Statement at Lafayette College on Puerto Rico and Climate Change

The following is a statement given by Inder Comar at Lafayette College on November 16, 2017, regarding Puerto Rico and Climate Change.

Inder Comar (left) gives the keynote address at a panel with Professors Andrea Armstrong (Environmental Studies and Science), Benjamin Cohen (Engineering), Kira Lawrence (Geology) and Andrew Clarke (Government and Law). The full keynote address is below.

Inder Comar (left) gives the keynote address at a panel with Professors Andrea Armstrong (Environmental Studies and Science), Benjamin Cohen (Engineering), Kira Lawrence (Geology) and Andrew Clarke (Government and Law). The full keynote address is below.

Thank you very much. I’m honored to be here and to present this talk, which I call “Puerto Rico: The Climate Canary.”

A canary is a small bird that is known for its singing. Coal miners used to take canaries with them into their mines. If dangerous gasses were released, the canary would die -- a signal to the miners that they had to immediately leave or else they, too, would die.

Puerto Rico is our canary. And its fate is a signal to all of us seated here that we, too, are in grave danger.

The Hurricane

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. It was the fifth biggest storm to hit the United States ever recorded and the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years. It dumped approximately 3 feet of water during the storm, causing massive flooding, as high as 15 feet in some areas.  The damage caused by Maria was unprecedented. Col. James DeLapp of the Army Corp of Engineers -- the military official in charge of clean-up efforts in Puerto Rico -- compared the destruction he saw to the destruction in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, estimated that Maria caused at least $ 90 billion in damage. 

Nearly two months after the hurricane, 50 percent of Puerto Ricans still do not have access to power. Hundreds of thousands have no access to clean water, forcing people to resort to boiling water or drawing from wells -- as well as from rivers or streams contaminated by raw sewage. Vector borne viruses such as dengue, malaria, yellow fever and Zika pose potential hazards as mosquitos find fertile nursing grounds amongst the destruction, poverty and untreated standing water that remains. We may very well be witnessing just the opening salvos in a larger and longer humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. 

This past Monday, the New York Times reported how the hurricane has caused a severe mental health crisis in Puerto Rico. It’s too easy to forget, but catastrophes like Maria can cause severe and lasting trauma. The Times reported how rain now triggers anxiety and PTSD amongst many Puerto Ricans. The continuing lack of clean water and steady electricity make returning to normal life practically impossible. Distressed callers to a 24-hour crisis hotline in Puerto Rico speak of children who have not spoken since the storm or who cry inconsolably when it rains. People with serious mental illnesses experience psychotic episodes and are being locked inside rooms by family members who do not know what else to do.

This destruction of Puerto Rico and its population took place against a backdrop of a massive financial crisis about which no one seemed to know what to do. The island is currently carrying a debt load of approximately $73 billion, forcing it to declare a type of quasi-bankrupcty this past summer. The economy of Puerto Rico has been more or less in a recession for the last 10 years, and more than 40% of the population lives at or above the poverty line. Puerto Rico was already very poor. It is not hyperbole to suggest that Puerto Rico may never recover from these events.

This is what has happened to Puerto Rico. And there are a number of lessons we can draw from the Puerto Rican experience with respect to climate change.  

1. The weak and the poor will bear the brunt of climate change.  Human rights activists have been speaking for many years about the essential unfairness of climate change -- the fact that the poor, the weak, and the overwhelmingly brown and black skinned members of our human race will be the ones most devastated by the vast environmental and ecological changes to come. Puerto Rico shows this is not just rhetoric: this is reality. The past is prologue, and the ghosts of colonialism that have haunted our global politics for centuries will now determine, methodically and mechanically, the fates of millions. Take, another example -- Fiji. This past week, in Bonn, the small island country of Fiji hosted diplomats from around the world to discuss climate change. Fiji learned this week that it will need to spend $4.5 billion over the next decade to prepare for climate change. This is Fiji’s entire gross domestic product, the same as telling the US that it would need to spend its entire GDP -- some $18 trillion -- to prepare for climate change. While the US could probably find a way to finance such a project, Fiji cannot do any such thing. Countries like Fiji, or the Philippines, or Bangladesh, already economically poor, will now face utter devastation once climate disasters become part of normal life for these people. And it is likely that the rich, Western countries will do very little to assist. That much is clear from the Puerto Rican case study: Already hamstrung by a monumental economic crisis and the baggage of 100 years of American dominance, Puerto Rico may never recover from Maria and the US government and most of its population appears to be okay with that. Remember: Puerto Ricans are US citizens. If a rich country like America cannot find the means to assist its own citizens because of a climate catastrophe, it is extremely unlikely that Americans will find the charity for non-citizens, and particularly those of a different ethnic group or religion.   

