Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggles to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria could be routinely replicated in other places if the climate crisis spurs nationalistic governments to scale back aid to certain disaster victims.
That’s a warning from bestselling author David Wallace-Wells, whose book The Uninhabitable Earth was described in a Guardian review as a “brutal portrait of climate change”.
The indifference of US politicians to the Hurricane Maria disaster is chilling, he warns.
Maria smashed into Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing around 3,000 people, crippling the power grid and devastating the island’s agriculture and tourism industries.
The US government’s sluggish response to the disaster was found to be deficient in an official report, with many Puerto Ricans claiming the federal government has been indifferent to their plight. The island has since been racked with dysfunction and political turmoil, leading to the recent departure of the governor Ricardo Rosselló.
As global heating fuels more powerful hurricanes, as well as rising sea levels, drought and wildfires, more people around the world will be in need of assistance at a time when populist, nationalist leaders have gained prominence in several countries including the US, where Donald Trump gained infamy in Puerto Rico for visiting the island and throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors.
“What really stands out to me about Maria is the indifference of much American power to suffering even to those within its borders, seeing those people as somehow less American and less deserving,” said Wallace-Wells.
“In the US we often find ways to turn away from people suffering in places like Mozambique or Bangladesh. The harrowing thing about Puerto Rico is that even American citizens were defined as undeserving. It’s horrifying and ugly on its own terms on a moral level but also as a glimmer of the way we will respond to these disasters down the road.
“We are already seeing more intense competition for resources and focusing our investments and political sympathies closer and closer to home. It’s concerning because all suffering in the world now has some sort of climate fingerprint.”
Wallace-Wells is one of the leading figures to have attended the second annual International Congress of Youth Voices, held this year in Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan.
The summit, founded by the author Dave Eggers and the non-profit leader Amanda Uhle, has attracted around 150 international students, mostly aged between 16 and 20 years old, to meet with various writers, politicians and activists. Last year’s congress, held in San Francisco, drew young people from places including the US, Sweden, Iraq, Australia, Zambia and Nepal.
The climate crisis is one of the leading issues discussed at the congress, amid a broader movement of young activists around the world who have taken to striking from school or shutting down areas of cities to demand that elected leaders do more to curb global heating.
A figurehead for this insurrection is Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who sparked the school strike movement. Thunberg has been feted by several national leaders and will attend the upcoming UN climate summit in New York City. Given her aversion to flying due to the associated carbon pollution, Thunberg will reach New York via solar powered boat.
Wallace-Wells said the youth climate movement was “inspiring and exhilarating and also a little surprising”.
“A year ago I’d say I would be sceptical that there would be a mass protest movement on climate,” he said. “Now in the immediate aftermath of the IPCC report in October we are seeing much more commitment, concentrated among young people, and I think that’s fantastic. That young people have such clear, unarguable moral standing really does change the landscape of climate politics.”
In the US, young climate activists have faced a political class that is still unclear over its response to the escalating crisis. In February, veteran Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein was videoed rebuffing pleas from young people to implement the Green New Deal, a platform to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions supported by progressive Democrats.
“I think that encounter would be very different it it happened today, quite a lot has changed even in that time,” Wallace-Wells said. “More people are focused on these issues, even those on the right are making rhetorical gestures.
“I think we’ve already passed a tipping point. When I look at the broader cultural and media response to the youth protests, it’s been very powerful. Most people have been moved and inspired and, in a useful way, shamed.”