Alexis Súarez is 37 years old and has lived all his life in the Parcelas Suárez neighborhood in Loíza, on Puerto Rico’s northern coast. When he was a child, the beauty of the landscape captivated him and he clearly remembers what the coast of his community looked like, bathed by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

“The beach was distant,” says Suárez, a community leader with the local organization Junta Comunitaria de Residentes de las Parcelas Suárez (Community Board of Residents of Parcelas Suárez). “There were gazebos, there were some dunes and trees. The distance to get to the beach was long, you could hardly see it from the road. Look at it now.” 

Today, the landscape is different. The United States Army Corps of Engineers had to build a huge stone breakwater because the tide was getting so high it threatened the safety of children at a Head Start education center, which was later converted into a community meeting house. Elsewhere on the shore, in front of the houses in Parcelas Suárez, there is barely a narrow strip of sand that disappears when the tide rises and washes into the street in front of homes. This change in the coast of Loíza is just one example of the impact of global warming in Puerto Rico.

In addition to coastal erosion in seaside communities, the entire archipelago is feeling the effect of the increase in temperature caused by greenhouse gasses and the increase in the frequency and severity of rain events that, in turn, cause landslides and floods.

Community leader Alexis Súarez gestures to the eroding shoreline in Loíza, Puerto Rico. Photo by Camile Roldán Soto.

The damage and losses are not only observed in towns like Loíza, where there is historically a high level of poverty, but in other places like Ocean Park, a tourist area in San Juan, populated with properties that exceed $1 million. In this sector, there are also entire sections of beach that have simply disappeared. Other municipalities in the interior of the island, where there are no beaches, suffer more due to landslides caused by copious rains, as occurred during Hurricane Fiona this past September.

Given this scenario, in November, 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico sued a group of oil companies.

The appeal was filed by the law firm of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman PLLC, and among its allegations, it states that the companies maintained their commercial activities despite having information that demonstrated the environmental damage they would cause, including increasing the strength and frequency of hurricanes. 

The document — 247 pages in length — lists 14 causes of action against Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Motiva, Occidental, BHP, Arch Resources, Rio Tinto and Peabody. The municipalities that joined the claim are Bayamón, Caguas, Lares, Loíza, Barranquitas, Comerío, Cayey, Trujillo Alto, Las Marías, Vega Baja, Cidra, Añasco, Aibonito, Aguadilla, Moca and Morovis. The plaintiffs accuse the oil companies of generating 40% of greenhouse gas emissions between 1965 and 2017. No compensation was named for the alleged damages.

The mayor of Bayamón, Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz, mentioned some of the effects of global warming that his community is facing.

“The reality is that the amounts of rain that are falling exceed what is expected for the rainy season, which has caused a large number of landslides, mostly in rural areas,” he said in a written statement to Truthdig.

Rivera Cruz argued that the municipalities were informed of the demand through the lawyers who handled the lawsuit and that, in his case, the interest in being part of it is not limited to possible financial compensation.

“What is important is the message that everyone, including big business, has an ethical and moral responsibility to humanity,” he stressed.

“There are two factors that are mixed. On the one hand, we have climate change and its severity. On the other, the lack of a clear public policy at the local level that addresses the issue of risk with greater responsibility.”

Experts consulted emphasize that to understand the impact of climate change, it is important to take into account the factors that affect the country globally, together with the actions and omissions of both the government and the citizens themselves. In other words, this is a complex, multifaceted problem with shared responsibility.

“There are two factors that are mixed,” says Pedro Cardona Roig, an architect and urban planner. “On the one hand, we have climate change and its severity. On the other, the lack of a clear public policy at the local level that addresses the issue of risk with greater responsibility.”

Cardona Roig, who is also the creator of the popular El Urbanista account on social networks, believes that Puerto Rico has to urgently implement policies that protect the environment and mitigate the current damage. But he specified that this does not exempt non-government entities from their responsibility.

