Colette Pichon Battle

climate activist and lawyer

Colette Pichon Battle is a climate activist and lawyer, who founded the climate justice and human rights center The Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. She was a TED speaker, and a 2019 Obama Foundation fellow. She is best known for advocating for the needs of communities of color in the face of the Climate crisis in the Gulf Coast of the United States.



Interview with On Being (2022)

  • Creole people were free people of color, and they could own land before many Black folks could. And so my family had been there before it was America, before it was the U.S.
  • I think that’s the part that scares me the most. We’re losing generations of people who know the anatomy of these things. And we’re getting new people into our space who have no clue what a hurricane is, and the hurricanes that we know to describe are not the ones we’re facing now.
  • now the land is perpetually saturated, because the water is rising, the water table is rising, the lake is rising
  • the sea level rise is real, and for those of us who are very close to the sea, we can see it.
  • TV didn’t show the places around New Orleans. So driving across the bridge on Lake Pontchartrain, you have to go through a swamp, and everything that was so green all of my life was brown and stinky. And it was just death. I’d never smelled death like that. Everything died. The salt water intrusion killed all the vegetation in the swamp that you have to drive through.
  • there are all of these researchers who were looking at South Louisiana before Katrina, many people concerned about sea level rise and all of these things for a very long time, but it wasn’t common knowledge. It wasn’t information brought to the communities. The universities knew it, but the communities didn’t know.
  • And that was a moment where you sort of have this — it’s surreal. You don’t — who can believe your land won’t be there anymore? Most people still can’t conceptually understand that.
  • that land, for people like me, was tied to our freedom. You know, that land, the land and the right to be there was tied to — it was the difference between being enslaved and not. It was — it is a culture that has birthed a lot of people. And to lose that — it felt in that moment that we would lose everything.
  • people ask me all the time, if you know your land is going to go, why are you still fighting?...I don’t know what they’re expecting, you know? We going down swinging if we going.
  • it was the most honest answer I’d ever gotten.
    • the head of FEMA saying “The disaster process in this country is designed for the middle class.”
  • I don’t have this law degree for nothing. And the laws as they are written right now are not meant for me, and they’re not meant for my community, and they’re not meant to help people, and they’re not meant to save people, and they’re not meant to do those things with the utmost humanity and dignity. They are meant to preserve a middle-class tax base, period, almost every law that we have. How does this affect the taxpayer? is the analysis that is used.
  • there are bad people in this world, but mostly, there are just people who don’t know.
  • it was a moment for me that I understood, well, I have a purpose here. We’ve got to change these laws. We’ve got to change the society. It is the structures that we are living in that is the problem. I am not talking about you liking me, or me liking you, anymore. We’re now going to talk about, does this work for the least of us, which goes back to that very Catholic upbringing...That’s what I learned. That’s who we’re supposed to care about. That’s who we’re supposed to take the time to make things work for.
  • the structures and the laws of our country do not work for the least of us. In fact, they create and marginalize people. They create vulnerability, and then we blame people for that vulnerability by saying something about their own individual acts. What we witnessed in Katrina was not a series of poor choices by individuals. We witnessed the breakdown of a system, or: we witnessed a system working the way it was designed to work.
  • I started reading Red Cross papers and FEMA paperwork, and I’m thinking to myself, I’m a lawyer and I can’t understand this stuff. How can regular folks understand what they’re signing? And they were signing their life away. They were signing their property. They were signing, you know, to receive dollars that then got them into lawsuits with the federal government because they didn’t spend them the right way. You know, no one’s telling them what to do, they’re just telling them to sign the paperwork. And this got to understanding what happens when you don’t invest in your education system, what happens when the rest of the nation allows for the South’s education system to go to those low levels. It means, in disaster, people don’t understand the paperwork that they’re signing or the implications behind them. And oh, by the way, neither did the lawyer. Like, I had to like, break that stuff down and read it, too.
  • You know, we in this country, we all have this starting point of our own struggle, our own existence. And so equitable disaster recovery means you have to acknowledge the past in your action, for the moment and for the future. This is about repair, it’s not just about response. And we in this country have a real problem with that part, right, because blame, for us, is shameful. Responsibility is shameful. But we’re all responsible. If we’re maintaining this system, we are all responsible for the inequities, and therefore, we are all responsible for solutions that are equitable. And it means we have to start at those places that we have created vulnerabilities in, and then go from there. We have enough resources to help everybody. This is about where you start.
