Mississippi: The Forgotten State - The Years Project

Mississippi: The Forgotten State

By Nyah Jordan

My conception of climate change was limited until I started college. I was aware of the risks, but my neighborhood doesn’t even have recycling, let alone any multiple well known organizations that are dedicated to combating climate change. It wasn’t until I sought to learn more about climate change through The Years Project that I realized that as a Black woman from the South, my family and I were suffering from a global disaster that we didn’t see coming. 

Climate change has only recently taken the political main stage while we are in the midst of widespread fires and an upcoming federal election, but some communities are already grappling with the realities of a warming world on a daily basis. Regions across the world are suffering from the effects of natural disasters, shrinking coastlines, and biodiversity loss. 

In my home state of Mississippi, we are facing flooding and coastal erosion, crop loss, as well as alarmingly disproportionate effects of climate change on impoverished Black and Brown communities. Mississippi will bear some of the worst effects of climate change in the coming decades, but there has been an absence of media attention, little motivation to help, and a lack of care as our communities are left behind. But I refuse to allow my home to be a forgotten wasteland; I am speaking up for Mississippians because I care too much to let climate change destroy the place that molded me into who I am today.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding have simply been a part of living in the South, but I never considered how those events unfairly impacted the inner city and downtown areas of my hometown. It hadn’t been a thought of how those events were being exacerbated because of climate change.Which is why Southern communities should adopt the Green New Deal, legislation presented in Congress that details an equitable and just transition out of a carbon-based economy. The Green New Deal would help frontline communities like Mississippi immensely. 

In 2005, Mississippi was hit the hardest by Hurricane Katrina but did not get the same amount of media attention as Louisiana or Texas. In 2013, a violent tornado swept through my hometown of Hattiesburg leaving nearly $40 million worth of damages to schools, homes, and businesses. One of the latest disasters to hit the area is a toxic algae bloom. This event is from flooding that happened in the Midwest which is also attributed to climate change. The algae has significantly damaged the Gulf South as it has killed many marine animals and it is potentially harmful for people. This disaster has hurt two of the most beneficial industries of the South, fishing and tourism.

Coastal communities of Mississippi, however, are not the only ones feeling the effects of climate change.

A realtor in Natchez, Mississippi explained that since 2005, flooding has significantly lowered home values and placed residents at risk. In a 2011 flood, Natchez was left with $2.8 billion worth of damages to over a million acres of land. With more than 25% of Natchez below the poverty line, the realtor claims that people may not worry about climate change because they are more focused on surviving everyday life.

That statement taps into the structural issues that many Southerners face. It is rarely a matter of understanding, it is a matter of surviving. There is a disconnect between facing issues that are affecting you today and facing the issues that will also affect you in a decade. As one of the most poverty-stricken states, ranking nearly last in essential systems like health care and education. Families have to worry about affording to send their children to decent schools while also being able to afford to recover from an unexpected storm or flash flooding. 

Mississippi also holds on to an antebellum tourism complex, meaning that towns like Natchez profit from the romanticization of the Great Depression and Reconstruction. We struggle to have our policies and politicians reflect the Black citizens who make up nearly 38% of the state. Racial relations have always been an awkward and tense conversation. It’s been so uncomfortable that it has led us to few improvements in recent years to have legislation that largely helps people of color in the state. Mississippians like to hold dear the very history that has defined us, but our past does not have to define our future.

Southerners are typically stereotyped as being uneducated about climate-related issues. That is not to say that the South doesn’t have fundamental issues that need to be addressed, it means that we are largely disregarded before we even have a chance to talk. That is why in order to stop climate change, there must be better systems in place to help the poorest of communities.

If Mississippi were to put effort into the future with something like the Green New Deal, we could start preventing crises connected to climate and the economy. We can’t hold on to the past, we can only learn from it. It’s time for the South to move forward. 

Here’s how.

In order to address poverty and climate change in Mississippi, the first step to take would be to ensure higher standards of living. This would include encouraging higher incomes by promoting jobs in building clean infrastructure. By investing in cleaner infrastructure, there would be a reduction in poverty by providing easier access to energy. With more efficient technologies air pollution would also decrease significantly. 

Since burning fossil fuels creates air pollution that is harmful to human health, creating a job sector that helps cities transition to renewable energy could save millions of lives. Air pollution that comes from fossil fuels low-income communities are also exposed more to air pollution, so areas that do focus on creating healthier energy will gain more social equity. This would lead to people, predominantly people of color, experiencing less respiratory diseases.

If environmental protection policies are implemented, they will not only raise living standards but will also help provide better jobs and resources for government use. Southern communities need more policies like the Green New Deal because cleaner air and water and aid thousands in bettering their health. However, if environmental protection policies are so beneficial to Southern communities, it begs the question– why are places in the South not using them?

Phil Bryant, former governor of Mississippi, wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 stating he was not going to allow companies in his state to comply with emission standards that were set by the Obama administration. While the goal was to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 30%, Bryant considered it too much of a burden despite having the budget recommendations that would allow for better infrastructure. Climate change was not mentioned on his agenda while he served as governor. The current governor, Tate Reeves, who served as Bryant’s lieutenant governor, has no plans to make serious steps towards combating climate change.

It is troublesome to see leaders not take climate change seriously, which can be interconnected with other issues like poverty, racial injustice, and food safety. I am being critical of how my state has reacted to this issue because I want better for my home. As proud as I am of Mississippi, simply acknowledging our past  is not how we get the rest of the country to finally help us in our fight against systemic racism and climate justice. It is time for us to consider the damage that climate change has done to our state and how we can make progress to combat the problem.

Megan Mayhew Bergman, a Southern native and journalist, said it best.

“If Mississippi does indeed reflect on the deep, systemic inequalities its plantation economy created, perhaps it will see those inequalities remain, and are exacerbated by climate change. It is time to make climate change part of a polite, if not urgent, conversation.”

Header Photo: Natalie Maynor