This September, The New York Times published “How Climate Migration Will Reshape America,” the U.S.-based chapter in its series on climate migration. The piece confirmed what residents of America’s island territories have insisted for decades: that climate change in the United States is not a hypothetical, but a reality. Accompanying the article was a series of maps showing how global warming will inevitably alter the country as most Americans know it: one contiguous landmass stretching from sea to shining sea, with zero mention of its overseas territories.
This incomplete depiction of the U.S. should come as no surprise to any of the 4 million Americans living in the Caribbean; as Sondheim indelibly put it, “Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America.” However, when it comes to climate policy, the mainland’s consistent disregard of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands crosses the line from frustrating to actively harmful. These islands are on the frontline of the climate crisis, all while being governed by one of its biggest contributors and most willing deniers. If this trend continues, the nebulous status of being an “unincorporated territory” will unfortunately only magnify the consequences of global warming for millions of Americans.
The Caribbean, which contributes less than 1 percent of all global CO2 emissions, is disproportionately vulnerable to the forces of climate change. Puerto Rico and the USVI continue to face rising sea levels and increasingly devastating natural disasters, all while DC policymakers focus their attention elsewhere. Territories are falling behind the rest of the Caribbean, as the other islands take matters into their own hands and advance their climate strategies.
The three most important institutions for environmental policy in this region are the OECS Commission, the CARICOM Secretariat, and the comically named Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC). These organizations are strengthening regional cooperation and developing sustainable policy measures to address climate change and climate migration. Every independent Caribbean nation has membership in at least one of these institutions, many all three, while Puerto Rico and the USVI are associated with none.
This is not due to a lack of effort; in 1990, the USVI applied for membership to the OECS, but Washington denied their appeal, stating that “this was not an appropriate time for that request.” Meanwhile, Puerto Rico, the region’s fourth largest island, has been stuck for years in observer status with CARICOM, having been surpassed by much smaller island territories like Montserrat and the BVI. Membership in these institutions comes with benefits; the Caribbean has a long history of international cooperation and migration, which will both become vital as the consequences of global warming become more present.
Government officials often argue that what Puerto Rico and the USVI lack in independence, they make up for in assistance from the U.S. This is not the case, as many islanders will readily tell you. In 2017, the U.S. government’s incompetent response to Hurricane Maria left roughly 3,000 Caribbean Americans dead and countless others injured or displaced. A retrospective analysis of the U.S. government’s response showed that it took 30 times longer for resources to reach Puerto Rico than it did Florida, determining that the “remarkable disparity in the speed and generosity of federal response . . . is probably large enough to help explain the vastly larger number of deaths.”
Following several intense hurricane seasons, my family eventually made the decision to leave our home on St. Thomas and move to the mainland. In the coming decades, more people will be taking similar action; The Census Bureau estimates Puerto Rico’s population will decrease to 2.98 million by 2050. Members of this diaspora have historically experienced hostility and exclusion from their fellow American citizens, and many Puerto Ricans express a preference for migrating to the more culturally and linguistically similar countries of South America. Considering the many drawbacks, it’s unclear to this day how much Puerto Rico benefits from its status as an American territory.
The U.S.’s relationship with its territories often feels like colonialism rebranded for the 21st century: you’re American when we need you to be and someone else’s problem when we don’t. This dysfunctional relationship will only become further pronounced as sea levels continue to rise and natural disasters become more intense. We’ve just experienced a devastating hurricane season during an infamously turbulent year for our country. Now more than ever, we need the U.S. to reconcile with the consequences of its pseudo-empire, because, as we’ve seen, it makes no difference to climate change whether or not you’re technically American.
— Jacob Sottak is a former St. Thomas resident and a current graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.