  • It’s hard, living in this country and even the response to disaster or harm is to go purchase something. You know? That’s — we don’t even know what we’re doing. We’re so unconscious — we just do it unconsciously. We’re so wealthy — just go buy it. Just go take it. It’s yours to take. It takes a lot of courage to examine that, right, because we would have to examine our comfort. We would have to examine the things we worked all our lives to get — the standards. We have really harmful standards that are harming the planet — our standards. We are — as a country, as a nation, as a people who love comfort and love what we love and love our freedom — we are at the tip of the blame knife. And we are causing a lot of harm, and we’re not paying attention. We’re thinking about climate impacts as something that’s harming those poor people over there because they’re poor, or because they have a bad leader, or, you know — but that’s not what’s happening. Our consumption is causing this problem.
  • if we believe in luck, then there’s some responsibility that goes with that. If we’re lucky enough to live in this country and to have what we have, then we don’t just get to recycle and feel better about ourselves. It’s time to show up at the hard places, right? Everybody else is waiting for us to admit that we are the engine of the harm. And so that takes courage. I mean, you know, who wants to admit that about themselves? It is courage, you know? We don’t like to look in the mirror. That stuff takes courage. I fight with those things all the time; like, what’s the line between the blame that stops you from action and the acknowledgement that catapults you to do the right thing? You’ve got to practice that. You’ve got to practice that one every day, or else — and you can’t be mad at people, because there’s a journey. I used to get very mad at people...I mean, you know, the amount of patience it takes for middle-class white folks to understand the plight of brown people in this country is just, like, how much longer do you need me to sit here and be nice about this? At some point, it feels like you’re not listening to me. And now that’s just disrespectful, which we don’t do in the South, because disrespect is a — that’s a line. So the courage is something to practice, and patience is, too. But we are facing a crisis that we have maybe seven years at most to make some corrections on, so we’ve all got to get to that a little quicker.
  • to really, really admit that you understand what is happening to the planet, it will break your heart. If you don’t cry deep, hard tears for the state of this planet and all of the people on it, you don’t yet understand the problem. And so once you get to that place, the only thing that can bring you out of that kind of darkness is belief in something greater than yourself.
  • We’re going to lose everything, and my last name is Battle. What am I supposed to do? I’m supposed to fight. I’m supposed to fight, but I’m supposed to fight with tools that build people up, not tools that take people down and take them out. And that’s love. That’s patience. That’s all of those things that they taught you in Sunday school. They were right.
  • This is not about greenhouse gas reduction. This is about do we value people equally? And if we do, we’ve got some recalibrating to do, as a planet.
  • I can’t believe that it is the U.S. government — it’s our government, it’s our representatives, under every administration in these international talks — that are stopping the conversation that says: finance the work needed for the people who are feeling the impacts of climate; finance that, because you caused it. It’s our country saying no. That, to me, is like, come on now. We’re better than that. This is lives we’re talking about. This is mass migration. This is people’s lives. This is heat deaths. This is fires. This is storms. Put everything into this. We’re fighting over whether or not people should have the right to vote? We’re fighting over whether or not people should have the right to their bodies? That is child’s play compared to what this climate crisis is. Where is the righteous indignation on this issue? And why can’t we get past that?
  • Love leads to joy...The joy comes from love. To combat this thing, to combat the oil industry’s fear of losing profit, I have got to help to bring joy of the community’s love of everything that they are.
  • I’ve learned that even people who are — who see the world differently from you, they love something. And if we take the time to share what we love with one another, we can see each other’s humanity, and we can feel each other’s value. And if we can connect in a real way, that’s what we need to accompany each other, because some of what is going to be asked is that you just let me be. You know. As relocation and all of this stuff happens, some people are going to choose something other than what you would choose.
  • we’re going to need that level of creativity to get out of this thing, and I am hopeful that the next generation, that has a lot of challenges, also has enough creativity to get out of it, to get to the next level.

