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.