Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Climate Change - Turns a Calamity into Catastrophe

Even the most affluent nation on Earth can't escape the knock-on effects of climate change. The Pentagon thinks of it as a "force multiplier." It magnifies difficulties, makes them more protracted and sometimes leaves irreparable damage in its wake.

That's what the United States is now facing from the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, the mass depopulation of the territory.  From The Washington Post.

During the decade before Maria, economic decline and depopulation, a slower-moving catastrophe, had been taking a staggering toll: The number of residents had plunged by 11 percent, the economy had shrunk by 15 percent, and the government had become unable to pay its bills.

It already ranked among the worst cycles of economic decline and depopulation in postwar American history, and projections indicated that the island’s slide could continue for years.

Then came Maria.

Now, even as officials in Washington and Puerto Rico undertake the recovery, residents are expected to leave en masse, fueling more economic decline and potentially accelerating a vicious cycle.

We are watching a real live demographic and population collapse on a monumental scale,” according to Lyman Stone, an independent migration researcher and economist at the Agriculture Department. The hurricane hit “might just be the kick in the pants Puerto Rico needs to really fall off this demographic cliff into total epochal-level demographic disaster.”

Whatever happens with Puerto Rico, moreover, will have far-reaching effects, because while the disaster is felt most keenly on the island, the accelerated exodus is already being felt on the mainland.

Cities popular with Puerto Ricans, such as Orlando, Hartford, Conn., and Springfield Mass., are bracing for more students, many of whom come from families living below the poverty level.

Politicians, meanwhile, are weighing the potentially significant electoral consequences of a wave of migrants expected to lean Democratic — especially in Florida. The swing state already boasts half a million Puerto Rican-born residents, and more are expected in Maria’s aftermath.

Indeed, at a news conference last week, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló warned that without significant help, “millions” could leave for the U.S. mainland.

“You’re not going to get hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the States — you’re going to get millions,” Rosselló said. “You’re going to get millions, creating a devastating demographic shift for us here in Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado has warned, meanwhile, that without more aid, the government could suffer a shutdown by the end of the month.

“Even before Maria, you had what looked like a death spiral going on,” said Gregory Makoff, a bond researcher who worked on the Treasury Department’s Puerto Rico team and now is a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. “Now it’s no longer theoretical. In a week’s time, they’ve lost another huge chunk of the population.”

For years before the economic slide, companies such as Merck, Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo had collectively saved $2 billion or more annually under a key tax break that gave U.S. companies an incentive to set up operations on the island.

But in 2006, the tax break was eliminated, taking away a key incentive for companies to operate there. It was one of many factors blamed for the island’s decline.

Among the others: The island’s electrical power system is outdated and saddles islanders with bills roughly double what they are on the mainland; an exodus of doctors has opened holes in the health-care system; and the economy’s most critical sector, manufacturing, has been shrinking even more rapidly than the rest of the economy, affected not just by the lost tax break but also by global competition.

Only about 40 percent of people in Puerto Rico are employed or seeking work. By contrast, the U.S. figure for what economists call “labor force participation” is about 63 percent.

Finally, the government’s inability to pay off more than $70 billion in debt has provoked a congressionally mandated oversight board and a new fiscal plan that calls for efforts to raise taxes and significant cuts to the government. Even with optimistic assumptions, that plan predicted continuing shrinkage of the economy.

Like many on the island, Sergio M. Marxuach, policy director for the Center for a New Economy, a San Juan-based think tank, said a massive federal investment is necessary.

“We’re going to need some significant government intervention — essentially a big rescue package, not only to rebuild the economy but get it growing,” he said. “People are saying, ‘I don’t want my children to grow up in a place where the economy is going to be devastated for the next 10 years.’ If enough people think that way, it’s going to be a self-reinforcing downward spiral.”

Even those who evince optimism acknowledge that more difficult times lie ahead.

“We will move forward better than we were before,” said Joaquín Fernández Quintero, the president of Telemedik, a telehealth company that employs about 400 people.

But he said that about 10 percent of the employees in his Mayaguez office will move to the States in the coming weeks, several of them “high-level” employees. And he’s not sure when they will be coming back.

“People are getting frustrated and depressed,” Fernández Quintero said. “A lot of small and medium companies will be closing because they cannot maintain their operations. It will be a complicated process.”

Trump's dilemma - long promised tax cuts and Republican credibility or a massive bailout to salvage what remains of Puerto Rico. Then there's the threat the migrants pose to Republican incumbents in next year's mid-term elections when they may be able to swing critical Congressional seats to the Democrats. That could alter the balance of power, especially with the current, bitterly divided Republican caucus.

Trump may treat the Puerto Ricans like Mexicans only they can travel freely within the United States and they can vote.

By the time those internally displaced citizens go to the polls, the losses and the death toll will be known. At the moment it's expected to top 450.

The official count is now 48 deaths. But the news site Vox thought that number seemed off.

"We knew from reports on the ground, and investigative journalists who've also been looking into this, that this was very likely way too low of a number,” said Eliza Barclay, an editor at Vox.

So they dug into the numbers, cross-checking with news reports, and found that the number of casualties resulting from the hurricane was probably much closer to 450.


Toby said...

This is no surprise, Mound. We expected as much when the hurricane hit.

In my various travels around the world I have found American territories and possessions, including Puerto Rico, to be rather sad, sort of like the massive slums in most US cities. There is something wrong with the American dream when the government forces so many to live in poverty. Why anyone would want to live in the US or any of its possessions puzzles me.

Trailblazer said...

Gwynne Dyer got it right years ago didn't he?
Here he is ; less old leather jacket.


The Mound of Sound said...

You're right, Toby, that's always been the way. The Americans used "no taxation without representation" as justification for the Revolution but they think it's find to impose that on others, fellow citizens at that, indefinitely.

The Mound of Sound said...

Trailblazer - I watched this years ago BUT and it's a powerful 'but,' Dyer, in 2012, speaks of 2C as the threshold beyond which we will trigger natural feedback loops, tipping points.

A half decade later we're busy logging the feedback loops coming online.

I sometimes go back to see what I was writing 11+ years ago, I think it was that long, when I started this blog. We, at least at the level of laity, had a weak grasp, part of which had been engineered.

We were bred to enjoy life to the fullest and not really worry that much about what was going on all around us. And we did just that - and we believed the perpetual, exponential thing because we always stopped well short of carrying that scenario through to its obvious, inevitable outcome.

With this threat I believe our society wants to remain far behind the power curve. We're not willing to confront scientific reality. The consequences and implications of acknowledging it could be quite powerful and frightening. Best stay in the comfort zone.