When Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean and the United States in 2017, killing at least 138 people and leaving chaos in its wake, it became a major international news event. Occurring as part of a cluster of hurricane disasters, shortly after Hurricane Harvey—the “costliest tropical cyclone on record”—and just before Hurricane Maria—the “most intense tropical cyclone of 2017”, which may have been responsible for as many as 1,133 fatalities—it was perfect for the 24-hour news cycle. Frightening and dramatic enough to hold people’s attention, the development of the story could be tracked continuously, through the tense build-up as we waited for the storms to make landfall, and on to the impact and aftermath once they had torn through.
Excluded from the constant coverage, however, was much mention of how the hurricanes fit into a larger narrative—that of climate change. There were isolated articles, but generally it was overlooked in favour of the drama of immediate events. The underlying reasons for these hurricanes, and for other climate-related natural disasters, are complex, and it is hard to prove that a storm would not have happened in a world which was not artificially warmed. This is an issue with convincing people of the legitimacy of climate science in general, but particularly in trying to ensure it is visible in the media.
The news media does not have the time or the will to interrogate how environmental issues underpin so many of the disasters that occur in the modern world, and which make up so much of the content that they broadcast. They certainly avoid reporting on the drier sides of the issue—the science and politics of climate change are era-defining issues, but they do not make for such captivating viewing as a school shooting or wildfires. If there is a major new development, it can be an excuse for media companies to break out their stock footage of starving polar bears on floating chunks of ice, but even this only holds the attention of the viewer for so long.
The narrative of climate change does not fit any of the ways we know how to tell stories. It is too big and too messy, and while it affects everyone, it is rarely obvious. This is true not only for the news media, but for other kinds—literature, film and so on. Author Amitav Ghosh, in his book The Great Derangement, identifies a number of ways the accepted form of the modern Western novel denies us the ability to discuss an issue such as environmental degradation. The insistence upon a specific sense of place, disconnected from the larger world; the focus on the inner machinations of individuals, disconnected from society or humanity as a whole; the relatively limited time stories are expected to span, which may be human generations, but will not “speak of how the continents were created”—climate change is a difficult narrative to express within these confines.
This may be one of the reasons that most of the fiction we see about climate change is set in the future, in dystopian worlds ravaged by environmental destruction—it can act as a setting, rather than a plot point. It is much easier to make a conventional narrative out of the effects of environmental destruction, and the actions of individual humans in the face of them, than to make the slow progress of our changing climate the narrative. But to only portray climate change as an issue of the future suggests that it is something far away from us—seeming to call for prevention, rather than cure. To suggest that the dystopian face of climate change is not yet upon us is to ignore the climate refugees of the Carteret Islands, many of whom have been forced to flee to Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. It is to ignore the drought and famines which have ravaged the Sahel region of Africa. It is to close our eyes to already immeasurable suffering across the globe and suggest that it is the stuff of science fiction.
Stories are a large part of how we understand the world, particularly that which is outside the scope of our personal experience. If the news media continues to skirt around the present realities of climate change, and our fiction tells us it is an issue for our grandchildren, we will continue to struggle to understand that we can and must tackle it now.