While Houston continues to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we look at the media silence on the human contribution to the record-breaking storm. British journalist and author George Monbiot wrote that despite 2016 being the hottest year on record, the combined coverage during the evening and Sunday news programs on the main television networks amounted to a total of 50 minutes in all of last year. “Our greatest predicament, the issue that will define our lives, has been blotted from the public’s mind,” he wrote. The silence has been even more resounding on climate-related disasters in areas of the world where populations are more vulnerable—most recently, on the devastating floods across the globe, from Niger to South Asia. Over the past month, more than 1,200 people have died amid flooding in Bangladesh, Nepal and India. This year’s monsoon season has brought torrential downpours that have submerged wide swaths of South Asia, destroying tens of thousands of homes, schools and hospitals. Meanwhile, in Niger, West Africa, thousands of people have been ordered to leave their homes in the capital Niamey after several days of heavy downpours. We speak with Monbiot, columnist at The Guardian. His book, “Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis,” will be out this week.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: While Houston continues to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we look at the media silence on the human contribution to it. Our next guest writes that despite 2016 being the hottest year on record, with several climate-related disasters in the U.S. alone, the combined coverage during the evening and Sunday news programs on the main television networks amounted to a total of 50 minutes in all of last year. British journalist and author George Monbiot writes, quote, “Our greatest predicament, the issue that will define our lives, has been blotted from the public’s mind.”
The silence has been even more resounding on climate-related disasters in areas of the world where populations are more vulnerable, most recently on the devastating floods across the globe, from Niger to South Asia. Following days of torrential rain, at least seven people are dead and as many as 40 feared trapped, after a building collapsed in Mumbai, India’s financial capital. The storm reached Pakistan Thursday, where a state of emergency has been declared in Karachi, the country’s largest city, as heavy rains inundated several low-lying areas.
AMY GOODMAN: Over the past month, more than 1,200 people have died in flooding in Bangladesh, Nepal and India. This year’s monsoon season has brought torrential downpours that have submerged wide swaths of South Asia, destroying tens of thousands of homes, schools and hospitals, affecting up to 40 million people. Meanwhile, in Niger, West Africa, thousands of people have been ordered to leave their homes in the capital after several days of heavy downpours. More than 40 people have died since the rainy season began in June.
We go now to Oxford in Britain to speak to George Monbiot. He’s a columnist with The Guardian. His book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, is out this week. His latest article for The Guardian is headlined “Why are the crucial questions about Hurricane Harvey not being asked?”
George Monbiot, welcome back to Democracy Now! Well, answer your question.
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, because to ask those questions is to challenge everything. It’s to challenge not just Donald Trump, not just current environmental policy. It’s to challenge the entire political and economic system. And it is to recognize that the system which we tell ourselves is the best system you could possibly have, of neoliberal capitalism, which will deliver the optimum outcomes and the best of all possible worlds, actually is destined to push us towards catastrophe, and unless we replace that system with a better one, with something really quite different, then it will destroy us. Instead of making us more prosperous, more comfortable, it will rip apart everything that makes our lives worth living, and result in the deaths of very large numbers of people.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, quite apart from the fact, George, that the issue of climate change is not mentioned in the media, as you write in your article, you also think that the term “climate change” is misleading, and the term that should be used is “climate breakdown.” Could you explain why that is?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, “climate change” is a curiously bland term to describe our greatest crisis, our huge human predicament, that will inevitably lead to catastrophe if we don’t take drastic action to prevent it. It’s a bit like calling a foreign invasion “unexpected guests.” It’s that crazily bland, for something which is going to have such an enormous impact on our lives, and, as we’ve just been hearing, has already had such an enormous impact on many people’s lives around the world. And unless you use the right language to describe what you’re talking about, you mislead people as to what the likely implications of that are. And by talking about climate change as if it—”You know, it could be a good thing, could be a bad thing, who knows? It might be a neutral thing. You know, we like a bit of climate change, don’t we? We like it when the winter gives way to summer”—we suggest that this huge catastrophe might not be a catastrophe at all. I don’t think “climate breakdown” is the perfect term. I can’t quite put my finger on the right term, but I think it comes a lot closer to what we need to be saying than “climate change” does.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to those who say you cannot link this one hurricane or storm to climate change or climate chaos, climate breakdown, as you describe it?
