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Rats, a fanatic

29 May 2019 | News Roundup

The New York Times reports that their city is overrun with rats. The culprit is, well, you guessed it. OK, actually it’s gentrification. An odd choice, since traditionally one associates rats with poor neighbourhoods not “trendy restaurants” that are “a destination for foodies — and rats who help themselves to their leftovers”. And indeed there are rats in housing complexes too. But of course, “Milder winters — the result of climate change — make it easier for rats to survive and reproduce.” (Not to be outdone, David Randall rides a white rat into the L.A. Times under the banner “Climate change could bring bubonic plague back to Los Angeles”. As Winston Churchill didn’t originally say, a fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.

The New York Times story is a classic because it takes a complex problem, admits it has complex roots, gets them mostly wrong and then throws in climate just because. It’s not even clear that gentrification is the problem, though it’s something Times readers hate in theory and do in practice. Thus the Times says, “One key reason rats seem to be everywhere? Gentrification. The city’s construction boom is digging up burrows, forcing more rats out into the open, scientists and pest control experts say.” But if that’s correct, it means there aren’t more rats, just fewer places for them to hide.

The piece also says “the onslaught of rats extends beyond New York: Cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles are also confronting outbreaks.” Which makes it hard to ascribe to factors particular to New York including these famous milder winters the city just didn’t experience. (As for Randall’s L.A. Times piece, it concedes that Los Angeles had a brush with plague in 1924, pneumonic that time, which killed three dozen people and required a massive cull of rats and squirrels, as San Francisco did with bubonic plague in 1900-04 with over 100 deaths. But this time it’s different.)

As we observed earlier this month, despite the newsroom adage “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” reporters and opinion writers credulously assert things like that “Increasing droughts, punishing floods, unrelenting wildfires and shifts in weather patterns are no longer anomalies…. Climate change is transforming our country” or that “Australia is one of the world’s favourite examples of climate-change horror. Summers have become a time of brutal heatwaves, with temperatures topping 40 C for days at a time. Not only do savage highs set records, but daily lows set new highs as well. Bats fall from trees, dead fish float up on shore, fruit cooks in the fields. Combined with record drought and critical damage to the Great Barrier Reef, it’s hard to find a Western country with more first-hand experience of the impact of rising temperatures.” (Actually there are grounds for doubting that Australia has warmed at all in the last 100 years.)

Moreover if something good happens, for instance the best nesting season for wading birds in the Florida Everglades since World War II, well, it’s despite climate change not because of it. But anything bad is blamed on climate change even if there is a far more plausible explanation.

In the case of New York’s rat problem, there’s a far more plausible and indeed obvious explanation with no link at all to climate: mountains of trash. As the Times story eventually gets around to mentioning, “A major contributing factor is how the city collects trash: bags are left outside on the curb for hours before pick up the next morning”. And it quotes “Jason Munshi-South, a biology professor at Fordham University who has led ‘rat safaris’ to observe the vermin in Columbus Park in Chinatown” (one person’s nightmare being another’s dream job) that “It’s just an all-night buffet for the rats.”

Exactly. When you read it closely, it’s the quantity of trash our incredibly affluent society creates, and the carelessness with which we dispose of it, that’s creating an even bigger rat problem than New York City has traditionally had, which was always somewhere between pretty bad and infamous. (And here’s a shock: the famously woke millennials may be among the worst climate hypocrites including in throwing away food carelessly.)

Eventually the story has a moment of sanity and quotes Munshi-South that he doubts New York will ever be able to eradicate rats. Indeed. They’ve been with us since the invention of trash, as, come to think of it, has climate change.

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