During the early afternoon hours on a sunny September 21, Puerto Rico went dark. Millions were without electricity, thousands more without water, all due to a fire in a power plant on the southern coast.
Climate week had just begun. I had been in NYC for Mashable’s Social Good Summit over the weekend and was brainstorming how to incorporate my experience in New York into a candidate questionnaire I am working on with local organizers for the upcoming Puerto Rican elections.
We are in the process of preparing five core questions to be presented to the six candidates running for Puerto Rican governor. These questions are focused on addressing key areas not being covered by traditional media: Climate Change, Renewable Energy, Agriculture, Waste Management, & Environmental Health. This year is a unique election cycle because the elected governor will be occupying a voteless seat on the US appointed control board, as a part of the PROMESA bill.
Puerto Rico is currently facing a $70 billion debt, $9 billion of which is owed by our electric company, PREPA. The island wide blackout, coinciding with climate week, highlights the vulnerability of Puerto Rico in the face of climate change. While most service was restored within 4 days, the aging grid is still unstable, and rolling blackouts continue to be reported around the island. Today, my children’s school is without power again, while a tropical storm threatens our southern coast, reminding us we are still in the midst of hurricane season.
Puerto Rico is already experiencing the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, droughts, floods, and water contamination are already happening all too regularly. However, our current status as a US colony and our economic woes have virtually erased us from the conversation, much like the blackout dimmed our existence from above.
I have been following all things climate change for over a year now. I was first introduced to Climate Week in January of 2015 at a Ben & Jerry’s meeting. It was the same year Ben & Jerry’s launched the “Activist Core Academy”, online courses offered to the Scoop Shop community to empower staff members to create positive change both in and out of Scoop Shops.
As a result of my Activist Core Academy experiences, I found myself at Mashable’s Social Good Summit, kicking off Climate Week 2016 in New York City. I listened to Chelsea Handler, Joe Biden, Shaun King & many more talk about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As a self-proclaimed environmental ambassador, I was inspired listening to women like Helen Clark - New Zealand’s first female prime minister - who is now the head of the UNDP, talk about the challenges she faced as a woman in power.
“Don’t expect anyone to roll out the red carpet and invite you in. You have to roll out the carpet yourself and kick the door in.”
The same could, and should, be said about promoting environmentally sound legislation in Puerto Rico. Throughout the past year I have worked locally to raise awareness about climate change. During the month of October 2015 I organized “Rally Around Climate Justice” at our Condado Scoop Shop. I traveled to Paris for the now historic COP21 in December and saw world leaders come together to fight for a healthy future for our climate. Additionally, I helped organize Puerto Rico’s first Climate Walk in April 2016. One of my biggest accomplishments was organizing a successful voter registration event during Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day 2016 – urging ice cream eaters to participate in our democracy.
These experiences have allowed me to learn more about the environmental challenges facing Puerto Rico, which is essentially a rectangle 100 miles wide and 35 miles long (minus her coastal curves). Many of these issues are unknown to the public, a few of the key ones are:
On the North coast, about a quarter of the way eastwards, we have the town of Arecibo, resisting a proposal for a Waste to Energy Incinerator. On the surface, the incinerator appears to address our growing need for solid waste disposal, however, anyone paying attention to the global response to climate change, it is a clear example of trading one evil for another. Regardless of your opinion on incinerators and their environmental hazards, the technology is archaic before it starts by promoting the production of trash, versus the reduction of what we define as trash. In a culture with virtually nonexistent recycling programs, landfills facing closure, limited water resources, it seems we have many areas to improve before committing ourselves to another arguably dirty fuel source.
A similar situation exists on the exact opposite side of the island, a quarter of the way westward from the Southeast corner of the rectangle. Here the towns of Salinas & Guayama are fighting 2 fossil fuel abuses. The existing abuse comes from the the local energy company coal fired power plant in Guayama. The project was approved under the stipulation that no coal ash would remain on the island. However, since the original contract in the 1990’s, coal ash has been illegally and irresponsibly dumped in Puerto Rico and around the Caribbean. Despite its radioactive behavior and excessive amounts of heavy metals, the coal ash is promoted as a safe material to use for construction.
The second challenge comes from a proposal for an offshore natural gas drilling project, and the follow up construction of gas pipelines traversing our 100mile X 35 mile sun drenched, wind & wave activated rectangle. The energy company has used only the first stage of the project, the drilling, not the pipelines & subsequent burning of transported gas, to set the environmental impact projections, when in reality, once finished, will be much higher.
In much the same way Monsanto acquired 1500 acres of land, when the Puerto Rico constitution only allows for 500 acres to be owned by a single entity, this kind of falsification of impacts is frustratingly par for the course in Puerto Rico. Our desperate financial situation only makes our poorly legislated resources all the ripe for the picking.
Climate change is a great unifier. Citizens all over the world are being oppressed by fossil fuel giants favoring profit over people. However, the resistance is growing every day & there are victories to fuel the fight. Some argue Puerto Rico is the experimenting ground for the US, our current status as a colony only adding to a decades long debate on our relationship with the US.
While the experiments of the past are arguably nefarious in nature, I’d like to go out on a limb and volunteer Puerto Rico to be the new experimenting ground for clean energy. We could be the the US’s Costa Rica, a clean energy beacon for all to learn from.
We have the resources, the energy demands to make it comparable to mainland urban cities, & citizens who have been “trained” to accept energy outages as part of island life. Let us be the guinea pigs for massive implementation of micro grids and clean, renewable energy production, creating a go to action plan for the “leap frog” proposals for developing nations.
The blackout this past week was just the tip of the ice berg, in terms of Puerto Rico’s fragility in the face of climate change. While the media is focused on our financial woes, our goal with the environmental candidate questionnaire project is to uncover which of our leaders are leading from the perspective of a global citizen, responsible for the future of our planet. Because you can’t create jobs where people can’t live.
Michelle Campi, Ben & Jerry’s Puerto Rico