How the Wealthy Insulate Themselves from the Worst Impacts of Climate Change

On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst hurricanes to make landfall in the US, hit the southeast coast.

In the city of New Orleans some residents prepped while others evacuated,. Those who couldn’t included the elderly, the disabled, and the poor. When the local government largely collapsed in the days following the storm, these were the people most impacted.

Faced with the prospect of having to survive in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, along with the the loss of central services, people broke into stores and other business establishments for supplies.

Yet, if you were wealthy, you were able to protect yourself from this side effect of a hurricane intensified as a result of climate change. According to multiple outlets, private sector security guards were flown in to guard the wealthiest neighborhoods of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

According to The Guardian, Blackwater, the infamous private security firm:

“..set up camp in the back garden of a vast mansion in the wealthy Uptown district of the city.
David Reagan, 52, a semi-retired US army colonel from Huntsville, Alabama, who fought in the first Gulf war and is commander of Blackwater’s operations in the city, refused to say how many men he had in New Orleans but indicated it was in the hundreds.
Asked if they had encountered many looters so far, Mr Reagan said that the sight of his heavily armed men — a pump action shotgun was propped against the wall near to where he was standing — was enough to put most people off.”

Yet this is only one of the many ways that the wealthy are able to insulate themselves from the lived impacts of climate change, impacts that so often disproportionately impact the poor and marginalized.

“We are looking at possible second, third, or fourth, Hurricane Katrina’s”, says Thanu Yakupitiyage, US Communications Manager for “Those levels of disasters are going to continue to happen, so you’re going to see similar situations playing out in some of these climate change related weather events.”

These kind of events are where you start to see the impact on communities that can’t protect themselves, Yakupitiyage continues. “These are the communities that can’t rebuild, that end up being completely displaced from where they used to live,” she says.

While to some it might seem alarmist or fantastical, Yakupitiyage’s comments describe a world we already live in. Whereas New Orleans faced floods and storms, droughts in California have led to an increase in the number of forest fires. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that “because temperatures and precipitation levels are projected to alter further over the course of this century, the overall potential for wildfires in the United States, especially the southern states, is likely to increase as well.” Fires that you’d be able to stop from reaching or consuming your house quicker — if you’re able to pay for it.

As the Los Angeles Times documented in 2007:

“AIG’s Wildfire Protection Unit, part of its Private Client Group, is offered only to homeowners in California’s most affluent ZIP Codes — including Malibu, Beverly Hills, Newport Beach and Menlo Park — and a dozen Colorado resort communities. It covers about 2,000 policyholders, who pay premiums of at least $10,000 a year and own homes with a value of at least $1 million.”

Involving private firefighters, the program would preemptively douse your home in flame retardant if a fire began or was moving towards your location.

If you weren’t able to then you relied on the standard services to fight forest fires, and hoped for the best. While this may seem like common sense to some (wealthy people being able to pay for better services) this isn’t the same as, for example, remodeling your kitchen or paying for faster internet.

People that can’t ratchet up their protection against fires face displacement, destruction of their homes, and the trauma and financial cost associated with this.

While these may seem like mundane issues that can be addressed with enough money, a recent New Yorker piece by Evan Osnos speaks to the lengths that some wealthy go to protect them and themselves from climate change and, according to them, the eventual collapse of civilization.

In one instance Osnos documents private Facebook groups where wealthy survivalists give each other advice on everything from gas masks, to bunkers, and event various locations that are safe from the effects of climate change.

The head of an investment firm, and member of this group, told Osnos, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.”

Wealthy preppers are also buying up large tracts of land in the Pacific Northwest, or what could be termed modern fortresses in New Zealand in preparation for what they see as likely conclusions to our current societal trajectory. While most of this happens out of public view, Nigeria has a decidedly visible iteration of this notion and its associated solution being constructed in the city of Lagos.

Eko Atlantic is a city being constructed off the coast of Lagos. Stretching for over 10 kilometers, it will house 400,000 people, and the design iterations show glittering skyscrapers and a futuristic marina. The city will be privately supplied with essentials such as electricity, water, mass transit, and sewage. It will also include a private security force. Looking at the amenities, retail options, and services it’s set to offer, residential properties will likely carry a hefty fee, one unable to be paid by many Nigerians, where over half of the country lives on less than one dollar a day. For comparison, a converted missile silo in the US that’s now a luxury survivalist compound sells it’s cheapest unit (the half-floor condo suite package) for $1,500,000.

“Extreme weather events are telling us that we are running out of time. Lives are being lost now. You know, while we’re here, we saw what happened in Chennai. We are seeing, you know, huge devastation in the Philippines on an ongoing basis. My continent, Africa, is suffering from climate-induced desertification and so on,” said former Greenpeace President Kumi Naidoo in a 2015 interview with Democracy Now.

We are seeing the outlines of the results of our actions both today and on the horizon. Countries are literally being submerged by rising sea levels while according to the UN Migration Agency, there will be between 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050. Meanwhile, the economic toll of climate change was explored in a recent study published in Nature, which documented disparate impacts on rich and poor countries.

“The data definitely don’t provide strong evidence that rich countries are immune from the effects of hot temperatures,” said Solomon Hsiang, the Chancellor’s Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the authors of the study. “Many rich countries just happen to have cooler average temperatures to start with, meaning that future warming will overall be less harmful than in poorer, hotter countries.”

Yet, it seems that these effects won’t be felt by people that can afford it, even if they profited off a system that has devastated our climate and put us in the critical situation we are today.

As Yovi, one of the Hurricane Katrina mercenaries and a veteran of the Israeli army told the Guardian, “God watches out for the rich people, I guess.”