Caribbean Matters: The severe impact of climate change on the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

While many media outlets only seem to pay attention to the U.S. Virgin Islands these days when discussing Jeffrey Epstein’s infamous private island of Little St. James and Puerto Rico when it comes to Bad Bunny concerts, it is important that we take note of the reality that both U.S. colonies in the Caribbean are on the front lines of climate change.

The islands have been hit with scorching, record-breaking heat over the past summer, drought, flooding, erosion of the coastlines, damage to coral reefs, and waves of foul-smelling seaweed called sargassum. Climate change greatly affects the health and safety of those who live in the areas, not to mention the economic impact.

RELATED STORY: Caribbean Matters: A stinky 'golden tide' of sargassum seaweed strangles the Caribbean

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.

When discussing the impact of climate change on the daily lives of Puerto Rican and Virgin islanders, one aspect that I don’t often see mentioned are the are health-related impacts, both mental and physical. Writer, reporter, photographer, and producer Pearl Marvell published this report for Yale Climate Connections about the damage extreme weather does to areas already impacted by colonization and systemic inequality:

Puerto Rico has seen an alarming increase in deaths over the last two years caused by cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, and mental health conditions like overdose, alcoholism, and dementia. There are a number of reasons for this, but the Fifth National Climate Assessment released last month warned that more intense and frequent hurricanes and other extreme weather events caused by climate change will likely bring more illness, higher mortality, and an overall decrease in quality of life to citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Perhaps we are among the least responsible for climate change, but we are being among the most impacted,” said Pablo Méndez-Lázaro, one of the lead researchers of the chapter. 


The 32-chapter national assessment, which will be published in Spanish in the coming months, is filled with information on the effects of climate change and potential solutions in the United States. This is the first assessment to fully assess the devastating effects of Hurricanes Maria and Irma on the islands in 2017. Chapter 23 focuses on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, examining the climate crisis in the context of the sociological, psychological, and historical situation of this region. It paints a more nuanced and complex picture than the fourth assessment in 2018, which focused on the effects of climate change on rainfall, coastal systems, and rising temperatures.

Back in 2016, the federal Environmental Protection Agency published this fact sheet on the USVI and climate change. It covered issues such as ocean warming and sea level rise, coral reef damage and ocean acidification, storm impact on homes and infrastructure, the shrinking of forests, and interference in agriculture productivity which could affect food supplies. We have seen the EPA’s predictions for human health impact come to pass:

Hot days can be unhealthy—even dangerous. Certain people are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Rising temperatures will increase the frequency of hot days and warm nights. High air temperatures can cause heat stroke and dehydration and affect people’s cardiovascular and nervous systems. Warm nights are especially dangerous because they prevent the human body from cooling after a hot day. Although reliable long-term temperature records for the U.S. Virgin Islands are unavailable, the frequency of warm nights in nearby Puerto Rico has increased by about 50 percent since 1950.

The U.S. Virgin Islands’ climate is suitable for mosquito species that carry diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever. While the transmission of disease depends on a variety of conditions, higher air temperatures are likely to accelerate the mosquito life cycle and the rate at which viruses replicate in mosquitoes.

The warm marine environment of the Virgin Islands helps promote some water-related illnesses: Vibriosis is a bacterial infection that can come from direct contact with contaminated water or eating infected shellfish. Ciguatera poisoning comes from eating fish that contain a toxic substance produced by a type of algae found in this area. Higher water temperatures can increase the growth of these bacteria and algae, which may increase the risk of these associated illnesses.

RELATED STORY:  Caribbean Matters: Dengue cases are rising, and not just in the Caribbean

Far too many mainlanders not of Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands ancestry only think of the islands as a tourist destination. The USVI economy is far more dependent on tourism than Puerto Rico’s. Tourism and related economic areas in USVI account for more than half of its GDP, whereas in Puerto Rico it is far less, according to data from the Financial Oversight Board:

While Puerto Rico’s tropical climate, sandy beaches and thriving culture attract close to a million visitors each year, tourism is not a leader when it comes to economic activity on the island. Despite a popular belief that tourism is a significant contributor, this industry only represents about 2% of the island’s GDP. That share has grown 1% over the last 5 years, which is significantly less than the 15% growth reported within the industry during the same period in the mainland United States.

The USVI, however, winds up being caught between a rock and a hard place. Island leaders and residents promote tourism for economic survival while at the same time attempting to mitigate its environmental harm. Shannon Garrido wrote for Pasquines:

It took the United States government an entire decade to grant the largely African-descended population American citizenship. US Virgin Islanders have remained unable to elect the President of the United States or have a voting delegate in Congress. Needless to say, residents have little to no power in dictating the United States’ use of their land, and upon the turn of the 20th century, this has had significant environmental effects.