GEORGE MONBIOT: I would say you cannot not link it. We have, so far, 1 degree centigrade of global warming, and that now affects every single weather event on Earth, just like the 4 degrees centigrade of global warming that followed the Ice Age—it was 4 degrees between the last Ice Age and the 19th century—affects every single weather event on Earth. And we wouldn’t have warm summers without that 4 degree of warming. With that extra 1 degree of warming, that creates further implications for every single weather event on Earth.
And for hurricanes, the link is crystal clear. There are three ways in which the impact of hurricanes is affected by that 1 degree of warming. First of all, sea levels are higher. So coastal cities, like Houston, like Port Arthur, get—are more likely to be hit by storm surges as a result of those higher sea levels, as we were hearing from your wonderful guest Hilton Kelley in the last segment. Number two, the sea is warmer. The temperature of the sea is higher, and that can enhance the intensity of the storm, because it puts more energy into the storm. The storm is picking up energy from those warmer waters. And number three, the air itself is warmer. And warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air. And that means that you can have much more intense rainfall events. So, what we see here is that it’s impossible for the hurricane not to have been affected by climate breakdown.
Now, of course, what we can’t say is there would have been no hurricane if it weren’t for climate breakdown; if it weren’t for the human contribution, for the fossil fuels we’ve been burning, there wouldn’t have been a hurricane. Of course there were hurricanes in the past. What we can say is that this hurricane, whether or not it was caused by the human contribution, was affected by the human contribution. That is unequivocal.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, nevertheless, George, you’ve been accused, as, no doubt, have others, of politicizing Hurricane Harvey and events like it, extreme weather events like it, by linking it to climate change.
GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes. And now, in fact, the Environmental Protection Agency itself has accused climate scientists in the U.S. of politicizing it by mentioning climate change or climate breakdown. It’s an extraordinary thing. It’s clear to me that by not mentioning it, you are politicizing this issue. The linkage is so clear, it is so obvious, that when you don’t talk about it, you’re taking a decision, you are taking a position. And the position is, we’re not going to talk about climate change, we’re not going to talk about climate breakdown. That is a political decision. And it’s a highly charged political decision, which reflects powerful interests. It reflects the kind of interests we’ve just been hearing about, the oil refineries and the oil rigs, which themselves have been hit by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath—an extraordinary irony, something which pulls up into stark relief the issue that we’re dealing with, but just is not being discussed at all.
And those people, the people who run those companies, they are responsible for shutting down all discussion of climate breakdown so that we don’t go there, we don’t talk about it. And journalists and editors, with the glowing exception of yourselves, they have a powerful instinct not to go there. It’s not that they wake up in the morning and say, “Don’t talk about climate change. I mustn’t talk about climate change. Whatever I do, don’t mention climate change.” They don’t need to say that. It’s already in their guts. They have a visceral sense that if you go there, then you open up everything. You open Pandora’s box, and you open up a discussion of whether capitalism is working. You open up a discussion of whether the political system is working. You open up a discussion of what the world’s most powerful actors, including the fossil fuel companies, are doing to the rest of the world’s people. And to go there, you put everything at risk. You put your career at risk. You put your piece of mind at risk. You put the good opinion of your colleagues at risk. To challenge everything is to become an outcast.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to George Monbiot, the British journalist and author. President Trump just went to Texas, and he’s going back. When he landed, he didn’t address the victims at all. He didn’t talk about the victims. But he did say, about the people around him, “What a crowd! What a turnout!” Now, President Trump is a proud climate change denier, as is the governor of Texas, Governor Abbott. You point out that Trump denying human-driven global warming is interesting given that he built a wall around his golf resort in Ireland to protect it from the rising seas. Talk more about this.
