Hur­ri­cane Irma and the west­ern re­sponse

Why the dis­pro­por­tion­ate cov­er­age of Irma is a prob­lem

The McGill Daily - - Contents - tu­viere okome Commentary Writer

Hur­ri­cane Irma was a cat­e­gory five trop­i­cal storm that formed on Au­gust 30 and quickly turned into a hur­ri­cane, even­tu­ally com­ing to an end on Septem­ber 12. It orig­i­nated in the east­ern At­lantic, near the is­land na­tion of Cape Verde and trav­eled through a se­ries of coun­tries in the Caribbean, leav­ing a huge trail of dev­as­ta­tion through the is­lands and into Florida.

Un­bal­anced cov­er­age

Due to ir­re­spon­si­ble re­port­ing by the west­ern me­dia, there seemed to be an out­right ob­ses­sion with the de­struc­tion caused by Hur­ri­cane Irma in the United States. There was lit­tle to no se­ri­ous and sus­tained men­tion of the dev­as­ta­tion that the hur­ri­cane wrecked on Caribbean is­land na­tions like Cuba, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, and Bar­buda. In these me­dia re­ports, Florida was at the heart of the anal­y­sis of the dam­age re­sult­ing from this storm. Those re­port­ing de­manded sym­pa­thy for the peo­ple of Florida, yet did not call for the same re­ac­tion for res­i­dents of Saint Martin, or any of the other is­land na­tions for that mat­ter. In search­ing through re­ports on hur­ri­cane Irma by CNN, I found a to­tal of 11 ar­ti­cles specif­i­cally about Irma, only five of which men­tioned the is­land na­tions im­pacted by the storm.

Un­like the U.S., these is­land na­tions do not have the eco­nomic re­sources to with­stand the dam­ages caused by Irma. In Saint Martin for ex­am­ple, res­i­dents do not have ac­cess to food or clean wa­ter. In con­trast, to this, Florida has opened 42 shel­ters to ac­com­mo­date the 25,000 peo­ple who would be with­out shel­ter af­ter Irma. It was ob­vi­ous that coun­tries such as Bar­buda needed more than just a ca­sual men­tion to gar­ner the sym­pa­thy of west­ern au­di­ences. Bar­buda is a coun­try with a $1 bil­lion econ­omy, and by as­sess­ing the dam­ages caused by Irma it is pre­dicted to have a $250 mil­lion prob­lem in re­build­ing their na­tion. Since the hur­ri­cane, there has been no one liv­ing on the is­land, for the first time in 300 years. With­out the help of the in­ter­na­tional econ­omy and in­ter­na­tional me­dia cov­er­age, Bar­buda will not be able to re­cover.

Yet, while pow­er­ful me­dia out­lets like CNN con­tinue to shower praise on the net­work’s role in pro­vid­ing help to the vic­tims of the dis­as­ter in the U. S., there was no par­al­lel ac­tion for the peo­ple of these Caribbean na­tions. Couldn’t the west­ern me­dia have done more to en­sure the prospec­tive se­cu­rity of Caribbean is­land cit­i­zens? This should have been through ad­e­quate and real- time cov­er­age of the hur­ri­cane, as was done for the U. S. ter­ri­to­ries im­pacted.

Why was there less fo­cus on Caribbean coun­tries? The me­dia in the west has an eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity to­ward the peo­ple of Saint Barthélemy, Bar­buda, and Saint Martins dur­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ters like Irma. The ne­glect of these coun­tries at a time of cri­sis dis­plays a lack of con­cern for those who live out­side the United States and the pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of white lives over the lives of peo­ple of colour dur­ing dev­as­tat­ing crises.

