12/02/2011 01:51 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Washington Post Misses Link Between Sea-Level Rise and Climate Change

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.

Some commenters pointed out that there are a number of factors behind sea-level rise, including sinking coastal land, and that sea levels have gone up and down in different locations. That is true. There always will be regional variations. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, a collaboration of 13 federal department and agencies, provides a good, concise summary of the connection between global warming and sea-level rise on its website.

A few commenters also challenged the fact that climate change-induced sea-level rise threatens the beach at Chincoteague. For more information about how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife arrived at that conclusion, check out its explanation on its website, one of the 50 examples it provides on how climate change poses risks for wildlife in every state. - Elliott Negin.

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