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’.


‘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.


‘Grossly Irresponsible To Leave Climate Out Of The Picture’

An excellent Facebook post by climate scientist Michael Mann, republished by the Guardian, began with a simple question that was routinely missing from ‘mainstream’ coverage, especially on BBC News:

‘What can we say about the role of climate change in the unprecedented disaster that is unfolding in Houston with Hurricane Harvey?’

Mann noted that the rise in sea level and moisture in the atmosphere, both the result of global warming, had created a ‘combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall [that] is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston is experiencing.’ Moreover, rising global temperatures had created a pool of deep warm water in the Gulf of Mexico that had helped to feed the power of Hurricane Harvey. Other potential factors of human-induced climate change involve changes in atmospheric pressure systems that stalled the progress of Harvey and kept it ‘locked in place’ over Houston to devastating effect.

Mann concluded:

‘while we cannot say climate change “caused” Hurricane Harvey (that is an ill-posed question), we can say that it exacerbated several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life. Climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.’

James Hansen, the former senior NASA climate scientist who first warned the public of the dangers of global warming back in 1988, told Democracy Now! that ‘there is a clear link between climate change and stronger hurricanes’. He warned:

‘You know, we have not yet felt the full impact of the gases that are already in the atmosphere, just because of the delays in the system. It takes decades for the ocean to warm up and for ice sheets to melt. So there’s consequences for young people that are already built into the system.’

However, these consequences are routinely ignored. Closely monitoring British newspaper coverage of Harvey, Carbon Brief observed:

‘The UK print media has been relatively silent on the relation between climate change and Hurricane Harvey.’

David Roberts noted in a piece for Vox that ‘it’s grossly irresponsible to leave climate out of the picture’. That, however, is overwhelmingly what the BBC did in its coverage. With our limited resources, there is simply no way for us to monitor the entirety of BBC News output across television, radio and the internet. But it is significant that when the flagship BBC News at Ten programme on BBC1 had extensive coverage of Harvey on three successive nights (August 28-30), there was not a single mention of global warming. This is simply appalling. Likewise, when BBC2’s Newsnight devoted fully 14 minutes on August 29, climate change was glaringly absent.

BBC television coverage seemed to be shaped almost entirely by a ratings-driven desire to provide dramatic footage: flooded residential neighbourhoods and highways, interviews with rescuers and those rescued, residents trying to go about their normal business, such as going to the supermarket, on kayaks. BBC North American correspondent James Cook was even filmed on a helicopter guiding a rescue boat towards two residents waiting to be picked up from the water.

BBC coverage was also devoted to Trump’s visit, how presidential it made him look, and how he had, so far, skilfully managed to avoid a ‘Hurricane Katrina’ moment of glib indifference that had fatally damaged the presidency of George W. Bush.

At one point on BBC News at Ten, for a few nanoseconds, it sounded like BBC North America editor Jon Sopel was going to mention the unmentionable when he uttered the words:

‘And the biggest question of them all…’

Was he about to raise the issue of a possible connection with global warming? And, if so, what the world needed to do about it? No.

‘And the biggest question of them all: as Louisiana stands next in the path, has Tropical Storm Harvey done his worst, or is there more devastation to come?’

Certainly, that was a significant question. But the biggest question of all was whether abrupt and dangerous climate change means there is far worse devastation to come for all of us? Again, to emphasise, night after night, BBC News simply avoided any mention of climate change.

To its credit, the BBC did publish an article on its website, ‘Hurricane Harvey: The link to climate change’; and it is possible they made reference to it somewhere in their television or radio coverage. But this hardly compensated for the seeming reluctance to utter the words ‘climate change’ in its extensive coverage over several days.


Killing Debate; Killing The Planet

It is not merely that this climate silence is an abhorrent dereliction of the BBC’s supposed responsibility to the public which pays for it. In not addressing climate change – indeed, not giving it the very prominent coverage it deserves – the BBC is obstructing the public debate that is vital to prevent climate catastrophe. In effect, the BBC is firmly on the side of the state and corporate forces that have been fighting a decades-long, heavily-funded campaign to prevent the radical measures needed to avoid climate chaos.

