Xtreme weather meets Xtreme media bubble
Xtreme weather meets Xtreme media bubble
When it comes to weather news, it's been all-hurricane-all-the-time -- and under the pressure of storm after storm, news language has escalated. "Bizarre" and "strange" have been two recent words of choice in describing
When "Ivan the Terrible" threatened
And yet something was missing. For the first time in history, four hurricanes -- Charley, Frances, Ivan (the Terrible), and now Jeanne -- have smacked into Florida's long coastline one after another in a single hurricane season (not yet over), and here's the strangest thing of all: Forget that in March Brazil experienced the South Atlantic's first hurricane ever -- Brazilian meteorologists didn't even know what to name it; or that the Atlantic coast of Canada got whacked by Hurricane Juan, "the storm of the century," late last year (and the Canadian government suspects a link to global warming); or that the United States has already experienced a record number of tornados in 2004; or that Japan has had the worst season of typhoons in memory; or that Xtreme weather events have increased in recent years across the planet, including massive flooding in Europe, Bangladesh, and China, and a deathly summer heat wave that struck Europe in 2003. Forget the rising sea levels and the increased melt-off toward the poles. Forget that the head of at least one (hated) country in the path of Hurricane Ivan -- Fidel Castro -- was ready to warn his people about global warning and hurricanes, or that the Bush administration's closest ally, Tony Blair of
It's often been said that, in tossing the Kyoto Agreement out the Ozone hole, relaxing fuel-emission standards, burying or altering governmental global-warming research and the like, the Bush administration, with an Ivan-the-Terrible-style environmental record, has stuck its head in the proverbial sand (probably Tar sands at that). And this couldn't be truer. Ignoring global warming -- and so any preparations to safeguard the world for our children and grandchildren -- is but another form of global terrorism; it's a way of loading and locking another kind of weapon of mass destruction. But in this behavior, as it happens, the Bush administration isn't alone. The American mainstream media has been a major aider-and-abettor in the process.
We know that the President and his companions live in a bubble world. When he travels the foreign peripheries of our planet, for instance, central cities are emptied as he passes through them; and everywhere, from
When it comes to the emission of greenhouse gases, and so to global warming, perhaps the single most pressing issue for the human future, there is next to no counter-evidence because our mainstream media lives inside the bubble too, and consequently so do the American people, at least those who don't make it to alternate or foreign sources of news via the Internet. With rare exceptions, even when aspects of global warming are reported on, the disconnect with our American world is severe. For instance, one night soon after Ivan cut its swath of destruction through the
The report focused on a group of Chinese scientists studying the melting of
Only the other day, the British Guardian had a piece on the same Chinese glacier study that began: "The world's highest ice fields are melting so quickly that they are on course to disappear within 100 years, driving up sea levels, increasing floods and turning verdant mountain slopes into deserts, Chinese scientists warned yesterday." This would be a significant catastrophe, resulting first in major flooding, later in desertification. The scientists have concluded, "Once the mountain ice was gone, rivers would start to dry up and ocean levels would rise, threatening coastal cities."
By now we know -- or should know anyway, that global warming is manifesting itself most powerfully at the peripheries of our planet -- in its frozen stretches where melting is occurring at startling rates, and in its archipelagic parts where rising sea levels, connected to that melting ice, are threatening to create instant "Atlantis scenarios" -- trailers, you might say, for the future fates of New Orleans, New York, Shanghai and other coastal cities. These areas of initial victimization are, however, places where peoples, often tribal and with no power whatsoever, live. At a recent hearing, Inuit Circumpolar Conference Chair Sheila Watt-Cloutier told the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, "We find ourselves at the very cusp of a defining event in the history of this planet... The Earth is literally melting." And she pleaded with the assembled senators: "Use us as your early warning system. Use the Inuit story as a vehicle to reconnect us all so that we can understand the people and the planet are one."
