The Media’s Silence on Climate Change During Irma Was Deafening

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tags: climate change, global warming

Frank Palmeri is Professor of English and Cooper Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Miami. He is the author of Satire in Narrative: Petronius, Swift, Gibbon, Melville, Pynchon and Satire, History, Novel: Narrative Forms, 1665-1815. His most recent book is State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse.

Having lived more than thirty years in Miami, and experienced all the hurricanes that hit the city in that time, including Andrew, my wife and I (with a graduate student from overseas) decided as a monster-sized Irma approached the city to seek shelter from a storm for the first time, in a high school in South Miami. Conditions were no doubt somewhat trying—it was crowded and noisy, with no privacy. Still, I was impressed with and grateful for the dedication that local government workers and volunteers with aid organizations brought to helping others: they provided 900 people with security and protection, a modicum of comfort (except for about six hours when we lost power during the hurricane and the generator was not working), three meals a day for three and a half days, and even kept the bathrooms clean.

At the point we entered the shelter, Irma was carrying record-breaking sustained winds of more than 175 mph and had already devastated the islands of Barbuda and St. Martin—and was about to have similarly catastrophic effects on other islands now in danger of being raked again by Hurricane Maria. Like most Americans, I had watched almost non-stop coverage of the recent record-setting hurricanes. It is heartening to see the extent to which volunteers and government workers have devoted themselves to rescuing people and saving lives.

However, in the shelter, I reflected that the dramatic reports of historic flooding as well as of self-sacrifice by volunteers and first responders did not tell the whole story. There has been a failure in the media forthrightly to address the reason why these storms have reached such unparalleled strength and destructiveness. The hundreds of hours of coverage of these storms over the three weeks between the emergence of Harvey and the landing of Irma had yielded only one or two mentions of the key words: climate change.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that the increased frequency of such extreme storms is entirely consistent with their predictions of the effects of climate change. Yet the news media censors itself by not reporting this crucial fact. Instead, the dominant narrative marvels at the record-setting power of the weather events as they approach, then celebrates the common decency and the sometimes uncommon heroism of those who help others survive them.

Florida governor Rick Scott, who received good reviews for his proactive response to the threat posed by Hurricane Irma, has also prohibited state employees from using the words “climate change.” But it is inadequate to respond to massive storm damage with resolve and assistance at the individual, local, state, and national levels, and yet refuse to acknowledge the real cause of the destruction.

These are not simply “natural” disasters; they have been made life-threatening and costly because of human actions, especially the burning of petroleum products and the release of methane by billions of animals in factory farms. Climate change has led to warmer ocean surface waters, which power hurricanes, to higher sea levels, which produce higher storm surges, and to greater ocean water evaporation, which causes heavier rains.

To prohibit use of the phrase “climate change,” as the Florida government and the EPA grants administration under Scott Pruitt have done, will not make climate change go away. The cause will continue to produce the same dire results as long as we close our eyes to it.

Mr. Pruitt also said, after Hurricane Harvey poured 50 inches of rain on eastern Texas, that it would be very “insensitive” to discuss climate change in the midst of such a disaster. In doing so, he took the same line as extreme advocates of gun rights, who contend after each mass shooting that “now is not the time” to discuss sensible regulation of gun ownership. But if not now, when? According to the denialists, it is never the right time to discuss climate change.

We can look to a few possible historical analogues to the current denialism and silence concerning the cause of the suffering and death of millions. In Merchants of Doubt (2010),Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have shown that the big oil companies have followed the same strategy beginning in the 1980s that was pursued by big tobacco a quarter century earlier. In their campaign to manipulate opinion, the tobacco companies denied that there was scientific agreement that smoking harmed health. The product that their publicity campaign sold was doubt. In addition, in civil trials to hold the tobacco companies liable, their lawyers argued that it is impossible to say that tobacco smoke from this company caused the illness or death of this particular smoker. Similarly climate change skeptics can emphasize that it is impossible to say that climate change caused this particular hurricane.

There are innumerable signs of the oil companies’ success. In the wake of Irma, for example, the Weather Channel mentioned climate change and the recent hurricanes, but only to sidestep the obvious link, contending that it is impossible to determine precisely what percentage of the recent hurricanes’ record-breaking winds and rains were due to global warming; therefore, much is still “in doubt.”

More distant historical analogues may be necessarily conjectural. The ancient Puebloan (formerly Anasazi) people in what is now the American Southwest achieved a complex, populous culture with widespread trade connections centered in Chaco Canyon (now in northwestern New Mexico). But between 1150 and 1200, they fairly suddenly abandoned their urban development in the canyon. Why, we don’t know, but in the absence of signs of war or other disaster, it has been conjectured that they may have exceeded the carrying capacity of the land in a way that might have been predicted by thinking observers in their midst.

Similarly, in her science-fiction/historical novel, The Stone Gods (2007), Jeanette Winterson speculates that the civilization of the Rapa Nui or Easter Islanders reached a high point with the carving and construction of the moai, or gigantic heads, then collapsed sometime before the seventeenth century, from a foreseeable overuse and exhaustion of the island’s natural resources, especially trees and birds.

One conjectural historical thinker has even theorized that the suppression of scientific fact has characterized the first nine (of ten) stages of human society. In his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795), Condorcet asserted that up until the era of the French Revolution, scientific insights and technological innovations had been quashed or appropriated by priests and kings who wanted to hold on to their power. Whether they did so in every period of the past, the powerful are still trying to deny and suppress scientific knowledge.

If the media will not overcome this pressure to mute or censor themselves, we will continue to be constrained by an inadequate narrative of Biblical storms and self-sacrificing rescues.

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