Election Day is right around the corner, but not everyone is going to have an easy time reaching the polls. 2020 has been a year straight from hell. The pandemic kicked us off, but we’ve since then experienced record-breaking wildfire and hurricane seasons.
Just last week, Hurricane Zeta rammed through the South. In Georgia, civil rights groups were calling for an extension of early voting hours. In Louisiana, officials had to assess whether voting sites were still standing. It’s unnerving for these disasters to strike so close to a major election, especially when so much is on the line this year.
That’s why I hit up my girl Dharna Noor. She’s the staff writer over at Earther, the dopest environmental blog out there. It’s also where I used to work, haha. Anyway, Dharna reports regularly on disasters and politics, including this story on some ballot initiatives across the country. The thing is: When people can’t get to the polls, public opinion is not properly represented in the outcome. Yet they must deal with the ramifications of it. That, my friends, is a scary reality —and one we may see play out in real-time this year.
Welcome to The Frontline, where I’m throwing some politics at you once again. (Please forgive me.) I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. This week is all about the election, but we’re not talking much about future presidents today. No, we’re looking at what’s at stake for those voters who are living through climate disaster today, especially in Louisiana where residents just suffered through yet another hurricane. I’ll let Dharna take it from here.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve reported a bit on the local ballot initiatives, right? Beyond people, beyond candidates—initiatives that could transform communities, potentially bring in different sources of revenue, or potentially benefit industry.
Which one would you say across the U.S. has you most nervous or most excited?
The ballot initiative that I’m the most nervous about and sort of the most anxiously awaiting the results of is Amendment 5 in Louisiana. Basically, how it would work is it could exempt the fossil fuel industry from having to pay property taxes forever because it would set up a program where the government could have these agreements with companies called “payment in lieu of taxes,” which basically would allow companies (like polluting fossil fuel companies) to stop paying taxes and, instead, make these comparatively really small payments to the government.
The biggest force behind that is this liquified natural gas firm called Cameron—Cameron like Cameron Parish, the parish that saw the really awful impacts of Hurricane Laura this past year. It saw the dangerous petrochemical leaks when the hurricane roared through. That liquified natural gas company has one of these agreements with the government right now, which has allowed them to basically pay way, way less in taxes. $38,000 in taxes versus $220 million.
Wait, so they’ve only paid $38,000 in taxes when they would otherwise be paying $220 million?
Yeah. Last year they paid $38,000 in taxes, and they would have paid over $220 million if they had not had this agreement.
$220 million? That’s nuts! Dang. And this is in Louisiana, which has just gotten tremendously screwed from Hurricane Zeta.
Yeah, exactly. And there are multiple petrochemical hubs in Louisiana. This is obviously only going to incentivize more and more oil and gas and plastic facilities. It’s really scary. Maybe unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of really powerful industry backing it, and a lot of that really powerful industry has their roots planted in communities that are majority folks of color, majority poor and working-class, and places that folks are already experiencing really high levels of things like asthma and cancer in some cases.
You know, you know all of this!
Haha, yeah, I do, but I’m not familiar with this ballot initiative. Do you imagine that this is going to have broad support? This seems like an obviously bad thing. Is it something that we’re expecting the public to actually support?
There have been some pretty huge campaigns to get folks to support it. There have also been some pretty massive efforts against it from really incredible EJ organizers on the ground there, like folks with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and others. I guess it remains to be seen. The petrochemical industry is a really powerful force to go up against. Obviously, these organizers are doing that every day, so they know that. It’ll be an uphill battle, I think, to say the least.
“If you’re a person who lives right by a polling station or you’re somebody who has access to a car and has a lot of resources, it’s a lot easier for you to vote in a difficult situation than if you’re someone who’s reliant on a bus line in a community that was just hit by a hurricane.”
Right. And ultimately, I’m assuming it’ll depend on how many people actually show up to vote, and we know voter suppression in the South is notoriously evil. It seems like with the hurricane happening, it’ll be even harder for people to show up.
