The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a particularly vulnerable place in the United States in regards to climate change. Puerto Rico is uniquely susceptible due to it's status as an island on the hurricane belt, which puts it at risk for rising sea level and severe storms. In recent years, Puerto Rico has experienced devastating hurricanes, which are increasing in intensity and occurrence due to rising global temperatures (IPCC, 2014). In fact, the island’s temperatures have risen more than one degree Fahrenheit since the 1950s and the ocean temperatures have risen almost two degrees Fahrenheit since 1901 (Environmental Protection Agency, 2016). This is very alarming because warmer waters are providing the energy for more intense hurricanes to hit the island. In fact, Puerto Rico had two severe storms hit the island in September 2017 only two weeks apart from each other: Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.
The United States is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere due to its burning of fossil fuels (Environmental Protection Agency, 2017). 97% of published climate scientists agree that humans are to blame for the warming that has taken place on our planet over the past half-century (Cook, 2016). Moreover, anthropogenic climate change is to blame for the intensity of the storms hitting Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean (IPCC, 2014). Extreme storms have the ability to widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor in Puerto Rico. Lower economic areas are not as resilient and are not being able to bounce back from disasters as quickly as more affluent areas. A continued rise in the number and intensity of hurricanes should be expected with global warming. As discussed above, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September of 2017, just 2 weeks later the island was hit with the category 5 storm, Hurricane Irma (US Department of Commerce, 2017). Hurricane Maria’s official death toll is 64 people, but studies show that about 70 times more people died because of the storm (Kishore, 2018; Robles, 2018). The timing of Hurricane Maria was particularly damaging because Puerto Ricans were still without power and clean water and were just starting to rebuild their communities from damage incurred from Irma by the time Maria hit (Steinbuch, 2018). The power outage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria remains the largest power outage in United States history (Santiago, 2018). While Hurricanes Maria and Irma both affected Puerto Ricans, scientists believe that severe storms like these will occur more frequently due to the effects resulting from human-caused global warming. Hurricanes are a natural phenomenon, but human-caused global warming is clearly exacerbating the magnitude and frequency of the hurricanes, particularly in islands in the Caribbean.
Sea Level Rise
Rising sea level is a significant global concern. The sea level in Puerto Rico has risen four inches since 1960 and is expected to continue to rise one inch every 15 years (Environmental Protection Agency, 2016). This rising sea level is a threat to the people of Puerto Rico especially those who live on the coast where their homes will be more likely to flood. The expense to coastal residences will rise significantly as flood insurance is likely to rise for those who live on the water (Environmental Protection Agency, 2016). In fact, it may become impossible for certain areas to even procure flood insurance if the hurricanes continue to increase in number and intensity. Further, cultural heritage sites in Puerto Rico are at risk of being damaged, or eventually being underwater because of the rise in sea level. Currently, at high tide, twenty-seven cultural heritage sites in Puerto Rico are flooded, and by the end of the century, it is expected that 140 sites will be flooded (Ezcurra & Rivera-Collazo, 2018). In sum, rising sea levels threaten Puerto Rico’s protected cultural sites, especially if precautions are not taken to keep ocean water away from these historic areas.
Although Puerto Ricans are experiencing heavy rain, they are experiencing less cumulative rainfall each year due to anthropogenic climate change, which has caused the island to be in a drought (Environmental Protection Agency, 2016). This is leading to Puerto Ricans experiencing severe droughts across the entire island. Such drought conditions have led to a decline in biodiversity on the island (Santiago & Gallon, 2018). The drought conditions in Puerto Rico have caused many citizens to have trouble finding clean water during times of major storms. Low rainfall is something climate scientists have predicted will happen more frequently with climate change, and the changing temperatures are affecting Puerto Rico’s overall precipitation. The droughts in Puerto Rico will have a direct impact on the people because of the lack of clean drinking water is a major health risk. Further, these drought conditions imperil the vitality of tropical rainforest, which has a devastating impact on the economy as well as the quality of life on the island.
Warmer waters off the coast of Puerto Rico have led to coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is the processes in which algae leave the coral because of warming waters and leaves the coral to be more susceptible to disease and makes the coral more likely to die. Hurricanes Irma and Maria were particularly damaging to corals in Puerto Rico, leading to many of them to be damaged. The corals in Puerto Rico are responsible for a large amount of income for the island; it brings in about $1.1 billion dollars per year to the Puerto Rican economy (Emergency Support Function Annexes, 2017). Damage to unique ecosystems is damaging for the people of Puerto Rico because it drives the economy of the island by boosting tourism and supporting local businesses.
How Climate Change will Affect Puerto Rico's Economy
Many of these impacts affect the Puerto Rican economy, which relies heavily on tourism. Puerto Rico is an especially vulnerable because 43.5% of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line, (United States Census Bureau, 2017) which is significantly higher than the US average of 12.7% (United States Census Bureau, 2018). It is well settled that the impact of global change is economically disproportionate as the biggest polluters are the more affluent citizens while impoverished areas are more vulnerable to these impacts (Harlan, 2015). Puerto Rico is not an exception to this trend (Zorrilla, 2017).
Only 47% of Americans know that Puerto Ricans are United States citizens (Gomez, 2017). Although Puerto Ricans are United States citizens, there does seem to be less sympathy and concern for the island compared to comparable disasters in the continental US. Environmental injustice has been an issue in Puerto Rico even before the 2017 hurricanes, but the treatment that the territory got from the United States government has shed new light on .the pervasive nature environmental injustice experienced by Puerto Rico (Brown, 2018). In 2017, the same year that Puerto Rico got hit by Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Irma hit Florida while Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. The federal government responded to these hurricanes in Texas and Florida quicker with more first responders to help, and the United States spent more federal money on restoring both Texas and Florida than it spent on restoring Puerto Rico, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency records (Wilson, 2019). The different responses to the hurricanes was not based on the severity of each of the storms or how much aid was needed. How the United States responds to each of these natural disasters, in areas that are all entitled to the same amount of aid from the United States government, is an example of how Puerto Ricans are particularly vulnerable to environmental injustice.
The internal administration of Puerto Rico is starting initiatives to increase its environmental sustainability. The Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, pledged that the island shall run completely off of renewable energy by the year 2050 (Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico). The governor is also making the island resilient to rising sea levels by planting trees along the coast to combat land loss. These steps of reforestation and switching to renewable energy will help Puerto Ricans be more resilient to climate change in the future. In order to make a greater impact on climate change, and its affects on Puerto Rico, the governor has urged more U.S. politicians to stand up and commit to renewable energy sources, as they have vowed to in Puerto Rico.
About the Author
Maggie Canty is a class of 2019 Environmental Studies-Psychology combined major at St. Lawrence University. Maggie grew up in Concord Massachusetts, which ignited her passion for environmental activism. Throughout her life she has sought out experiences involving hiking and getting outdoors, which includes attending the High Mountain Institute in Leadville Colorado as well as being involved many environmental clubs on the St. Lawrence Campus. This narrative was created for Dr. Jon Rosales' Adapting to Climate Change class in Spring 2019.
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