How ‘Climate Migrants’ Are Roiling American Politics

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When Puerto Rican native Olga González became the first Latina mayor of Kissimmee, Fla., last year, she credited God for her victory. Others pointed to climate change.

A fast-growing Orlando suburb of 80,000 people, Kissimmee saw its Puerto Rican population grow substantially after the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017 prompted many struggling families to leave the island for Florida.

Kissimmee gained a whopping 10,000 new residents between 2017 and 2020, according to census data. Osceola County, where Kissimmee is located, and neighboring Orange County saw their combined Puerto Rican population jump more than 12 percent. The changes were so profound that González found herself competing with two other Puerto Rican candidates to become Kissimmee’s mayor.

“Hurricane Maria … served as a reintroduction of the Puerto Rican population into Central Florida,” said Fernando Rivera, director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub at the University of Central Florida. Now, “we’re seeing growth in the leadership [of Puerto Ricans].”

The concept of climate migration — population shifts forced by destructive weather changes — has been studied for years. But most Americans still think of it as something that happens elsewhere, or a future doomsday scenario

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