Despite what Donald Trump may think, it should come as no surprise that climate change is a real phenomenon and is having a heavy environmental impact on the planet. But who is climate change really affecting? Scientists have long predicted that the environmental damage caused by climate change will have the biggest impact on the world’s poorest, most vulnerable people. In fact, it already has.
Coming up on its two year anniversary, Hurricane Maria exposed Puerto Rico’s inherent vulnerability to climate change, and the further-widening gap in global economic inequality. Puerto Rico had already been facing a recession, with almost half of its residents living below the poverty line for over a decade before Maria hit. According to this article, “the storm disproportionately affected Puerto Rico’s poorest residents, who have fewer resources on hand to help them recover and rebuild. Many of these people live in more rural communities and the hard-to-reach areas of the mountains and were the last to regain access to water or see their electricity restored.”
Natural disasters caused by global warming, such as Hurricane Maria, displace people from their homes, and worsen the lives of those living in poverty. With the threat of increasing natural disasters looming over the face the planet, it’s the countries that are living below the poverty line that are more at risk. But why are underdeveloped countries more threatened by the damages of climate change than the countries of the Global North? Unlike the Global North, when having to recover from these disasters, underdeveloped countries are faced with more of a challenge since resources are thin. In the case of Puerto Rico, the island’s agriculture industry took a $780 million loss, family businesses were destroyed, 4 in 10 Puerto Ricans suffered a job loss, reduced hours, or lost wages, and hundreds of thousands migrated to mainland United States in search of a job.
The real question is, who is to blame? You guessed it: the richest, most developed countries. Temperatures are rising due to growing concentrations of greenhouse gasses, and the Global North produced significant carbon emissions during the process of industrialization. The United States and Europe, especially, are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases as they grew their economies by burning fossil fuels and spewing carbon from cars, homes, and factories. While rich, developed nations are ultimately the ones to blame for the catastrophe of global climate change, it’s the poor underdeveloped nations that are left to suffer the consequences. A new Stanford study found that “in most poor countries, higher temperatures are more than 90% likely to have resulted in decreased economic output, compared to a world without global warming. Meanwhile, the effect has been less dramatic in wealthier nations—with some even potentially benefiting from higher temperatures.” The study also states that, “the gap between the group of nations with the highest and lowest economic output per person is now approximately 25 percent larger than it would have been without climate change.”
All that being said, you would think that these developed nations would take on some responsibility, and provide aid that is equally beneficial to all those affected by natural disasters. Well, think again! Two years later, those affected by Hurricane Maria are still trying to get their lives back to a sense of “normalcy”.
While these circumstances are unfair to say the least, how can we expect these rich, developed nations to do better, and take accountability, when they have a strong colonial legacy of taking advantage of poor black and Latino countries? How can we be surprised in the total lack of responsibility and effort being put into aiding underdeveloped nations in the fight against climate change when history has exposed time and time again the racist, capitalist nature of the developed nations?
Colonizers have and will continue to profit off of the lives and the lands of the colonized. With climate change, widespread pollution, and ecological devastation, it’s always the colonized who will pay the price. In the case of Puerto Rico, it’s colonial history continues to deny Puerto Rico its autonomy and self-determination as they still do not have representation in American government. According to this article, “colonial policies in Puerto Rico also reduce access to necessary aid because of shipping restrictions due to legislation like the 1920 Merchant Marine or Jones Act, which limits shipping from non-US flagged ships between US territories. Thus Puerto Rico would have been forced to rely on fewer potential ships and more expensive shipping coming only from US ships instead of ships worldwide.”
Global economic inequality created by climate change is directly linked to a colonial history. There is ongoing destruction of indigenous lands and loss of lives that only profit the rich, developed nations of the Global North. What is frustrating is the blatant ignorance demonstrated by these rich nations, and the narrative of providing aid as a “blessing”. When talking about Puerto Rico’s need for aid after Hurricane Maria, Trump stated that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them,” and he continues to go about his day playing golf, while Puerto Rico is left without resources.
If we really want to make an impact on climate change, we have to put the focus back in the hands of the Indigenous and colonized people. We must change the narrative to highlight that climate change is already an existing problem for impoverished people living in underdeveloped countries. Climate change is not that much of a problem for a little white American girl who’d get “stripped of her dreams” when the children of colonized lands had their dreams stripped away from them a long time ago.