Separation Anxiety… the Antarctic Way

Did the media “hype” the latest ice shelf crumble?

All environmental reporters should sign up to receive the regular blog posts sent out by Marc Morano, the chief communications officer for James Inhofe, the minority leader on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

Morano’s boss achieved substantial notoriety-or fame, depending on your point of view-in 2003 when he called climate change the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Morano’s posts (available on Inhofe’s EPW Press Blog) still reflect that opinion, despite the overwhelming body of science to the contrary, but they remain useful. As a media critic, in particular, I’ve always appreciated (though rarely agreed with) his particular fondness for analyzing (actually, usually lambasting) the press.

So I took notice two weeks ago when I spotted a post from Morano with the headline, “Is the Media’s Environmental Reporting Improving?” The “evidence” for this seeming rapprochement comprised two acts of journalism - an article in USA Today questioning the proposal to include polar bears on the Endangered Species Act, and an editorial in the Los Angeles Times questioning the wisdom of a cap-and-trade emissions reduction scheme in California. The former was, indeed, a very critical piece of reportage about bear protection. But a close reader might point out that the latter editorial actually advocated carbon taxes in place of cap-and-trade (and give Morano points for trying).

Regardless, any warming from Morano toward the media has been replaced with his usual chill. This morning I received another post from his office with the headline, “Media Hype on ‘Melting’ Arctic Ignores Record Growth.” Morano was, of course, referring to the recent collapse of a 160-square-mile piece of the large Wilkins ice shelf in Western Antarctica, on the opposite side of the peninsula from where part of the Larsen ice shelf famously broke apart in 2002. As usual, Morano’s argument is not entirely wrong, but rests on cherry picking the slimmest, most sensational phrases from the coverage. And that’s exactly why I recommend signing up for his emails - environment reporters should be constantly thinking about issues of accuracy and description, and Morano’s tips, for all their bias, often provide a trailhead for such exploration.

This morning, Morano identified a few examples of poor headline writing. A blog entry from Salon asked, “Bye-bye Antarctica?” Yes, that topline ignores that ice is actually growing in parts of Eastern Antarctica that are cooling. But, to be fair, the author of the post, Andrew Leonard, made a point to compare information from the skeptical Greenie Watch and non-skeptical Leonard suspects the skeptics from the outset, and ultimately sides with those worried about global warming, but one should not shake a finger at his intellectually honest writing. Morano cites other articles by Reuters and The Sydney Morning Herald - both of which exhibited perfectly legitimate headlines and supporting text. But he saves his most vituperative thoughts for the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein, accusing him of having a history of “hyped alarm.” It’s hard to see, however, what Morano finds so disagreeable.

Borenstein’s story carried one of the most accurate, straightforward, headlines out there - “Western Antarctic Ice Chunk Collapses.” Other headlines seemed to suggest that the whole ice shelf had fallen, rather than a just a portion. As to Morano’s argument that the media “ignored” some ice growth on the austral continent… well, here’s what Borenstein had: “Much of the continent is not warming and some parts are even cooling … However, the western peninsula, which includes the Wilkins ice shelf, juts out into the ocean and is warming. This is the part of the continent where scientists are most concern about ice-melt triggering sea level rise.”

The most “hyped” (to use Morano’s word) phrase of the whole affair seemed to be quote from a scientist at the British Antarctic Survey (which did onsite aerial reconnaissance of the break-up) who said that that remaining 5,000-square-miles of the Wilkins ice shelf (fully ninety-six percent of the total area) is “hanging by a thread.” That made it into the Sydney Morning Herald headline that Morano cited, and it is certainly true for the time being, but it is also possible (and many scientists and reporters noted this) the coming winter in the Southern Hemisphere will boost longevity. Whatever the case may be, describing all this coverage as “hype” is a definite stretch.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. See, for example, the only two major newspaper editorials that addressed the collapse. The New York Times had this:

Nothing dramatizes the urgency of global warming quite like a fracture of this scale. There is nothing to be done about a collapsing polar ice sheet except to witness it. It may be too late to stop the warming decay at the boundaries of Antarctic ice, yet there is everything to be done. Humans can radically change the way they live and do business, knowing that it is the one chance to find a possible limit to radical change in the natural world around us.

The Times in London had this:

The disintegration of a large section of the Wilkins ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula does not in itself presage major global sea level rises, still less the end of life as we know it. But there is no longer any reasonable doubt that climate change is the cause; that it would take centuries of lower temperatures for these ice shelves to re-form; and that if they do not, the great ice sheets of the Antarctic interior will be the next to melt.

Hype? I think not. But thanks anyways to Morano for provoking the mental gymnastics.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.