What can a swarm of locusts teach us about climate change reporting?

When swarms of billions of locusts descended on East Africa, it would appear strange that little to no attempt has been made in recent mainstream news and documentaries to explore the link between their arrival and climate change. Alan Story looks at how mainstream coverage of global environmental events continues to fall short of the standard required to accurately reflect the impact of the climate emergency.

Locust in the palm of a hand.
Locust in the palm of a hand.

Image: Obi Anyadike/The New Humanitarian

Alan Story

So we waited and waited for an answer to the fairly obvious question raised by a documentary we were watching on telly last Friday evening: What has caused billions of locusts to descend on the countries of East Africa and to eat their way through millions of hectares of crops?

And when you read elsewhere that a single locust can eat its weight of two grammes in plants each day and that swarms (and there are many of them) can number 100 billion individual locusts, you can start to appreciate the words of one overwhelmed Kenyan farmer about the effects of largest and deadliest plague of locusts to hit his homeland in 75 years.

“They eat our work,” he tells the camera.

In graphic and great detail, Channel Four’s Swarm Hunters showed and told us: a) WHAT was happening – horrendous destruction and loss of food security for millions; b) WHERE it was happening – in rural Kenya in the case of this programme, but also in Uganda and Ethiopia (as well as in South Asia and elsewhere); c) WHO was involved – squads of agricultural workers hunting down vast locust swarms in trucks; d) and WHEN – for most of the year 2020. (Watch at least a few minutes here yourself and you will get a sense of what a literal plague of locusts looks like. Menacing!) 

Yet we never got an answer or even a hint of a response to the most basic WHY question: why locusts? Why now?  

Is this just some unexplained freak of nature? Did the locusts simply fall from the sky? Other than a few Bible passages, are we really supposed to accept the only reason for the invasion given in this 24-minute documentary by a very religious woman in rural Kenya? When asked by the amazingly patronising reporter why God had sent the locusts to Kenya, the woman replied, “He [God] sent the swarm because of the sin and people ignoring him.”

Never probing the politics or science

Unfortunately, this unusually poor Channel 4 Unreported World reportage is becoming ever more common these days. Open with some scene-setting drone photography, pack in lots of emotion-invoking sequences, but never present the real politics and real economics – let alone any science – that might offer or at least try to offer a serious and coherent explanation of what is happening on and to our planet. Keep it simple, stupid.

Earlier this month, a very lengthy BBC article of 1,990 words also focusing on the East African locusts waited until the 1,700-word mark before it suggested what might have led to the invasion. And then it spent a mere three sentences on one of those tentative “it-might-be-possible-that” explanations.

And so what is the science behind this plague of locusts?

Only the worst apologists for the current global order will disagree that human-created greenhouse gases are at their highest levels ever. Fossils fuels are the main, but not only cause, of increased greenhouse gases. In turn, this leads to our planet’s atmosphere overheating and huge changes – and often erratic changes – in global and regional climates.

This has consequences. For example, only a clown like Donald Trump denies there is a relationship between the global climate emergency and the wildfire emergency now alight in America’s largest state of California.

In the case of the Indian Ocean off East Africa, climate change meant a four-fold increase in the frequency of cyclones in 2019 compared to 2018 and “we know that cyclones are the originators of swarms”, a senior locust forecasting officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said in a January 2020 interview. Elsewhere in the deserts of Oman, the huge amounts of rain are “perfect breeding conditions” for locusts.

Swarm of locusts
A swarm of locusts.

Wrote respected Kenyan investigative journalist Mat Hope in a February 2020 New Statesman article: “This is how climate change makes itself felt, as a chain of events. Shifting atmospheric conditions over the Indian Ocean become unusually heavy rain, which becomes swarms, which becomes, to quote the FAO, ‘an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in the region’. With new swarms predicted to form in March and April, this is only the beginning.”

Yes, the link between the cause, namely climate change, and the effect, namely an explosion of swarms of locusts in East Africa, cannot be 100 per cent proven. But in such matters, it is best to follow the precautionary principle.

Not connecting the dots

The type of status quo-endorsing journalism found in Swarm Hunters and the BBC piece already mentioned have many political consequences.

First, climate change and global overheating are once again relegated to the sidelines of the mainstream news agenda. The locusts in Africa disaster could have been a “connect the dots” moment, an opportunity to show we all live in one world, and especially to point out how a massive carbon footprint has led to the “footprints” of billions of locusts.

Second, that carbon footprint is created primarily in rich capitalist countries in Europe and North America, plus China, and particularly by the fossil fuel industries. Why weren’t Boris Johnson or the CEO of Shell interviewed and asked to curb their policies and their profits? Often, who is NOT interviewed is more telling than who is.

Third, at whom should the finger of blame be pointed? This documentary blames Kenya itself. Yes, it is obvious that the Kenyan government has made a bit of a “balls up” in its battle against the locusts and that there have been serious problems with corruption, planning and resourcing. Yet countries such as Kenya often lack basic government infrastructure. And speaking of a “balls up”, our government has botched its response to the Covid-19 pandemic appallingly… and yet it still tops public opinion polls in the UK. Imagine if Dominic Cummings or Gavin Williamson were in charge in Kenya.        

'Nowhere to hide' from climate change

Fourth, the only solution mentioned in this programme is spraying with pesticides. This, of course, switches on major environmental red lights and “most agree that pesticides are largely ineffective in combating the swarms themselves.” Yes, some immediate rescue steps are needed. But Swarm Hunters never thinks big or asks questions about changing agricultural practices or, dare I mention it again, fighting climate change and radically transforming North-South economic and power relations.

Fifth, this type of journalism “forgets” the fact that there are lots of environmental campaigners and experts in Kenya. Read, for example, about the 2019 victory by activists who stopped construction of a Chinese-backed coal fired power project on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Of course, if the swarming of locusts is not “slotted” as an environmental story, you would not think of contacting Kenyan climate experts for their views. (A few quick Google and mouse clicks can locate them; I am sure Mat Hope would oblige.)

Sixth and finally, we need better resourced and more widely-distributed alternative green and Green journalism, including by our national party. If the mainstream media continues to evade its responsibility to report on the climate emergency in a manner that reflects the urgency and all-encompassing nature of the issue, then it is up to alternative sources to take up that challenge.

Australian climate change expert Terry Hughes has said: “The insidious thing about climate change is there’s nowhere to hide from it.” Especially if you live in Kenya.  

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Alan Story, who is a former investigative journalist, is a regular contributor to Green World and a member of the Green Party of England and Wales.