June 21, 2024

A new federal report found that federal agencies routinely fail to collect the same amount of data on U.S. territories that they collect and maintain for states, which advocates say has broad implications for climate adaptation and mitigation.

The report, written by the US Government Accountability Office, or GAO, federal data collection investigation in five island territories: Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and American Samoa. The latter three are home to relatively large communities of indigenous Pacific Islanders. Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands are currently on the United Nations List of Non-Self-Governing Territories, a list of modern colonies whose people have not yet achieved self-government. All US territories are experiencing the impact of warming oceans, more frequent and violent storms, and bleaching coral reefs.

“As the saying goes, if you don’t count, you don’t count,” says Neil Weare, associate director of Right to Democracy, an advocacy group for residents in US territories. “If people are serious about environmental justice, they should be serious about addressing equity issues in American territories, especially when it comes to issues of data collection.”

The GAO report does not specifically mention climate change, but much of the missing data is closely related: demographics, economics, and agriculture. For example, of all the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s statistical products, only one includes data from the areas. In American Samoa, where subsistence agriculture is becoming increasingly important to address gaps in food security and is also highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, local officials say the census may be undercounting farms by relying too much on the presence of electric meters.

Some of the obstacles to data collection are statutory: Federal law often leaves out US territories. But other barriers include limited sample sizes due to relatively small populations; the high cost of collecting data, especially when agencies lack local staff; and technical challenges, including a lack of residential mailing addresses or mail delivery services on many islands that the Census Bureau normally relies on for postal surveys. The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes Puerto Rico in only four of its 21 statistical products, and it does not include American Samoa or the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in any of them. The agency says it excludes Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands from many of its labor statistics in part because they don’t local unemployment insurance programs.

On Guam, local officials said they are often excluded from the federal Social Vulnerability Index, which estimates communities’ susceptibility to natural disasters, and they worry that the lack of inclusion leads to underestimation of their need for resources. Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, which make up the same western Pacific archipelago, are frequently hit by typhoons and are still recovering from typhoon Mawar and Yutu, the latter of which the strongest storm to hit the US in nearly a century

The report said the Biden administration should ensure that the chief statistician at the Office of Management and Budget develops a plan for how to address the data gaps in consultation with the districts. That’s encouraging to Neil Weare, who says it puts the onus on the Biden administration to act quickly.

“One of the key takeaways from that report is that the Biden administration can act on many, if not most, of these items without further congressional approval,” Weare said. “So this is really the way forward for the Biden administration to act on these issues.”

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