The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Climate Refugees in Florida Could Change the Politics There for Generations
By Adam Lynch
Marámellys Castro-Pérez is a Puerto Rican refugee living in Orlando with her husband and twins after the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Maria, in particular, scrubbed the island clean of electricity, working toilets and phone service. It dragged Castro-Pérez's world into the dark ages and pitted the island's modern, cosmopolitan populace against the once-tamed perils of hunger, biting insects and disease.
"I was very sad because the island was in desolation. It was a hard hit," Castro-Pérez explained through an interpreter. "It truly hurt to see my home like that: flooded, with no light or water, seeing my children suffering. I've cried. I've suffered. But hopefully this [move] will make it better."
Castro-Pérez is now living in Florida, but what happened back on the island still haunts her and will likely reflect in how she votes. And she's not the only one. A wave of climate refugees fleeing the island to Florida could change the face of Florida politics.
Maria's violence was unprecedented. It churned the island like a 125-mile-wide blender, set on "smite." Katia Avilés-Vázquez, a member of sustainable farming resource group Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, says island residents know who hit the button.
The island's tropical rainforest climate, she said, is changing before their eyes. Local farmers are adopting drought-tolerant crops. Some have relocated as arable land goes sour from shifting water distribution patterns and rising seas, which drown aquifers. Two years earlier the island saw one of the worst droughts in its history. It spent more than a year grinding farmland into ash, but then broke with a maddening deluge that washed away crops just as delighted farmers were finally planting them. Then came 2017 and its cache of hurricanes.
"So when Irma and Maria hit within two weeks of each other people were like 'what the—Mother Earth is trying to kill us,'" said Avilés-Vázquez, who is also a researcher for the Center for Sustainable Development Studies at the Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan.
She claims Puerto Rico's climate-conscious inhabitants knew the value of recycling and a low carbon footprint long before the storms, but that couldn't stop them from being victimized.
"We're a small population. We can carbon sink or recycle and bike more and plant all the trees we want, but that won't change anything on the larger scale," she said. "We're bearing the brunt of climate change and we're not really responsible for it."
The U.S. stood only behind China as the planet's chief emitter of carbon dioxide in 2015—accounting for 15 percent of total global emissions from fuel combustion. Embattled Puerto Ricans don't get a say in the national climate debate, though, because of their commonwealth status. They can only watch as a president, for whom they could not vote, rolls back federal environmental protections while their island boils.
That changes when a Puerto Rican moves to the U.S. mainland, however. As U.S. citizens, islanders can vote as soon as they register in their new location. It's no different than moving from Albuquerque or Vegas. Knowing this, Puerto Rico's frustrated governor, Ricardo Rosselló, announced that he was mobilizing relocated Puerto Ricans to register to vote and use their fledgling political voice to rattle the presidential administration for its destructive decisions. Rosselló howled when Trump punctuated hurricane devastation with an untimely tax on U.S. businesses stationed on the island. Trump's refusal to permanently lift the Jones Act, which doubles the price of island imports, also curdles relations.
Trump alienates Hispanics in general, jeopardizing his party's dominance in a swingy state like Florida, which elected him by only 113,000 votes. Florida is facing an open gubernatorial race next year, as well as a Senate election and a series of congressional races that could upset Republican control of Congress.
The GOP is in damage control, with business affiliates at Koch Industries ingratiating themselves with P.R. refugees through generous language and civics training courses in Orlando. Anthony Suarez, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida, said they have a long way to go.
"Trump's not getting good political speed out of his actions in Puerto Rico, especially with that towel incident," Suarez said, recounting unflattering footage of the president visiting storm-torn areas and derisively hurling rolls of paper towels to a crowd.
"We got something really big [brewing] here," he said.
Sierra Club Florida Director Frank Jackalone said climate-conscious Puerto Rican refugees will likely swell the ranks of existing Florida residents who are also sounding the climate alarm.
