After the storms, a look at 'climate injustice'

This lesson has students look at the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, and consider how around the world, people with the fewest resources are most at risk from climate change.  


  • What do you know about the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change?
  • What do you know about the contributions of climate change to the severity of hurricanes and other extreme weather?
  • What examples of extreme weather are you most familiar with?



Reading 1:
Inequality and climate change

The images are haunting. Demolished houses. Cars and trucks plowing through streets that look like rivers. Men and women, children in their arms, standing waist–deep in filthy floodwaters.

Most Americans have seen the damage that hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria poured down on Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico (among other places), leaving scores of people dead and millions flooded. But these were not the only places hit by terrible storms in late summer and early fall of 2017. At the end of August, similar scenes played out in south Asia, with far deadlier effects. Floods across Bangladesh, India, and Nepal killed 1,200 people. In Bangladesh alone, floods affected more than 7.4 million people and destroyed or damaged nearly 700,000 homes.
All of these stories have something in common. The world’s climate is changing, and weather is more extreme than it was a century ago.  But the effects of these changes are falling most heavily on those who have the least, and who have done the least to cause the problem.

"No nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change," the World Bank warned in 2012. "However, the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt."

Within any country, those with the fewest resources will be hurt the most. But the effects vary greatly between countries, and some already are suffering more than others. Geography is one reason. The world’s poorer regions tend to be closer to the equator, where changing weather patterns have led to desertification (the expansion of deserts) and more intense storms. More extreme weather means that farmers in parts of Africa and Asia have been unable to cultivate their land. The extreme drought that shriveled the crops on so many Syrian farms between 2006 and 2009 pushed thousands of farmers off their land and into cities, aggravating that country’s political crisis and war.

Poorer countries lack richer nations’ resources for adapting to rising seas and hotter temperatures. Richer countries and individuals can build stronger homes, develop evacuation plans, and marshal first responders after a hurricane or typhoon. "When it comes to such disasters, money matters," wrote Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

For some countries, climate change could literally mean doom. "To visit the Maldives is to witness the slow death of a nation," a BBC reporter wrote in 2004. About 80% of the Pacific nation’s 1,200 islands are no more than 1 meter (about a yard) above sea level. Given the rate at which ice caps are melting and seas are rising, scientists say the Maldives could be uninhabitable by the end of the century. To dramatize what would happen to Maldives’ 360,000 residents if climate change continues unchecked, the country’s president staged an underwater cabinet meeting in 2009.

The great irony is that the people who did the least to cause climate change are the ones who will endure its greatest devastation. Global–scale, human–induced climate change began with the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. That’s when factory owners in western Europe and the United States first burned coal to power large–scale manufacturing technology, when locomotives and steamships began replacing horsepower and wind. With their head start in industrialization, Western Europe and the United States have enjoyed a higher living standard than other parts of the world. In the process, they have burned through a bigger cumulative pile of fossil fuels than other regions, emitting greenhouse gases that have changed the climate for everyone.

"Equality is a big issue," says Lord Stern, one of the world’s foremost climate economists. "The rich got rich on high–carbon growth and it’s the poor people of the world – whether they be poor people in rich countries or poor people in poor countries – who suffer earliest and most."

The differences in greenhouse gas emissions are startling. According to a study by Oxfam, a global anti–poverty organization, the poorest half of the world’s 7 billion people are responsible for about 10% of global emissions arising from individual consumption. The richest 10% of the world’s population create 11 times more greenhouse gas emissions than the poorest half. And the richest 10% of people emit 60 times more greenhouse gases than the poorest 10%. The activities of the world’s richest 1% generate emissions that are about 175 times that of the poorest 10%.

The international climate agreement forged in Paris at the end of 2015 calls on richer nations to donate funds to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. But there’s no "meaningful mechanism" for making that happen, according to Oxfam. Oxfam also found that rich nations fell short on their 2009 pledge to donate $100 billion a year to help poorer nations adapt. Only $16 billion has been paid, Oxfam reports – far short of the $500 billion a year that poorer countries may need, according to the United Nations.

For discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was familiar?
  2. Why are the effects of climate change so unequally distributed, both around the world and within countries?
  3. What parts of the world have contributed the most to climate change, and how?
  4. If the countries that did the most to cause climate change are suffering the least, how should they behave toward the countries that are most severely affected?


Reading 2: 
Vulnerability, recovery, philanthropy

Why are some places more resilient than others in the face of disaster? When calamity strikes, what do governments and individuals owe to those in need? Should it matter how close to home the needy are? These are some of the questions that arise from the rapid succession of three powerful hurricanes within a single month.

