Hermine pummels the eastern U.S. at the end of a summer marked by hurricane, flood, drought, wildfire, scorching heat, and spreading Zika virus — all phenomenon exacerbated by rising global temperatures. So why aren’t Americans discussing climate change more?
Well, for starters, our mainstream media has been slow to tell the full story, burying the lead of the century. From flooding in Texas, West Virginia, and Louisiana to wildfires across the American west, most reporters have given us disaster porn instead of in-depth analysis. You’ve seen the images: a woman and dog rescued from a submerged car in Baton Rouge; coffins floating down a city street; gripping scenes of firefighters silhouetted against a blazing horizon.
Only in the last few weeks — late in a year where disasters have punctuated the interminable election coverage — have stories on the role of climate change started trending, with the New York Times exploring its role in the Louisiana floods and the coastal flooding brought by rising sea levels and Bill Nye the Science Guy declaring, “It’s only going to get worse,” on CNN. (Full disclosure: I started pitching an earlier version of this story in June and was frustrated to find mainstream publications unresponsive.)
Still, it’s rare to hear reporters explain the link between climate events, even when they are covering floods and fires back-to-back. Meteorologist Danielle Banks hinted at the connection when she pointed out that Watson, Louisiana had received a shocking 31.39 inches of rain, “more rain in three days than Los Angeles, California has seen in four years.” Although the Weather.com segment was titled, “Why the Louisiana Flood Happened,” Banks failed to mention that greenhouse gasses are warming our air, and warm air holds moisture for longer, increasing both torrential rain and drought — hence the term climate change.
Taken case by case, the omission is understandable. Flooding is not just a matter of how fast the rain falls, but also how fast the water drains, which can be affected by factors like deforestation in hilly areas or impermeable paving in urban ones. Lightening or arson can spark a particular fire, though California’s five-year drought has made wildfires more frequent, rapid, and destructive. In other words, any natural disaster has multiple causes. The pressure to quickly publish an attention-grabbing headline does not encourage reporters to acknowledge complexity.
Despite the complexity of individual events, scientists are clear about the overall pattern and have long warned that increasing CO2 and methane emissions would likely increase extreme weather, drought, sea level rise, and the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses. So why is it still controversial in some quarters when Al Gore or Bill Nye speak plainly about this broader pattern and connect it to the floods? In short, the fossil fuel companies and their sponsored pundits have done a masterful job of using the issue’s complexity to sow so much misinformation that they have managed to make established science a partisian issue. This despite the fact that Exxon knew the effects of global warming nearly forty years ago.
I saw the effects of their misinformation campaign on a recent family vacation. In both northern Pennsylvania and southern New York state, the drought was so bad that landmark waterfalls were barely dribbling. One river was so low that despite its reputation for white water rafting, we couldn’t even go tubing. Farmers mentioned the drought when we stopped to buy their produce. Yet when I asked people about the role of climate change, it was only those under age 25 who responded with vigorous nods. Older people acted uncomfortable, as if I had brought up sex or money.
Most countries are long past debate about whether the world is warming due to human activity. As Elliott Negin, a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out, when Paris, France and Paris, Texas flooded within days of each other earlier this summer, only one of their leaders acknowledged the role of climate change, and it wasn’t Texas Governor Greg Abbott, although he had to declare a state of emergency in thirty-one Texas counties. Abbott is a climate denier, a phenomenon far more common in the United States.
It probably doesn’t help that most Americans pay little attention to global news. If we did, we might realize that in August, floods struck, not just the southern U.S., but also Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Sudan, Macedonia, Russia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Japan, and the Philippines. Again, floods have multiple causes, so not every case can be blamed on climate change, but it’s sobering to say the least to realize just how many countries have been experiencing record-breaking torrential rain.
Whether it is in Baton Rogue or Bangladesh, we know that poor people suffer the most from natural disasters. For many around the world it is not just their homes that are lost, but also their crops. China’s July flooding alone damaged 18 million agricultural acres. This in a world where a quarter of a billion people are already hungry due to drought, the flip side of moisture remaining in warm air for longer. In addition to horrific human suffering, the Pentagon has long acknowledged that this kind of situation leads to global instability and security risks.
If we could see the caskets floating in the streets of Louisiana and the raging infernos of California as part of a global pattern of more frequent and severe disasters, if we could viscerally get the connection between the summer’s heat deaths in Philadelphia and the hunger-inducing drought in southern Africa — if we could grasp the full magnitude of the climate catastrophe, perhaps we would find the will to act as decisively as the situation merits. There are plenty of things we can still do to slow these trends and reason to be optimistic about the potential for renewable energy to drastically lower greenhouse gas emissions. We have more power than we know to make this kind of change happen. But making major change requires a sense of urgency and political will that so far has been missing among the general public, not to mention our politicians or corporations.
I don’t believe it is because people don’t care. Polls show that most Americans are concerned about climate change. It’s just that we are a visceral people. We are moved by the image of a woman and her dog trapped in a car in a way we are not moved by statistics and qualifiers. That’s why we need to help each other connect the dots between the two. Every time hurricanes or heat waves or droughts or floods or wildfires come up in conversation, we need to remind ourselves and others that global warming is making such disasters more frequent and more severe.
If we don’t acknowledge what climate change is doing to our world right now, we won’t know what hit us. Literally. If we do, we at least have a chance of acting in time.