"Puerto Ricans are cognizant of the impact of climate change, but Floridians also are cognizant," said Jackalone. "We don't have a lot of (climate) deniers anymore."
Hurricane Irma made an impact after knocking out power to more than 50 percent of the state. Jackalone said Floridians are also noticing the sea level rise, with saltwater intrusion in reservoirs in parts of Miami and in some parts of the Florida Keys.
It will help that Puerto Ricans are enthusiastic voters back on the island, where turnout is regularly higher than turnout for presidential elections in the 50 states; throughout the late 20th century, voter turnout for the island's quadrennial elections was 50 percent higher than for mainland presidential contests. On the island, voting is a matter of cultural pride, with an intensity matched only by the ease of the voting process. The island has easy registration, requiring the presentation of state, federal or local government-issued ID and a utility bill proving your place of residence. Registrants receive an "Electoral Identification Card," which is the only thing required to vote. Juan Rosario, director of Puerto Rico's State Elections Center for Electoral Studies, said registration is possible the day before the election.
Unlike the mainland, a more racially homogenous Puerto Rico hasn't spent the last two centuries devising poll taxes, voter purges and outright restrictions to disenfranchise minorities.
Puerto Rican refugees from this less restrictive commonwealth will soon meet the longstanding U.S. tradition of undercutting democracy, warned Kathy Culliton-Gonzalez, senior counsel for Demos, a policy center that frequently challenges anti-democracy laws in court.
"It's harder to vote on the mainland than in Puerto Rico," said Culliton-Gonzalez, minutes after witnessing oral arguments before the Supreme Court regarding Ohio's discriminatory "use it or lose it" voter purge law.
For starters, new residents will hit an insidious language barrier. More than 70 percent of Puerto Rican adults, like Castro-Pérez, have limited English proficiency. Culliton-Gonzalez argues that this should not be an issue, according to Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but still likely will be.
"They have a right to vote with Spanish language ballots, with Spanish language poll workers, and be registered to vote in Spanish, but that's not something that's always followed, particularly in the state of Florida," Culliton-Gonzalez said. "Some won't be able to understand the ballots, particularly all the ballot measures in Florida. They may understand the main races like the presidency and the vice presidency, but beyond that they just won't understand it at all. They'll have to guess, or not vote a complete ballot."
Other issues facing Florida's refugees include maddeningly long voting lines, caused by the elimination of polling areas and wonky, aging voting machines. Puerto Rican climate refugees will have it worse in places like Wisconsin, which has birth certificate requirements at registration—made more daunting by the fact that Puerto Rico's storm-ravaged government won't be zipping out new birth certificates at record pace anytime soon. Even if it could comply, the application fee costs money, which Culliton-Gonzalez calls a poll tax. Refugees who managed to salvage their certificates from the storm may have wasted that effort, because states with voter ID laws, including Pennsylvania , Connecticut and Wisconsin, will not accept the document if it was issued before 2010.
Florida's less restrictive ID law may not require a birth certificate to register, but Aviles-Vazquez said Puerto Rican political participation in 2018 will be up against the inevitable distractions that come of being a climate refugee.
"A lot of refugees who are moving to the U.S. are in survival mode. If I'm moving to Florida from a bad situation I'm thinking about my family here and my family back home that still needs help. I need to get a job. I need to get childcare for my kids. There are so many things going on that they may not be thinking about politics. I mean, I could not begrudge them if they are not."
Castro-Pérez is one of the lucky ones. Her husband nabbed employment at a local Autozone and has temporarily moved the family into his sister's Orlando home. The kids are settling in, food is on the table, and they have electricity that still escapes about 35 percent of the population they left back on the island. She said they retain ties to their homeland and would eventually like to return, but for now there is plenty of reason to stay in Florida.
And she says she will soon be registering to vote.
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.
Last week we received positive news on the border wall's imminent construction in an Arizona wildlife refuge. The Trump administration delayed construction of the wall through about 60 miles of federal wildlife preserves.