In the southwestern US, smoke from massive wildfires contaminates the air and forces evacuations. Located 200 miles from the mammoth Wallow Fire, the skies of Albuquerque, New Mexico, have recently resembled Los Angeles and Mexico City in their worst years of pollution. Stretching from Texas and New Mexico and deep into the Mexican interior, drought parches vast expanses of land. Mountain lions, bobcats and bears wander into urban El Paso and Albuquerque.
A major fishery for the US, Mexico and other nations, the Gulf of Mexico is poised to suffer its fourth environmental calamity in less than six years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the so-called dead zone, which is traced to nitrogen-rich fertilizers washed into the Mississippi River and then into the gulf, could expand to a record size of between 8,500 and 9,421 square miles this year due to increased run-off from this year’s heavy flooding.
The dead zone threatens commercial and recreational fisheries valued at more than $1.6 billion, the NOAA said in a statement.
Although the reports are dramatic and growing, consumers of the US mass media will find little or next to nothing that suggests that the environmental catastrophes are in any way connected to the broader issue of climate change.
Almost as striking as the disasters themselves, is the systematic, noticeable failure of the US mass media to even raise the possibility that these climatic upheavals stem from human-caused releases of greenhouse gases, let alone devote any thorough attention to the growing pile of scientific evidence that confirms climate change. Instead, events are often presented in an episodic manner, or described as the consequences of a normal La Nina year or just the hot, dry weather of the pre-Monsoon season.
Broadcast across hundreds of radio stations, the voices of personalities like Rush Limbaugh, who calls climate change a “hoax” and a “costly myth” akin to the Santa Claus tale, arguably get more play than the sober studies of organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Research Council.
Yet even the US military takes climate change quite seriously and is planning for its possible outcomes.
A 2010 Pentagon report, for instance, noted that the Department of Defense is actively formulating future policies and missions based on the premise of climate change.
In a commercial media market that treats the climate change story with routine omission or outright denial, a recent Associated Press story illustrated the limits of coverage. The piece recounted how extreme weather events-tornadoes, floods, wildfires and the like-had sowed havoc this spring, reaching virtually unprecedented numbers during the month of April alone.
While hinting at climate change, the story pulled back from the political limb when it quoted Tom Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center in North Carolina, who cautioned against focusing on any single cause for the freaky weather but still affirming that “clearly these things interconnect, ” without giving further explanation.
On the other hand, essayist Chip Ward cut to the chase in his depiction of an arid western United States that is “burning up and blowing away” in front of our very eyes.
“Global warming, global weirding, climate change, whatever you prefer to call it-it’s not just happening in some distant, melting land out of a storybook,” Ward wrote. “It is not just burning up far-away Russia. It’s here now.”
On the ground, the environmental disaster bubbles and bursts across borders. Like the southwestern US, a huge swath of Mexico reels from epic drought. In the northern state of Tamaulipas, thousands of cattle have reportedly died because of water shortages, while in another border state, Chihuahua, small ranchers draw water from wells meant for human needs in a desperate bid to keep their livestock alive.
Jose Luis Luege, head of Mexico’s National Water Commission, acknowledged that 40 percent of his country is afflicted by the worst drought since 1971. From January 1 to May 19, nearly 300,000 personnel from federal, state and local agencies, as well as from civil society, battled 8,900 forest fires affecting close to 1.5 million acres.
Representing farmers, the National Campesino Confederation is demanding that the federal government declare 15 Mexican states disaster areas.
“If this implies reorienting the budget, or additional resources, than it is necessary to do so,” said CNC President Gerardo Sanchez.
Already, climate disasters are costing Mexico a pretty penny. According to the Secretariat of Agriculture and Livestock, the federal government has budgeted more than $1 billion this year to pay for farm and ranch losses arising from droughts, freezes, hailstorms, cyclones, torrential rains, and flooding. An additional
amount in the neighborhood of $100 million has been set aside by various governmental agencies to cover insurance, the secretariat said in a June 22 press release.
In the short and medium term, the climate disasters could keep driving up the price of food. A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development predicted 30 percent higher food prices within the next decade. That’s on top of the 40 percent increase registered over the course of just the past year.
In the long-term, some scientists contemplate much grimmer scenarios. At an April meeting in England, 27 of the world’s leading ocean experts warned that global warming, acidification and dwindling oxygen levels are threatening the mass extinction of marine life. Emerging ocean conditions even resemble those that preceded the five mass extinctions of life on the planet, according to the group.
“The results are shocking,” said Alex Rogers, an Oxford professor who co-authored a report by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean. “We are looking at the consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime.”
Additional sources: AFP, June 20, 2011. Article by Marlowe Hood. El Diario de Juarez, June 19, 2011. Guardian (UK) May 21 and June 18, 2011. Articles by Jules Boykoff and Rupert Neale. TomDispatch.com, June 16, 2011. Article by Chip Ward. Associated Press, June 16, 2011. Article by Randolph E. Schmid. La Jornada, June 2 and 19, 2011. Articles by Ariane Diaz and editorial staff. El Universal, June 3, 14 and 19, 2011. Articles by Adriana Covarrubias, Notimex and editorial staff.
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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
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