Puerto Rico and Why Climate Reparations Must Know No Borders

U.S. citizenship must not be a litmus test for who deserves to survive the climate crisis.

Sarah Lazare October 3, 2017

A man rides his horse on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 22, 2017. (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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.

Col­lec­tive failure

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.

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