Nicole Hernández Hammer: Sea Level Rise and Climate Censorship

Cover photo: Nicole Hernández Hammer

Interview by Richard Brown

Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a Guatemalan-American scientist and activist who was invited by Michele Obama as a special guest during President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address. Her father is Cuban, and met her mother, who is Guatemalan, studying medicine at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. They moved with Nicole to the US when she was 4. She is the Florida field manager for Mom’s Clean Air Task Force and is a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists on climate change issues. This interview has been edited and condensed.

EM: Why did you leave academia in favor of activism?

The sea level rise that we’re going to see in the next 15 years is going to transform Florida, it’s going to transform many parts of the world, it’s going to create major problems with flooding and drinking water. We’ve got a lot of science, we know that climate change is happening, we know that it’s human-caused, and we know that we’re starting to see the impacts now. But this information is not being sufficiently reflected in our policies at the state or the federal level. So this fall I left academia to work as an activist.  At MCAF we just started our chapter in October, and we already have 30,000 members in Florida alone, and we have over 450,000 members across the country. I feel that this kind of work is what is really going to drive the policy changes we need.

EM: A 2015 Stanford University poll found that 54% of Hispanics in the US consider climate change extremely or very important to them personally, compared with 37% of whites. Why is this?

Latinos more than anybody else are concerned about climate change, and there are a lot of polls that have come out through NRDC and Latino Decisions that underscore that Latinos are willing to take action to deal with climate change.

We know that communities of color are the most vulnerable. The people that don’t want action on climate change, not only are making bad decisions for themselves and their families, because everyone is vulnerable to climate change, but also lack compassion for the folks that are most vulnerable.

The list of places that have the largest and/or the fastest growing Latino populations are also the places that are most vulnerable to sea level rise. And practically speaking there’s a large partion of the Latino population that works outdoors in the environment whether its agriculture or construction, and so we are more sensitive to environmental changes.

I also think that because we have more international perspective we’re not as susceptible to the campaign of disinformation that’s being pushed by the polluting companies. These arguments seem to be most upfront in American media. But when you look at international media, whether Telemundo or BBC, they’re presenting the information in a more practical way. They’re talking to scientists, they’re talking to experts, and when you do that, there is not a debate.

Latinos are in a really key position. We make up 17% of the US population, but those numbers are expected to double by the middle of this century,  we’re a potential powerhouse of political influence in this country. And because we’re more vulnerable, and we’re more on board with acting on climate change. I feel like this is an important contribution that we as Latinos can make as this wave of immigrants, because in US history there are waves of immigrants from different parts of the world and they leave their print on US history, and I feel like as Latinos, we are in a really unique position to be able to leave a legacy of adaptation and mitigation and be an example of how a community can come together on an issue that’s so important, like sustainability and addressing climate change.

Personally in my family, especially my grandmother, she gardened, she uses herbs to make you feel better if you were sick, food-as-medicine kind of thing. She, my mother, my aunts and uncles seem much more connected with the value of nature than perhaps the more Americanized people of my generation in the US. I think that’s part of our heritage that we have that’s incredibly valuable and we need to hold on to it.

EM: It was just revealed that Florida Governor Rick Scott pressured state agencies not to use the words “climate change” in their research and policies. What do you think of that?

According to several research reports, Miami is the number one most economically vulnerable city to climate change in the world. It’s a huge issue for us. We’re already starting to see the impacts of sea level rise. Miami Beach is spending up to $500 million in pumps just to deal with sea level rise caused flooding. Miami Beach is only 18 square miles, a very small portion of the whole state, so you can imagine the efforts that have to go in to strenthening flood control structures across Florida.

We have to think short term, but we also have to think long term, we’re thinking about adaptation, but we’re also having to think about mitigation. Leaving the words and the concepts of climate change out of that, makes it incredibly difficult for us to be able to move forward. We have amazing, brilliant people in Florida at the county level, in academic insitutions that are doing this work, but getting the push-back from the state level is frustrating.

In a lot of meetings where we had state, federal, local agencies, decision makers, and scientists giving presentations on topics related to climate change, whether it was changes in precipatation, or sea level rise or other issues regarding natural systems, especially in the Everglades, there was also some sense from some of the participating groups that there was a restriction on the amount of information that they could talk about under the context of climate change.

Whether you like it or not, we’re going to have to deal with climate change, and we’re going to have to adapt. A lot of people say, just  do what they do in the Netherlands, or New Orleans, build seawalls, but we can’t. We sit on a very porous limestone rock, so when the sea level goes up, it doesn’t just come up over the coast on the beaches, it comes in underground into the acquifer, and we get our drinking water from that acquifer. It raises the water table causing inland flooding and it also contaminates that potable water. Communities are spending millions of dollars moving well fields inland because of salt water intrusion.

EM: How likely is increased migration to the US due to climate stressors?

Migration is a huge issue, not just for the Americas, but also for other parts of the world. When we talk about the many impacts of climate change, what they mean, I think a major end result are climate refugees.

Even within Florida! There’s talk about having to plan for a strategic retreat of major portions of southeast  Florida for the year 2100. That might seem far off, but… it’s something that you have to plan several decades in advance, and we still don’t even know how to really go about it.

We’re dealing with multiple impacts… wet periods, dry periods, sea level rise, increased temperatues. That’s why there’s such a sense of urgency behind adaptation and mitigation, because the window for us to make decisions on how we’re going to prevent the worst is closing, and if we don’t take action now, then we’re going to be dealing with, in the words of the IPCC, “horrible” consequences.

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