“In places like Puerto Rico, even if we were effective and managed our emissions, had a public recycling policy and were aware of our development, we still couldn’t face climate change because we are very affected by [outside] companies,” Cardona Roig says. “Therefore, we cannot only look to ourselves, but also to the large polluters in the United States and South America that impact us as a region. In that sense, I believe that this is one of the first times that I see affirmative actions that link Puerto Rico with the rest of the world and present some direct claims to the source [of global warming].”

Slightly less obvious than coastal erosion, but just as problematic, is the impact of climate change on community aquifers that supply approximately 100,000 people in 240 communities with drinking water, systems that provide potable water in places where the state cannot offer it.

Miriam Matos, president of the Board of Directors of the Organización Sistemas Acueductos “Non PRASA” de Puerto Rico (known by its acronym in Spanish as OSAN) appeared before the United Nations in November 2021 to call attention to the urgency of protecting water supplies in the face of the environmental crisis.

“The irresponsibility of cutting down trees without mitigating their effects, excessive construction, especially in wetlands and the coasts, among other practices, do not help protect our water resources and have created a bigger problem,” explained Matos in her presentation.

In addition to these situations that can be addressed with greater planning and oversight by the government, global warming has an impact on these drinking water systems because, during heat waves, some of the 1,500 bodies of water that supply them dry up.

“We have seen how the flow of water has decreased,” Matos said as she checked on an aqueduct in the city of Caguas, in the central mountains south of San Juan. “Though the downpours of recent months have caused the flows to increase…[By summer] rationing begins.”

Miriam Matos, president of the Board of Directors of the Organización Sistemas Acueductos “Non PRASA” de Puerto Rico (OSAN) in Caguas,
Puerto Rico. Photo by Camile Roldán Soto.

Matos also pointed out that there are cases, such as the aqueduct located on Puerto Rico’s Highway #172 in Caguas, that have been contaminated by coming into contact with gasoline tanks from nearby gas stations.

Rafael Méndez Tejeda, director of the Laboratory of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico in Carolina, called attention to the direct impact of global warming on the health of Puerto Ricans. He mentioned that the air quality associated with greenhouse gasses causes respiratory problems in the population, and also argued that, due to heat waves, the number of respiratory diseases increases and visits to hospitals due to them triple.

Méndez Tejeda is also a member of the Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change of the government of Puerto Rico. In February 2023, the committee plans to present to the public the draft of their Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Plan.

“I would like to prepare us for the worst scenario of climate change if nothing happens, and that is what people do not want to understand,” said Méndez Tejera, who thinks that there are countless measures the island can establish to control environmental damage, despite the fact that, outside of the will at the local level, there is a global impact that requires other controls. 

From the point of view of Adi Martínez Román, director of operations of the UPR Resiliency Law Center at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, when addressing the impact of global warming, one cannot lose sight of the climate justice problem that exists in the country.

“This means that the effects of climate change have a stronger impact on vulnerable populations such as economically disadvantaged people and countries,” explains Martínez Román. “These are the ones most affected by climate change and Puerto Rico is no exception.”

The lawyer, who from different fronts has dedicated herself to protecting the rights of these communities, criticized that the government is investing large sums of money in post-disaster reconstruction, but without listening to the different affected sectors and, even worse, without having plans and coherent policies to govern the process. This year, the Resiliency Law Center sued the Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (DRNA) —- the state entity tasked with protecting and managing the island’s natural resources — to activate the mitigation and adaptation plan of the government of Puerto Rico, which, according to the island’s Law 33 on Climate Change, should have been ready in October of the past year.

“We are receiving billions of dollars to rebuild, but our government does not have a mitigation and adaptation plan to face the reality of climate change. So, it was rebuilt without planning,” Martínez Román laments.

While all this is happening, residents of Parcelas Suárez lament the loss of their coastline, above all, because in some cases the measures to address the environmental problem have had the effect of eliminating precious access to the beach.

Alexis Súarez would like other alternatives such as artificial reefs or reforestation to be evaluated as a means to save his beloved hometown.

“Fighting with the sea is difficult,” he says. “Because I doubt that she will back down.”

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