Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Trading Innocence for Empowerment--Journalistic Narratives Old and New

One reason climate change does not get mentioned in day to day reporting of events such as droughts and floods is the persistence of the stereotypical portrayal of people as victims of a whimsical and often cruel nature. By suggesting that human activity is influencing weather patterns, climate change muddies the story line and blurs the distinction between victim and perpetrator.

A June 9 front page article in the New York Times, After Drought, Rains Plaguing Midwest Farms, is a good example. It describes how last year's drought segued into this year's deluge. One farmer called it “the worst spring I can remember in my 30 years farming." Farmers were "pleading for rain" last year, and now "are praying for the rain to stop." Helpless victims they are, "trying to divine if and how their pocketbooks can survive another curveball from nature."

The article ends with a reprise about nature's power: "the whim that brought moisture could just as cruelly take it back." Who's the hero in this storyline? The farmer who, though victimized, perseveres in the face of nature's extremes, and the government, which provides crop insurance.

Though it be an article bearing bad news (crops and farmer income imperiled, more government payouts), the narrative is comforting. There is nothing to be done other than to admire the farmer's resilience and send some aid.

But that storyline increasingly loses validity as human activity melts the arctic ice cap, warms the earth and raises sea levels. We are not spectators but active participants. Nature is no longer fully natural, its whims not entirely inexplicable but instead influenced by forces we have set in motion. It's harder to be the helpless victim praying to God for help, when in fact we are intruding into God's domain by radically changing the composition of the atmosphere.

While journalistic convention perpetuates storylines like the one in the New York Times, other approaches to reporting accept the human role in climate and explain the mechanisms that are contributing to making extreme weather more frequent and destructive. There's a tradeoff here. By abandoning the old storyline, the reader loses a sense of innocence, but gains a new sense of empowerment. Being a part of the problem, we can be part of the solution.

The articles below describe the string of causes and effects, abetted by human-caused global warming, that can lead to prolonged droughts one year, prolonged rain the next.

Arctic Warming Favors Extreme, Prolonged Weather Events ‘Such As Drought, Flooding, Cold Spells And Heat Waves’

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