But if the Inuit feel such urgency, it's not mirrored in our media world at all. When such a story manages to slip into our papers, as Andrew C. Revkin's Antarctic Glaciers Quicken Pace to Sea; Warming Is Cited did in last Friday's New York Times, placement tells all -- even when it has paragraphs right out of some catastrophe film. The Times piece, for instance, indicated that the expected change in sea levels from Antarctic glacial melting "already constitutes a slow-motion catastrophe for places like Bangladesh, New Orleans and low island nations, experts say. But the findings add weight to the idea that rising seas could be a fact of life for centuries to come, requiring serious reassessments of the human penchant for living along coasts." The Times editors nonetheless chose to place this global piece on page 24, the sixth and last page of its National Report (not counting the four full pages of ads in the section), appropriately opposite the obituaries.
Someday this will, of course, look like the most errant of follies (if anyone's looking). You might say that, as the Inuit canary expires in the mine, our response is to dig harder and faster, while those whose job it is to signal danger point the rest of us the other way. Among the few modest bright spots in a coal-dark
By the 1980s, the interconnectedness of life on our planet had become one of the sentimental clichÃ©s of the environmental movement. But what of newspapers and TV shows that refuse to connect anything, that consider local and national weather catastrophes the most wonderful of stories -- like covering wars without the same danger levels -- but insist on treating them in fabulous isolation from other global developments? At first, no connections between the hurricanes pounding
"As hurricane after hurricane strikes the southeastern
"The answer from scientists: Probably not."
In it, the possibility that the hurricanes were indeed linked to global-warming trends was quickly raised -- only to be instantly shot down by quotes from a multitude of scientific experts. Oddly, this denial then freed the reporter to discuss a future moment when such a linkage might lead to catastrophe. ("But if global warming continues, it could inject a new element into these ancient meteorological cycles.... More significant, the study found that maximum precipitation could go up by about 34 percent, which 'could have important future societal consequences'... Worsening the impact of these stronger hurricanes would be a rise in sea levels, also caused by global warming... etc.")
Indeed, it's true that four hurricanes in a historic package add up to no more than anecdotal evidence at this point; but the curious thing is that most of our reporters can't even discover a scientist who believes any linkage between the
"Those of us who live in small island states understand the impact, the power, and danger, of these highly-charged storms. But the threat is not only from storms. The corollary to a warming world is melting ice caps, which translate to higher sea levels, which ultimately will mean the drowning of large areas of what we now call our homes. This applies not only to small, poor island states like
Recently -- to offer congratulations where it's due -- two mainstream magazines, National Georgraphic and Business Week stepped out of line and made cover stories of global warming. Business Week's story ("Remarkably, business is far ahead of Congress and the White House. Some CEOs are already calling for once-unthinkable steps.") reflects fears in certain sectors of the business community, especially the insurance industry, about the potentially catastrophic financial impact of global warming.
But when it comes to hurricane coverage, in the far reaches of the mainstream press I've been able to uncover but one balanced, speculative piece (Warning in the Winds) suggesting possible links between our "strange" hurricane season and global warming -- and that appeared in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section. Unsurprisingly, it was written not by an American, but by Mark Lynas, a British journalist who has also produced a book on the subject High Tide: The Truth About Our Climate Crisis:
"Watching storm after powerful storm plow into the
The Post, however, also had one of those no-connection-at-all-say-the-experts pieces in its news pages (2 Storms In Florida Not Seen As Trend, Experts Don't Fault Global Warming).
Perhaps it's the fact that global-warming math is so self-evident -- and so devastating -- that causes our media so insistently to look the other way. We in the
So welcome to the bubbledome of folly. At the moment, it's hard not to suspect that if the Atlantis scenario kicked in and New Orleans disappeared under water few connections would be made -- though who can doubt that a greenhouse-gas coughing Bourbon Street replica would be recreated in Las Vegas. Being in denial, if you don't live in
[Thanks to Nick Turse for research help.]
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing