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Biopolitics of Disasters: Hurricane Irma and Climate Change

By Jeff Justice

Recent hurricanes and natural disasters give rise to the question of how countries and people can recover and where they should get support from. French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics can reshape how to view human-aided natural disasters and their aftermath.

Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the United States, Robert Sanders, soberly observed in a recent interview that the island of Barbuda is devoid of a living human civilisation for the first time in three centuries. The only living things on the island are pets and livestock, and rescue teams trying to feed them and get them off the island. Hurricane Irma destroyed virtually every anthropocentric structure on Barbuda, with the ambassador pleading for the international community to help rebuild. His words leave no mistake for where he laid the blame and why the international community has a duty to help:

“We believe climate change is here to stay — it’s a reality, despite all of the naysayers,” he says. “We know that these things have occurred as a result of the profligacy of the countries that are rich, and have abused the system. We, unfortunately, who contribute less than 0.0% of pollution of the world’s atmosphere, are the world’s greatest victims.”

When we gaze in shock at the destruction wrought on Barbuda, along with Puerto Rico, Cuba, St Martin, and St Bartholomew, and South East of the United States, and when we consider further suggestions from scientists from Europe and around the globe who argued that anthropocentric climate change did impact Irma’s strength, Ambassador Sanders’ comments point to one inevitable truth: those who contributed to this damage have a moral responsibility to help repair it. What is more, it is clear that those countries producing the pollution have the political power to wipe out populations. This is no longer a point of scientific conjecture or theory. This is no longer the ‘stuff’ of science fiction. Post-Irma Barbuda is proof positive that this is now science fact, and Europe cannot escape its own responsibility.

Michel Foucault, the 20th century French philosopher, turned theories of governance and human relations on their heads when he introduced his own concept – biopolitics – in the 1970s, one that continues to dominate much analytical discussion on these subjects. The scholarship following his own work offers a variety of interpretations as to what biopolitics actually means, and defining anything Foucauldian can take several chapters in philosophy texts. Thomas Lemke offered the following observation on biopolitics and its intricate complexities:

Biopolitics cannot simply be labelled a specific political activity or a subfield of politics that deals with the regulation and governance of life processes. Rather, the meaning of biopolitics lies in its ability to make visible the always contingent, always precarious difference between politics and life, culture and nature, between the realm of the intangible and unquestioned, on the one hand, and the sphere of moral and legal action, on the other.1

I offer here a look at the aftermath of Hurricane Irma through the lens of biopolitics, in which I argue that Europe – and not alone – has shared responsibility for the rebuilding of the Caribbean. It follows that this responsibility extends to other regions devastated by disasters caused or influenced by anthropocentric climate change.

Biopolitics: Polluters have a moral responsibility in the Caribbean

Foucault’s lectures from the Collège de France in 1977 and 1978 centred on a totally different view of the purpose behind human relationships, and posited that power is not the expression of a sovereign will but rather the regulation of life processes of living legal subjects.2 This counters social contract theory that underpins much of our present understanding behind the purposes of the state, that of providing security for its population. The right to life is one of John Locke’s three expressed natural rights that the state has an obligation to protect. Generally, one can understand this to apply primarily to citizens living within that state, and possibly (and some would add ideally) also applying to other persons physically present within a state’s borders.

The fact is that the natural environment does not respect the borders of states that Homo sapiens draws on maps. Actions occurring within the territory of one state can and do impact other states. This is not to say here that the social contract is obsolete, but it is to say that it must be rethought in today’s globalised world. As an example, the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill recognises that – within a state – the state has a duty to intervene and constrain the behaviour of anyone when that behaviour is demonstrated to be harmful to others.

When that behaviour crosses a state boundary, the situation becomes more complex in that there is not necessarily a sovereign authority that can regulate behaviour crossing such boundaries. I maintain that this places a moral obligation on the state to ensure that the behaviour of its presently resident population does no harm to others, regardless of where the impacts of that behaviour occur. If it fails to do so, then the state where the harm occurred has a responsibility to protect its own citizens by engaging the state where the harmful behaviour originated.

In essence, this is what Ambassador Sanders argued in his interview. To repeat from above, anthropocentric climate change did not cause Hurricane Irma to form or even to follow the track that it did. Scientists argue that it did impact the strength of the storm and, therefore, the level of destruction it wreaked on everything in its path. Therefore, those nations that contributed to the conditions allowing Irma to reach its anthropocentrically-enhanced strength share in the culpability for the end of the culture on Barbuda as it was known.

The island can be rebuilt. Humans can re-inhabit it. However, as we saw with New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, those forced to migrate from Barbuda may well establish new roots wherever they ultimately land. While the great majority of individuals living in Barbuda survived the storm, the island’s living culture that existed prior to Irma is gone and will not return. For all intents and purposes, it will have to be colonised anew if people are to live there again. The people who move back there might bear a striking resemblance to those who were there before – in keeping with the tenants of biopolitics, I used ‘people’ in the unitary sense, not the sense of individuals – but whatever emerges will not be what was there before. The clear problem with the argument I raise here is determining specifically who shares in the blame and how much of that blame each party shares.

Those with the wealth made this mess in the Caribbean

In addition to highlighting Barbuda’s contributions to world pollution, Ambassador Sanders highlighted the enormous gap in GDP between his Caribbean archipelago and the United States. His country does not have the means to rebuild what was there to the standard where it was, let alone rebuild anything in anticipation that another Hurricane Irma will eventually hit there again. I might add that surrounding island nations, and even continental coastal communities, who were not victims of Irma are now well-warned of the need to brace their own infrastructure for such an eventuality.

