringing of various business and other groups, the wetlands are still being destroyed – at a rate equal to the size of more than 30 football pitches every day. Much of the destruction is caused by the oil and gas industry – both by exploration work and transport/refining related activities, with channels being dug, harbours refashioned etc. Not just oil and gas but a range of other powerful economic forces is lined up against any meaningful environmental action – fishing and oyster farmers, real estate developers, the tourism and shipping/port industries. The environmental warnings are there. They are starkly evident. Yet short term economic gains are driving developments – not the need to confront environmental, social and ultimately, economic catastrophe. Despite being “in the eye of the storm” Louisiana – an energy state traditionally dominated by conservative political interests - is, in many ways, a long way behind in climate change thinking.
2. Religion and the Environment
Southern Louisiana is a mix of various religions and faiths. Some have been more outspoken than others on environmental issues. While Federal and state authorities came in for substantial criticism at the time of Katrina, many religious organisations won praise for their work during and in the immediate aftermath of the devastation caused by the hurricane. The media will have the opportunity to meet religious leaders – both local and international.
The images and ideas of the Mississippi conjured up by the writings of Mark Twain and others are very much in the past. The Mississippi today is very much a working rather than a recreational river – and is one of the world's most polluted water courses. On the banks of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge – the state capital – and New Orleans there were, at the latest count, around 150 oil/gas/chemical/steel and other heavy industrial enterprises. These include a number of large agricultural industry plants processing goods for export. In addition there are a number of industrial and refining installations downriver from NO. It is one of the major areas of industrial concentration in the US and goes by various names – including “Chemical Alley” or “Cancer Corridor”. Boats carrying produce for the plants move up and down the river. Freight trains – often loaded with highly toxic materials – move through New Orleans. Much of the land these plants are built on is former slave plantation: in many areas people – numbers of them descendants of those slaves - live very close to the industrial/chemical plants. Some of these so called “fence communities” have been involved in long running battles over health and mortality related issues with plant owners. Heavy industry is still being offered subsidies to move to the area. There's an ongoing court case about a giant refinery oil spill into the river and surrounding communities at the time of Katrina. There are many parallels with events elsewhere in the world. Industry representatives, health officials and others will be available. Anne Rolfes will talk about the ongoing battle for a cleaner environment. Margie Richard will talk of living in the shadow of Shell for years and the long battle she has fought.
4. The People of the Wetlands
This vital area is under constant threat – with severe consequences for the whole Gulf coast, its people, its industries, its environment. Whle NO has received considerable attention, the so called Bayou Communities feel neglected and forgotten, their homes and towns are under constant threat from the sea. Many agricultural areas are being being rendered useless due to salt intrusion. Yet shrimp fishermen, oyster farmers and other are not necessarily in favour of restoration projects – there is a paradox. In an area of high unemployment and at a time of economic downturn, people are anxious about jobs. Though the whole area is extremely vulnerable to hurricane damage and rising sea levels, major oil and gas development work is still going on in places such as Port Fourchon and Grand Isle on the far flung fingers of the Gulf. Such activity has been given added stimulus by recent new major oil and gas finds in the Gulf.
5. New Orleans. Recent Past and Future
The Army Corps says its rebuilding NO's defences so as to withstand a once in a 100 year storm. In face of climate change, are such calculations valid? The building of various defence systems has been delayed: New Orleans remains vulnerable, its people remain anxious. Have lessons been learned? The Corps is a very powerful organisation. Should it be held culpable for the flooding of NO? Is NO working against natural forces rather than with them? There has still not been a fully independent inquiry events surrounding Katrina. A number of people are seeking redress and compensation through the courts.
6. The Gulf Dead Zone
Outflows from the Mississippi and to a lesser extent other rivers feeding into the Gulf of Mexico – industrial effluent and agriculture related chemical and nutrients - have created one of the world's biggest dead zones – an area devoid of life, visible from space. Meanwhile oil and gas drilling and exploration continue – BP recently announced one of its biggest ever finds in the Gulf.
Herald Tribune - Polution Still Feeding Gulf Dead Zone
BP Announces Giant Oil Discovery In The Gulf Of Mexico
BP's Big Oil Find Cements Gulf's Revival
7. The Science of reading a Storm
Ivor Van Heerden and others will be available to go through the science behind hurricanes and the various improvements in forecasting and modelling techniques. Is hurricane activity increasing? How precise can our knowledge be? Such information is vital in order to undertake adequate adaptation measures and to minimize fatalities and damage to important infrastructure – not only in NO but in other vulnerable communities around the world.
Other story ideas:
Has NO revived or is this mere wishful thinking on the part of the developers and tourism industry?
The arguments continue: more than four years after Katrina a large portion of NO's population has not returned. The NO diaspora is spread around the US – America's own internally displaced persons or, in UN Speak, IDPs. Is it correct to call these people environmental refugees? What is the social and racial mix of the city now?
The Vietnamese community is very active in NO. It was the first to rebuild and move in again post Katrina. It has a big economic and political voice.
Considerable efforts have gone into ensuring that NO's musical heritage survives. Various academies and music schools have been set up to safeguard NO's musical traditions.
In some areas of NO there are arguments about rebuilding work and in particular the styles used to rebuild houses. There are those who favour rebuilding as of old - in the typical style of the “Shotgun” house. But others – Brad Pitt funded projects included – prefer a more futuristic style of architecture.
Website and blog suggestions:
There are numerous websites/blogs concerning the Mississippi, New Orleans, Hurrican Katrina and delta systems in general. Here are a few that might be of interest:
Hurricanes/Delta systems general:
LA Coast Post Blog
Hurricanes/Typhoons/Cyclones affect many parts of the world. Some receive more publicity than others. In July 2008 Cyclone Nargis hit Burma. Numbers of dead in one of the world's most secretive countries have not been divulged but experts believe at least 140,000 perished.
A report on Nargis
The Times-Picayune, the NO newspaper, is an excellent resource. The paper did an exhaustive report post Katrina on the disappearing wetlands of the delta and the problems facing NO and its population.
“Last Chance” March 4-6, 2007
Chemical Corridor/Cancer Alley and Oil industry activities elsewhere in world:
Margie Richard, a Symposium participant, spent years fighting Shell in the Chemical Corridor where she had her home:
Anne Rolfes, a Symposium participant, heads up the Louisiana bucket brigade which monitors industry activity along the lower Mississippi. Louisana Bucket Bridage
Shell has one of its biggest refineries not far north of New Orleans. Its activiites, along with others in the oil/chemical industry, are coming under greater scrutiny both in the US and elsewhere. Shell has come in for particular criticism for its activities in Nigeria's Niger Delta.
Amnesty International Report on Niger Delta
Shell response to Amnesty report
Some of the organisations covering the continuing arguments post Katrina and the rebuilding of NO:
Recent articles of relevance:
Some books of interest:
The Storm: What went wrong and why during Hurriance Katrina by Ivor Van Heerden and Mike Bryan.
Path of Destruction: The devastation of New Orleans and the coming age of Superstorms by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein
Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza
Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison air and Margie Richards' fight to save her town by Ronnie Greene