How Not To Minimize Ecological Catastrophe: An open letter to the Washington Post

I woke up this morning to find this bit of calamitous news in my inbox:

The headline is appropriately alarming. I was alarmed.

Now, full disclosure, I was already firmly in the “alarmed” camp of Yale’s “Six Americas” in my understanding of climate change. (Which is, in large part, because I’m pretty well informed about this issue. I have worked in the field, read books and peer-reviewed articles, interviewed scientists, and attended professional conferences on the subject for the past seven years. I’ve also witnessed the changing climate around me.) I’d known for a while that the Larsen C ice shelf was on its way to collapsing. But — like the inevitable death of an ailing loved one — knowing it was coming and learning that it had come were two different things. The headline hit me like a punch to the gut.

So imagine my surprise to find, in the rather lengthy article below the headline, nothing alarming whatsoever. Instead, there was discussion of whether or not this new iceberg the size of Delaware might break into smaller pieces or just wander around the ocean in one big chunk, and some reassurances that — hey! — this might not even be because of climate change at all.

It seems the WaPo is interested only in grabbing readers — but not in educating them. Readers should know, however, that the loss of this ice shelf is very, very bad news indeed.

Dear Washington Post,

The author of this article has buried the most essential and vital information about this ecological catastrophe in the last two paragraphs, even there minimizing what could be an unprecedented — and ultimately preventable — calamity for global civilization:

Their fear, however, is that its loss could speed up the outward ice flow of the remainder of the Larsen C ice shelf, which would indeed increase sea level — but glaciers in this region only have the potential to raise seas by about a centimeter.
The greater fear is the loss of ice shelves, and glaciers, farther southward in Antarctica, where the sea level rise potential begins to be measured in feet.

Some of my fellow readers have aptly pointed out that the article dwells on simplistic and mostly irrelevant details. Others have chimed in with disturbingly snarky remarks about why “a few centimeters” of rise is even newsworthy. I would add that the article cherry picks its data in order to paint an inaccurately rosy picture. The Washington Post needs to do a lot better informing its readers about the real — and, let’s be honest, very scary — impacts of climate change.

Whether or not this particular, epic calving event is due to climate change, the fact is that the loss of Larsen C narrows the margin of survival for every coastal city worldwide — making the job of addressing the climate crisis more urgent than ever.

For a more complete picture of what losing Antarctic ice shelves actually means, see:

National Geographic gets the science — and the urgency — of Antarctica melting.


Vanessa Warheit