I reiterate that Antigua and Barbuda was not the only state to suffer catastrophic damage, but it serves as a glaring empirical example of the disproportionate effects that climate change will make on the ‘have-nots’ versus the ‘haves’ of the world. Sanders’ estimated that damages would cost US$200 to 300 million to repair; the International Monetary Fund put the country’s 2016 gross domestic product at US$1.398 billion, which ranks it at 173rd in the world. The maths are straightforward. It will have to spend almost 15% of its annual GDP to rebuild, and it is safe to say that the actual figure will be higher than that.

The European Commission’s EDGAR database of carbon dioxide emitters and the International Monetary Fund’s ranking of states by GDP show remarkable similarities between having the financial means to pollute and actually doing so. Six current European Union Member States fall in the top 25 emitters of carbon dioxide. Seven current EU Member States are in the top 25 in terms of GDP. Statistically, the scores are highly correlated. As a bloc, the European Union’s GDP ranks directly behind the United States and China, and its carbon dioxide output is comparable. To be sure, this is a correlation, not causation, but I could cite a significant number of empirical scientific studies linking industralisation and industrial activity – which produces the wealth in today’s neoliberal capitalist economics – to increased carbon output.

Dieter Helm, a noted climate change social theorist, advocated the ‘polluter pays’ paradigm. The idea does work well in theory, but the proverbial devil lies in the details, which includes determining the degree of responsibility each polluter has and the resulting legal responsibility that each bears. He further wrote that social democracy – with which many Greens have affinity and many Green parties advocate in their manifestos – is compatible with this principle.3

Foucault: The power to pollute is the power to destroy lives

Foucault’s theory of biopolitics challenged directly the neoliberal paradigm that has commoditised that which cannot be (or should not be) commoditised, such as clean air, clean water, and metaphysical aspects to include the human right to access these. His theory of human relationships and what governs them comes down to people as living subjects, not just legal entities subject to the rule of law. Applying Lemke’s observation to this, Irma’s wholesale decimation of virtually all of Barbuda means that life processes cannot continue there. All the housing is destroyed or damaged beyond being livable; people must have shelter. Infrastructure providing potable water and electricity are completely inoperable, meaning that people effectively cannot drink, bathe, or easily cook for themselves. The legal obligations here are admittedly murky, but the moral obligations ought to be very apparent in light of scientists’ assertions on how and why Irma became so devastatingly destructive.

To illustrate this on a smaller scale, if a local governing authority allows a corporation to build a coal-fired power plant in the middle of a city of 50,000 people, that local government has made a decision governing the health of those individuals. Those living in the area would invariably see declining standards of health, increased prevalence and severity of respiratory ailments, increased incidences of cancers, damage to lands touched by the plant’s carbon output to the point that would choke away local vegetation unable to cope with the excessive levels of carbon dioxide. That is (among other points) what this complex theory addresses.

Again, environmental change does not respect the borders that Homo sapiens cartographers and politicians draw on paper. Industrial emissions would not and do not stay put in the hypothetical community described just above. They impact the globe just as surely as the earth’s own natural emissions do4. The cumulative effect of emissions by industrialised nations contributed to the strength Hurricane Irma achieved. Those nations, therefore, bear responsibility for the complete destruction of Barbuda. As a result, polluters now have the moral duty to act; the very lives of communities and individuals wrecked by the storm lie in the balance.

‘You broke it, you bought it.’

As a sign in a china shop warns customers, ‘You broke it, you bought it’. The immediate moral responsibility that polluters have is to provide Antigua and Barbuda, and any other affected nation that requests it, support to clear away the debris and aid in reconstruction. If any of this support comes in the form of loans, at a minimum the interest on those loans should be borne by other countries in proportion to the level of their carbon emissions. The terms should not penalise the victims. Again, were this disaster an act of nature entirely uninfluenced by human activity, this assertion would not easily stand. Disaster refugees will also need food, shelter, clothing and employment so that they can recover their lives insofar as they are able. The United States has the vast land needed to resettle its own people within its geographical territory. Caribbean island nations do not have that resource. Surrounding nations should, as they are able, provide means for those storm refugees to settle, temporarily at least, until they are able to return to their rebuilt homes.

The long-term moral responsibility is clearly obvious, and that is for all nations to implement without delay the provisions of the Paris Accord and to enforce those provisions amongst all signatories. In addition, the European Union must double down on its efforts to keep the United States within those accords. The New Yorker reported that the Trump Administration’s announced plans to withdraw from those accords could cause other countries to follow suit. Even if this turns out to be unfounded, a moral duty still exists to keep in those accords a country who clearly leads in terms of economic wealth available and carbon output.

This is not just about cleaning up a storm’s gigantic mess. Hurricane Irma was different in the totality of the destruction it wrought on entire nations and their cultures. This is about the direct governance of life and death, and that imposes a moral responsibility to act.


  1. Lemke, Thomas. 2011. Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press, p. 31 ↩︎
  2. Lemke. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Helm, Dieter. 2012. The Carbon Crunch London: Yale University Press. ↩︎
  4. See, for instance, the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. ↩︎
Biopolitics of Disasters: Hurricane Irma and Climate Change