Puerto Rico

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.

Clinton Joins in Zika Finger-Pointing

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the Zika blame game as she condemned Congress for failing to provide funding to combat the deadly disease after a Texas infant died from Zika-related complications.

In Februrary, President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to respond to the spread of the Zika virus abroad and prepare for its feared arrival in the United States. Despite multiple proposals from both chambers in the following months, Congress left town in July without an agreement on Zika funding. 

Negotiations came to a screeching halt when Senate Democrats blocked a last-ditch, $1.1 billion package to fight the virus. Democrats were on board with the funding level, but pulled their support when provisions were added in conference to relax EPA regulations, protect the flying of the Confederate flag and prevent Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving money to fight the virus.

With Congress in the middle of its seven-week summer recess, a newborn baby in Texas with Zika-related birth defects has died. The news comes alongside four new Zika cases reported in Florida.

While both parties have spent the past few weeks blaming one another for inaction, Democrats have taken a new approach. Several top Democrats, including President Obama, have urged Republican leadership to cut the recess short and return to Washington to pass a bipartisan measure at the funding level requested by the administration.

After the news in Texas broke, Clinton joined the blame game. In a speech in Florida, Clinton urged Republicans to come back to Washington and “pass the bipartisan funding package the Senate passed.” Clinton was referring to the original $1.1 billion compromise package reached by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Patty Murray (D-WA), absent the controversial policy riders that emerged in the conference report.

Republicans have yet to budge and repeatedly point to the proposals Democrats rejected. In a recent op-ed, House Speaker Paul Ryan writes, “[Democrats] blocked our plan not once, but twice – a blatant ploy in an election year.” The Speaker added, “Because of their actions, this funding is in limbo. It shouldn’t be.”

Although the recent Zika cases may not cause Congress to trim its recess, Zika funding will certainly remain a hot topic when members return.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has shifted $589 million, most of which came from Ebola resources within the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State/USAID, to be used for Zika-related prevention and treatment.   

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com