Jon Swan on a World on Fire

Image courtesy of Krewlex/Pexels.

In his November 11 New Yorker article titled “Blood Gold: The Fight for the Future of Brazil’s Rain Forest,” Jon Lee Anderson reports on the effect that opening up the vast area to loggers and miners, to soy farmers and cattle ranchers, and to the millions of settlers who have been encouraged to move into the region, is having on the life style of the region’s indigenous people. While Anderson’s reporting introduces readers to a wide cast of individual actors involved in this tragedy, the backdrop is the smoke of the burning rainforest. Since last year, Anderson reports, “the rate of deforestation has increased nearly forty per cent, with thousands of fires – many of them intentionally set – scorching forests across the Amazon.”

That issue of The New Yorker arrived in my mailbox on November 8, and it was only after reading Anderson’s article that I realized that November 8 marked the one-year anniversary of the wildfire that swept through the northern California town of Paradise, destroying the town and killing eighty-five people. Looking farther into wildfire-related news for that day, I found a November 8 NPR report headed “Wildfires Rage in Australian State: ‘We’ve Simply Never Had This Number Of Fires.’” The report, filed by Paolo Zialcita, noted that there were nearly 100 active fires in New South Wales, and that one fire had burned more than 160,000 acres, adding: “The biggest fire was in Carrai National Park to the north of Sydney, where nearly 300,000 acres have been burned.”

Even greater devastation had been reported two weeks earlier, when, on October 21, CNN ran a story headed “Indonesian forests are burning, and Malaysia and Singapore are choking on the fumes.” CNN reporter Jessie Yeung wrote: “Intense forest fires have raged across the Indonesian regions of Sumatra and Kalimantan in recent weeks. More than 930,000 hectares (about 2.3 million acres) of land have been burned…. Nearby, Singapore and Malaysia have both choked in a dense haze all week.”

Yeung further reported: “The fires were allegedly caused by farmers using slash and burn techniques to clear the ecologically rich land — the same practice that led to uncontrollable fires in the Brazilian Amazon this summer.”

Throughout the fall of 2019, Southeast Asia was blanketed by what, on November 22, described as “a perpetual haze.” The principal cause of the fires was no longer news. As early as August 2016, the subhead of a report by The Independent’s environment correspondent, Ian Johnston, spelled it out: “Burning forests to make way for plantations to support the world’s insatiable demand for palm oil is one of the main causes of the astonishing decline in numbers of this species.” Johnston provided specifics lacking in most other reporting, writing: “Earlier this year Greenpeace accused major brands such as Pepsico, Johnson & Johnson, and Colgate-Palmolive of failing to make sure their products did not contain palm oil grown on deforested land.”

The Guardian followed up with an article headed “Nestle, Hershey, and Mars ‘breaking promises over palm oil use.’” The October 28, 2017, report, by Arthur Neslen, included a quote from a spokesperson for the Rainforest Action Network who explained that “the last parcel of Sumatran rainforest” in which tigers, orangutans, and elephants, as well as rhinos, clouded leopards, and sun bears, roam “is vanishing at a dramatic pace as lucrative palm oil plantations illegally cut into tropical forestland.”

While wildfires take their toll in human lives, in wildlife, and in property, exposure to the smoke of wildfires, as the CDC has warned, “can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases.” Moreover, as Michele Cohen Marill reported in the June 27, 2019, issue of Wired, “Emerging research suggests exposure to wildfire smoke may alter the immune system for years.” Indeed, the study by Stanford University researchers cited by Marill supported the startling headline: “The Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke May Last a Lifetime.” Having studied the blood of thirty-six children exposed to wildfire smoke blown into Fresno in 2015, Marill writes, the researchers “found changes in  a gene involved in the development and function of T cells, an important component of the immune system. The alteration made the gene less capable of producing T regulatory cells, potentially putting the children at greater risk of developing allergies or infection.”

Five months later, on November 14, the New Zealand news website Stuff picked up the story of the health effects of wildfire smoke in an article by Amber-Leigh Wolf pegged to the release of the 2019 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate report. (The Lancet is among the world’s oldest and most prestigious general medical journals.) The nine-word headline — “Wildfires, disease, and food loss predicted for world’s climate” — summed up the principal findings of the Countdown. Wolf brought the global story close to home in an interview with Ivan Hanigan, an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney, who explained that “bushfire smoke and dust is linked to population-level mortality, especially for deaths from cardiovascular diseases…. They affect …even our brains, causing toxicity and systemic inflammation.”