Given that the BBC isn’t even mentioning climate change in any meaningful sustained way, they are also avoiding any rational discussion of root causes and what needs to be done to tackle the terrifying threat of climate instability and societal breakdown. One day, historians may look back at archive footage of BBC News in 2017 and marvel at the inane, blind, ignorant reporting and commentary.

Could it be that BBC News editors took a decision not to ‘politicise’ Hurricane Harvey by discussing climate change? (The BBC did not respond when we challenged them about it on Twitter; see here and here). Naomi Klein hit that argument on the head with a cogent article in which she argued that:

‘Now is exactly the time to talk about climate change, and all the other systemic injustices — from racial profiling to economic austerity — that turn disasters like Harvey into human catastrophes.’

Klein continued:

‘The records being broken year after year — whether for drought, storm surges, wildfires, or just heat — are happening because the planet is markedly warmer than it has been since record-keeping began. Covering events like Harvey while ignoring those facts, failing to provide a platform to climate scientists who can make them plain, all while never mentioning President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, fails in the most basic duty of journalism: to provide important facts and relevant context. It leaves the public with the false impression that these are disasters without root causes, which also means that nothing could have been done to prevent them (and that nothing can be done now to prevent them from getting much worse in the future).’

Klein called for an ‘informed public debate about the policy implications of the crisis’ we have all just witnessed. Crucially, that needs to address the urgent need to switch to renewable energy: an issue ‘with jarring implications for the dominant industry in the region being hit hardest: oil and gas.’

The Guardian‘s George Monbiot noted that ‘most reports on Hurricane Harvey have made no mention of the human contribution to it.’ Like Klein, Monbiot rejected the argument that it is wrong to ‘politicise’ Harvey right now:

‘I believe it is the silence that’s political. To report the storm as if it were an entirely natural phenomenon, like last week’s eclipse of the sun, is to take a position. By failing to make the obvious link and talk about climate breakdown, media organisations ensure our greatest challenge goes unanswered. They help push the world towards catastrophe.’

As usual, however, Monbiot kept quiet about his own paper’s role in pushing a consumerist, high-energy, aspirational lifestyle in conformity with the planet-devouring capitalism that, the Guardian‘s editors tell readers, only needs to be made a little bit kinder; a classic liberal delusion.

Imagine if, day after day, BBC News and other major corporate media featured stories about children dying in a hospital with unexplained breathing difficulties. There would be interviews with anguished parents and teachers, with the doctors and nurses who were desperately treating the children, with political leaders keen to be seen responding in a decisive and compassionate manner. Imagine that the cause of the childrens’ breathing difficulties was simply ignored in media reports: a leak from a nearby chemical factory releasing toxic gases into the air, with the prevailing winds dumping the gases in the vicinity of a local school. Would we not be justifiably appalled that news coverage was covering up the facts? And that the media was letting the factory owners and politicians off the hook?

To put everything in perspective, Earth is entering its sixth mass extinction event in geological history, posing a ‘frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization’, according to a new study co-authored by Professor Gerardo Ceballos at the University of Mexico. All five previous mass extinction events were natural. This is the first one caused by human activity, not least a dangerous increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases that may well cause runaway heating. The authors warn that:

‘the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most. […] All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on bio diversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life including human life.’

The truth is, on a national and global scale, corporate media are effectively covering up the root causes of this mass extinction event: rampant capitalism that mostly benefits a tiny elite of bankers, financiers, big business and the politicians that shape state policy on their behalf. Corporate media are an intrinsic component of these same state-corporate interests: they are the PR wing of a vast world-encircling system that is burning the planet. And it’s all sold with a smile as ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘open markets’, ‘aspiration’ and other ‘Western values’.

In his book, Value Wars: The Global Market Versus the Life Economy, Canadian philosopher John McMurtry noted that ‘the regime’ of state-corporate power:

‘depends throughout on keeping knowledge silenced and repressed. This is its Achilles’ heel. As soon as people see through it and flag it to the surrounding community, the collective trance on which it depends begins to lose its power.’ (Pluto Press, London, 2002, p. 84; italics in original)

A principal function of the corporate media is to keep uncomfortable truths about elite power, not least its role in driving humanity towards climate chaos and mass extinctions, ‘silenced and repressed’. We must resist this with every fibre of our being.