GEORGE MONBIOT: He’s trying. He hasn’t yet succeeded, but he’s applying for permission. His company is trying to build a sea wall around his golf resort, because it knows that the seas are rising and his golf resort is now at risk. And similarly, in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil companies keep raising the height of their oil platforms. In the 1960s, they were 40 feet above sea level. Then, in the 1990s, they were 70 feet. Today, they are 91 feet above sea level. And they have raised those platforms because they know the sea level is rising and storms are intensifying. And they have done so to get the oil platforms out of the way of those impacts caused by climate breakdown, caused by the oil companies themselves. So, though those same oil companies, particularly ExxonMobil, have poured millions of dollars into paying professional liars to deny climate change across the media and across social media, they themselves know that it’s happening, and they’re taking precautions to protect themselves against it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, George, I’d like to turn to another issue that you raise in the piece. You talk specifically about the fact that the U.S. media have failed to cover climate breakdown-related disasters in the U.S. itself, but there’s even greater silence on climate disasters in the rest of the world. I mean, we’ve just heard, in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, over 1,200 people have died. There are floods in Niger. Now, in Karachi, a state of emergency has been declared. So, can you talk about that, the media silence on that? And what’s actually happening in these places where people are so much more vulnerable than here?
GEORGE MONBIOT: It’s an extraordinary thing to contemplate, isn’t it? That the part of the world worst hit by current flooding is not actually Texas. Disastrous, catastrophic as it is in Texas, it is now even worse particularly in India and Bangladesh and Nepal, where we’re seeing huge, horrendous levels of flooding, 40 million people affected by it, 1,200 people dead, basically the complete shutdown of the economy, of public life, of private life across a great swathe of those countries. And yet, there’s almost media silence throughout the rich world.
This week in the U.K., we’ve been hearing a lot about Bangladesh. Bangladesh has been in the headlines for the last two days, and there’s been loads of commentary written about it. Why is that? Because Bangladesh won the cricket against Australia. I’m quite serious. This is a country in which 6.9 million people are now displaced by flooding, in which a third of the country is underwater, in which hundreds have died. We don’t yet know how many, because it will be a long time before that count is ever made, if it is made at all. Loads of children can no longer go to school. It’s a total disruption, devastation of that country. And finally, it features in the news, because of the cricket.
And again, it is this politically driven silence, because if we were to consider what is going on in the rest of the world, and if we were to consider our contribution to what is going on in the rest of the world—and there’s this terrible irony about climate change that the main perpetrators of it, with the exception of those refineries and rigs in the Gulf, in the Gulf of Mexico and in Texas—generally, the main perpetrators are those who are hit least and last, whereas people who have made very little contribution to climate breakdown are hit first and worst, like the people of Bangladesh, who have a tiny carbon footprint. Were we to really bring this to the front of our consciousness, as we should, it would necessitate a major change in the way we run our societies, a major change in the way we run our economies and a major change in the way we live. So that is why we do not talk about it. Or if we talk about it, we do so tangentially, or we relate it as a natural disaster, another act of God, a terrible thing which has happened to those people: “Poor people. Send them some money. We feel so sorry for them, but we wash our hands of it. There’s nothing we can do.”
AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, I’m embarrassed to say—
GEORGE MONBIOT: As it happens—
AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, but can you give us a hint of what that change would look like?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Right. We need a radical change, driven by the need to prevent this catastrophe, to both politics and economics. And an economic system which depends on perpetual growth on a finite planet is destined to deliver disaster. We need a new economy built around the commons, built around community ownership of local resources, inalienable ownership of those resources, which are not expected to deliver more and more and more money, but are expected to deliver continued and steady prosperity to the people of those communities and the people of this planet. The system we have at the moment, which is about accumulation, the accumulation of capital, the continuation of growth, in a planet which does not itself grow, that system is destined to push us over the cliff.
AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, we want to thank you so much for being with us, British journalist, author, columnist with The Guardian. His book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, will be out this week. His latest piece for The Guardian, we’ll link to, “Why are the crucial questions about Hurricane Harvey not being asked?” And we’ll have you back on to talk more fully about your ideas and your latest book, George. Thanks so much for joining us from Oxford, England.
Coming up, another suspect in the brutal beating of a young African-American man, Deandre Harris, during the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has been arrested. Why has it taken so long, when the beating was caught on tape? Stay with us.