Structural inequality article illustration by Oscar Bolton Green

At 8pm every night during the months of March and April, confined to their homes and without other means of protest, Puerto Ricans bang pots and pans in defiance of their country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The practice, cacerolazo, named for the casserole dishes used to make the din, signals the depth of Puerto Ricans’ discontent after years of political mismanagement and corruption. “We are experiencing way more political distress than before,” says Karla Peña, director of humanitarian NGO Mercy Corps’ operation in Puerto Rico. “We see communities getting overwhelmed.”

Puerto Rico has suffered a string of environmental shocks in the recent past and today faces particular trouble in the face of a warming planet: sea level rises, the greater risk of new diseases such as Zika virus, coral reef bleaching, drought, earthquakes and more severe hurricanes are just some of its threats. But to what extent is its present precarity fuelled by the climate crisis?

‘No es lo mismo llamar al Diablo que verlo venir,’ goes a Puerto Rican proverb. “Calling the devil is not the same as seeing him come.” It’s a message that rings particularly true for climate activist Amira Odeh. “I always knew climate change was real,” she says, “but you don’t think it’s going to happen to you until you’re actually scared.” Odeh had already been involved in climate justice work for seven years when the 165 mph winds of Hurricane Maria tore through her island. “Hurricane Maria made climate change much more urgent. It’s much more real when you’re scared for your own life.”

The federal government doesn’t help. And it doesn’t want to help — it’s colonialism. They want us to depend on them so we don’t fight for independence. That’s what the US has tried to do since it invaded.

In the summer of 2017, Maria arrived hot on the heels of Hurricane Irma, which had already destroyed parts of the island. In January 2020, islanders faced the unfamiliar terror of sustained earthquakes, with houses shaking for months on end. Politically, instability continues to fester, in spite of the ousting of governor Ricardo Rosselló in the summer of 2019. Now, the insolvent commonwealth island — which filed for bankruptcy in 2017 after defaulting on $779m in bond loans — is having to contend with the profound economic fallout of its Covid-19 lockdown.

While Puerto Rico has so far avoided mirroring the death toll of the US mainland, the pandemic has exposed continued corruption under the new governor Wanda Vázquez. A federal investigation is under way into why members of Vázquez’s administration pledged $38m for testing kits from a construction company with ties to the governor’s New Progressive Party and, crucially, no experience in medical manufacturing. As the island faces a food crisis, Vázquez has hitherto refused to allow school cafeterias to run as soup kitchens.

“It’s sad that even now, the entire platform of government agencies has been slow to respond,” says Lisbeth Gonzalez Rodriguez, the principal of a school in the south-eastern town of Olimpo, who works with Mercy Corps. “From my position in education, I deal with many families who have not been able to receive support. They are in real need.”

The commonwealth island has also seen mistrust manifest in protests against the state broadcaster, which many accuse of peddling propaganda for Vázquez. Journalists meanwhile complain that they have not been included in daily briefings about the pandemic. “People have been doing drive-through protests, but a lot of our traditional organising methods are limited. I’m pretty sure that in another situation we would be out on the streets,” Odeh explains.

There is no doubt that, beset by existing challenges, climate change is adding to Puerto Rico’s load. Four serious storms threaten to buffet the region this summer, but Karla Peña says that people are not discussing this impending threat. “Before hurricane season many families like to get prepared, using their savings to prepare the house, get critical supplies…but now that won’t be possible at all,” she says.

Data visualisation showing the top 10% of global carbon emitters produce 45% of the missions, of which North America is responsible for 40%
Data visualisation showing the top global carbon emitters

On the relationship between climate change and conflict, scientists are divided over whether the weather changes caused by global warming drive conflict. A team at Berkeley will discern a link, while another in Oslo will expand the dataset and overturn their findings. The question, some argue, is simply too blunt. We tend to get trapped in a yes-no binary, says Katharine Mach, professor at the University of Miami’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Instead, a 2019 paper led by Mach at Stanford’s Earth Institute reached a more “nuanced picture of what we know right now, trying to get away from the simplistic question: does climate change cause conflict or not?” The paper mapped the state of the field by bringing together assessments made by different groups of academics. Synthesising political scientists, geographers, economists and environmental scientists, it found that, yes, across disciplines, there is consensus over a connection between climate change and conflict. But it is insignificant compared with other factors such as economic instability or a recent history of colonialism. We don’t yet understand how the linkage works. Climate change is not easily separable from the gamut of other factors; to analyse it “becomes very quickly [to think about] the entirety of the human enterprise,” Mach says.

“An awful lot of research has gone into trying to come up with a universal, global understanding of the relationship between climate change and conflict,” says Alex Randall, who runs the Climate and Migration Coalition. “But actually, it’s much more useful to try and understand things on a more geographically specific scale.”

There have long been claims that weather drives conflict. In 2007, a study by Hong Kong-based earth scientist David Zhang claimed that, over 1,000 years, most of the armed conflicts across China were started by food shortages caused by climate. The same year, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the war in Darfur was “a conflict that grew at least in part from desertification, ecological degradation, and a scarcity of resources”. Many claim that the ongoing conflict in Syria is significantly related to its drought.

Others voice a note of caution, however, arguing that weather changes do not mechanistically create violence; human agents are always at play. “Disasters are not natural,” says Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at University College London. A disaster, he says, is created through a combination of hazard and vulnerability. While climate change may increase the likelihood of hazard, it does not affect pre-existing vulnerability. Conflicts, of course, require an ever higher degree of human agency to ignite.

