Last year at this time, I was on assignment in the Maldives reporting on how the nation -- a collection of 1200 islands and one of the most vulnerable to rising sea levels -- has dealt with climate change. I'll never forget what Mohamed Rasheed, a resident on the remote island of Thulaadhoo, told me. It was near the end of our interview when I mentioned that I too live on an island: Manhattan. By then, we'd spent the better part of an hour talking about the changes Thulaadhoo had experienced in recent years, including noticeable shifts in the timing of seasons and an increase in erosion. We were chatting about whether it was the natural order of things or whether human beings were responsible. That's when he said: "You know, this could happen in American too. Aren't you worried that America will sink? Why aren't you doing your story there?" he asked, half-joking.
We shared a laugh about it and parted ways, but when I look back on it now, I have a new appreciation for what Mohamed said to me that day. His words have replayed in my mind many times since Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast last week. I thought of him as I headed outside just after Sandy had passed through my usually quiet neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Just a five-minute walk from my apartment, I could see cars parked along First Avenue halfway submerged in water. Entire blocks were immersed. I thought of Mohamed again while I waited in the Financial District for a ferry to Staten Island, the nauseating smell of fuel permeating the terminal as machines sucked water from the subway station nearby.
While reporting in the Maldives, it was critical that I be able to operate from a key premise: climate change is real. Slowly, journalists are starting to acknowledge this -- without attribution and without apology. And I hope Sandy serves as a tipping point in the way the mainstream media reports on the link between extreme weather events and climate change.
The facts are there: the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that a changing climate alters the "frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events." And while many leading climate experts are hesitant to say that global warming directly caused Hurricane Sandy, they agree that if nothing else, greenhouse gas emissions intensified the storm's impact. As George Lakoff pointed out in a recent HuffPost blog, there is a systemic connection, if not a direct one. If you need more evidence, look no further than the Midwest which experienced a record-breaking drought or the Southwest which endured devastating fires this year. This is an issue that will affect you and your pocketbook. And many Americans get it. According to a new survey, 51 percent of Americans think climate change is related to more frequent and severe natural disasters.
Just as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are increasingly finding the political courage to acknowledge climate change (see: Chris Christie. Don't see: this year's presidential election), it's also up to the journalists reporting the story. Since Sandy, we've seen the editors of Bloomberg BusinessWeek step up with their provocative "It's Global Warming, Stupid" headline. NBC's Chief Political Director and White House correspondent Chuck Todd made the link last week, stating point-blank: "It's called climate change, folks." And this summer, months before we ever knew there'd be a Hurricane called Sandy, CNN's Christiane Amanpour nailed it when she opened a segment with this: "The weather is telling us that climate change is real. It's here. And we are causing it." No caveats.
As journalists go, I'm pretty old-school. I'm not big on opinionating. But we're dealing with facts and we ought to approach the issue like we'd approach a relationship: it won't get fixed until we acknowledge there's a problem.
The Maldives has to deal with that reality every day. In fact, they've been among the most creative thinkers when it comes to planning ahead. They've already built sea walls like the one now being considered for Manhattan. They've dredged countless tons of sand from the bottom of the sea as they fight to save their islands from erosion. They've owned the reality of climate change because they have no choice -- so much so that former President Mohamed Nasheed vowed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020 to make a point to the rest of the world. Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who took over from Nasheed after a coup in February, has promised to continue his predecessor's effort.
Mohamed, my friend from Thulaadhoo, said another memorable thing during our interview: "The burden lies with big industrialized nations." In the U.S., the problem has come home to roost. So let's talk. Here at the Huffington Post, we treat the reality of climate change as a starting point for discussion, not a debate in and of itself. If all of us in the media start there, we'd save ourselves a lot of time and start the conversation we so desperately need.
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