2021: A Year in Photos From the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis

From Hurricane Ida to Indigenous-led protests outside the White House, DeSmog documents the impacts of and actions taken to tackle a warming world.
2021: A Year in Photos From the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis
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Flare at Sasol chemical plant
A ground flare at the Sasol chemical plant in Westlake, Louisiana, lighting up the sky on December 10, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky

This was the year the United Nations Secretary-General declared human-driven global heating a “code red for humanity.” And this selection of photos I shot for DeSmog throughout 2021 offers visual proof that his warning is merited. 

My work documents the ongoing trend of science denial becoming increasingly woven into right-wing rhetoric by steadfast Trump supporters, the impacts of extreme weather fueled by climate change, and the actions taken by climate advocates fighting for environmental justice and against pollution from the fossil fuel industry. 

Storm-damaged home on Grand Isle, Louisiana
Silhouette of a storm-damaged home on Grand Isle, Louisiana, on September 22, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky
Black fares from Shell Norco plant
Black smoke from flares burning at Shell’s Norco Manufacturing Complex the day after Hurricane Ida hit in August 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Despite climate scientists’ repeated warnings that the world must take immediate measures to lower carbon emissions, the U.S. Gulf Coast is in the midst of a sprawling and expensive build-out of the petrochemical industry. Building new facilities to produce plastics and petrochemicals is expected to add millions of tons of greenhouse gases and millions of pounds of toxic materials to the environment every year.  

Aerial view of a large industrial facility with piping and tanks on flat marshy land and water on two sides
Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass LNG Export terminal still under construction and adjoining land where the company announced on December 2, 2021, that it  proposes to build  another LNG export facility. Credit: Julie Dermansky

In addition, Texas and Louisiana continue to welcome new fossil fuel projects, including a slew of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals exporting fracked gas overseas, carbon capture and storage facilities, and blue hydrogen production, in some of the same areas along the coast where hurricanes and flooding lead to record-breaking damages each year. 

Trump supporter in Baton Rouge
Trump supporter at a “Stop the Steal” rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on January 9, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky
Roxana Buckingham
Roxana Buckingham protests Louisiana’s mask mandate outside of the Robert Brooks Educational Center in Slidell where a St. Tammany School Board meeting was held on August 12, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky

And as the nation’s shores are battered by worsening storms fueled by climate change, the nation’s democratic values have also been under attack.

Over the past year “we’ve seen the local cancer that was the bad faith attacks on climate science now metastasize to infect our entire body politic,” Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann wrote via email. “As I discuss in ‘The New Climate War,’ the very same methods and tactics that were used by big polluters to discredit the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change are now being used to literally wage war against any facts, including COVID, the Jan. 6 insurrection, voting rights, etc. that are inconvenient to the right wing corporate interests that now have a firm stranglehold on our dying democracy. They are aided by a conservative base that is motivated by grievance, that feeds on racial animus, and that embraces vitriol and the rejection of fact-based discourse.”

Bodies of coronavirus victims at the Treasures of Life Funeral home during the second surge of the pandemic. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Science denial has serious real world effects. Millions of lives have been lost due to COVID-19, and many more have been affected by its cascading impacts on health and daily life. Countless others struggle to rebuild their lives amid this pandemic and the worsening climate crisis.

Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar
Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar on November 24, 2021, in front of a pile of debris from her torn-down home that was destroyed by Hurricane Ida. Credit: Julie Dermansky

In late August, Traditional Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, lost her home to Hurricane Ida, like thousands of others in South Louisiana. She’s also a member of the Louisiana Climate Initiative Task Force established by Gov. John Bel Edwards in August 2020 to develop policies that cut greenhouse gas emissions.

While she welcomes the dialogue that the commission is having, Parfait-Dardar isn’t convinced  it will accomplish anything when the governor is also encouraging huge petrochemical and fossil fuel investments in the state.

“Ignoring climate science is a fool’s folly and there is no time for half measures when it comes to protecting the environment,” Parfait-Dardar told me. Right now, she is focused on helping her community rebuild after Ida.

Coffin disrupted by Hurricane Ida
Following Hurricane Ida, a coffin is lodged upright into the ground in Ironton, Louisiana, on September 10, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Just prior to the United Nations COP26 climate summit in October, a coalition of over 25 environmental groups known as Build Back Fossil Free, a poke at Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislative agenda, gathered in the nation’s capital. Indigenous leaders in the coalition led a five-day protest in Washington, D.C., calling on President Biden to declare a climate emergency and to stop approving fossil fuel projects. 

Tension between the protesters and the police were heightened by the echoes of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Some pointed out the irony that peaceful protesters were arrested en masse in front of the White House, while many of those who participated in the failed insurrection on the Capitol have yet to be arrested or held accountable. 

Indigenous protest
Casey Camp Horinek, tribal elder and environmental ambassador for Ponca Nation, marching with other tribal leaders to the White House on October 13, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky

In November, Biden’s administration — while claiming to prioritize environmental justice and to be a leader in the lowering of carbon emissions at the COP26 climate summit — offered up leases to the remaining 80 million acres of the Gulf Coast’s seabed yet to be utilized for fossil fuel extraction. That move and the administration’s support for fossil fuel-based “blue hydrogen” and carbon capture and sequestration projects will likely add to the climate crisis, not solve it, some environmentalists warn. 

Sharon Lavigne, founder of community group RISE St. James next to EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan at a community meeting in St. James Parish, Louisiana, on November 16, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky

In November, the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Michael Regan toured environmental justice communities in states along the Gulf of Mexico, promising fenceline communities a seat at the table — a move reflecting Biden’s commitment to advance environmental justice.

But many climate advocates in the region say that the administration’s actions when dealing with the climate crisis don’t reflect the urgency of the situation. That table which community members have been offered a seat at could soon be underwater, as sea level rise continues to quicken with a warming planet. 

Flares at ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge
Flares at ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on September 2, 2021, following Hurricane Ida. Credit: Julie Dermansky
Flare at the Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex in Norco, Louisiana, on November 20, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky
Guard at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Guard at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., behind custom-made police tape marked “Climate Emergency” made by activists, on the outside of the Department of Interior building October 14, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky
Anti-Biden signs in Terrebonne Parish
Anti-Biden signs on a fence in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, in an area hit hard by Hurricane Ida on November 24, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky
Sasol chemical plant flare
Flare at the Sasol chemical plant in Westlake, Louisiana, on December 10, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky
2021: A Year in Photos From the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis
Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com.

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