‘Whole towns will be underwater;’ Environmentalists warn of climate risks in Puerto Rico

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Puerto Rican scientists are raising alarm bells about the risks of climate change. Following a briefing Thursday on Capitol Hill, members of the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council spoke with reporters in a conference call.

“Puerto Rico is in the midst of a climate crisis,” Christina Hernandez told reporters. “[It] represents an acceleration vision of what we can see here in the United States. [Puerto Rico] is the island of climate change.”

About 70 percent of Puerto Ricans live in coastal areas, putting them at greater risk to climate change.

“We now know that whole towns will be underwater,” said Luis Garden Acosta, the founder of El Puente, the umbrella organization behind the Latino Climate Action Network.
“We now know that the airport, the electrical grid… everything will be underwater. We now know that unless we have a plan, there will be floating bodies just like what we saw in [Hurricane] Katrina.”

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Rising sea levels and coastal erosion are already causing of problems for Puerto Ricans.

“Thousands of persons are beginning to see public health issues … from eye infection, skin infections, asthma, dengue [fever],” said Javier Laureano, the executive director of the San Juan Bay Estuary Program.

In particular, Laureano highlighted the health problems in the Martín Peña Channel neighborhood of San Juan. The area is constantly flooded with raw sewage, exposing the 27,000 residents to various diseases.

According to documents that Puerto Rico Climate Change Council presented to Congress, about 8 per cent of Puerto Rico’s economy comes from the tourist industry. As coastal erosion progresses, beaches and hotels which are popular with tourists are falling into the sea.

The director of the coastal zone management program said other major infrastructure is also at risk. Ernesto Diaz said San Juan’s Luis Luoz International Airport –which receives about 9.2 million passengers a year– would be submerged if sea levels continue to rise.

“What is occurring on our small island is a microcosm of what will probably occur in other latitudes …The mainland United States can benefit from what we implement … in Puerto Rico … [It’s] something that … not a question of when it’s coming … climate change is here already,” Diaz said.

Diaz and other stakeholders are now asking Congress to address the climate crisis faced by Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Climate Briefing Presentation

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