Islands Sinking Due to Climate Change Asking for Help

March 5, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
The beach of Guam Reef Resort, Tumon Bay. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Islands that fall under U.S. protection asked Congress for help Thursday from the climate change that is making their shores sink into the ocean and subjecting them to devastating hurricanes.

With so little land compared with the U.S. mainland, they are suffering some of the worst consequences of global warming.

“Islands contribute the least to climate change yet we endure the brunt of its impacts,” said Austin Shelton, director of the University of Guam Center for Island Sustainability.

He testified before the House Natural Resources Committee as it considers legislation that would dedicate funds to strengthening the islands’ defenses against climate change.

The options include solar power, electricity from wind generators and other renewable energy. Representatives from the islands also said they want better seawalls to prevent the erosion of shorelines.

The “insular area” refers to 14 U.S. territories and three “freely associated states,” which include American Samoa, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Their representatives all supported the proposed Insular Area Climate Change Act of 2021 being drafted by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.

In general, the bill “will provide some of the additional tools we will need to begin to address climate change,” Grijalva said.

A key provision of the bill would create an Interagency Task Force to identify ways to help territories gain access to federal programs that address climate change.

Other provisions would centralize climate change programs for the islands in the U.S. Department of Energy and give them grants for renewable energy and climate-friendly infrastructure.

In addition, the proposed legislation would cancel the islands’ federal loans and waive non-federal cost sharing requirements for the environmental programs.

A Natural Resources Committee memo described the environmental challenge faced by the islands saying, “These areas face sea level rise, coastal erosion, temperature increases and droughts, just as the rest of the United States, and struggle with unequal access to federal programs, an over-reliance on petroleum and out-of-date infrastructure that often does not meet hazard mitigation codes.”

Much of the concern during the hearing focused on Puerto Rico, which still is recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, along with numerous meteorologists, say global warming is increasing the number and intensity of hurricanes.

Grijalva quoted an Environmental Defense Fund report by saying, “Puerto Rico could be considered a canary in the coal mine for climate change.”

Ada Monzón, a meteorologist and president of Eco Exploratorio: Science Museum of Puerto Rico, described rising sea levels along the Caribbean island’s coast, bleaching of the corals that are the cradle for many sea creatures and the Category 5 hurricane damage the killed 2,975 residents.

“All of our resources are compromised,” Monzón said.

With adequate federal support, along with a switch to renewable energy and more durable infrastructure, “We could be the example for the Americas and the entire planet on how to do it right,” she said.

She preferred more solar power and offshore wind farms to augment Puerto Rico’s electricity supply. She blamed failures of the electrical grid after the 2017 hurricanes for deaths among some vulnerable residents.

The islands’ representatives won broad support from Natural Resources Committee members, although they wanted to see the final version of the Insular Area Climate Change Act before making a final decision.

Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said, “A healthy economy and healthy environment are linked.”

No exact amount of money for the climate change measures is proposed in the bill, which remains in draft form.

“We have an informal internal assessment of the resources involved but it hasn’t been vetted to the point where we’d want to share it,” Adam Sarvana, communications director for the House Natural Resources Committee, told The Well News. “Today’s discussion was about how to improve the draft and that a final figure will have to wait.”

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