Sunday, March 28, 2010

Katrina Victims Seek to Sue Greenhouse Gas Emitters

More than 1,200 people died in Hurricane Katrina when levees gave way under the weight of crashing waves. According to John McPhee, from the very moment humans waged war on Mother Nature and tried to direct the flow of the Mississippi River, they were destined to fail. In Trouble the Water, the black residents of the Ninth Ward blame the government for ineffective action. Well, residents of southern Mississippi claim that gas-emitting multinationals like Shell, ExxonMobile, BP and Chevron—what McPhee calls “the American Ruhr”—are also responsible for boosting the terrible storm. The residents filed a class-action suit against these companies just weeks after the 2005 storm.


The multinational companies’ operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries in the United States cause the emission of greenhouse gasses that contributed to global warming. This increase in global surface air and water temperatures in turn caused a rise in sea levels and added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the homes and communities of countless individuals.

Furthermore, according to the plaintiffs, the greenhouse gas emissions of companies like Honeywell and American Electric Power caused saltwater, debris, sediment, hazardous substances, and other materials to enter, remain on, and damage the residents’ property.


The district court initially rejected the case, ruling that it was "a debate which simply has no place in the court." Mississippi residents must now wait for the appeals court to fix a new hearing, in principle within the next three months. A decision would then be due by the end of 2010, and both sides could also then take the case to the Supreme Court.

Hopefully, the decision will result in justice. The Mississippi residents rightfully believe that the companies have a duty to "avoid unreasonably endangering the environment, public health, public and private property."

1 comment:

  1. This assessment seems a bit harsh, squaring the blame for the destruction of Hurricane Katrina on energy companies.

    I may be biased, seeing as I will probably work for one of these companies in the future, but is it possible for the magnitude of destruction that Katrina caused to be attributed soley to energy companies?

    Yes, there is a trend between rising sea surface temperatures and the general destructiveness of hurricanes (see, and it is a generally accepted fact that greenhouse gases (CO2, some CFC's, but primarily water vapor caused by a general increase in world temperatures). Personally, I also believe in the concept of global climate change, and generally agree that it is a bad thing; thus, I am also against unnecessarily polluting the Earth as well.

    From a scientific standpoint, however, there is a common phrase in science and engineering -"correlation does not imply causation." In layman's terms, this means that just because something happens (e.g. Hurricane Katrina), and there is a relationship a certain input (such as the greenhouse effect), it does not imply that greenhouse gases significantly increased Hurricane Katrina's destructive potenial. It may as well be that Hurricane Katrina would have been just as powerful and damaging without the aid of rising sea temperatures. Even if these correlations did imply causation, the impact of these companies on overall global warming is most likely statistically insignificant when compared to the total output of greenhouse gases over the two-hundred period of global industrialization.

    Using common sense, it would seem like many of these debris, sediment, and other refuse would have contaminated people's properties during the hurricane regardless of whether these companies placed them there or not. Many of these debris were vegetative (plants, certainly no one's fault), structural (e.g. parts of other people's houses), or other common chemicals (gasoline from people's cars that were left out during the hurricane, sewage, etc). Granted, there are/were chemical processing facilities on the Gulf and "the American Ruhr" which did contaminate New Orleans and the surrounding area, but under current building and chemical standards, reasonable precautions were taken to prevent the spills. Conversely, it would be unreasonable for governmental and other groups mandate that every chemical protective facility has to withstand Category 3 hurricanes. Simply put, no one - the federal or state government, chemical companies, oversight organizations, or environmental groups - would expect every gas station to be built like an atomic bomb shelter that could withstand a 175 mph winds, which are easily more destructive than rockets or bombs.

    Legally, one of the cornerstones of United States court law is that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty (my dad is a judge and my mom's a lawyer, so I feel that I can confidently say this). Looking at purely scientific evidence, we cannot state that the multinational energy companies are cause of Hurricane Katrina's destructiveness, or even contribute to them.

    While I sympathize with the victims of Hurricane Katrina, I think that bringing "Justice to Multinationals" without any evidence, scientific or otherwise, would be nothing but a kangaroo court, attributing the crisis onto tempting scapegoats, financially powerful energy companies.

    Thus, while I believe that Mississippi residents should recieve help in rebuilding their lives, it should not come at the expense of companies that were also hard-hit by Hurriane Katrina and that this lawsuit was correctly deemed as "a debate which simply has no place in court."