Washington Post Edits Out Climate Change from Its Sea-Level Rise Story

Projected sea level rise IF we don’t get off our current emissions path (which is between A2 and A1FI).  The WashPost omitted any mention of climate change in its sea level rise story, even though a key source talked about it with the reporter.

by Elliott Negin, Union of Concerned Scientists, in a HuffPost repost. [I add some comments of my own at the end — JR.]

The Washington Post flunked Climate Science Reporting 101 this week, fumbling an opportunity to remind its readers about the threat global warming poses right here, right now.

On Monday, the day the latest round of annual U.N. climate negotiations opened in Durban, South Africa, the paper ran a scene-setter in its front section headlined “Global pact gives way to local action.” It pointed out that countries, states, provinces and municipalities are initiating their own policies to cut carbon emissions in the absence of a universal binding agreement. That story was not the problem.

The second story, which was plastered on the paper’s front page, is where the Post fell down on the job.

In Chincoteague, a stampede against beach changes” reported on a dispute between the federal government and town leaders in a small Virginia coastal resort town best known for its wild ponies. The town’s 4,300 year-round residents survive on tourism — some 14,000 vacationers visit daily every summer, according to the state transportation department. But its beach — a part of the Assateague Island National Seashore and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge — is threatened by sea-level rise.

Without getting bogged down in the details, suffice it to say that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that manages national refuges, recently proposed a new, 15-year plan to safeguard the more than 300 species of birds and other wildlife at Chincoteague. One of the options would move the public beach about a mile north where it would be less vulnerable to sea-level rise, build remote parking lots in a more stable area, and shuttle beachgoers in buses. The town mayor and many residents oppose the plan, fearing the proposed changes would turn off tourists.

The Post story included the what, who, where and how of basic journalism. What was missing was the why. Why is sea level rising and eroding the beach in Chincoteague?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over the last century, sea level rose 5 to 6 inches higher along the Mid-Atlantic than the global average because coastal land there is sinking. But there is another key factor: Global warming.

“Higher temperatures are expected to further raise sea level by expanding ocean water, melting mountain glaciers and small ice caps, and causing portions of Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets to melt,” according to an EPA web feature “Coastal Zones and Sea Level Rise.” “The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the global average sea level will rise between 0.6 and 2 feet (0.18 to 0.59 meters) in the next century.”

The story never mentioned the connection.

I called Louis Hinds, Fish and Wildlife’s Chincoteague refuge manager, who was quoted in the piece. “I talked about climate change in my interview with the Post,” he said. “I use ‘climate change’ and ‘sea-level rise’ interchangeably.” Hinds also was quick to point out that the climate issues that plague Chincoteague aren’t unique. His agency has compiled examples from all 50 states of how global warming is imperiling wildlife.

Why is it such a big deal that the Post story failed to mention climate change?

Because public officials in Chincoteague and Richmond continue to deny it is happening — and aren’t doing anything about it.

Hinds has to deal with that fact in his job. “I’ve been the refuge manager here for four years, and when I got here, no one was discussing the climate change problem,” he said. “Some members of the community do not accept the reality of climate change, but they face its consequences every day.”

Meanwhile, the McDonnell administration’s attitude has ranged from skepticism to outright hostility.

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s bad cop is Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who for the last year and a half has been harassing former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann, accusing him of fraud. My group, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), organized a letter signed by 800 Virginia scientists and academic leaders condemning Cuccinelli’s baseless investigation and filed amicus briefs supporting UVA. (See UCS’s June briefing paper, “Science Under Attack.”) Cuccinelli yesterday confirmed that he will run for governor in 2013.

McDonnell’s slightly nicer cop is Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Doug Domenech, who encapsulated the administration’s position at a June 28 press briefing. That’s when he announced that the governor had declined to revive a climate-change commission convened by his predecessor, Gov. Tim Kaine, which had recommended dozens of ways the commonwealth could cut carbon emissions and adapt to changes that already are occurring, such as rising sea levels. The McDonnell administration has not acted on any of those recommendations, and Domenech, who worked under President George W. Bush’s notoriously anti-environmental Interior Secretary Gale Norton, joked that he couldn’t remember if he even saw the commission’s final report. “I’m sure there’s a copy around here somewhere,” he said.

