The ideas represented within this article are opinions in nature and are solely that of the author. They may not wholly reflect the stance of The Forest Scout newspaper as a publication.
When I was four years old, I was on vacation in the Cayman Islands. While my family and I were enjoying the tropical weather and the Caribbean tranquility, Hurricane Ivan brewed into a feisty storm with a direct path towards the islands. With the forecast for a catastrophic category four storm to hit, we raced to the airport to leave the island. Fortunately, we got a flight home and as the storm wreaked havoc on the Cayman Islands, we lived comfortably at home in Chicago. Obviously, we had no impact from the storm at home, but down in the Caribbean, homes were flattened, infrastructure was ruined, and lives were destroyed.
The people of Puerto Rico are facing a similar story as they try to recover from the catastrophic destruction from Hurricane Maria. Throughout the island, power is out, communications are cut, and absolute devastation is present. If you look at pictures from the island, you can see wood and debris scattered everywhere across the unrecognizable terrain. If you look at the people, you can see the despair and helplessness on their faces. People desperately wait for hours just to get the necessities of food and water, if there is any left. And while these people struggle to rebuild and stay alive, here on the mainland we are too busy with our own stories and problems to devote our full attention to our fellow citizens down in Puerto Rico.
In the wake of the storm, many Puerto Ricans have decided to flock to the airports, just as I did 13 years ago. If you walk the terminals of San Juan’s airport you will find families desperate to leave the island to find a place on the mainland with safety and civility. The storm has wiped out so much infrastructure and utilities that 44% of citizens are still without water. For many, they do not have the will or the capability to rebuild and stay on the Island. As many Puerto Ricans look to leave the island, the question is how the United States will react when its own citizens come knocking for a place to stay just like any of the other refugees of the world.
Unfortunately, refugees have been around for a long time. Today, millions of refugees flee uninhabitable areas for many reasons, such as war and persecution. What is new, however, is the climate refugee. Climate refugees are those people displaced due to new climate conditions causing their previous homes to be uninhabitable. As we see our climate change, we also see the carnage of its effects on developed areas. With rising global temperatures and sea levels, we now see stronger storms and relentless flooding. This year, the warm Atlantic waters have provided the spark for relentless storms as we have seen a trifecta of them so far. As a result, those living on the coasts and the Caribbean have been dealing with the devastating effects.
The United States has long been known as the melting pot of the world, as people from all over the world and all walks of life converge into one nation. It seems natural then, that we would willingly accept people into our country that meet certain basic requirements (basic health, clean criminal record, etc.). Recently, however, we have shown to the world that we are quite protective of our country much like a child and its toys. Many young kids are unwilling to share with others, and unfortunately that simple idea seems to translate to our overall mindset to refugees.
A strong hatred towards refugees has been fostered in our country by many of our citizens and the White House as well. The Trump administration has been clear on its position against immigration which has been shown by multiple attempts at immigration restrictions on refugees and immigrants looking to move to the United States. Many Americans are concerned with possible terror threats from refugees, but deep down I believe the feelings all come back to the natural instinct and mindset of self-interest.
There is something about our very human nature that tells us to help ourselves before helping others. Sure, we can sit here and say we are worried about terrorism and bad behavior, but in the end, the refugee issue comes down to being welcoming citizens, which unfortunately many of us are not. Many of us become selfish and are unwilling to accept others into our own way of live. We feel as though those new people pose a threat to our status or way of life, and very few of us are willing to give that up. Most people would not like it when thousands of strangers come walking into their lives and neighborhoods looking for a new way of life. When you take a look at our mindsets and actions in the past, it becomes clear that perhaps we are not ready for the impending challenges from climate refugees.
You can deny climate change all you want, but one way or another the climate refugee problem is coming, and we as a nation will have to deal with it. We have proven unable to accept refugees before, and now our own American citizens are in trouble. The people of Puerto Rico that choose to leave an island in disarray from the hurricane are climate refugees as well. They are part of our country, yet I am not convinced we are willing and accepting enough to help them as people look to relocate for a better and safer life.
According to the National Hurricane Center, 53 percent of Americans now live within 50 miles of the coast. As the climate changes, the storms get worse, and the seas rise, many of our citizens are at risk of destruction every year. With millions of Americans living in the path of catastrophic effects, we could realistically be looking at one of the largest relocation and refugee movements of all time, both in our own country and around the world. At this point in time, I do not believe we are prepared mentally and economically to handle perhaps the biggest issue that mankind will face in the next century. As a society and a nation, we have to wake up and face the reality of these impending changes. In the near future, our own people will be looking for help and assistance from their fellow citizens as they look to relocate amidst the drastic changes in our world. The question remains, however, will we, as Americans, be willing enough to help them when they come knocking for assistance?