It Takes a Hurricane ~ Recognizing & Reacting to Environmental Injustice

A comprehensive study completed by the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council in 2013 foreshadowed today’s crisis with daunting accuracy ~ so how & why did we end up where we are today?

A discussion on the slow violence of climate change and environmental injustice, through the lens of Puerto Rico.

For anyone who has glanced at a television screen over the course of the past month, you’re well aware of several massive hurricanes ~ Harvey, Irma, and Maria ~ and the devastation unleashed across Texas and the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, Barbuda, and other Caribbean communities.

Media coverage of these disasters exalts the spectacular: 185 mph winds. Catastrophic flooding. Destroyed homes and buildings. Riveting drama and sensational turmoil, cascading across television screens and radio waves into the minds of a captivated American public. Then, climate change enters the discussion, briefly mentioned as an ambiguous, looming threat with unknown consequences. Politicians reassure us that, “this is not the right time to talk about climate change.”

They are right. The right time to talk about climate change was over 30 years ago.

Instead, they tell us now is the time for prayer ~ but praying is what one does to find clarity, refuge, and strength amidst unfathomable, uncontrollable circumstances, and the recent unfolding of events is far from unexpected.

In 2013, the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council published a report detailing the region’s social and ecological vulnerability to climate change, revealing what University of California, Santa Barbara Sociologist Dr. David Pellow calls, “injustices in waiting.” This comprehensive, detailed review analyzes socioeconomic statistics and demographics, discussing Puerto Rico’s susceptibility to ecological hazards like sea level rise, intensified storm activity, and increased flooding, for over 300 pages.

Coincidentally, the “Society and Economy” segment of this study found Puerto Rico to be especially vulnerable to flooding due to accelerated urbanization, clearly stating that, “there are thousands of people living in flood-prone areas. As of 2010, it was estimated than 237,050 people live in floodways; subject to material damages and potential losses of life.” Additionally, the study found that 56.3% of the population lives below the poverty line, making it disproportionately vulnerable to environmental threats. Ultimately, the study concluded that, “Puerto Rico’s population reflects high levels of vulnerability to hazards.”

In the context of this report, which foreshadowed Hurricane Maria’s impacts with daunting accuracy, the unfortunate reality today seems hardly surprising. While EPA chief Scott Pruitt wants us to put climate change talk on hold so we can focus on “helping people,” the two issues are inseparable, and we probably (definitely) should have started thinking about the region’s ecological vulnerability, insufficient health care, socioeconomic disparity, and inadequate construction and infrastructure long before a Category 4 Hurricane blasted these issues into a raging humanitarian crisis.

Yet back in 2013, Puerto Rico wasn’t on the news. In the context of today’s spectacle-driven media, it takes a hurricane to start critical discussion of climate change and structural injustice, because anything less riveting and spectacular forgoes our flickering attention spans and the political agendas of forces who profit from a disenfranchised third world and the debilitating effects of climate change.

So, we await some unknown, riveting presentation, as if one day, the world will wake up, and climate change will manifest itself through a single event that leaves us all saying, “Hey, climate change is here today.”

Perhaps we find comfort in viewing problems as acute ~ a hurricane strikes, it’s breaking news, and then suddenly, it’s not ~ the impermanence is reassuring. But that’s not how climate change works. Unlike a hurricane, the violence of climate change cannot be encapsulated by one single, cataclysmic event. Climate change is a slow demon, preying first on society’s politically and economically disenfranchised, amplifying histories of ruthless colonial pursuits, systemic injustice, and environmental dispossession. As riveting, spectacular, and destructive as they are, hurricanes are nothing but salt to society’s gaping wounds. Hurricane Maria by itself is not breaking news ~ it is our disregard for the crucial intersection between environmental and social justice, and our resulting failure to prevent ecological and humanitarian disaster, that is deserving of at least a couple headlines.

While sensationalized media and explosive hurricanes distract us from having deeper conversations about climate violence, political leadership has played a significant role as well, by advancing a narrative that this disaster was wildly unexpected. Reactions today mirror the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when President George W. Bush stated, “The storm didn’t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort.” But as writer activist Rob Nixon eloquently states, “discrimination predates disaster.”

The 316-page fate-disclosing report that we intentionally ignored for over five years clearly reveals deeper endemic conflicts, that were inevitably amplified by Maria. An old, outdated electrical system, financial instability and debt crisis, political dispossession, and an insufficient health care system all predate the arrival of any hurricane. You can learn more about the pre-existing environmental injustice in Puerto Rico for yourself here, on the Environmental Injustice Atlas database.

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 10.53.32 AM.png

Each colored dot represents a recorded environmental injustice in Puerto Rico, including documented cases of irresponsible resource extraction, neglected oil spills, water contamination, and bomb-testing.

Ignoring these inconvenient historical truths is as violent as any hurricane ~ not as spectacular or exciting, but it got us to where we are today, with American citizens standing up to their chests in stagnant water with no power and limited resources, as our politicians shake their heads in comical disbelief and try to blame Puerto Rico, as if they had no idea this could ever happen. Even though a study literally explained today’s situation in 300+ very articulate, thorough pages. And we’re told the best we can do is pray.

But thoughts and prayers don’t help people in urgent need. Our lethargic response to the 3 million people left without power, food, and water just serves as a further reminder that certain spaces and people are valued more highly than others, and that Puerto Rico remains a colony in our hierarchical understanding of who counts as a victim.

The United States is in charge of this situation, and can put people at a major disadvantage when it treats them like dispensable citizens. Critically thinking about and addressing climate violence is our only ethical move forward. Hurricane Maria offered us the opportunity to do so, by making the slow violence of climate change visible for a brief moment ~ will we lose sight?

Books, Reports, & Images Referenced

Puerto Rico Climate Change Council (PRCCC). 2013. Puerto Rico’s State of the Climate 2010-2013: Assessing Puerto Rico’s Social-Ecological Vulnerabilities in a Changing Climate. Puerto Rico Coastal Zone Management Program, Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, NOAA Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. San Juan, PR.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard Univ. Press, 2013.

Featured Image by Hector Retamal, Getty Images

Further Reading:

An incredible photostory of the damage in Puerto Rico, by the Guardian

“Why was there no hurricane plan for Puerto Rico?”

“Puerto Rico is being treated like a colony after Hurricane Maria”

The Environmental Injustice Atlas Database

  1. Great post! And true on all counts



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