The devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria has thrown Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States into sharp relief. With large swaths of the rural population cut off from communications, hospitals left without fuel, and the death count still unknown, the U.S. government’s response has been lethally inadequate — treating Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens, or simply non-citizens.
But Puerto Rico isn’t the only area that has been ravaged by this season’s deadly storms. From Cuba to Barbuda, many other islands in the Atlantic have been devastated by the climate change-fueled rash of extreme weather.
Given the broad path of destruction left by these storms, U.S. citizenship must not be the litmus test for whether people caught in the crosshairs of climate change deserve life-saving aid. If Hurricane Maria exposed the crime of U.S. colonialism, it also underscored the profound debt the U.S. government and 1 percent owes to poor people and residents of the Global South — the ones hardest hit by climate disasters.
This debt is owed to U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike.
Mainstream media has been busy covering President Trump’s response to the storm as he hurls insults at sports players staging racial justice protests, tweets about Puerto Rico’s “debt” and taunts San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Less reported, however, is the floundering aid effort, which has been compounded by a crisis of poverty at the hands of U.S.-backed austerity policies and a Wall Street-manufactured debt crisis.
Puerto Rico’s ability to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis has been hampered by requirements that the island pay back debts to Wall Street financiers, leading some areas to strip vital public infrastructure. And much of the control over budgetary decision making in Puerto Rico has been overtaken by the unelected, U.S.-controlled austerity board implemented by last year’s widely opposed “PROMESA” Act.
As Trump visits Puerto Rico today, 95 percent of residents don’t have power and an estimated 44 percent don’t have access to potable water. While some members of Congress have issued statements voicing their concern, they have still not put together a sufficient aid package. Meanwhile, business interests and other disaster capitalists circle the island. On Friday, San Juan Mayor Cruz warned, “what we are going to see is something close to a genocide.”
Collective failure in the face of this mounting humanitarian crisis has rightfully provoked widespread outrage, with even The Washington Post proclaiming, “Puerto Rico is being treated like a colony after Hurricane Maria.” Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, tells In These Times, “The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Maria is the culmination of centuries of colonialism, extraction and repression. This climate catastrophe downed many grids that were already buckling under the weight of neglect and austerity: the communications grid, the electrical grid, the food grid and the economic grid.”
A poll conducted after the storm by Morning Consult found that Americans who know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens are more likely to support aid from the mainland. And politicians’ meager calls to come to the island’s assistance, however empty and insufficient, have largely implied that collective responsibility stops at Puerto Rico.
The United States does have a special responsibility to address Puerto Rico’s climate destruction, inflamed by its colonial relationship with the United States. But the U.S. government also has a special responsibility to rectify the harm it has wrought around the world — far beyond the territories it officially claims as its own. After all, the climate crisis knows no national borders.
This season’s Atlantic storms — which scientists warn will only grow more severe and destructive as the climate warms — slammed islands across the Caribbean, with Hurricane Irma destroying most buildings on Barbuda and St. Martin. In addition to Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria hit the Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic, unleashing floods, mudslides and widespread power outages. Communities from the U.S. mainland to Cuba still face daunting, uphill climbs to recovery.
Barbuda remains almost completely deserted. Many of its residents have been relocated to nearby Antigua, and some remain confined to makeshift shelters. “Just to see the place, and not hearing any voices or seeing anybody, is really, really emotional,” Michal Francois told NBC News after visiting her home of Barbados for the first time since evacuating. “Looking around and no activity. It’s what you’re used to. You know? It’s really tough. Really hard,” she added.
“Free rider” countries
This season’s destructives storms fit the overall rise in extreme weather, exacerbated by human-made climate change. According to data released in 2012 by the World Bank, the United States is the second-largest producer of carbon in the world, second only to China.
This disproportionate climate impact can also be broken down by class. Findings released by Oxfam International in 2015 show that the poorest half of the global population is responsible for producing just 10 percent of all carbon emissions, while the wealthiest 10 percent produces roughly half of such emissions. The study also finds that an individual in the wealthiest 1 percent of the global population has a carbon footprint 175 times greater than that of an individual from the poorest 10 percent.
These disparities reflect global inequalities. For example, Oxfam determined that an individual from the wealthiest 10 percent of India’s population uses an average of just one quarter the carbon of an individual in the poorest half of the U.S. population.
And the role of the U.S. elite in driving climate change cannot be measured solely in terms of carbon output. As the largest economy in the world, the United States plays a key role in maintaining a ruthless, international capitalist system predicated on oil, gas and coal extraction, even as scientists warn that the vast majority of fossil fuels must stay in the ground if we are to stave off catastrophic climate change.
According to a November 2015 study from Oil Change International, G20 countries are responsible for shelling out $444 billion a year to subsidize the production of fossil fuels. The report, which reviewed the years 2013 and 2014, found that the United States spent more than $20 billion annually to subsidize fossil fuel production. Meanwhile, Climate Transparency has determined that G20 countries are responsible for nearly three quarters of all current greenhouse gasses.
Yet it is the poor, people of color and residents of the Global South who suffer most. According to a 2015 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, the countries most responsible for driving climate change are the ones least impacted in the immediate term. “’Free rider’ countries contribute disproportionately to global GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions with only limited vulnerability to the effects of the resulting climate change, while ‘forced rider’ countries are most vulnerable to climate change but have contributed little to its genesis,” the study finds. “This is an issue of environmental equity on a truly global scale.”
Among the 17 countries identified in the study as “acutely vulnerable” to climate change, most are African countries or island nations in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
In an April 2017 briefing, Oxfam affirmed that we are already seeing climate change unleash humanitarian crises. “Nearly thirteen million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are dangerously hungry and in need of humanitarian assistance,” states the briefing. “The worst drought-affected areas in Somalia are on the brink of famine.”
The failure of the global elite to ease the suffering caused by the climate crisis springs from multiple, interlaced social problems: racism, capitalism, colonialism, global inequality and state violence. This failure has impacted the U.S. mainland, from Houston to New Orleans, but most severely hits those countries excluded from the mainstream media narrative of climate destruction. Discussion of the havoc wrought in Cuba and Barbados is generally absent from headlines in the United States, while reporting on drought and potential famine in East Africa is nearly totally missing.
In 2014, Marshallese writer Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner read a poem to the United Nations Climate Summit in which she cited the fact that the Marshall Islands are disappearing as the sea levels rise. “They say you, your daughter and your granddaughter, too will wander rootless with only a passport to call home,” she read from a poem addressed to her daughter.
“We deserve to do more than just survive”
Social movements across the Global South have long demanded the wealthy and powerful pay reparations for the harm that has already been inflicted, and that which will be unleashed. The concept of climate debt was emphasized by poor and Global South countries along with civil society groups at the 2010 COP16 global climate summit. This call for reparations continues today.
“The United States is the number one polluter on the planet,” Jose Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance, tells In These Times. “It’s time the U.S. government steps up their responsibility to repay their climate debt and repair their portion to the global climate catastrophe. The United States must take responsibility for Puerto Rico and for the massive impacts throughout the Global South.”
Such responsibility requires us to look beyond national borders and take stock of the complex global relationships that are driving the climate crisis and leading us to abandon those hardest hit. This will mean reparations for colonialism — as well as for the harms wrought against territories the United States does not officially claim as its own.
No U.S. citizen should be left to die just because she lives in a colony. Yet, no one anywhere should be left to die — period. To address this global crisis, we must demand that the wealthy elite cease inflicting harm and pay what is owed to those who are already in the grips of disaster.
As Jetnil-Kijiner writes in the poem to her daughter, “we deserve to do more than just survive, we deserve to thrive.”
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.