Puerto Rico: A Tragic Reminder of Why Climate Action Cannot Wait

Written by Iissa Ocko, climate scientist at Environmental Defense Fund.

The disaster unfolding in Puerto Rico is heartbreaking — and a call for action.

Our focus as a nation must be to help our fellow citizens as quickly as possible, but also to do what we can to prevent similar catastrophic events in the future.

With three Category 4 hurricanes – undoubtedly worsened by climate change – making landfall and wreaking havoc in the United States in just a few weeks, we’ve had three wake-up calls. Climate change is an urgent issue that must be addressed now.

By continuing to ignore the fundamental threat that global warming poses today, however, the Trump administration is setting up Puerto Rico and the rest of the Hurricane Alley region for more disasters and tragedies.

It’s akin to a doctor who treats the symptoms of a patient while ignoring a dangerous, underlying disease. It makes for a bad doctor – and America expects more than that.

Puerto Ricans are living climate change

Considered a “canary in the coal mine” for climate change, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been feeling the consequences of a warming world for some time already.

Its beaches are retreating with some homes in the capital of San Juan and in Rincón, a popular surfing town, actually falling into the ocean amid rising seas – and coastal flooding is getting worse.

That’s not all: The island is also challenged by intensifying tropical heat, heavier downpours and – as we just saw with Hurricane Maria – its location in the path of stronger hurricanes.

When rebuilding Puerto Rico, we need to help the island become more resilient to such impacts of climate change – while doubling down on curbing emissions that cause the problem in the first place.

Island’s economy hangs in balance

A vast majority of the Puerto Rico’s population of 3.4 million, more than 85 percent, lives within five miles of a coast that is threatened by the rising ocean.

Like islands in the South Pacific, it’s seeing sea level rise of about half a foot on average from melting land ice and warmer ocean waters. This trend, which is accelerating, has made roads, ports and other infrastructure that are key to Puerto Rico’s economy more vulnerable.

As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, sea level rise compounds the impacts of hurricanes when worsened storm surge causes flooding in communities along the coast. The resulting damage from this and other climate impacts has a direct effect on Puerto Rican daily life as well as on tourism, which accounts for 8 percent of the island’s economy.

Climate impacts are getting worse

Scientists predict Puerto Rico will see a sea level rise of 22 inches by 2060. That translates into a lot more storm surge, more destroyed property and even bigger hits to the nation’s tourist economy.

Research also suggests more heat, rainfall, and stronger hurricanes are in the future [PDF] for Puerto Rico.

The science is clear: Rising temperatures and heavier rainfall both play a key role in intensifying hurricane strength and destruction.

Ninety percent of excess heat is absorbed by the oceans and this warming water energizes hurricanes and evaporates more water into the atmosphere, increasing the amount of rainfall in storms – just like we’ve seen in recent weeks.

All these challenges will escalate in coming decades.

These fellow Americans deserve our help

As we see in Puerto Rico today, it’s the most vulnerable among us who feel the impacts of climate change the most. They need our help to build a better and stronger future.

Treating the symptoms of climate change is absolutely essential. We must come together quickly as a nation and help our fellow Americans through this crisis.

But treating the underlying disease – heat-trapping gas emissions – is equally essential. Or the devastation we’re witnessing in Puerto Rico will keep happening.

This post originally appeared on the EDF Voices blog and is reprinted with permission.

Photo Credit: The National Guard/Flickr

69 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill7 minutes ago

What made the Puerto Rico disaster so bad is that their whole island infrastructure was already crumbling. Their local governments had not done their jobs to maintain. It's sad that their citizens are the ones who have to suffer.

SEND
Stephanie s
Stephanie s25 days ago

Thank you

SEND
Stephanie s
Stephanie s25 days ago

Thank you

SEND
Stephanie s
Stephanie s25 days ago

Thank you

SEND
Stephanie s
Stephanie s25 days ago

Thank you

SEND
ANA MARIJA R
ANA MARIJA Rabout a month ago

No comment... :( Shared. Thank you.

SEND
Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld1 months ago

Brian F.,
Those are possible future predictions. Currently, the recent warming has had no measurable effect on tropical activity. Even this year, total global tropical activity is on the low end.

SEND
Brian F
Brian F1 months ago

The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century. Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100. This is the result of added water from melting land ice and the expansion of seawater as it warms.
In the next several decades, storm surges and high tides could combine with sea level rise and land subsidence to further increase flooding in many regions. Sea level rise will continue past 2100 because the oceans take a very long time to respond to warmer conditions at the Earth’s surface. Ocean waters will therefore continue to warm and sea level will continue to rise for many centuries at rates equal to or higher than those of the current century.  

SEND
Brian F
Brian F1 months ago

Dan B This NASA website contradicts the GFDL website you showed me. The potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms. Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner. The intensity, frequency and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s. The relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases are still uncertain. Hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.
https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/

SEND
heather g
heather g1 months ago

There's so much daily suffering now and apart from attending to their damaged homes, their beautiful environment has been destroyed. The remarks and behaviour of the Twit are best forgotten - everyone else feels compassion.

SEND