On the other side of the globe, The Guardian covered the findings of the Lancet Countdown in a 900-word, November 13 article by Damian Carrington, the paper’s environmental editor. The headline stated “Climate crisis will effect life-long health of young, doctors warn,” the subhead adding “Lancet Countdown tracks impacts of global heating covering disease, wildfires and malnutrition.” On the specific subject of wildfires, Carrington noted that, while previous Countdowns had not included the number of people affected by wildfires, the 2019 report had done so, finding that human exposure to fires had doubled since 2000 – from 100 million in 2004 to 200 million in 2018. Deeper in the article, Nick Watts, executive director of the Lancet Countdown, was quoted as saying, “Children’s bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants. The damage done in early childhood lasts a lifetime.”

On the far side of the Atlantic, The New York Times’s coverage of the Lancet Countdown story does not mention the effects of air-borne pollution on children’s bodies and immune systems. The focus, instead, is on heat-related diseases as they affect the work force and productivity. Headed “Study Warns of Cascading Health Risks From the Changing Climate” and written by Somini Sengupta, the Times’ international global reporter, and Kendra Pierre-Louis, the article includes a quote from The Lancet’s editorial that singles out heat stress — “which not only kills people directly but can also lead to kidney and cardiovascular disease” — as among the most potent threats humans face in a warming climate.

Meanwhile, throughout the fall of 2019, Southeast Asia was blanketed by what described as “a perpetual haze,” while in the U.K. The Mirror, on November 27, ran an article headlined “Orangutans may face extinction over forest fires linked to palm-oil producers.” The article, by Nada Farhoud, explained that wildfires had been burning in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo since July, “and the animals who escape fires often cannot survive due to lack of food.” By this time, the threat to the existence of the orangutan had been covered for more than a decade, as exemplified by a July 2008 AP story headed “Study: Orangutans could face extinction in wild: Illegal logging, palm-oil plantations blamed for decline in numbers.”

November 28 was Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. In Europe, it was the day on which the parliament of the European Union met in Brussels and declared a climate and environmental emergency and urged all EU countries to commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Guardian’s coverage, a nearly 1,000-word report bearing a Brussels date line and written by Jennifer Rankin, bore the headline “‘Our house is on fire’: EU Parliament declares climate emergency.” The headline quotes the words not only of Swedish youth climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, but also those used by Sebastian Mang, Greenpeace’s EU climate policy adviser, interviewed shortly before the European Parliament held its vote. The New York Times limited its coverage to a brace of bare-bones wire stories: a Reuters dispatch headed “European Parliament Declares Climate ‘Emergency’ Ahead of Summit,” by Jonas Ekblom, and an AP account headed “EU Parliament Declares ‘Climate Emergency’ in Symbolic Move,” with a byline reading “Frank Jordans contributed from Berlin.”

As all these fires were burning around the world, leaving vast areas smothered in smoke, and large populations, urban and rural, inhaling it, the air in the United States was becoming increasingly polluted – and hazardous. The headline of an October 24, 2019, New York Times article by Nadja Popovich read: “America’s Air Quality Worsens, Ending Years of Gains, Study Says.” It began: “New data reveals that damaging air pollution has increased nationally since 2016, reversing a decades-long trend toward cleaner air.” Further, Popovich reported: “researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that fine particulate pollution increased 5.5 percent on average across the country between 2016 and 2018, after decreasing nearly 25 percent over the previous seven years,” adding that lax enforcement of the Clean Air Act, together with recent increases in driving and the burning of natural gas, were considered “likely contributors to the uptick in unhealthy air,” while in the West, wildfires contributed to the rise in particulate matter. Fine particulate pollution, Popovich explains, “has been linked to a range of health problems including asthma and respiratory inflammation, lung cancer, heart attack, and stroke.”

Two weeks later, The Guardian published a piece by the paper’s environment editor, Damian Carrington, headlined “Air pollution nanoparticles linked to brain cancer for first time,” with a subhead reading “Exclusive: tiny particles produced by motor traffic can invade the brain and carry carcinogens.” Two weeks passed and another Guardian headline stated: “Impact of air pollution on health may be far worse than thought, study suggests,” with the subhead noting “Results chime with earlier review indicating almost every cell in the body may be affected by dirty air.” The November 27 article, by Nicola Davis, was based on a report published in the British Medical Journal that analyzed more than 95 million insurance claims by hospital inpatients in the US aged sixty-five or older enrolled in the Medicare program. The researchers focused on levels of a type of fine particulate matter, produced by vehicles and power stations, among other sources.

We are all now, young and old, east and west, daily inhaling the fine particulate matter produced by machines that carry us to work or to those far-away vacation places about which newspapers are obliged to publish special sections, with four-color photos and custom-tailored prose, which, by attracting advertisers, help to pay the bills. Both The Guardian and the Times provide such sections. Both also offer readers access to environmental stories via e-mail, the Times offering a weekly newsletter called Climate:Fwd, “from the paper’s climate team, with stories and insights about climate change and tips on how to help”; The Guardian offering Green Light: “the most important environment stories, debate, and analysis” delivered every Friday via e-mail.

