Published on MassLive.com Posted Aug 8
Click here for story with photos https://www.masslive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2018/08/climate_change_maria_and_negle.html
By Marty Nathan and Jomarie Ramirez
For two years we have known that the world is hotter than it has been for the last 115,000 years. The planet’s mean temperature has risen by 0.9 degrees Centigrade (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit) almost half way to the two-degree C upper limit that triggers geological feedback loops on a grand scale – melting of the Arctic tundra and sea ice, forest destruction and death of microscopic marine life – processes that will by themselves spew huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
This summer we have seen and felt the heat. We in Springfield were scorched by near-100-degree temperatures early in the summer. The south-central US – Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana – saw heat indices approaching 115 degrees this week and nearly 35 million Americans carried out their lives under excessive heat warnings. Most alarming, there were fires in Sweden, where temperatures went above 90 degrees north of the Arctic Circle.
There are no reputable scientists today that dispute either climate change or its human cause. The drilling and burning of fossil fuels have been putting unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air and creating a blanket over the Earth that prevents heat escape into space.
Now the results are rolling in, faster than was earlier predicted, and those left “holding the bag”, suffering for fossil fuel company profits, are the people who can least afford it and are least responsible.
Rising temperatures are breeding more powerful storms. Before 2017, New Orleans was the poster child for climate injustice. After Hurricane Katrina hit the City in 2004 it was the inhabitants of the Lower Ninth Ward, mostly black, very poor and unprotected, who died when the levies broke. Prevention of the flooding, evacuation of the victims and then cleanup and rebuilding were all neglected because these were the people with the least political and economic clout in the region. Over 1,800 people died and tens of thousands were scattered across the country, our first internal climate refugees.
There should never be competition for misery, but the story of Katrina has now been replaced in extent of devastation and neglect by that of the people of Puerto Rico battered and killed by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
When Donald Trump met with Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan after the storm, he threw paper towels at men and women without shelter, and congratulated FEMA and his own administration for a death toll reported at that time as “only sixteen”.
But as the months went on and on and tarps were not delivered, floods were not drained, electricity, roads and buildings were not repaired, people continued to die from the effects of the storm. Climate change gave Maria its force but neglect by the United States government caused the deaths from heat, unclean water and lack of phone service, oxygen, refrigeration, medicines, transportation, and adequate food. A Harvard study in June estimated that there were 4,645 deaths attributable to the damage caused by the storm unrepaired by a disaster relief effort that was too little too late.
The blatant inadequacy of federal response was documented by other investigators from Politico who compared the efforts in Texas after the 2017 Hurricane Harvey with those that met Maria. They found that “the Trump administration — and the president himself — responded far more aggressively to Texas than to Puerto Rico. FEMA and the Trump administration exerted a faster, and initially greater, effort in Texas, even though the damage in Puerto Rico exceeded that in Houston.”
* It took six days from Hurricane Harvey to get more than 70 helicopters above the Texas coast delivering emergency supplies and saving lives, but over three weeks to fly the same number of helicopters over Puerto Rico.
* Nine days after each hurricane FEMA had approved $142 million for Harvey victims but only $6.2 million for Maria victims. Three times as many FEMA personnel had arrived, and they had delivered three times as many meals, twice as much water, and four times as many tarps in Houston as in Puerto Rico.
* It took just ten days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster aid for Texas compared with forty-three days for the Island.
There are arguments that the relief efforts in Puerto Rico were hampered by its geography as an island and its already-impoverished infrastructure crumbling further because of the austerity imposed by financial crisis. But we are talking about a country, the United States, that could deliver “Shock and Awe” half-way around the world if it wants to engage in war. And most Puerto Ricans would argue that the financial crisis was largely a product of unfair deals made with US banks by corrupt officials, leaving the Island deeply in debt and having to sacrifice its educational, medical and power infrastructure to its colonial financiers on the mainland to pay the debt.
The results? The Island has suffered mass out-migration, with more than 135,000 having left the Island by March and a half million expected to have moved to the mainland by 2019 due to the effects of the storm. Those who arrived in the US impoverished and desperate are now facing eviction from the motels and hotels where they were sheltered without jobs, family or other options.
On the other hand, rich speculators working with local officials are exploiting the financial desperation of those left whose businesses, farms and jobs have been disrupted by the storm. They are closing schools and medical facilities, privatizing electricity for corporate profit, and buying up land dirt cheap to create, as one journalist dubbed it, “A Playground for the Privileged”. In June there were 55,000 homes in foreclosure and developers are replacing them with luxury homes and hotels for tourists.
This is the new face of climate injustice: lives lost and families made refugees while their homes are replaced by golf courses and pools for the rich. Climate change brings moral challenges. Are we up to them?
Marty Nathan, MD, is an almost-retired family physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center and a member of Springfield Climate Justice Coalition.
Jomarie Ramirez is a long-time resident and activist in Springfield who recently returned from visiting her family in Puerto Rico.