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Addressing severe climate change impacts in Puerto Rico, other territories while we still can

Hurricane_Maria _Puerto_Rico
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Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico

The country has known for years now that U.S. territories and Freely Associated States experience some of the most devastating impacts of climate change even as they contribute the least to the problem, as measured by greenhouse gas emissions. Federal law and current spending priorities leave millions of Americans to fend for themselves in these communities even as sea levels continue to rise, hurricanes continue to get more severe and more frequent, and tropical diseases continue to spread further afield.

We all remember when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, killing more than 3,000 people and inflicting major damage to local infrastructure. Less well remembered — on the mainland if not on the island — is the Trump administration’s truly outrageous response, which amounted to sitting on its hands and wishing Puerto Rico good luck. The U.S. Virgin Islands got similar treatment the same year after Hurricane Irma. So did Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands when Typhoon Yutu struck in 2018.

These jurisdictions and others like them — collectively known as the “U.S.-affiliated insular areas” — are truly on the front lines of the climate crisis. Unlike states, they have limited or no access to federal programs focused on building climate resiliency. Some of them, thanks to out-of-date energy plans, are still heavily reliant on petroleum. Much of their existing infrastructure does not meet modern hazard mitigation codes.

It shouldn’t take a major media outcry or a sustained public pressure campaign to see a federal response to climate change and the destruction it brings. These were foreseeable events, and much of the damage they caused could have been mitigated sooner or prevented entirely. In short, the insular areas need federal help, and Congress should get it to them as soon as possible.

That’s why I recently introduced a discussion draft of the Insular Areas Climate Change Act and am pushing to turn provisions of the bill into law at the next opportunity. Whether the next big congressional initiative is an economic rebuilding package, a transportation and infrastructure bill, or some other undertaking, it must include provisions to help and protect the millions of Americans living in the territories and Freely Associated States.

The need for this was made especially vivid at a recent hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee, which I chair. Ada Monzón, the president of the EcoExploratorio Museum of Science in Puerto Rico, cautioned that the climate-related troubles of the insular areas are expected to become more severe in coming years, especially with respect to hurricanes. “Before we thought we would have a category five every hundred years,” she told the committee. “Now we’re thinking perhaps twenty to twenty-five years.”

To put that in perspective, consider three things:

  • Where entire generations could come and go without seeing a very severe hurricane on the islands, people should now expect to see three or even four in their lifetimes.
  • Our health care, our infrastructure preparation, and our energy plans in the insular areas are still designed as though this isn’t the case.
  • The new hurricane season is just three months away.

Sea level rise, coastal erosion, and temperature increases are going to get worse in these jurisdictions, and we need to prepare. Coral reefs are a natural barrier against storm surge, and if they are lost or weakened, natural disasters will present even more risks than they already do.

To make matters worse, inadequate and unequal federal policies have contributed to high rates of poverty and underfunded health care systems and have raised unnecessary barriers for residents to access federal assistance in the insular areas. The human suffering caused by unequal access to many benefits and services available on the mainland is indefensible in the here and now, whatever future climate impacts may look like.

Fortunately, we know what to do to fix this. I’m grateful to the local governments, climate change experts, organizations and communities that contributed to the development of my draft bill, which has several key features I’m now promoting among my colleagues:

  • The creation of a federal interagency task force to provide greater access to climate change-related federal programs.
  • The establishment of an Office of Insular Area Energy Policy and Programs within the Department of Energy to better direct energy management, planning, delivery, and conservation programs.
  • The establishment of multiple grants to study and develop technologies to reduce climate crisis impacts on the insular areas.
  • The cancellation of federal loan repayments and the waiving of matching fund requirements for insular areas, which for decades have struggled with limited financial resources.

Climate change can no longer be siloed from our other priorities. It must be at the center of policymaking. This is crucial for U.S. territories and Freely Associated States, which suffer the most from a climate crisis they had little hand in creating.

Raúl M. Grijalva chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Tags Climate change U.S. territories

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