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.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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