Why the indifference? “The climate is changing, no doubt,” Domenech said, “but it’s always changing… Humans might be part of the cause, but too often in the debate it’s missed that the Earth has been warmer in the past and it has been a lot cooler in the past… So I would say the science is mixed on a lot of those things.”

Finally, Domenech told reporters “It’s a global issue, and it’s hard to say what changes we could make that would make that much of a difference.”

In fact, there a number of things Virginia could do to make a difference, just like the cities, states and countries mentioned in the story the Post ran last Monday on the U.N. climate talks in Durban. For one, its legislature could establish a renewable electricity standard similar to what 29 states and the District of Columbia now have in place. Those standards require local utilities to generate from 10 percent to 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar by a specific year. Virginia currently has an unenforced voluntary standard of 15 percent. Virginia also could initiate aggressive efficiency programs that would cut residential and industrial energy use, as well as preparedness programs, such as coastline management plans, to help communities adapt to climate change.

That brings us back to the Post’s Chincoteague story and its glaring omission. To be fair, the paper ran a story in June about sea-level rise at Virginia Beach that stated in the second paragraph that the culprits are climate change and the fact that the area is sinking. So it’s not as if the Post doesn’t get it. But given the cavalier attitude the McDonnell administration has about this critical issue, it is incumbent upon the news media to continually remind Richmond that climate change is a serious threat and that it has a responsibility to address it.

As Louis Hinds, the Chincoteague refuge manager, said to me the other day, “The fact that some members of the community do not believe that sea-level rise or climate change are happening doesn’t mean that I can choose to ignore the science.” That goes for the news media, too.

— Elliott Negin is the director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.

JR:  One wonders what the residents would think if someone actually told them what the latest science said.  The original article notes:

More than 100 yards of shoreline has been lost to the Atlantic Ocean since the mid-1960s, said Louis Hinds, the refuge manager. A federal visitors center has been moved twice from rising waters. And if cars didn’t occupy the 8.5-acre parking lot, piping plovers, an endangered shorebird the refuge protects, would nest there.

The changes facing Chincoteague are coming to coastal communities across the nation. In Hampton Roads, planning commissions are preparing for the day, 30 to 50 years from now, when sea-level rise reshapes the coast, and a few landowners are resisting.

At the core of the debate in Chincoteague are questions of fairness.

Should the federal government close a beach it established and helped popularize? Over a half-
century, it shored up Chinco­teague’s way of life, spawning dozens of hotels and hundreds of rental houses, restaurants and shops.

If I’d known this was a possibility . . . we wouldn’t have quit our jobs and opened a store,” said Jonathan Richstein, who bought Sundial Books on Main Street in 2007 with his wife, Jane.

Even back in 2007, it was clear that Chincoteague was unlikely to survive the inevitable triage that is coming from our refusal to take any serious action on greenhouse gas emissions.  I’ve visited Chincoteague many times, particularly for the oysters.  It is very flat.  Here is “Debris on Beach Road at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia after Hurricane Irene.”

Debris on beach road at Chincoteague NWR

Now it seems increasingly likely to be unsavable by mid-century (see “JPL bombshell: Polar ice sheet mass loss is speeding up, on pace for 1 foot sea level rise by 2050“), particularly  if it were to be hit by a major hurricane in, say, a couple of decades.

Proposed plans for the future of Chincoteague’s beach.

25 Responses to Washington Post Edits Out Climate Change from Its Sea-Level Rise Story

  1. Joe, it is worth pointing out that Negin’s reference to the 7-17 inch sea level projection (18-59 cm) in the 2007 IPCC report, overlooked the fact that those projections generally excluded future big increases in melting of Greenland and Antarctica — as the IPCC itself noted just above and below the table with those figures. It really is important that readers understand just how conservative these figures are likely to be for SLR. Hopefully it will just be a couple of more years when there is sufficient published peer reviewed data, to correct this big omission.

  2. Nichol says:

    Should not the word “conservative” mean something like “on the safe side”? It seems the the so-called conservatives are not in general being very conservative, on sea level rise.

  3. Peter Mizla says:

    he WAPO has done a dreadful job reporting global warming over the years- there has been some slight improvemen­t of late- and I use must emphasize the word ‘slight improvemen­t’.

    The NYT is far worse. Sea level rise will have profound meaning to coastal MD, the Chesapeake bay, the river estuaries.

    A rise of 1 foot by 2040 is highly possible- perhaps more. What this will do to Washington is allow the Potomac to flood more often with the increasing possibilit­y of record storms.

    A 2 foot rise by 2050 is possible – making Washington­, built on a floodplain and swamp vulnerable to flooding. Waves lapping at the Jefferson Memorial will be no joke. Nor will water encroachin­g on the WH be a laughing matter.

  4. John Tucker says:

    I think a big omission is that I don’t see any actual numbers for territory ceded to sea rise for the US.

    In the terror war – which we have dumped trillions into, there was never any question of the US ceding territory.

    I know a lot lost so far, like in the story is due to storms and erosion but I am wondering about a base elevation estimate.

    How much area, best estimate – even though we know its uneven, will the US lose with the low end, one foot increase?

  5. John Tucker says:

    An EPA Report to Congress estimated that a two foot rise in sea level could eliminate 17-43 percent of U.S. wetlands, with more than half the loss taking place in Louisiana (EPA, 1989).

    Nationwide, about 5000 square miles of dry land are within two feet of high tide. Although the majority of this land is currently undeveloped, many coastal counties are growing rapidly. Land within a few feet above the tides could be inundated by rising sea level, unless additional dikes and bulkheads are constructed. A two foot rise in sea level would eliminate approximately 10,000 square miles of land (PDF) (26 pp, 267K) including current wetlands and newly inundated dry land, an area equal to the combined size of Massachusetts and Delaware (EPA, 1989).

    ( )

    I need to read the report – but lowest possible loss so far is about 5000sq miles – so about 10 entire New York City’s minimum just by 2050??

  6. Tim says:

    You cite the “terror war” as if our unwillingness to “cede territory” (not our territory, mind you) was inconsistent with our [in]actions on climate change.

    Of course, they are completely consistent. We wouldn’t cede middle eastern territory to “terrists” because that would compromise the interests of oil companies. We will cede territory to the oceans because otherwise we would have to compromise the interests of oil companies. See – it all makes sense!

  7. John Tucker says:

    Ill get that down to a better guesstimate and range – Im including wetland loss as “land” there.

  8. John Tucker says:

    The sad thing is that EPA report was written specifically to cover costs in 1986 dollars of mitigation. How do you put fill in a wetland? The Numbers are dependable on rates of course – as reducing them would give normal accretion of shoreline a chance to catch up. Increasing rates likewise would accelerate loss beyond a normal proportionality.

    “For a 1- meter sea level rise, 6,000 to 8,600 square miles (depending on which policy is implemented) of U.S.
    wetlands would be lost; 90 to 95% of this area would be in the Southeast, and 40 to 50% would be in Louisiana alone. ”


    a 1-meter rise would inundate 7,700 square miles of dryland, an area the size of Massachusetts. Rises of 50 and 200 centimeters would result in losses of 5,000 and 12,000 square miles, respectively. ( )

    Again, and more importantly, slowing down sea level rise would make a HUGE difference when you consider normal accretion in wetlands.

  9. John Tucker says:

    So not only does slowing the rate of warming increase the likelihood of species adaption, and the success of mitigation efforts, but it also decreases the rate of the physical loss of wetlands.

    So as an aside thats yet another nail in the coffin of the “We cant do anything about it” and the “small reductions in emissions wont matter” arguments.

  10. Ron Broberg says:

    These may be of interest

    Rising-v-Falling Sea Level Trends (30yr)

    Rising-v-Falling Sea Level Trends (17yr)

  11. It’s all because Washington DC itself is only a few feet above sea level.

    This is whistling in the dark. And they know it.

  12. For those who want to see the latest estimates, go to Vermeer, Martin, and Stefan Rahmstorf. 2009. “Global sea level linked to global temperature.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. December 7, 2009. []

    That source shows that temperatures like those likely in the MIT’s no-policy case from 2009 (which Joe has reported on, totaling 5 degrees C by 2100) would result in a 1.4 meter (4.6 feet) rise in sea level by 2100. That shows just how far off the 2007 IPCC estimates really are.

    I would also recommend this 2011 article: Rignot, E., I. Velicogna, M. R. van den Broeke, A. Monaghan, and J. T. M. Lenaerts. 2011. “Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise.” Geophysical Research Letters. vol. 38, no. L05503. March 4.

    The 2009 MIT study that shows the no policy case is this one: Sokolov, A.P., P.H. Stone, C.E. Forest, R. Prinn, M.C. Sarofim, M. Webster, S. Paltsev, C.A. Schlosser, D. Kicklighter, S. Dutkiewicz, J. Reilly, C. Wang, B. Felzer, J. Melillo, and H.D. Jacoby. 2009. Probabilistic Forecast for 21st Century Climate Based on Uncertainties in Emissions (without Policy) and Climate Parameters. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Climate Change. 169. January. []

  13. Brooks Bridges says:

    When Isabel (2003 ?) hit Dorchester County, MD (across Delmarva peninsula from Chincoteague) the 5 foot storm surge put 40% of the county under water.

    How do you spell vulnerable?

  14. Charles Zeller says:

    Rice University professor, John Anderson, is retracting his scientific report about various environmental challenges, including sea level rise, facing Galveston Bay. His scientific opinion was commissioned by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The TCEQ deleted references linking sea level rise to global warming.

    “It’s one thing to have an administration with its head in the sand. It’s altogether another thing to have an administration that tries to put all our heads in the sand.”, John Anderson.

    This is his edited word document with change tracking enabled.

  15. Slightly OT. I highly recommend the front page article of the National Journal just out: “Heads in the Sand” at

    They tried to interview every federal GOP Senator and congressman about climate change. Ha ha. The very few who would talk were mostly the loonie toons. Still there were a few good insights and the one by Lugar related to just this subject:

    “In terms of public policy, we’ll have to deal with more violent storms in the planning of governance for cities that abut rivers and oceans. Whether you buy climate change or not, as a public servant you had better be prepared for many more climate disasters.

    Climate as a GOP wedge issue that Joe talked about the other day is seen clearly in this NJ article.

  16. The combo of BEST study, IEA “catastrophe”, UN IPCC Extreme Weather report and the weather freak out the last couple years is creating havoc for the GOP.

    They have deep branded themselves as unmovable deniers and the world’s biggest impediment to climate action.


    It is going be very ugly for them now. If they manage to escape voter wrath for what they have done in the last couple decades to our climate future I’ll be very impressed. Panic is definitely setting in in the reality-based side of the GOP already.

  17. To borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Kolbert: “It may seem unimaginable that a modern political party would in essence choose to destroy itself…but that is exactly what they are doing.”

  18. Lou Grinzo says:

    I fully expect them to escape from this situation. Here’s why:

    1. The timing gives them a lot of wiggle room in the eyes of non-experts, like the average voter. The GOP can wait probably another 2 to 4 presidential cycles (for non-US readers, that’s 8 to 16 years) before flipping their position on climate, and even then they will, with a straight face, claim that their delay in accepting the science was 100% the fault of those dastardly scientists who engaged in one scandalous action after another and (here’s the punchline) “never made a compelling case that there was a problem”.

    2. Of course, anyone who has paid attention since James Hansen’s famous 1988 testimony knows this “they didn’t tell us” line is a load of low-grade balloon juice, but the vast majority of voters aren’t paying attention. Plus, the hard core GOP base will believe ANYTHING the party tells them. Just look at the traveling sideshow of Republicans running for president right now, and how many of them draw big crowds of fervent supporters. (Plus Palin, who isn’t a candidate.)

    3. And there is precedent for the public at large quickly forgetting huge “errors” in judgment; how much fallout was there over the Y2k doomers who scared people spitless, and then simply blended into the crowd? (To be clear: The Y2k error was not in assessing the basic technical problem, which really was a huge threat, but in vastly underestimating our ability to deal with it.) After Y2k, life simply went on; once things hit the fan with climate we’ll be too busy arguing over how to protect coastal cities, deal with reduced water and food supplies, etc. to figure out who was responsible.

