Global warming is getting personal


               Photos by my cousin, Amy Chukerman

Climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes. But you knew that. On the other hand climate scientists have predicted that there will be more hurricanes and they will be more severe. That certainly seems to be happening, as up here in Chicago, where the weather was beautiful, we watched with trepidation as the one, two, three punch of Harvey Irma Maria hammered Houston, the Caribbean islands and much of Florida and then the Virgin Islands, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The first two of these storms became very personal, with Sandi’s mother and her sister’s family living in Houston while my mother, IMG_0304aunt, uncle and cousin live in coastal southwest Florida, where Irma did her worst. They all came out relatively unscathed, though my cousin lost everything in her refrigerator and freezer to her street’s five-day power outage.

I was in Florida – Bonita Springs, Naples and Estero – just a week after Irma did her dirty work. What a mess. Trees, many ripped out by their roots, were down everywhere, victims mostly of the hurricane-spun-off tornadoes. They had taken with them homes, power and phone lines and those screened-in porches Floridians call lanais. Many of the live-oak trees that survived had nearly all of their leaves stripped off. Palm fronds littered streets and almost every yard. Wadded up screens from the lanais were stashed on scores of curbs waiting to be carted away. Light posts and street signs were down. Stoplights were out. Gated sub-divisions had propped their gates open. There was an 8 p.m. curfew. Boil-water advisories were in effect.

On a bike ride through residential areas I discovered frogs, much like the rats I often see as I ride down Chicago side streets, smashed and desiccating. By my third day there,

In my cousin’s sub-division

water had receded enough so that most of the main streets were passable. Many homes and businesses in low-lying areas were still partially under a foot or more of water. Grocery stores and other retailers were just beginning to re-open. The curfew was lifted. Gas lines had disappeared. When I left, two weeks after the storm, most, but not all homes had electricity. The inevitable swarms of floodwater mosquitoes had yet to emerge.

Back in Chicago there was a record-breaking heat wave for late September and in Puerto Rico there was Maria. The city’s National Public Radio affiliate, WBEZ, ran a “Curious City” piece on what kind of natural disasters we have to worry about here. Floods, droughts, more frequent and more severe heat waves, polar vortexes – have been and will be coming more often. But…

“We live in one of the best places you can be,” Suzanne Malec-McKenna commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment from 2007 to 2011 told WBEZ. “Because of its location, Chicago will not likely be hit by hurricanes, tsunamis, and rising sea levels that have plagued coastal areas. And the city is located next to Lake Michigan, one of the largest sources of fresh water, which is essential to human survival and important during times of drought.”

Because our climate-related severe weather is likely to be bearable for the foreseeable future, we are, then, likely to become a haven for climate refugees. And there are sure to be more and more of them.

It has probably already started: Puerto Ricans represented 3.8 percent of Chicago’s population in the 2010 census, with approximately 102,703 living in the city.

Undoubtedly there is going to be an exodus from Puerto Rico after Maria’s devastation, and the likelihood that the near future holds more of the same. Folks will come where there are relatives and friends and people who share a culture. They will go to New York, of course, where they number 723,621 – 8.9 percent of the city – and South Florida, but both are already feeling the pressure of rising sea levels.

The numbers of climate refugees globally is rising. A Bloomberg article warns of a looming housing crisis if just 350,000 of the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans migrate to the mainland. It notes:

In Africa, climate change forced an estimated 1 million people to leave their homes in 2015; in the Pacific, the World Bank has urged Australia and New Zealand to open their doors to residents forced off small island nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati. Even in Syria, internal migration sparked by a historic drought contributed to the civil war, which has added to the wave of people trying to enter Europe in recent years.

“A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year shows  9 per cent of armed conflicts over 1980-2010 coincided with climate-related disasters such as heat waves or droughts,” according to an article on the British website Independent. “In countries with deep ethnic divides, this figure rises to 23 per cent.”

If Chicago feels a little squeeze from Puerto Rican migration, what will happen when sea level rise chases hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, out of New York City and Miami? The results of too many people living in too few homes are predictable – fire risks, domestic strife, crime and many other problems.

I’m not sure how to finish this other than to exhort you to start doing something about climate change. It affects us all and it affects us now. Click here and scroll down 5 paragraphs for my list of some things you can do now.

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