The pandemic has already critically wounded U.S. territories by shutting down their major economic driver: tourism. But another global crisis is already well underway in the form of climate change, which could prove to be devastating to U.S. insular areas (U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as freely associated states).
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, led a hearing yesterday on a draft of the Insular Area Climate Change Act, which would, among other things, create and expand federal programs specifically for climate change causes and effects in the insular areas, who often deal with extra red tape when trying to access federal services and who deal with some of the worst effects from global warming.
Some of the changes the bill would create include a federal task force, a new office within the Department of Energy to expand energy programs into the insular areas, an incentive for free-market coral reef research and conservation, and much more.
The bill would also forgive federal disaster loans for insular areas, who are already in major financial trouble.
Sea levels are drastically rising each year, and threaten major erosion and destruction among islands that are literally sinking into the ocean. Couple that with horrific hurricanes and typhoons that make landfall every year in many of these places and cost major money and lives.
Puerto Rico comes to mind, where residents endured Category 5 Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017. The island has yet to fully recover from the damage due to mismanagement from the Trump administration as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mismanaging money and supplies.
The hearing’s witnesses emphasized that natural disaster events put the Insular Areas’ infrastructure and people at risk.
“Catastrophic events reveal that islands have more difficulties in responding to hurricane impacts and dealing with extreme impacts,” said Puerto Rican forecaster and educator Ada Monzón in her witness testimony. “It takes longer for disaster logistics and operations to establish, for managing supplies, and the time to task the response and recovery is enormous. There is a disproportional effect in our geographically small islands because we are remote and relatively short on human, food, water, and resources.”
Global warming has increased the likelihood of Category 3 or higher hurricanes by 8% per decade, according to Monzón.
The witnesses also expressed great concern for the coral reefs that surround the islands in question. Reefs aren’t just colorful gems of the natural world; they’re also a natural wall guarding the land from flooding, an ecosystem for marine life, and a major drive of tourism, according to Zena Grecni, a Sustained Climate Assessment Specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
Grecni says in the Northern Mariana Islands alone, coral reefs and seagrass are estimated to be worth $115 million. In Guam, reefs account for $323 million in tourism each year.
“…It is troubling that multiple, consecutive coral bleaching events in recent years led to mass reef mortality in some locations,” Grecni said in her testimony. “Bleaching events in 2017 caused 90% mortality of some branching coral species in the Saipan Lagoon…”
Rising sea levels have already contributed to coastal erosion and pose a huge threat to some of the Insular Areas.
Gerald Zackios, Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said in his testimony that rising sea levels are a literal existential threat to the Marshall Islands.
“As a country with its highest point less than six feet above the rising sea level–one of the four lowest lying nations in the world–our islands’ very existence is challenged,” said Zackios.
Zackios noted that the changes on our planet have accounted for new, severe challenges faced by the freely-associated state, naming “king tides, intrusion of salt water into freshwater resources, and the difficulties of growing food” all as major concerns, as well as mosquito-borne illnesses.
Lastly, advocates for renewable energy in the Insular Areas argue that the price of energy is exorbitant compared to the average U.S. cost.
In American Samoa, for example, the price of electricity is more than double the U.S. average, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) based in Golden, Colorado. In all the islands, price of energy is well above the norm, even though GDP per capita is far below.
Most electricity in American Samoa, Guam, and the Marshall Islands is driven by fossil fuels, the price of which can fluctuate dramatically.
NREL has been involved extensively with the Insular Areas, providing resources for renewable energy development for many of the islands, according to Grecni.
However, some representatives in the hearing had qualms about the bill, including a couple of representatives from U.S. territories.
Rep. Amata Radewagen (R-AS) stated that she had apprehensions regarding wind energy being implemented on American Samoa, criticizing the “one-size-fits-all approach” of the bill in regards to implementing windmills on all the insular areas.
“My constituents have expressed concerns many times to myself, our governor, and their local village leaders about the impact windmills will have on cultural land and sea traditions, scenic views, wildlife, impact, and fishing access,” said Radewagen.
Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR) railed against this draft of the bill as well, criticizing the fact that witnesses from the federal agencies that would be in charge of implementation were not called to appear, and asking that Puerto Rico not be lumped with other insular areas, since it’s sometimes treated as a state for funding purposes.
She also called herself a “strong proponent of liquified natural gas,” which she said “provides cheap, clean, and reliable energy.”
Natural gas is a non-renewable form of energy that, despite burning more cleanly than fossil fuels, still leaves a remarkable carbon footprint.
Four members of the Colorado congressional delegation sit on the Natural Resources committee. Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette was slated to speak, but was not in attendance.
Representatives Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Joe Neguse (D-CO), and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) did not speak. It is unclear if they attended the virtual hearing.