The Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico, can serve as a clear example for Americans of one of the most powerful potential consequences of global warming: a huge number of people are forced to seek a new place of residence under the influence of climatic conditions.
The storm that destroyed the houses, washed away the roads and stripped 3.4 million people of energy, risks accelerating the process that has already begun when people flee economic stagnation and raise taxes caused by the fiscal and debt crisis.
On Tuesday, the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, warned that without “unprecedented help” from the US government “thousands, if not millions,” residents can leave the island by moving to the mainland. It will hit the housing and labor market in the cities where these people are forced to move.
In Puerto Rico, further declines in population will exacerbate its economic decline. The Commonwealth declared bankruptcy in May and stopped paying more than $ 70 billion in debt. A smaller number of residents means less economic activity, further lowering the tax revenue needed to repay loans in Puerto Rico.
Scientists say that higher temperatures of water and air, as well as rising sea levels, increasing the intensity of the destructive power of hurricanes – a trend that will continue as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases.
Researchers of the IMF in a report published on Wednesday examined the links between extreme weather conditions and emigration in more than 100 countries for three decades. They found that “the increase in temperature and the increase in the number of weather-related disasters increase migration,” says Petya Topalova, an IMF researcher and lead author of the report.
In the report, migration is described as an “adaptation strategy for households affected by weather shocks” and it is projected that “significant migration flows potentially reaching the country’s borders may occur if climate change leads to a significant increase in sea level.”
In some parts of the world, this is already happening. In Africa, climate change forced about 1 million people to leave their homes in 2015; in the Pacific region, the World Bank has already urged Australia and New Zealand to open their doors to residents forced to leave small island states. Even in Syria, internal migration, caused by a historical drought, contributed to a civil war that increased the flow of people who tried to enter Europe in recent years.
Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico last Wednesday, could lead to similar dynamics in the US. The magnitude of the destruction on the island, combined with its large population and the legal right of Puerto Ricans to move anywhere in the United States, can lead to migration on a broader scale than displacement against other natural disasters.
This raises questions about the ability of the country to cope with such a volume of movement of people. According to Jesse Keenan, an expert on climate adaptation at Harvard University, the housing market in these cities will not be able to provide such an influx of people.
Keenan cited New York as an example, in which the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans outside the island was noted. According to Keenan, traditionally the areas in Puerto Rico, where newcomers – East Harlem, Bushvik, parts of the Bronx can live – suffer from a lack of jobs and high rents.
A large number of visitors will also create a “huge burden on providing the necessary volume of social services, at least for the next couple of years,” Keenan said. Climate migration
Topalova, an IMF researcher, said that people leaving Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria might find it harder to find themselves in a new place.
“They may face greater integration problems in the labor market compared to economic migrants who have decided to move to another location to improve work efficiency,” she said.
With good planning and forecasting, the US “will be able to take on a whole wave of climate refugees,” said Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis.
Those who believe that they need to leave the island “may not find the economic opportunities they need, or find not the work they were looking for,” said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a lawyer-consultant of LatinoJustice, a lawyer group in New York, In New York.