The island of St. John is home to the 29th US National Park and was founded by Laurance S. Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. As a result, exploitation and protection for the enjoyment of wealthy and white visitors are at the expense of the island and its native inhabitants.

This unsustainable trend continues, and the USVI is facing environmental pressures from increased tourism that threaten vital natural resources. This type of development impacts the environment in multiple ways, especially through sediment pollution, increased demand for sewage treatments, and direct ecosystem damage from an increased number of tourists.

RELATED STORY:  Caribbean Matters: Danish history, slavery, resistance, and colonialism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

This news report from TRT World details many of the current climate issues, especially threats to the coral reefs:

As the US Virgin Islands continue their long recovery from the devastation caused by the 2017 hurricanes, there's increasing concern about the possible impact of climate change. Experts fear that global warming is not only increasing the intensity of hurricanes in the region but is also having an adverse affect on the islands' marine life.

Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, the non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from the USVI, was interviewed briefly in the report. While many Americans got their first look at her when she served as a floor manager for former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial, it’s important to point out that she has not ignored climate change as a major issue for the people she represents.

Here’s her brief floor speech on climate change from Sept. 26, 2019:

Mr. Speaker, this week, the United Nations is hosting its Climate Action Summit. Robust funding and sound policies are needed to ensure we effectively combat climate change. Threatened by increasingly more frequent and extreme changes in our climate, territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands stand at the front line of this quickly escalating climate crisis.

Within the past decade, my district has reduced fossil fuel use by 20% and has become a regional leader in clean energy. States and territories have also passed regional and state-specific legislation to combat climate change, but we need a comprehensive, forward-looking national plan to address this threat to our children and our children's children.

 While we don't yet have all the tools to address rapid climate change, we must create them through increased Federal investment in research, development, and deployment of emerging technologies. Across the nation, climate change is threatening our economy and our lives. Hurricanes like Irma and Maria collectively cost $140 billion, according to NOAA, and, most importantly, they cost thousands of lives. America must lead the charge to preserve our planet.

Fast forward to July 24, 2023, when Plaskett shared this statement on the inclusion of the USVI in the government’s seasonal drought outlook:

“My office successfully worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to include the Virgin Islands in the U.S. Drought Monitor in 2019, which provides a general summary of current drought conditions and provides access to permanent disaster relief programs related to drought. As a result of the new inclusion in the CPC Drought Outlooks, our farmers will now have access to additional resources that can assist with their planning and preparation for adverse conditions, as well as their maximization of expected favorable conditions. The Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture, the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency alongside environmental monitoring volunteers, the farming community, the University of the Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands Drought Coordinator, Christina Chanes, worked in partnership to collect, compile, and analyze data on precipitation and particulate matter. This community-wide effort played an instrumental role in the Climate Prediction Center’s decision to include the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Operational Drought Outlooks.

“Given the immense impact of weather on agriculture, skillful weather forecasts provided by CPC Drought Outlooks are of tremendous importance to farmers for effective decision making on critical matters, including which crops are most likely to flourish in the predicted growing season, how much of each crop to grow, whether to irrigate, the timing of planting and harvesting and whether to purchase crop insurance.

“This is a critical and timely development for the agricultural community in our territory. It is my hope that the data and resources provided by the Drought Outlooks will be a well-utilized resource by our local farmers and those in the Virgin Islands agriculture sector.”

My question about this is: Why was the USVI not included until 2019, and only in the monthly outlook in 2023? 

There are efforts underway in the USVI to preserve and replenish the coral reef system. This video from the Nature Conservancy documents them:

While I think many people have the impression that climate change is only a concern for those who dub themselves “climate activists,” it’s an issue that most Puerto Ricans worry about. Politicians running for office in Puerto Rico and in mainland areas with large Puerto Rican communities should take note of this recent report from the Yale School of the Environment:

Residents of Puerto Rico are among the most worried in the world about climate change according to a new study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC).

The study, conducted in partnership with Rare and Data for Good at Meta, found that 93% of Puerto Ricans said they are “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about climate change; 84% said climate change will harm future generations “a great deal”; and 61% said climate change will harm them personally “a great deal.” Puerto Rico also had the highest number of respondents in the world who believe that climate change should be a high government priority.

Republican climate change deniers, listed in this opinion piece by Glenn C. Altschuler in The Hill, will hopefully be turning off mainland Puerto Rican voters in the next election as a result:

Not one Republican in Congress voted for the Biden administration’s bill to combat climate change. The percentage of rank-and-file Republicans who think global warming is caused by human activity has declined over the last two decades. These days, 70 percent of Republicans say climate change is a minor threat or no threat at all.

Democrats running for office should take note.

Please join me in the comments section below for more on Caribbean climate change issues and for the weekly Caribbean news roundup.

Campaign Action