Hurricane Harvey struck Houston on August 25, 2017, followed by Irma, which made landfall in Florida and other southeastern states on September 10. Irma also skirted Puerto Rico before  moving to the mainland. But while Puerto Rico dodged the center of the hurricane, Irma still knocked out nearly 70% of the U.S. commonwealth’s fragile electrical system. Ten days later, Maria’s 100–mile–per–hour winds dealt the island a direct hit, and all but 5% of the island was without power.

All three hurricanes brought death and destruction. But Puerto Rico’s weaker economy and infrastructure made the island more vulnerable than the mainland areas affected by this season’s storms. Nearly half of the island’s 3.4 million people live below the poverty line, compared with an official poverty rate of 13.5% for the United States as a whole in 2015. Puerto Rico has been in recession for 11 years, and its government is $74 billion in debt. (Many argue that U.S. policies helped lead to Puerto Rico’s impoverishment.)

It’s hard to compare the damage caused by the three hurricanes because the extent of Puerto Rico’s losses can’t yet be calculated. Harvey killed 75 people and Irma another 69. Two weeks after Maria, the official death count was 36, but no one knew the real toll because so much of the island’s communications system was still not working. There was limited fuel to get vehicles across the mountainous terrain, slowing the distribution of food, water, and other supplies. About three–quarters of the hospitals were still using emergency generators, and at least one hospital reported indoor temperatures above 110 degrees. Ten days after the storm, more than half of the territory still lacked access to clean drinking water.

Aid has also been delayed by the Jones Act, a law that only allows U.S.–owned ships to carry goods between Puerto Rico and other U.S. ports. Eight days after Maria hit Puerto Rico, the Trump administration lifted the requirement for a 10–day period, but containers full of supplies sat in the harbor because trucks and drivers could not reach the ports.

Despite Puerto Rico’s extreme need, donors have been slower to open their wallets following Maria than they were after Harvey and Irma. As of October 4, 2017, combined donations and pledges to the Red Cross and Catholic Charities for Harvey recovery had surpassed $350 million; for Irma, the number was $47 million. Just $2 million had trickled in by then for Maria, a number that was probably kept down by the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas that swept aside news about Puerto Rico.

One reason for the gap in giving may be the incorrect perception on the part of many Americans that Puerto Rico is a separate nation. Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people are, in fact, U.S. citizens. But The New York Times reported that a poll by Morning Consult found that only 54 percent of respondents knew that Puerto Rico is part of the United States.

Should shared citizenship be part of the criteria for giving?

"I find the notion that we need to give more because people are Americans a bit uncomfortable, simply because we have a tradition of giving all over the world when things happen, like earthquakes in Mexico and tsunamis in Asia," Stacy Palmer, the editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, told USA Today. "There may be some lack of understanding about Puerto Rico being part of the U.S., but mainly the factors have to do with being a third disaster that is now battling with the Las Vegas shooting for our giving."

For discussion

  1. Why was Puerto Rico so vulnerable when Hurricane Maria struck the island?
  2. Why has aid been slow to reach so many of Puerto Rico’s people?
  3. Do you know anyone who has been affected by this season’s hurricanes? Do you know anyone who has tried to offer help in any way, by gathering supplies, raising money, or volunteering in recovery efforts?
  4. Why have donors given less for recovery from Maria than for recovery from the earlier hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida? How do you feel about the different levels of aid for the different hurricane recovery efforts?
  5. In offering aid, should people and governments consider the nationalities of those in need before deciding whether and how much to give? Or should aid be based on where the need is greatest?


Extension activities

A. Research countries’ vulnerability to climate change

As homework, break students into small groups. Either assign each group a country or ask students to decide on a country they will research. (You might direct students to this chart, which shows the risks of climate change to countries around the world.)
Ask each group to research the answers to these questions about the country they have selected:

  1. What is the most serious threat that climate change poses for this country?  Cite three pieces of evidence to support your view that this is the most important threat for this region.
  2. What strategies is this country using to adapt to climate change and to the major threat you have identified?
  3. Has this country been a major contributor to greenhouse gases?

In the next class, ask students to discuss their findings with other members of their group and prepare to report their findings to the class.

As students report on their country, you might point out the countries they’re discussing on this map from the World Bank, which includes the per capita income for each country.  Note that in general, people in countries that contributed the least to climate change have the lowest incomes – and the fewest resources to respond to climate change.

Finally, have students explore, either in small groups or all together, how their countries might move toward renewable energy. The Solutions Project has developed a model for 100% renewable energy for every country and state.

B. Take Action

If students are interested, support them in finding ways to help people in the country they have researched address climate change challenges. Students might begin by identifying organizations in these countries that are doing this work.   

Alternatively, have students explore how their own state or community could 1) become more resilient to climate change or 2) move toward 100% renewable energy.  Help students identify organizations in your area that are working toward these goals, and decide on how students could get involved.