2.    The era of climate refugees has already commenced. Edwin Meléndez, director of Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, believes that Hurricane Maria could result in as many as 200,000 migrants to the U.S. mainland over the next 12 months -- close to 6% of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people. And this is merely the beginning. Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University has concluded that by 2100, rising sea levels could result in 2 billion -- two billion -- climate refugees. UNHCR notes there are already 65 million people currently classified as refugees as a result of war and conflict. Adding the stresses that come from climate catastrophes will only certainly increase this number dramatically. Geisler has recently stated, “Far more people are going to be living on far less land, and land that is not as fertile and habitable and sustainable as the low-elevation coastal zone, and it’s coming at us faster than we thought.” 

While scientists focus on the environmental changes that will take place, we must recognize that those environmental changes will be accompanied by severe stresses on our societies and governments. About five million people fled Syria to Turkey and the EU as a result of the Syrian civil war -- something our world could barely manage, and it was an event that led to right wing governments in Europe, and even the potential disintegration of the European Union because of the anti-immigrant fires that produced Brexit. The Syrian refugee crisis was a huge cause of all of that. It led to xenophobia and racism here in the United States and the election of leaders advocating for walls and the demonization of Arab Muslims. If the world cannot even handle 5 million Syrian refugees -- and if the response of governments to those refugees is to adopt racism and fascism -- How will our world handle 160 million Bangladeshis escaping from rising seas? And what type of politics will we adopt in response to extreme people movements? This past summer, more than 1200 people died and 40 million people were affected as the worst flooding in 40 years submerged entire villages in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Forty million people were affected. These people will soon be seeking refuge in richer countries. And we should be worried about the fate of our democratic freedoms to the extent that hate mongers label these refugees as monsters and terrorists, and use their suffering as an excuse to unleash dark forces of tyranny. 

3.    No one is listening to the scientists. This is painful truth to tell you all. But I do not believe in sugar coating. There is a fundamental gap between what the science says, and what governments and politicians are actually hearing. In this country, there is still a “debate” as to the science. Of course, if you ask scientists, they are practically universal in their conclusions that the Earth is warming and that emissions caused by human produced greenhouse gasses are responsible for it. But even globally, there is a fundamental disconnect. The Paris Agreement signed in 2016 requires the world’s governments to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius and aims to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. But the planet has already warmed by one degree, and it seems we have committed ourselves, irreparably, to another half a degree of warming, which means we are blowing through these targets. The targets are increasingly fantastical. Many of the scenarios proposed by the UN to keep emissions below these targets rely on so-called “carbon capture” or “carbon removal” technologies that have yet to be invented, and which may be infeasible from an engineering perspective, or which require a significant source of energy to manufacture and operate. 

As diplomats continue their discussions, global emissions of greenhouse gasses continue their relentless march, and are now at levels not seen for millions of years. On October 30 of this year, the U.N. announced that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) hit 403.3 parts per million (ppm), up from 400.0 in 2015. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was 3-5 million years ago, in the mid-Pliocene era. During that period, global temperatures were 2–3°C warmer than today, there were no ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, and the sea levels were 10–20 m (or 30 to 60 feet) higher than today. This is the last geological precedent that matches our current carbon levels.

What happens after 3 degrees of warming? Scientific journals begin to sound almost mythological in their apocalyptic visions. There is widespread consensus that warming between 3°C and 5°C will trigger what scientists term “tipping points” such as the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and subsequent global sea-level rise, and the dieback of the Amazon rainforest.

A recent model published by The Guardian shows that at three degrees, the entire city of Shanghai disappears drowned under the floods caused by rising seas

And a paper published this past September by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predicts a 50% chance that temperatures will rise to 4 C under a business-as-usual scenario. With this rise in temperature, the authors concluded there was  a 5 percent chance of catastrophic change within roughly thirty years, or even the all out extinction of human life -- human extinction within 30 years is now on the table according to these scientists. The authors concluded that the probability of human extinction “rises to 20 to 30 percent by 2070” -- just fifty years from now.

Just this past Monday, 15,000 scientists issued a “second notice” to humanity, publishing a letter which urged our species to change its ways -- immediately. They said, "Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out.” The authors highlighted climate change, resource consumption, and ecological destruction as problems that needed to be immediately addressed. “[W]e have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century,” they concluded.

If you take nothing else from this talk, please -- read the science. Listen to what scientists are saying. Don’t take my word for it. I have little doubt that if you actually understand the science, you will see this world in a fundamentally different way. You will realize that we are all in the process of destroying it; that we are all in the process of destroying ourselves. 