"Green New Deal for the Gulf South" (2020)


In Winning the Green New Deal

  • Here in the Gulf South, we know climate disaster. Hurricane Katrina changed my life. I moved back home, to Slidell, Louisiana, in 2006. I realized my community needed lawyers-someone to read all the papers a disaster creates. They were being asked, in the middle of trauma, to sign away their rights. I'm only the third lawyer to come from my community. So I read the papers, and I decided to stay.
  • Our firsthand experiences in the Gulf South-Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida-affirm the call of scientists to rapidly address climate change and make frontline communities more resilient in the process.
  • Our work proves that media depictions of the Green New Deal as a program for liberal elites could not be further from the truth. Here on the third coast, poor black, white, brown, and native people, small businesses, neighborhood associations, and regular folks from all walks of life are ready for a Green New Deal, and we know the same is true of people all across this country.
  • The British Petroleum oil drilling disaster of 2010, when the BP-leased and Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon exploded, releasing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, is remembered for its ecological impact, but less remembered are the eleven oil rig workers who perished.
  • our coastal location and low-lying land also makes the Gulf South ground zero for this nation's climate disasters.
  • Policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions must also clean up the toxic lands left behind by oil and gas, with the same financial support and urgency. In this cleanup, and in every other aspect of the fair and just transition, the costs and burden must be paid by the industries that have polluted communities and deliberately deceived the public about the threat their operations pose to our climate.
  • We must subsidize healthy crops and farm biodiversity instead of monocultures. Our food system must be rooted in principles of community-based agroecology and food sovereignty.
  • The ocean commons belong to us all. A Blue New Deal must end attempts to industrialize the ocean through factory fish farms and large-scale aquaculture.
  • Without fundamental economic rebalancing in response to historic harm, the rights and dignity of black southerners will forever be unrealized. That's why the GND must be understood as a program of reparations for black people, including through land reform. Gulf South for a Green New Deal calls for the codification of the standards for reparations provided in the Vision for Black Lives platform, and we understand the need to draw connections between reparations in the US and climate reparations around the globe.
  • a constant reality of Gulf South life that may be invisible to many outsiders is the centrality of the military to our economy and culture. We must honor the historic significance of the military in Gulf South communities while transitioning investment away from the military and toward job creation in regenerative local economies.
  • Climate gentrification often happens in the aftermath of vlimate disaster...Rather than seeing displacement and migration as an opportunity for private sector profiteering, what if we saw it as an opportunity to rebuild a social infrastructure, rooted in justice and fairness? We could actually put money into schools and public hospitals and help these institutions prepare for what is to come through climate migration, including the trauma that comes with loss and relocation. We could combat climate gentrification by affirmatively furthering fair, affordable, and equitable housing linked to reliable public transportation. We could protect homeownership by providing material resources to families-especially in communities of color and among others who are vulnerable-for elevating and flood-proofing homes.
  • To survive this next phase of our human existence, we will need to restructure our social and economic systems from root to branch. We must transform from a disposable individual society into a society that grasps our collective long-term humanity-or else we will not make it. The task is not easy. All of this requires us to recognize a power greater than ourselves, and a life longer than the ones we will live. It requires us to believe in things we cannot see. And it requires us to believe in each other. Let's figure out how to reach a shared liberation together.

Interview with NPR (2020)

  • I work at the community level to make sure that Black folks and poor folks and Native folks are part of this climate movement.
  • The real moment of noticing that change was Katrina...our vye, our old people...the first words out of their mouths were, the water has never been this high...And that is when I started learning about the loss of our barrier islands due to oil and gas drilling.
  • It was a crack in the universe to come home and see the destruction of Katrina, and it was in that moment that I said I was never leaving home again. You see that kind of destruction, and your life will change whether you want it to or not. That was my moment of career change. I was going to have to take a much different advocacy role - not standing in front of a court, pointing to particular pieces of law but instead standing in front of my community and convince them of what I knew deep in my heart, which was that climate change was going to come after all of us and that it was going to take what we love the most, which is where we're from.
  • the FEMA regulations aren't meant for the most vulnerable communities. The disaster process of this country are meant for the middle sounds strange, right?...except the truth of it is that all of the laws in this country are meant for the middle class at best. There is a large swath of people who are never included.
  • We are not a people who are energized by hatred. I come from people who are energized by joy.
  • we know that if the victims of the original sins of this country can get together and form a united front, we can actually change this country.
  • Climate gentrification that happens in anticipation of sea-level rise is what we're seeing in places like Miami, where communities that were kept from the waterfront are now being priced out of the high ground, where they were placed originally, as people move away from the Coasts. And climate migration is just one small part, but it's going to have ripple effects in both coastal cities and cities in the interior.
  • We must reframe our understanding of the problem. Climate change is not the problem; climate change is the most horrible symptom of an economic system that has been built for a few to extract every precious value out of this planet and its people. To survive this next phase of our human existence, we will need to restructure our social and economic systems to develop our collective resilience. We must transform from a disposable, individual society into one that sees our collective long-term humanity, or else we will not make it. We must acknowledge that the only way you're going to survive is for us to figure out how to reach a shared liberation together.

Speach at Anti-war rally in DC (2005)

  • My message to you, in the midst of all of this loss and in the shadow of fault and blame is that I’m angry. I’m angry that it took a storm of this magnitude to open the eyes of all those who would laugh and academically rebut the assertion of continued racial inequality. There are those who would suggest that people like being poor, that people wanted to stay in the path of the hurricane. We can look to the media and the hue of those who are accused of looting versus those who were accused of commandeering to see there are tangible injustices in this society today.
  • I’m angry that the people of this country still choose not to acknowledge that social injustice happens on a daily basis in daily actions of everyone who lives here. But most of all, I’m angry that my family, my friends, my neighbors, after three weeks and two hurricanes, still have to wonder, when is this country going to look at us at human beings. The people of the Gulf Coast should no longer be referred to as those people. We are your people. We are citizens of this country. We need your support, and we need your help, and we deserve that. On behalf of those who have lost everything, the Pichon family in Slidell, Louisiana, would like to say to you and to the President of the United States, we need action today. I’m hopeful that today we will choose action instead of indifference. I implore you to care enough about inequality in this country, rather than turn your head away from the injustices not just in the Gulf Coast, but in Appalachia, in D.C. and southeast.

Quotes about Colette Pichon Battle

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