Hurricane Harvey

Economic and Political Realities of Climigration

Devastation caused by Hurricane Irma has paralyzed Puerto Rico and spurred Puerto Ricans to become climate refugees.

Devastation caused by Hurricane Irma has paralyzed Puerto Rico and spurred Puerto Ricans to become climate refugees.

The hurricane-caused devastation in Puerto Rico that has left large chunks of the island in the dark and without drinking water poses a major challenge for humanitarian aid. It may also pose an unexpected political challenge as many Puerto Ricans flee their island home, perhaps for good.

They are climate refugees. Not in the technical and legal sense of “refugees,” but in the practical meaning of the word. They are fleeing what they view as an untenable existence, not because of a perceived slow response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but because they see a worsening climate affecting their safety and economic well-being.

Climigration may not be limited to Puerto Rico, which has been hit by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes. Residents in the US Virgin Islands, Florida Keys and southeast Texas may retreat to higher ground to avoid future exposure to winds, flooding and water surges in floodplains and coastlines.

These climate refugees may or may not believe in human-caused climate change, but they no longer doubt the climate is changing in potentially dangerous ways. The specter of entire islands with flattened buildings, no electricity and a decimated economy can be deeply disheartening. In Puerto Rico, death counts and damage estimates are impossible because many areas remain virtually inaccessible.

FEMA and President George W. Bush took a beating for a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina. FEMA has gotten higher marks for its response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. For Puerto Ricans standing in an impossibly long line to get on a cruise ship bound for the mainline, FEMA isn’t the issue. They just can’t picture themselves trying to put their lives back together on an island with dim prospects.

If you have a serious illness, you don’t see much chance of getting the care you need. If you are in the tourism industry, it is hard to imagine many of the 2.3 million tourists who visit Puerto Rico returning any time soon. If you are living on the economic edge, falling into poverty seems likely. If you are a political official for a territory already in deep debt, there may not be any light in the tunnel.

US-citizen climigrants will settle in new places, with a likely concentration in Florida. Like Cuban refugees, Puerto Rican refugees will bring their political views with them, including their views about the impacts of climate change. Experiencing historic back-to-back hurricanes can leave a lasting impression. And that’s the political dilemma.

Apart from a herculean effort to rebuild Puerto Rico and other devastated Caribbean islands, there is a huge question mark about their future economic footing. As an island without any commercially viable natural resources, Puerto Rico must rely on manufacturing and tourism, both of which need to count on basics like electricity. Puerto Rico already has seen an out-migration of its population – a net loss of almost 450,000 people between 2005 and 2015. Island flight may accelerate, as evidenced by the exodus on flights bound for the mainland.

Climigration isn’t new in the long history of earth. That’s probably how many people wound up where they are. Most recently, more than 400,000 residents pulled up stakes and left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Chunks of the city remain more or less in ruins.

Congress passed an initial hurricane relief funding package in response to the devastation in Texas, but has been preoccupied with other issues, including a proposed massive tax cut, after the devastation in Puerto Rico. The perceived slight is becoming a political issue on Capitol Hill, with Democrats urging swifter, stronger actions to assist Puerto Rico.

Ultimately as many as 1 million Puerto Ricans may move and take their first-hand view of climate change – and the political response – with them to new constituencies.

Hurricane Harvey Blows DC Political Winds in New Direction

Devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey has shifted the political winds in Washington, DC to focus on funding relief efforts, which may provide the political cover for Congress to raise the debt ceiling and allow more time to come up with a spending bill before the new fiscal year begins October 1.

Devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey has shifted the political winds in Washington, DC to focus on funding relief efforts, which may provide the political cover for Congress to raise the debt ceiling and allow more time to come up with a spending bill before the new fiscal year begins October 1.

Hurricane Harvey tore into Texas and its winds continued to blow all the way to Washington, DC.

Congress returns to town Tuesday and now topping its list of to-dos is passage of legislation to add billions more in funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover soaring costs to build after the ravages of one of history’s worst hurricanes in Texas.

President Trump has called for $7.9 billion in increased funding, even though Texas Governor Greg Abbott predicts it will require as much as $180 billion to recover what was lost or damaged in Houston, Corpus Christie, Beaumont and other Southeast Texas communities.

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The increased funding comes as Congress must find a way to approve legislation raising the US debt ceiling and a funding measure to keep the federal government’s doors open when the new fiscal year begins October 1. Those already prickly political issues were complicated when Trump said he was willing to accept a government shutdown to get a down payment on funding of his border wall.

Congress is already under a tight deadline to raise the debt ceiling and approve a FY 2018 spending measure and now also must deal with funding Hurricane Harvey relief, legislation to maintain the so-called Dreamers program and possibly increased expenditures to fight a war with North Korea.

Congress is already under a tight deadline to raise the debt ceiling and approve a FY 2018 spending measure and now also must deal with funding Hurricane Harvey relief, legislation to maintain the so-called Dreamers program and possibly increased expenditures to fight a war with North Korea.

Trump seems to have backed off the border wall threat under the cover of pressing for immediate relief funding to hard-hit Texas and parts of Louisiana, which he visited twice since the hurricane made landfall August 25.

Even though there is no direct connection between increased FEMA funding and raising the debt ceiling, which reflects past federal spending, hurricane victim relief may give GOP congressional leaders the leverage they need to push through both measures without a lot of political infighting, especially from the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Both Texas senators, who have bona fide conservative credentials, have expressed support for more FEMA funding. Relief aid would be touted by Trump and other politicians as a significant legislative achievement.

If that happened, there would be would more space – and perhaps legislative days – for what are expected to be intense political negotiations over spending for the next fiscal year. The Trump administration has called for massive budget cuts in many federal agencies – including FEMA, but those cuts may not have much political traction, even among many Republicans.

Instead, GOP leaders may try to raise the stakes for congressional Democrats by threatening to cut back on spending for health care for children to gain political concessions on revisions to the Affordable Care Act and possibly other political objectives. There are bipartisan Capitol Hill discussions occurring on ways to repair, as opposed to repeal, Obamacare, which could become part of the budget conversation.

Congressional spending decisions rarely follow a straight line and the hard negotiating never occurs in public view. While budget negotiators may ignore Trump’s budget outline, there are less likely to dismiss the President’s push for major tax cuts. While there also is willingness and even preliminary discussion of a bipartisan tax reform measure, agreement is virtually impossible before the end of September when some kind of a spending bill must pass. That suggests Congress will resort once again to some kind of continuing resolution, perhaps to the end of the year, to allow more time for the tax issue to ferment – and the hurricane relief bill to grow.

All that is murky enough political water, but it will get murkier. Trump will announce his decision to roll back the Obama-era decision to grant work permits to the children of undocumented immigrants, possibly with a 6-month delay to give Congress a chance to act. While a number of states have threatened to sue if the so-called Dreamers program isn’t scrapped, many GOP congressional leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan, have expressed support for legislation that would maintain the program.

The other wild card that could blow up budget talks is the heightening war of words between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear weapon capability. Diplomatic options seem to be dwindling and some kind of military action is becoming more probable, despite predictions of enormous collateral damage. At a minimum, the United States would need to reinforce its manpower levels in Asia. There are reports military units already have been put on notice. As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan – and earlier in Vietnam, fighting on the ground and dropping bombs from the sky is budget-busting expensive.

It is hard to imagine how the political situation in Washington, DC could get much worse. Well, its name is Irma and it may be heading to Florida coast later this week.