Mexico’s capital is sinking, slowly but very surely. That’s the story the New York Times told this past Friday, though it repackaged its examination of Mexico City’s varied and increasingly dire environmental and social problems—water scarcity, air pollution, overcrowding, and, of course, sinking—as a broadside about climate change. Here’s a selection from the NYT piece, detailing one of the city’s most pressing problems, its inability to effectively provide its citizens with the water they need:
[Mexico City], with a legacy of struggling government, has no large-scale operation for recycling wastewater or collecting rainwater, forcing it to expel a staggering 200 billion gallons of both via crippled sewers like the Grand Canal. Mexico City now imports as much as 40 percent of its water from remote sources — then squanders more than 40 percent of what runs through its 8,000 miles of pipes because of leaks and pilfering. This is not to mention that pumping all this water more than a mile up into the mountains consumes roughly as much energy as does the entire metropolis of Puebla, a Mexican state capital with a population akin to Philadelphia’s.
Even with this mind-boggling undertaking, the government acknowledges that nearly 20 percent of Mexico City residents — critics put the number even higher — still can’t count on getting water from their taps each day. For some residents, water comes only once a week, or once every several weeks, and that may mean just an hour of yellow muck dripping from the faucet. Those people have to hire trucks to deliver drinking water, at costs sometimes exponentially higher than wealthy residents pay in better-served neighborhoods.
You could create a long list of reasons for why Mexico City now wrangles with this issue, and on that list you’d likely place poor policy planning near the top and put climate change near the bottom, if you mentioned it at all. But the Gray Lady chose to make that great green bogeyman (climate change) the focus of this piece. Take this choice quote from a prominent city official:
As Arnoldo Kramer, Mexico City’s chief resilience officer, put it: “Climate change has become the biggest long-term threat to this city’s future. And that’s because it is linked to water, health, air pollution, traffic disruption from floods, housing vulnerability to landslides — which means we can’t begin to address any of the city’s real problems without facing the climate issue.”
That’s a brazen statement. According to this official, Mexico City can’t even begin to solve its smog problem or its water scarcity crisis without first taking on another challenge that is orders of magnitude more complicated and far-reaching. That official has neatly turned the trite catchphrase “think globally, act locally” on its head, and it’s clear from the way the New York Times has framed this story that the Gray Lady has also bought into that approach.
This is billed as a climate change story, but nowhere in the article is the case made that climate change has caused these problems or that the slow effects of climate change are a leading reason why the city is unable to address these issues. There is the usual third world romanticism that a certain type of western journalist falls prey to: nostalgia for (of all people) the Aztecs, with their supposedly harmonious approach to nature. (At one point in the piece it’s pointed out that the Aztecs were able to manage the city in part because of its lower population at the time…OK class, can anybody say anything about Aztec methods of population control?)
Furthermore, the piece makes clear that stopping or even reversing climate change won’t do anything for Mexico City. It will at best slow down the pace at which things are getting worse, but population growth is clearly making things much worse already and presumably will continue to do so.
Meanwhile, there is no attention paid whatsoever to what is clearly going on here: the massive dysfunction bred over many decades by a profoundly corrupt and exploitative political culture. The Mexican elite isn’t even trying to govern its capital city with a minimum of care and attention. This is a much more serious problem for Mexico than climate change. For one thing, unless Mexico reforms its governance (and, frankly, it doesn’t seem to be getting very far), then it will remain unable to respond to its problems—and if climate change makes them worse it will only magnify the gap between what the Mexican government needs to do and what it actually can do.
The ritualistic invocation of climate change here serves to bury the dark fatalistic depression in the piece. This is actually a report that tells us that there is nothing we can do and nothing that the Mexicans can do to solve the crippling problems of Mexico City and, by extension, the country; that immigration is going to keep going up because Mexico is becoming uninhabitable and there is nothing we can do to change that. Many Trump voters believe exactly this—that is why they want the wall.
A policymaking class and intelligentsia that brings ideas like this to the table isn’t going to be able to translate good intentions into progress of any kind—and will ignore serious dangers. That someone could see the dramatic collapse of Mexico City, a collapse that has been gaining momentum for many decades—one that reflects deep and perhaps ineradicable flaws in the country’s political institutions and culture, for which no solutions are known and which is inexorably getting worse due to factors that existed before climate change began and that will survive its disappearance—that someone could see this as a climate change story boggles the mind.
This mis-framing is made all the more disappointing by the fact that the reporting in this piece is very strong, but obscuring that good journalism is a conceptual framework that is so weak, so full of holes, so lacking in serious, practical understanding of the world that it makes a shocking impression on the reader.
Though to be fair, the climate change angle may be something that editors, desperate for clicks, demanded be shoehorned into the story. After all, one of the most enduring truths in journalism is that nobody wants to read long, intricately reported pieces about tragic and complex problems nobody knows how to fix.