    Is any of this in any sense of the word “fair”? Of course not. But that’s how I strongly suspect it will play out.

  19. Orkneygal says:

    Cross posting…

    Sadly, Elliot Negin has missed the chance to present some real science about sea level change with this blog posting.

    Instead we get hand waving and antecdotal claims, with no mention of natural erosion due to sea wave aciton or the possiblity of subsidence on what is basically a sandy island exposed directly to the force of the Atlantic. Nor is there any mention that the National Park was established after the local community went underwater from storm and tidal surge in a 1964 Hurricane.

    Below is a the recent data for sea level rise at a nearby station.

    Longitude 283
    Latitude 37

    From the graph, the most casual observer can see that the current sea level at this station is lower than the peak reached in 2008 and virtually the same as it was during periods as long ago as 1995.

    Real data from the real world says Mr Negin does not do his research before typing his alarming claims.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    These days ‘conservative’ means many things-reactionary, atavistic, misanthropic, ignorant, belligerent etc, and in this case it clearly means, I would say, intentionally misleading, the intention being to placate powerful political and business interests, who can make your life Hell if you piss them off by threatening their money interest.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Excellent exposition, Lou. If lying, bare-faced hypocrisy and cynical re-writing of history (all aided and abetted by their allies in the Rightwing MSM) don’t get them off the hook then I’ll be very surprised. After all, what would we do with them? Make them face trial for the most destructive crimes against humanity in history? Now there is an idea worth contemplating. I’m really rather tired of Rightwing scumballs simply getting way with it, over and over again.

  22. SecularAnimist says:

    Orkneygal wrote: “Elliot Negin has missed the chance to present some real science”

    Whereas Orkneygal never misses a chance to attack climate scientists or journalists who inform the public about the danger of anthropogenic climate change.

    Readers of this blog should know that this commenter, “Orkneygal”, has a long track record on other blogs of posting slanderous, defamatory, vicious hate speech against climate scientists, calling them “vermin” and “enemies of humanity”, accusing them of being an organized crime gang like “the Yakuza”, and asserting that the climate change “hoax” is part of the United Nations’ secret plan to “destroy the world economy”.

    Those are verbatim quotes from her posts. This is language that is virtually indistinguishable from the violence-inciting hate speech used by 1930s brownshirts against “Jews”. And indeed, Orkneygal has to date refused to condemn even the recent campaign of death threats against climate scientists in Australia and New Zealand, despite being repeatedly asked to do so.

    Her distortions, distractions, irrelevancies and outright lies about climate science, and her repetition of content-free slogans like “Alarmism!” are unremarkable, just the standard “Gish Gallop” of a run-of-the-mill denier. But her virulent hate speech against climate scientists is beyond the pale and utterly unacceptable.

    Apparently this is all fun and games to Orkneygal. In her posts, she treats the climate change debate as some kind of Trekkie role-playing game, in which she “goes forth” to “battle” the “Rommulans”.

    And why? By her own account, to be “popular”.

  23. Anna Haynes says:

    WaPo is a member of the ReportAnError Alliance –

  24. Anna Haynes says:

    …but they don’t seem to have a “Report an error” button or link; not sure how you’re supposed to do it; is one option (or enter it at

  25. JimV says:

    I think you need to understand a bit about coastal geomorphology to really appreciate the dynamics of the coastline here. It is not really possible to employ a simple calculus based on (Mean Height above Sea Level) + (Projected Sea Level Rise) = (Area of Land Loss). Looking at the east coast of the US, one is struck by how much of the coastline is shaped by factors such as sediment supply and movement, wave energy, wave direction etc. Certainly sea level change and rate of change plays an important role. However, it would be difficult to really describe the coastline here as “stable”, ie, expected to persist in its present shape over a long timescale, climate change or not. The coastline here will erode and prograde (ie build up) in different areas depending on human use and natural changes. Of course, somebody building property on a beach which they expect to be permanent will be upset if/when coastal erosion decides to reclaim that land. Coastal change is a natural phenomenon, and managing those changes can be very challenging, especially in areas where sea level is changing, or where coastlines are low lying and maintained in equilibrium by the above factors.