Both papers are, then, editorially schizophrenic, on the one hand encouraging readers to travel and, on the other, cautioning readers that air travel can be hazardous to the health of the planet. Meanwhile, the broadcast media tend to shun the story of the deteriorating quality of the air we breathe and the danger posed to the health of the planet’s human and wildlife inhabitants. Notable exceptions to this rule are when Asian cities – in China, in India, for example – are smothered by the haze of polluted air. Photos and footage showing hundreds or thousands of people wearing face masks suddenly appear on front pages and on TV news programs.

This past April, the American Lung Association released a report on the state of the nation’s health, which the Guardian summarized in a headline that stated Millions More Americans Breathing Dirty Air, Study Finds. The April 24 article, by Emily Holden in Washington, D.C., noted: “For the three hottest years on record, 2015 through 2017, about 141 million people lived in US counties that saw unhealthy levels of particle pollution, either in a single 24-hour period or over a year, or unhealthy levels of smog. That is 7 million more people than in the group’s last report.”  A vice-president of the ALA was quoted as saying, “We’re seeing in this year’s report the impacts of climate change on air quality in really stunning terms.”

On December 2, 2019, The New York Times published a dramatic overview of air pollution in cities throughout the world under the heading See How the World’s Most Polluted Air Compares With Your City’s. A five-member team — Nadja PopovichBlacki MigliozziKarthik PatanjaliAnjali Singhvi, and Jon Huang – was credited for the reporting. Popovich, a reporter and graphics designer, summed up the project on Twitter:” We visualized microscopic air pollution that wreaks havoc on human health.”

The Times’s climate team is a late-comer to the paper, having been established in 2017. The Guardian‘s twelve-person team was set up in 2009.

This past July, the Times ran an article headed As the World Heats Up, the Climate for News is Changing, Too. The roughly 1,250-word, July 8 article, by Marc Tracy, was essentially a round-up of opinions on how news organizations are, or should be, responding to climate change — in particular, how to respond to the October 7, 2018, report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change. The landmark report, Tracy writes, “paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought and says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has ‘no documented historic precedent.’” The article notes the Times’s recent “establishment of a desk dedicated to climate change,” failing to mention that The Guardian, described as “the left-wing British daily,” was on the beat several years earlier.

Among the cast of media people whose opinions Tracy solicited was Matthew C. Nisbet, a communications professor at Northeastern University and editor of the journal Environmental Communication. “We have good research that in amping up the threat without actually providing people with things they can do,” Nisbet told Tracy, “you end up with fatalism, despair, depression, a sense of paralysis, or a sense of dismissiveness and denial.” Providing people with things they can do was precisely what Tatiana Schlossberg sought to do in her article headed Flying is Bad for the Planet. You Can Help Make it Better. Her advice was: Fly less often. (“If everyone took fewer flights, airline companies wouldn’t burn as much jet fuel.)  Consider driving instead of flying. Fly coach. Fly nonstop, if you can. (“The more times you take off, the more fuel you use.”) Buy carbon offsets.

Meanwhile, Nisbet did not seem to consider another possible response: fury and a desire to change the system that has brought us all to this pass – a system that has consistently put corporate profit above civilian and environmental health, as dramatized by revelations that Exxon and Shell had carried out internal assessments of the effects of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, and had forecast the planetary consequences of these emissions – and had done nothing.

In both cases, it was small news organizations that revealed what the oil giants knew, with Inside Climate News, in September 2015, running a story, based on an eight-month-long investigation, headed Exxon: The Road Not Taken, with a subhead reading Top executives were warned of possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect, then led efforts to block solutions. The next year, a Dutch, crowd-funded, on-line journalism platform called de Correspondent broke the news that Shell had long known what fossil-fuel burning was doing or going to do to the planet. The evidence was a 1991 Shell-produced film, Climate of Concern, intended for viewing in schools and universities. It was a sobering film, warning of extreme weather and climate refugees. The Guardian picked up the story and, on February 28, 2016, expanded and ran it, together with the film, under the headline “‘Shell Knew’: Oil giant’s 1991 film warned of climate change danger,” the byline crediting Damian Carrington and Correspondent reporter Jelmer Mommers.

A kind of paralysis has prevented America’s major media from confronting the single-most important story of our time: climate change, its causes and effects. There is simply no room in the fast-chatting morning shows or the neutered evening news programs with their invariably inspiring endings for even a momentary glance at what’s happening to the air we breathe. It could be part of the daily TV weather report – with reporting from both coasts and the heartland — but it isn’t. It could be part of a newspaper’s daily weather coverage, but it isn’t. It could appear as a regular report in The New Yorker’s Comment section, but…

The news flares up and dies down, makes headlines and fades fast, leaving this smoke to thicken the air our children and grandchildren will be condemned to inhale.


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