Cli­mate racism

To be able to ad­dress these is­sues in the con­text of the dis­as­ter, we must first un­der­stand the sci­ence of hur­ri­cane for­ma­tion and thus why this hur­ri­cane sea­son seems to be the most ex­treme in re­cent mem­ory. There are three main com­po­nents to the for­ma­tion of any hur­ri­cane; wa­ter mea­sured at a tem­per­a­ture that ex­ceeds 75 de­grees Fahren­heit, a sus­tained gust of wind, and moist air. Since warmer air re­tains more wa­ter va­por, it leads to ex­treme pre­cip­i­ta­tion and pos­si­ble flood­ing in the wake of a hur­ri­cane. It can be hard to de­ter­mine the de­gree to which cli­mate change plays a role in an ac­tive hur­ri­cane sea­son, but this hur­ri­cane sea­son has cer­tainly been char­ac­ter­ized as anoma­l­is­tic com­pared to pre­vi­ous years. One in­di­ca­tion of this is the de­vel­op­ment of seven hur­ri­canes from the 13 At­lantic storms named so far this year. Since cli­mate re­searchers be­gan to col­lect cli­mate data in 1851, only an eighth of all recorded years pro­duced more than seven At­lantic hur­ri­canes. While cli­mate change may not be en­tirely re­spon­si­ble for the for­ma­tion of hur­ri­cane Irma, warmer ocean tem­per­a­tures can be linked to in­creased hur­ri­cane strength as there is more sus­tained en­ergy to fuel it.

Look­ing at the phe­nom­e­non of cli­mate change in the re­cent past, we must note that the United States ac­counts for well over 15 per cent of the globe’s to­tal in­put of car­bon diox­ide. An ar­gu­ment can be made that China ac­counts for 30 per cent, which is dou­ble that pro­duced by the U. S., but this has been ac­counted for given the higher pop­u­la­tion ra­tio in China rel­a­tive to the U. S.. Thus, to a sig­nif­i­cant ex­tent, the U. S. is im­pli­cated in the pro­gres­sion of cli­mate change, prompt­ing the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of hur­ri­canes like Irma.

Nev­er­the­less, the im­pact of hur­ri­cane dis­as­ters ex­tends to all peo­ple, and that in­cludes the smaller is­land coun­tries that re­lease a minis­cule amount of car­bon into the at­mos­phere in com­par­i­son. 95 per cent of Bar­buda’s struc­tures were de­mol­ished by Irma, and 60 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion are cur- rently home­less. Due in part to prox­im­ity to coastal ar­eas, it seems likely that the global south will be the first to re­ceive the most ad­verse ram­i­fi­ca­tions of a chang­ing global cli­mate. It is ev­i­dent that na­tions such as Saint Martin will con­tinue to be im­pacted by the ad­verse ef­fects of cli­mate change in fol­low­ing years. How­ever, we also know that with a gross do­mes­tic prod­uct of about 19 tril­lion dol­lars, the U. S. has the funds and re­sources to com­bat the ever grow­ing neg­a­tive ef­fects of a warm­ing cli­mate. Is­land na­tions with GDPS as low as $45 mil­lion do not have such re­sources. If the US’S ma­jor role in the rise of cli­mate change is to be fac­tored in, we must con­sider hold­ing it re­spon­si­ble for the dam­ages caused by dis­as­ters like Irma, and that can oc­cur through more bal­anced me­dia cov­er­age as well as di­rect aid pro­vi­sion.

The in­ter­na­tional me­dia’s lack of in­ter­est in the de­struc­tion of these is­land na­tions points to a lack of sym­pa­thy, and con­se­quently, this at­ti­tude is adopted by the au­di­ences they cater to. This is es­pe­cially con­cern­ing when one thinks that CNN has an avid in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence which is de­pen­dent on their news cov­er­age. As part of a shift in west­ern me­dia to main­tain their se­cu­rity, out­lets like CNN con­tinue to fo­cus solely on what hap­pens in the U. S., thus em­pha­siz­ing the no­tion that is­sues con­cern­ing the U. S should be ex­clu­sively ad­dressed. In do­ing so, the west­ern me­dia con­trib­utes to the for­ma­tion of a so­ci­ety that does not ac­cept any moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards global cit­i­zens. Se­condly, it fur­ther per­pet­u­ates the idea that the west lives at the global fore­front and triv­i­al­izes those who do not fall un­der this um­brella. Pop­u­lar me­dia has con­tin­ued to fail in its duty to pro­vide news about marginal­ized peo­ple, lead­ing to an in­abil­ity to pro­vide aid to peo­ple who do not look or ex­ist like the west­ern ma­jor­ity.

Un­like the U.S., these is­land na­tions do not have the eco­nomic re­sources to with­stand the dam­ages caused by Irma. Couldn’t the west­ern me­dia have done more to en­sure the prospec­tive se­cu­rity of Caribbean is­land cit­i­zens? The ne­glect of these coun­tries at a time of cri­sis dis­plays a lack of con­cern for those who live out­side the U.S.

laura bren­nan | The Mcgill Daily

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