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A Tale of Two Articles

November 12th, 2012 · No Comments

Two recent major Washington Post articles about urban planning and preparing for ‘Sandy-like’ events provided radically different views of the 21st century.
While both 4 November’s “In a perfect storm” (Metro front page) and 5 November’s “In coast communities” (front page) highlighted the challenges for urban planners and politicians in expending (quite significant) resources to reduce the impact of uncertain future extreme weather events, the articles stand in stark contrast for one simple reason:
  • Readers of “in a perfect storm” received no indication that climate change is heightening the likelihood of Sandy-like events. On the other hand,
  • The authors of “in coastal communities” deftly discussed the difficulties (scientific and political) of including climate change science in the planning process for coastal infrastructure protection decisions.
In the Sunday, 4 November, issue, the Post explored the question: “would we have faired better” if Sandy hit DC?  Readers learned that “in 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that “the Washington Metropolitan area is vulnerable to sever damages from hurricanes” yet didn’t hear that scientific study after scientific report has found that the MidAtlantic states (hint, that includes the DC Metropolitan area) are at increased risk from severe weather events due — for example — to increasing severity of storm events (due to increased ocean heat, increased moisture in the atmosphere), land subsidence (especially, for example, in the Norfolk, Virginia, area), and increasing ocean levels fostering greater vulnerability to storm surges amid those events.
Monday, 5 November,  Post readers learned about differing approaches to coastal protection, from building Dutch-like storm barriers to protecting marshes to “provide barriers against storming waters”.  They also learned that sea-level rise is worsening the risks and that “partisan differences over the environment” are creating planning challenges.  And, they hear from scientists, such as Professor Michael Oppenheimer,
We can build seawalls, we can raise highways, but it’s a losing proposition if you don’t stop sea-level rise.
On 4 November, in the Sunday edition, Post readers didn’t see a word about that “sea-level rise”.
Sunday’s silence on climate impact on storm risks was a disservice to Post readers even as Monday’s discussion was artfully handled and a valuable contribution to public discourse.
The above is, with minimal change, an unpublished letter to the Washington Post editors.  About the above, I had an interesting exchange with Post transportation reporter Ashley Halsey.  From her,
As you correctly discerned, the Sunday story’s intent was to focus on what might have happened had Sandy struck here, and what might happen were a stronger storm to come this way in the future. It addressed the question of whether or not this region was prepared to handle such a storm.
The intent of the second piece was to focus on that larger, nationwide and worldwide, issue of climate change, its implications to weather systems and what, if anything, could be done to address the consequences.
That dichotomy of intent was not to minimize the significance of rising sea levels.
That is why we made the judgment that the global warming issue could and should best be addressed in a separate story, with that as its focus, rather than combining it with a piece on local storm preparedness.
According to Halsey, these two articles were actually seen as running in the same issue — as complementary pieces — but were run on different days (in different sections) likely due to election coverage demanding column inches.
While I always appreciate substantive engagement with journalists, this explanation fell short.  My response:
Thank you for your response.
Evidently, I failed to communicate clearly enough.   I did not see these articles as duplicative (in anyway) but quality pieces that reinforced and strengthened each other with, again, the major exception of the utter absence of climate change in Sunday’s article.
Despite your words, I see no legitimacy to have zero mention of climate change in the Sunday piece.  Relevant questions for Sunday’s piece include:
  • Has climate change made the DC area more vulnerable since the 1963 Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) study on hurricanes?
  • Will climate change increase risks?
  • Does climate change make it more costly/difficult to deal with these disasters in the future?
  • Are DC-area governments doing anything to incorporate climate change into their planning?
One cannot ‘segregate’ articles as if 100% of each articles readers will have the time and energy to read the other. Especially, since these were articles in two different sections, on two different days, and one was a Sunday piece and the other Monday.
I was simply going to write an angry letter to the editor, outraged, over the Sunday article until I saw an Eilperin tweet last night calling attention to the Monday article.   And, reading that article, I was struck by the strong contrast between the two articles’ portrayal of the 21st century.  Sunday’s world has no climate change discussion with what seems to be a static representation of the world while Monday’s provides indication of science realities and the political football that planners have in including reality in their work.
As per the above and my letter, I do not think that a correct decision was made in segregating climate change into ‘one piece’ as opposed to simply including climate science reality within both. Doing the second would have been a more truthful approach and would better served the Fourth Estate’s mission.  I regret your (the Post‘s) choice and hope that this is not the path followed into the future.
A Siegel

PS:  While there are a multitude of pieces out there, here are two high-quality pieces about climate change impacts on Sandy.  In part, these point to how climate change was relevant for Sunday because they provide a window on the difference of 1963 impact and today from a “Sandy-like’ event:

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Tags: climate change · Global Warming · journalism · unpublished letters · Washington Post