Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands. The U.S. got clobbered. Three category 4 or 5 Atlantic hurricanes of startling intensity, a record for any single season, whacked the country. Records were also set for rainfall and destruction. Two of those mega-storms, Irma and Maria, their power intensified by waters growing ever warmer thanks to fossil fuel emissions that continue to heat the atmosphere and the oceans, hit Puerto Rico, one glancingly, one full force. Then another hurricane (this time, a mega-storm of incompetence and negligence) completed the job. That, of course, was Hurricane Donald. As a result, three months after Irma first knocked out Puerto Rico’s power and two and a half months after Maria completely trashed the place, only 66% of that population has had its electricity restored. The latest estimate: the whole island won’t have it and other utilities fully up and working until at least February. (And if recent history is any judge, that’s probably an optimistic estimate.) The conservative guess is that $94 billion in damage has been done to Puerto Rico, giving the term “the dark ages” a new meaning in the twenty-first century. All of this should remind us that we’re living, as Todd Miller points out today, in an increasingly threatening new era.
Mind you, even as the planet’s temperature rises, humanity continues to set records when it comes to dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And here’s the grim irony that TomDispatch regular Miller explores in his latest post, as well as in his striking new book, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (which Dahr Jamail calls “essential reading” and Kirkus Review says is “a galvanizing forecast of global warming’s endgame and a powerful indictment of America’s current stance”): those least responsible for the damage, whether living in Bangladesh, Central America, or Syria, are feeling its brunt first. They’re the ones who will be uprooted and turned into climate-change refugees. Then, in their desperate journeys in search of safety, they’ll find doors slammed shut on them, walls built to stop them, and fingers pointed at them as if they were the plague, the worst of the worst.
That disparity in cause and effect can be felt even inside the United States. After all, Donald Trump would never have treated Hurricane Harvey’s flooding in the Houston area the way he did the damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose governor he identified as its “president.” (No, Donald, you are the president of the Virgin Islands and it is not a foreign land!) Behind such reactions lies a deep sense that “those” people are obviously not real Americans. Consider it an irony, then, that the inability to deal with damaged Puerto Rico like damaged Houston has led to the generation of this country’s first true onslaught of climate refugees (though others have preceded them) — tens of thousands of desperate islanders fleeing a home that has essentially ceased to function for the mainland U.S., especially Florida. Consider it a further irony that these are the only kinds of refugees Donald Trump can’t even try to stop from “coming” to this country because, of course, they’re already here. As for such refugees elsewhere, Todd Miller explains just what kind of dystopian nightmare is in store for them and, in a sense, for us all. As Bill McKibben says of Storming the Wall, “as this book makes crystal clear, people on the move from rising waters, spreading deserts, and endless storms could profoundly destabilize our civilizations unless we seize the chance to reimagine our relationships to each other.”