The new normal

This is the new normal. The world of our children -- and certainly our grandchildren, but probably also our children, and probably also for us -- this world is going to be a different world than the world you and I grew up in. It will be hotter, with higher sea levels, and much greater weather extremes. It may already be too late to stave off dramatic changes to the Earth -- changes that will lead to tremendous people movements, existential challenges to global civilization as we know it, and yes -- dramatic increases in human suffering and death. Some of that is probably already in our destiny.

It is a scary thing to listen to the science, because the science is quite alarming. We already carry with us so many dreams and expectations about the future -- it is a remarkably easy thing to box out the science and pretend it doesn’t affect our lives. That we can build a life of our choosing based on preconceived fantasies. That everything will be ok. But the reality is that climate change is already affecting our lives. Just ask the people of Puerto Rico. Or the people who lost their homes in California this past summer. I was in San Francisco this summer and I know people, friends, whose homes were destroyed and who lost everything. The air in that city by the Bay was thick with smoke and ash, perhaps as Pompeii was the hours into Vesuvius. The sun blared angrily behind this black shroud, creating scenes in the sky one could scarcely imagine. You can see pictures for yourself online. You would wake in the morning coughing to the smell of smoke. We are bearing witness to the beginning of our planetary changes. You or I may be forced to flee our homes one day. People you and I know will suffer, lose their property, and lose their lives because of climate change. Those with more money and resources may be able to stave off the worst effects for some time. But there is no guarantee that money and wealth will fully insulate any one. These are the facts.

What do we do

So what do we do? I have thought about this for many years. I don’t have an easy answer for you. But I have an answer. It is the answer I tell myself every morning I wake up. And that answer is that there no other choice but to rise to this challenge -- perhaps the most epic challenge to ever confront humanity -- and to forge a new destiny. 

And that begins with each of us. It begins with each of us asking why we are here at this time, at this exact moment in history. 

In the face of this truly historic, civilizational challenge -- a true threat to the human race -- I believe that each of us here has a purpose. That each of us is here for a reason. That each of us can play a role and become a hero in our own way in changing the direction of the future so that our children and their children will make it through the next few hundred years on this planet, however different it may become, but they will make it through and will survive, or even flourish, notwithstanding the fact that the planet will be a different place. It will be a different Earth. 

But I truly believe that we who are alive today are here because we are the guardians of human civilization. We were born at this time because we are the best hope for our descendants. I realize this sounds circular, or even a bit mystical. But this is the answer that I live by, the answer that gives me hope, and power, and dignity in a world where these things are fast disappearing. 

I would challenge each of you to ask yourself -- when you are old, and gray, and near the time of your passing, how will you look back at this life? Knowing what you know about the future, and knowing that our species is killing itself, that our politicians dither and our cultural and religious institutions have little or no answers for any us in the face of a gloomy but insistent science -- knowing what you know about these things, I would want you to look back on your life and I would want you to be confident and proud that you made every effort. That you used your talents and your unique genius to shake and shatter this status quo and to push, hard, against a flawed destiny that has been imposed on us by a dying and corrupt order. That you did not remain silent or inactive while the masters of the universe feasted on our children. Our world today is controlled by an ever smaller group of people, who have commandeered our democratic institutions and are creating regimes that are fundamentally aristocratic, reactionary, dictatorial and deadly to the human race. Those who manage and control this planet have become so consumed with their greed that they have become blind to the fact that their greed is destroying us all. To paraphrase Alanis Obomsawin, it will be only “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, only then will they realize, too late, that real wealth was never in their bank accounts and that they cannot eat their money.”

The truth is that these problems are getting worse. But it is also true that we can do something about it. We are probably the last generation, you and I, who are in a position to do something about it. Our choices that we make today will impact our planet for centuries, perhaps millennia. And they may determine the fate of civilization itself. I am telling this to you not to scare you. I am telling this to you to empower you. To remind you what your inner self already knows: that you can make a profound difference. Listen to your conscience and hear its instructions. Open your eyes to your singular and collective power to change the future. These are the sutras I live by and I hope that by sharing them with you they can be of some use. 

It was history that destroyed Puerto Rico and it will be history that condemns many more countries and regions to growing disaster. But history is not over. And with effort and organizing and genius and personal sacrifice, you and I, together, can undertake the heroism needed to write a different history -- a history of survival, a history of continued progress for human civilization. A history where those who knew what lay ahead did what they could; so that their descendants could say that in the face of monumental odds, there were humans alive at that time with ethics and with decency, who tried their very best to avert the hell that awaits so many people. This we must do, so that Puerto Rico should not have been destroyed in vain. This we must do, if we wish to be a species and a civilization worth saving. Our children do not demand of us that we succeed in this effort. But they are entitled to demand of us that we try.

Thank you.