He draws a parallel with the spike in domestic violence many countries have been seeing under lockdown. The pandemic has obviously not caused this hike in abuse; it is not a side-effect of the virus. Rather conditions are exploited by human beings where scarcity and insecurity strain existing tensions. We have seen, for instance, that the weather changes brought about by climate change can create new opportunities for malign actors — in the increasingly dry Chad Basin, where the Dar Es Salam refugee camp is located, Boko Haram has been weaponising water, controlling access as a way to enlist new recruits.

The Bengal Famine of 1943 killed an estimated 2-3 million people in India as the country exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice
Data visualisation showing the Bengal Famine deaths in relation to the Holocaust and Holodomor

What about Puerto Rico? “Island communities have certain tropes ascribed to them,” Kelman says. “So the words often used are isolation, small, smallness, marginalisation, limited resources. Is Puerto Rico really small, in population or in area? Does it really lack resources? It’s not isolated within the Caribbean; but it is absolutely marginalised within the US.”

A ‘protected territory’ of what is, for now, the richest country on earth, Puerto Rico and its inhabitants do not receive equal treatment. At the time of writing, for instance, no one on the island has yet received the $1,200 stimulus cheques promised to all Americans. While Puerto Ricans pay tax just as other Americans do, they have no representation in US Congress. At 40%, Puerto Rico has a higher rate of poverty than any US state. “Within the US, Puerto Rico tends to suffer most, not because of the earthquake or the hurricane but because of how the US treats Puerto Rico,” says Kelman.

Many things have hobbled the island: a longstanding extractive relationship with the mainland under the 936 corporate tax exemption programme; a subsequent decline in the labour force since the 1990s; a bloated and byzantine local government which exerts a grip over the island’s economic activity and uses its many executive departments to obscure unaccountable and corrupt rent-seeking activities. “Far too often it’s those with power, resources and options who are making the choices for those who don’t have the power, resources or options,” Kelman says.

Weather changes do not mechanistically create violence; human agents are always at play.

Illustration showing a man as a cloud upside down by Oscar Bolton Green

In fact, while hurricanes are expected to become more severe in the Caribbean, they are also predicted to become less frequent. “When we don’t experience a hazard for a while we think ‘oh why worry’ and our preparation and mitigation measures tend to lapse, exactly as we’ve seen in this pandemic.”

Puerto Rico has already seen environmental events mushroom into profound and unnecessary crises. The death toll from Maria is thought to sit somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 lives, way beyond the Trump administration’s initial calculation of 64. The vast majority were not killed by the storm but in the days and weeks after, as the electric grid collapsed and the water supply was contaminated. 97% of Puerto Rico continues to be served by a water system that violates testing standards, while in 2019, 16m bottles of untouched water from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were found lying in farmland in Dorado, just west of San Juan.

Nearly three years on, of the 130,000 displaced, tens of thousands still have not returned, with businesses struggling to pick up where they left off. “If you were to come and see and drive around, you would think, yeah it’s recovered, it looks ok. But it’s not ok,” says Gonzalez Rodriguez. “Today, we still do not have life as normal. There are still too many families without homes, there are still far too many children who have still not gone back to school.”

“You can still drive up to the mountains and see houses with blue tarps that never received help because the local and federal governments put up a bunch of excuses,” says Odeh, who coordinates the Caribbean region for environmental organisation, and is currently helping with reforestation efforts after the hurricane.

97% of Puerto Rico continues to be served by a water system that violates testing standards. In 2019, 16m bottles of untouched water from FEMA were found lying in farmland west of San Juan.

In this context of mistrust, many international NGOs have fanned the flames by parachuting themselves in, not speaking Spanish, and failing to work with existing organisations. “They would extract stories from people and extract pictures so they would get more funding, do some work and then leave,” says Odeh.

The best organisations work with local communities to strengthen local structures of resilience, whether securing potable water or providing solar electricity in case of emergency — after Maria, a lack of access to fans and internet was a major problem. Mercy Corps’ work is with those on the front lines of climate destruction: “One of the populations that we work with are small farmers, fisher folk and beekeepers. They don’t need a hurricane to lose everything. Every time we have a rain event or a drought, they are affected,” Peña says.

Moving forward often means finding ways to continue in spite of the state. “For me, it is more important to work with humanity, to work with your heart, reaching people at close quarters. In Puerto Rico, there is a lot of bureaucracy in all sorts of procedures…And it is the people who suffer, it is the families who suffer, it is the children who suffer, it is the community that suffers,” says Gonzalez Rodriguez.

Climate change is more and more on the lips of the Puerto Ricans it most affects. “Since the hurricanes, people have been talking a lot more about climate change. I can see the media talking a bit more with a climate change lens,” Amira Odeh says. But, with ambitions to treat Puerto Rico as a prototype for a radical democratic Green New Deal now little more than a distant hope, the climate crisis is not the only foe. “Sadly the government hasn’t taken action. We do have a bunch of climate change related laws, but they’re not put into action. There’s never the funding. There’s the corruption.”

“I think, politically speaking, they could do much more,” says Gonzalez Rodriguez. There is a limit to what can be done on the local level, and issues at the scale of climate change require a state response, she says. “The government should be doing much more to educate about climate change…They should do their part, just as we are doing ours.”