Totally. We all know that already-vulnerable communities are often the ones that have the hardest time getting to the polls. If you’re a person who lives right by a polling station or you’re somebody who has access to a car and has a lot of resources, it’s a lot easier for you to vote in a difficult situation than if you’re someone who’s reliant on a bus line in a community that was just hit by a hurricane. It really, I think, is going to take a serious, serious toll on this and other initiatives, which is pretty scary.
Yeah. What worries you the most about the potential impact these regional sorts of climate disasters can have on this election? I’m thinking of Hurricane Zeta in Louisiana, the wildfires in California, and the wildfires in Oregon. I was just reading this story in The New Republic on just the lengths to which voters have to go now in Oregon to vote after having lost literally everything, especially when you’re homeless, right? You no longer have an address to receive your ballot if you’re voting by mail. What worries you the most about this election after having seen this sort of summer of disaster that we’ve experienced?
Well, something that I think is really difficult to contend with is that there have been so many disasters that have hit so many different communities across the entire nation.
If there was one really major hurricane, I think that maybe it would have been easier—not that folks should have to do this—but I feel like maybe some aid efforts to really ensure folks have what they need to be able to vote and also just to live. It would be much easier to organize that, but just the sheer number of people who have been impacted by storms, hurricanes, fires this past year is so gigantic that I think it’s gonna be really difficult to contend with. As always, if you are a person who has multiple addresses or you live higher up on a hill or you’re somebody who has a car, it’s much easier for some folks to get to the polls than it’s going to be for other folks. I think in this and all elections, but I think it’s really apparent in this one, the interest of the elite versus the rest of us is very apparent. And it makes me really nervous to think that folks with more money and resources are going to be the ones who control the outcome here.
Yeah. I’m just kind of riffing here, but thinking of elections in the future, the future of disasters. I’m just curious: What worries you about what this will look like moving forward? This is the beginning, right? I often say in my writing what we’re seeing now is literally the beginning of a horror movie that’s just going to keep unraveling and coming at us whether we do something on climate change or not. So what worries you about the future of democracy given, like you said, the sheer number of disasters you see happening now and knowing that that number is likely going to get worse?
I guess what worries me is that it’s pretty clear from all of the polls that many people living in America want climate action. It’s increasingly clear that a majority of people want climate action, and the only way that we’re going to be able to go up against the forces that are stopping that action from happening—like the fossil fuel industry, the plastics industry, big agriculture—the only way we’re going to be able to go up against these forces is with a mass movement.
And it seems that we have the numbers, but if it’s ordinary people who aren’t going to be able to go out to the polls, it’s a dangerous feedback loop where the climate disasters make it harder for people to participate in democracy. Then, because people didn’t get to participate in democracy, the stronghold from the polluting industries is even stronger, and then there’s more climate disaster, and then it’s even harder for people to get out to the polls in the following years. And there’s so much damage and death in that pathway. So really every year it seems that the urgency is becoming even clearer, and every year it seems that we’re digging ourselves further and further into this hole.
Damn, man. That sounds really dark. [laughter]
Even on my best days, I often feel the same exact way. I think it’s hard to not feel that way when—the way that we are, we are like in this every single day and perhaps too aware of everything. We can’t comfort ourselves with, like, little lies.
On a lighter note, is there anything that does give you hope or inspire you that we’re not going to go down this dark scary path where democracy dies and the world burns?
Yeah, for sure. I definitely don’t mean to be all like doom and gloom, and the most important thing I think to go up against all of this is really just the power of folks to organize, and impacted communities are organizing their asses off all across the country. And there are some candidates all down the ballot—like from city council races to the House and the Senate to mayoral elections, all across the board—there are many folks who are organizing to unseat those in power who are perpetuating these problems.
And it seems like some of them are going to win, right? It seems like The Squad is going to be a lot bigger in the House after this election. Four years ago, I definitely could not have said like, “Oh, there are people who are like running on transformative climate policy who are winning House elections. There are people who identify as eco-socialists who are winning House elections!” That’s good. All of those things are really good. And I don’t think that anyone is planning on stopping.
No one’s going to give up those fights right now.