Monday, May 12, 2008

The coming climate change catastrophe (Burma edition)

The Cyclone Nargis tragedy in Burma--whose death toll now looks set to reach at least 60,000--unfortunately confirms the two key points we've spent the last few years making about the impact of climate change. The first point is that the places that will suffer most from climate change are places that combine a vulnerability to acute weather-related disaster with poor institutions and infrastructure. Burma, of course, is a text-book example of the latter: an unresponsive authoritarian government, lousy roads and hospitals, nonexistent emergency response, isolation from the international community, and so on. (For more on the security-related implications of climate change, see here.)

The second point is that the impact of climate change will be reported in the newspapers less in terms of environmental crisis, and more in terms of political or social crisis. Such is exactly the coverage we're seeing coming out of Burma. (A small statistical proof: if you search Google News for "Cyclone Nargis" and "climate change" you get 35 hits; if you "Cyclone Nargis" and "dictatorship," on the other hand, you get 129 hits.) While some excellent reports have emerged showing how the humanitarian disaster caused by Nargis takes places at the intersection of natural and political disaster, most reporting on Nargis has resolutely ignored the larger story of how Nargis, like Sidr, offers a baleful portent of what a changing climate future will look like.

The reason for this style of reporting is obvious enough. Most journalism tends to focus on proximate not ultimate causes, because it's an easier story to tell, especially for visual media. Moreover, because any given weather event, no matter how catastrophic, is not attributable to climate change, it's much easier to focus on villains who are obviously human, such as in this case the junta in Rangoon. However, it's also worth noting that the Western press's decision to narrate the Nargis tragedy as a story of villainous local rulers also implicitly exculpates greenhouse gas emitters from joint liability or responsibility for the disaster.

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