Abstract: Climate Change and Environmental Justice Issues Among Indigenous People in the Gulf Coast Region of the United States (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Climate Change and Environmental Justice Issues Among Indigenous People in the Gulf Coast Region of the United States

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 9, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jessica Liddell, MSW/MPH, Doctoral Candidate, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
Catherine Burnette, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
Jennifer Miller Scarnato, MSW, Doctoral Fellow, School of Social Work
Background and Purpose:

Indigenous groups continue to experience multiple forms of oppression, conceptualized here through the Framework of Historical Oppression, Resilience, and Transcendence (FHORT). This study focuses on the historic and contemporary environmental injustice issues experienced by a tribe in the Gulf Coast region of the United States. Indigenous people in this region depend on coastal areas, swamps and bayous for food, as well as cultural, and economic resources. In the past century, this area has been impacted by extreme weather events, and the BP oil spill. Their location near the coast, in addition to their reliance on these areas for economic and social resources has exposed this Indigenous tribe to a host of environmental justice issues, including climate change.


A critical ethnography approach was used and data collection included: (a) Participant observation: (b) Individual Interviews; (c) Family Interviews; and (d) Focus Groups, engaging a total of 208 participants. Interviews generally took place either at community centers or at individual’s homes between June 2014- July 2015. NVivo was used, and thematic qualitative data analysis was used to interpret data. During this process interviews are listened to multiple times. Potential meanings are coded to create a hierarchical scheme of codes and sub-codes and in-depth reconstructive analysis was done to identify explicit and implicit meanings of the data. Cohen’s Kappa interrater reliability coefficients were extremely high (.90 or above).


Experiences of environmental justice issues were reported across 30 individual interviews, 8 focus groups, and 12 family interviews, comprising 51 sources. The topic of Environmental Justice was referenced 185 times (51 female speakers and 17 male speakers). Key findings include: (a) Continuing impact of the BP oil spill and related loss of jobs in the oil and seafood industry, loss of being able to eat seafood (which undermined cultural traditions and family time), concerns about safety and health, and ongoing concerns about litigation; (b) Difficulty accessing resources following the spill, complicated by the tribe’s lack of federal recognition, and other factors; (c) Coastal Erosion, with participants reporting rapid changes and land loss, feeling that interventions aren’t consistently implemented and don’t utilize local and indigenous knowledge; (d) Historical and contemporary land loss through oil grabs and rising water; (e) Geographic marginalization and isolation throughout the tribe’s history; and (f) The loss of tribal identity when tribal members were forced to relocate.

Conclusions and Implications:

As coastal communities continue to experience exposure to environmental hazards due to land loss, climate change, and environmental exploitation by corporations and government agencies, research that addresses the unique experiences of vulnerable groups will be needed to inform interventions and the provision of appropriate resources. The results of this study indicate that this tribe is especially vulnerable to continued environmental injustices such as land loss, climate change and oil spills due to its reliance on the land for employment, and cultural and family traditions. Indigenous groups experience high levels of environmental injustice, here contextualized for a coastal, Indigenous tribe in the Gulf Coast region of the United States.