FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Floods of August: Climate Change Hits Home for Millions Worldwide

We knew this was coming. This August the rains have come with a vengeance. But we knew something like this was coming. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its summary of the expected impacts of climate change. In dry, academic language, the report sets out the evidence: climate change will bring extremes of precipitation: more droughts and more deadly floods.

Early in the morning on 14 August, heavy rains in Freetown, Sierra Leone triggered a mudslide. Muddy rubble cascaded down the hillside, destroying homes and burying people inside them. The official death toll from this tragedy has now risen to over a thousand.

At the same time, monsoon rains were causing deaths in India and Nepal. In Himachal, two buses with their passengers were swept into a gorge in a landslide. Fatalities from flooding are not uncommon in the summer monsoon season, but this time the heavy rains just kept coming, leading to extraordinary flooding in Nepal, northwestern Indian states and downstream Bangladesh, where the floods submerged over a third of the country.

A storm was brewing

By 24 August, official estimates were 41 million affected across the three nations of India, Nepal and Bangladesh and at least 900 killed. The next day the reported death toll had risen to 1200. And yet this catastrophe was barely reported in the western media.

Meanwhile, a storm was brewing off the southeastern US coast. Having been downgraded to a tropical wave, Harvey picked up energy again and regained hurricane status as it moved across the abnormally warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It also picked up unusual amounts of moisture. As it hit Houston and surrounding areas of Texas, there was no lack of media attention this time.

Experts had warned that Houston was particularly vulnerable to flooding in a warming climate because of several factors. In a low lying plain, with poor draining clay soils, and with the expanding city laying down ever more concrete, the water management plan is in no way fit for increasing storm risks. But this was a storm that would overwhelm even the most well-prepared city.

In the first 72 hours over a metre of rain fell in some areas. Dramatic photographs showed freeways turned into deep rivers, while stranded families sent out desperate pleas for rescue on social media.

Just days earlier, Donald Trump had signed an order scrapping stricter rules around flood risk for federal investment in infrastructure. As Harvey’s rains fell, Trump’s top official at the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, dismissed the subject of linking the storm to climate change. When asked in an interview, Pruitt described those discussing cause and effect as ‘opportunistic’.

Heavy load

So there may be no immediate impetus from disaster to climate action. The media plays an important role here. There are three ways that media can let us down in reporting climate change-influenced disasters.

The first is when the media give prominence to events which are easy to report, rather than those which are truly significant. Harvey is a significant story deserving major coverage. Yet before Harvey hit Texas (and hit the headlines), where were the reports on the South Asian flooding?

Even given the general tendency to treat the deaths of poor people in non-western countries as non-newsworthy, the death toll was then climbing towards a thousand and 41 million affected across three countries. But someone actively following the news could easily be completely unaware of these floods. The story was given cursory coverage then dropped completely out of the news for at least five days, to be picked up again on 29 August, this time more widely.

The second weakness is a failure to be upfront about the links between these disasters and climate change. In the case of Harvey, there are at least three links. One of the most significant is that the warmer than normal waters in the Gulf of Mexico contributed to Harvey’s heavy load of atmospheric moisture.

In the first five days, it dumped some 20 trillion gallons of water on Texas (one sixth the volume of Lake Erie). Warm waters also give hurricanes more energy. Another factor is that storm surge along the coast rides on top of raised sea levels. These are particularly significant on the Gulf Coast of Texas – sea levels there have risen over 30cm in 50 years.

Still devastated

One difficulty journalists have in reporting climate change is sustaining interest in a vast slow-motion catastrophe that plays out over a timescale of decades or more. But right now the drama and tragedy is immediate, and there is no excuse for not being clear about what is at stake and the choices we are making.

The final way the media can fail in their coverage is not to stick around. Flood waters make for dramatic photography. But what comes next can be just as devastating. With a lack of clean water, the displaced people of Bangladesh, especially the children, are at risk of deadly diseases such as cholera.

Many victims of the floods have lost all their possessions. Bangladesh was already experiencing food supply problems after flash flooding wiped out a large part of the rice crop in April. Now more vast areas of crops have been washed away.

And although the US is a rich country, even there, for those who have least, it is hardest to get it back. A year ago, Baton Rouge, Louisiana was hit by one of the worst floods in US history. One year on, poorer neighbourhoods are still devastated. For them, and for the people of Bangladesh, climate change is already here. Will we pay attention?

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

More articles by:

Claire James is the campaigns coordinator for the Campaign against Climate Change. She tweets at @campaigncc

June 18, 2018
Paul Street
Denuclearize the United States? An Unthinkable Thought
John Pilger
Bring Julian Assange Home
Conn Hallinan
The Spanish Labyrinth
Patrick Cockburn
Attacking Hodeidah is a Deliberate Act of Cruelty by the Trump Administration
Gary Leupp
Trump Gives Bibi Whatever He Wants
Thomas Knapp
Child Abductions: A Conversation It’s Hard to Believe We’re Even Having
Robert Fisk
I Spoke to Palestinians Who Still Hold the Keys to Homes They Fled Decades Ago – Many are Still Determined to Return
Steve Early
Requiem for a Steelworker: Mon Valley Memories of Oil Can Eddie
Jim Scheff
Protect Our National Forests From an Increase in Logging
Adam Parsons
Reclaiming the UN’s Radical Vision of Global Economic Justice
Dean Baker
Manufacturing Production Falls in May and No One Notices
Laura Flanders
Bottom-Up Wins in Virginia’s Primaries
Binoy Kampmark
The Anguish for Lost Buildings: Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel
Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire
Jonathan Cook
How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions
Ajamu Baraka
North Korea Issue is Not De-nuclearization But De-Colonization
Andrew Levine
Midterms Coming: Antinomy Ahead
Louisa Willcox
New Information on 2017 Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Deaths Should Nix Trophy Hunting in Core Habitat
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Singapore Fling
Ron Jacobs
What’s So Bad About Peace, Man?
Robert Hunziker
State of the Climate – It’s Alarming!
L. Michael Hager
Acts and Omissions: The NYT’s Flawed Coverage of the Gaza Protest
Dave Lindorff
However Tenuous and Whatever His Motives, Trump’s Summit Agreement with Kim is Praiseworthy
Robert Fantina
Palestine, the United Nations and the Right of Return
Brian Cloughley
Sabre-Rattling With Russia
Chris Wright
To Be or Not to Be? That’s the Question
David Rosen
Why Do Establishment Feminists Hate Sex Workers?
Victor Grossman
A Key Congress in Leipzig
John Eskow
“It’s All Kinderspiel!” Trump, MSNBC, and the 24/7 Horseshit Roundelay
Paul Buhle
The Russians are Coming!
Joyce Nelson
The NED’s Useful Idiots
Lindsay Koshgarian
Trump’s Giving Diplomacy a Chance. His Critics Should, Too
Louis Proyect
American Nativism: From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump
Stan Malinowitz
On the Elections in Colombia
Camilo Mejia
Open Letter to Amnesty International on Nicaragua From a Former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience
David Krieger
An Assessment of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit
Jonah Raskin
Cannabis in California: a Report From Sacramento
Josh Hoxie
Just How Rich Are the Ultra Rich?
CJ Hopkins
Awaiting the Putin-Nazi Apocalypse
Mona Younis
We’re the Wealthiest Country on Earth, But Over 40 Percent of Us Live in or Near Poverty
Dean Baker
Not Everything Trump Says on Trade is Wrong
James Munson
Trading Places: the Other 1% and the .001% Who Won’t Save Them
Rivera Sun
Stop Crony Capitalism: Protect the Net!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail