We know that climate change is hard to accept because it is complex, long drawn out, challenging to our world views and without a clear external enemy. So what happens when a related issue- the West Nile virus – comes along with exactly the right ingredients to motivate public concern, media coverage and an immediate political response?
The Texas Department of State Health Services has so far recorded 509 cases and 20 deaths from West Nile virus, of which 14 have been around Dallas. This is a dramatic increase on the two fatalities recorded last year.
The spread and growth of West Nile virus can be directly linked to the wider issue of climate change.Of course, as many sceptics argue (most notably Dr Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute) the links between climate change and disease are complex given that of each and every stage in the lifecycle of a parasite has the different requirements.
However in this case the evidence is strong. Warmer weather extends the length of the mosquito breeding season and enables the virus to spread wider within the mosquito population. A major five year survey of outbreaks across the US found a strong correlation between increased temperatures and increased infection rates. The findings are born out in Texas which, like most of the US, has experienced a warm winter and record breaking summer. 88% of Texas is officially declared to be in drought- broken, unfortunately, by just enough water for the mosquitoes’ breeding needs.
When Scientific American summarised the evidence of a link between West Nile virus and climate change the majority of comments were from climate change deniers: such as “AAAA+ – Another Asinine Alarmist Article”; “my 12 year old son knows more about science than these editors” and “Scientific American… are spokesmen for politically inspired agenda with no debate or discussion”.
Given this vitriolic debate it is hardly surprising that there has been virtually no mention of climate change in coverage of the current West Nile virus in the regional or national US mass media. This reflects the wider reluctance to mention climate change in relation to the record US temperatures. But, I suspect, it is just as likely that no journalist wants to contaminate a compelling story that is easy to tell with a story that is contested and complex.
A few days ago Time Magazine tried to explain the links under the heading “Why West Nile Virus is a Self Inflicted Wound”. The article opens with the line: “There are no good ways to die, but death by the West Nile virus is worse than most”. This apocalyptic narrative is a standard editorial line for a magazine that ran its April 2006 Global Warming special report with a cover reading “Be Worried. Be Very Worried”. It raises the question- who exactly has inflicted this wound on themselves? Given that the main fatalities are among the poor, sick and elderly, the virus outbreak exhibits exactly the same arbitrary injustice as other climate change impacts. It is exactly this kind of causal complexity that makes climate change so hard to message.
But, whilst reporting of climate change is challenging and struggles with a limited number of stale narratives in a bitterly polarised debate, the West Nile virus contains all the necessary ingredients for powerful and fresh storytelling.
To start with, a deadly disease is inherently frightening. This one has the added potency of being new and foreign. It even has its own Ground Zero: the initial outbreak was around LA Guardia Airport in 1999.
Unlike climate change (or most diseases) West Nile virus is also carried by a very visible and much despised external enemy- the mosquito-that can be exterminated without ethical qualms.
And, because this enemy is ubiquitous and can breed in any standing water, the danger is everywhere. On Fox TV Mayor Mike Rawlings held up a plastic bottle cap between his fingers with the words “this could be a bottle cap full of death because that’s what could breed”. Oh my God! Any piece of trash could be breeding death! The official advice to “limit outdoor activities between dusk and dawn” creates a fear of the entire public realm and a fear that every mosquito bite could be fatal.
Above all the onset of the virus is sudden and deadly, generating personal stories of real despair that stimulate our empathy and desire for revenge. Interviewed last week on local television, Mayor Rawlings said: “we have people dying- we have to have a sense of urgency to get this done now”. (As an aside, it is worth noting that ten people died last year of heatstroke in Texan jails but clearly some deaths create more urgency than others).
The need for a dramatic and visible response led Mayor Rawlings to approve aerial spraying with pyrethroid insecticide across Dallas and suburbs. Objections from ecologists concerning the potential impacts of pyrethroid on other insects (especially bees) or fish have been brushed aside in the interests of a supposed greater public good.
The resulting story, which is ubiquitous in media reporting, is one of an aerial war between the mosquito and its deadly payload and the spray planes with theirs. Fox 4 Dallas tv news talks of ‘an aerial attack on mosquitoes’ in which ‘everybody needs to be on high alert’. Dallas Morning News talks of the ‘aerial West Nile assault’. The August 16th PBS Newshour opened with the full attack metaphor: “Earlier tonight Dallas begins an air war, the enemy is West Nile virus and the immediate targets are insects”.
Those who lead the battle are then described as heroes. County Judge Clay Jenkins said that he “shook the hands of all the people loading the chemicals” onto the planes before they departed. “Watching the planes take off”, he said “I knew our citizens would be safer the next day.”
But the aerial spraying of the public by the government generates other enemy metaphors. There is already a wide network of ‘chemtrail’ conspiracy theorists terrified that the government is spraying the US with chemicals from high level jet plans. On the Facebook page of Mayor Rawlings opponents frequently use the term “spray with poisons”. Natural News provides tips for how to “detox after exposure to aerial or ground sprayed pesticides and toxins”- clay bath anyone? There is, I should point out, no evidence that pyrethroid poses any threat to human health.
On the website of Dallas Stop the Spray! there is a striking graphic of a gas masked figure and spray planes with the ironic text, “Dallas Sleep Tight”. The image of gas masks– always a powerful and frightening symbol of faceless militarism- appears regularly on opponents’ literature and websites .
This issue readily reflects the wider battle of political worldviews between those who favour the use of technological force to ‘defend freedoms’ and those who oppose militarism and corporate power. The liberal Dallas Observer newspaper summed this up nicely in a cartoon of WWII bomber planes raining death on all living things below in an ecological Blitzkrieg.
And, at the loopier fringe, the West Nile virus is being reported as one of the key signs of the second coming as predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24:3 “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes”. (See for example).
So, whilst climate change generates confusion, denial, and political delays, the related issue of Nile virus generates an immediate political and media response. People who would normally oppose action on climate change and might be expected to resist government interference in the atmosphere sanction the chemical spraying of residential areas because it fits neatly into a narrative of militaristic response to a visible and immediate threat. And, for those who oppose it, it slots just as well with their existing prejudices and metaphors.
Many people have argued that the dangers of climate change will only become real to people once they start to feel its affects. This may be true, and there is some evidence that people in the US are associating the extreme weather in 2012 with climate change.
However the response to the West Nile virus suggests that it is also possible that the impacts of climate change can generate their own internal narratives that actually undermine attempts to communicate the more complex long term causes. Certainly the virus has generated a very strong sense of urgent threat, but this has in turn been projected onto an external enemy that can be successfully eradicated through a violent technological intervention. This does nothing to build a sense of shared responsibility and co-operation. And, because it justifies technological interventions and stimulates a fear of the outdoors, it does nothing to encourage a change in existing lifestyles.
The storyline fits so well with existing worldviews, and the rise and fall of this outbreak fits so neatly with short political and news cycles, that there are few goods reasons why anyone would wish to tell the more complex story: that this problem will keep coming back and becoming worse because it has long term systemic causes. This is why we strongly prefer stories that have a narrative arc leading to neat closure. After all, no one is going to queue up for a movie in which James Bond counters the threat of SMERSH through a lifetime of diplomacy.
We can see a similar pattern around flooding resulting from extreme rainfall events. There is little evidence that flooding increases awareness of climate change. Indeed there is good research showing that flood victims are no more likely to link their experience to climate change than non-victims. What we can see, time and again, is that the dominant story concerns the struggle with an external enemy- typically a government agency that has failed to provide adequate flood defences or flood relief.
This is not to say that we cannot engage people around impacts- just to point out that human responses are complex and will readily default to a familiar and appealing narrative even when this does not reflect the reality of the situation.