17December2017

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The BBC’s Climate Denialism: Coverage Of Hurricane Harvey And The South Asian Floods

In J.G. Ballard's classic novel, The Drowned World, people are struggling for survival on a post-apocalyptic, overheating planet. A 'sudden instability in the Sun' has unleashed increased solar radiation, melting the polar ice caps and causing global temperatures to rise by a few degrees each year. Once-temperate areas, such as Europe and North America, have become flooded tropical lands, 'sweltering under continuous heat waves'. Life has become tolerable only within the former Arctic and Antarctic Circles.

The frailty of 'civilisation' and the attempts to cope with psychological changes in the human condition as a result of the catastrophe are laid bare. It is a frightening surreal vision of the human predicament by a master novelist. At one point, one of the characters is asked about his life before the apocalypse. He answers, 'I'm afraid I remember nothing. The immediate past is of no interest to me.'

Hurricane Harvey has provided a genuinely terrifying glimpse of a global Ballardian dystopia that may actually be humanity's fate. And yet, even now, corporate media are suppressing the truth.

On August 25, the category 4 Hurricane Harvey, with 130 mph winds, made landfall near Corpus Christi on the southern coast of Texas. Harvey's progress then stalled over Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, dumping enormous 'unprecedented' quantities of water, creating 'a 1-in-1,000-year flood event'. To date, 50 people have been killed, around one million residents have been displaced and 200,000 homes have been damaged in a 'path of destruction' stretching for over 300 miles. The Washington Post reported that:

'the intensity and scope of the disaster were so enormous that weather forecasters, first responders, the victims, everyone really, couldn't believe their eyes.'

The total financial cost of Harvey is yet to be determined. But, according to the governor of Texas, damages will likely be in the range of $150 billion to $180 billion, exceeding the $118 billion cost of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005. Around 80 per cent of Hurricane Harvey victims do not even have flood insurance; many had skipped buying insurance believing it to have been a 'low-risk gamble'.

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus surveyed the deaths and devastation caused by Harvey and said bluntly: 'this is what climate change looks like'. He added:

'The symbolism of the worst flooding disaster in U.S. history hitting the sprawled-out capital city of America's oil industry is likely not lost on many. Institutionalized climate denial in our political system and climate denial by inaction by the rest of us have real consequences. They look like Houston.'

BBC News reported that Harvey had actually shut down almost a quarter of the US capacity for oil refining.

Other societal factors have played their part in worsening the crisis. Dr Andrew King, a climate extremes research fellow at the University of Melbourne, observes that Houston is the second-fastest growing city in the US, adding:

'As the region's population grows, more and more of southern Texas is being paved with impermeable surfaces. This means that when there is extreme rainfall the water takes longer to drain away, prolonging and intensifying the floods.'

As Robert McSweeney and Simon Evans note in a piece for Carbon Brief:

'The rising population also changes flood risk in some unexpected ways. Parts of Houston are subsiding rapidly as a result of people extracting too much groundwater'.

Moreover:

'the US government was warned 20 years ago, in a National Wildlife Federation report, that its flood insurance programme was encouraging homes to be built, and rebuilt, in flood-prone areas of the country. [...] Two decades on, the author of the report says a flood event like Hurricane Harvey "was inevitable".'

Meanwhile, halfway around the planet in South Asia, an even greater climate-related catastrophe was taking place. Reuters observed that 'the worst monsoon floods in a decade' have killed over 1,400 people across India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Around 41 million people have been displaced. That number is simply staggering. And in areas with little infrastructure and financial resources, the consequences are almost unthinkable. The Times of India reported that rains had brought Mumbai, a city of 18 million people, 'to its knees'.

E.A. Crunden wrote in a piece for ThinkProgress that the crisis:

'is alarming aid officials, who say the issue is spiraling into an unprecedented disaster.'

Francis Markus, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told the New York Times of his concern that the disaster in South Asia might not get the attention it needs:

'We hope people won't overlook the desperate needs of the people here because of the disasters closer [to] home.'

Although coverage of the monsoon flooding in South Asia was not entirely absent in British media by any means, it was swamped by the coverage devoted to Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. We conducted a ProQuest newspaper database search on September 4 for the period since August 25 (the day Hurricane Harvey hit Texas). Our search yielded just 26 stories in the UK national press on the South Asian flooding, while there were 695 articles on Harvey. Thus, coverage from the US dominated South Asia by a factor of almost 30 to 1, even though the scale of deaths and flooding was far greater in the latter. There was some good coverage of both, notably in the Guardian. But the general trend was glaring. Somehow, people in South Asia just don't matter as much as Americans; or Westerners in general.

Similarly, Ben Parker, a senior editor at IRIN, a non-profit group specialising in humanitarian news, consulted databases of online news stories and noted that 'US media last week [Aug 24-31] mentioned Hurricane Harvey at least 100 times more than India'. As for the rest of the world, the gap was smaller: non-US media gave 3-4 times as much attention to Harvey as to the monsoons.

Read more: The BBC’s Climate Denialism: Coverage Of Hurricane Harvey And The South Asian Floods

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