The New York Times most apocalyptic environmental reporter Justin Gillis returned with another scary front-page story Wednesday. Last Christmas, Gillis penned a warning about Republicans imperiling climate research funding that environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr.called “perhaps the worst piece of reporting I’ve ever seen in the Times on climate change.”
His latest is even more urgent: “Sea Level Rise Seen as Threat to 3.7 Million.” The story is based on research from Climate Central, which employs Heidi Cullen as chief climatologist. Cullen is notorious for suggesting in 2007 that meteorologists who doubt global warming should have their credentials revoked.
Gillis showed no skepticism from the start:
About 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming, according to new research.
If the pace of the rise accelerates as much as expected, researchers found, coastal flooding at levels that were once exceedingly rare could become an every-few-years occurrence by the middle of this century.
By far the most vulnerable state is Florida, the new analysis found, with roughly half of the nation’s at-risk population living near the coast on the porous, low-lying limestone shelf that constitutes much of that state. But Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey are also particularly vulnerable, researchers found, and virtually the entire American coastline is at some degree of risk.
“Sea level rise is like an invisible tsunami, building force while we do almost nothing,” said Benjamin H. Strauss, an author, with other scientists, of two new papers outlining the research. “We have a closing window of time to prevent the worst by preparing for higher seas.”
The project on sea level rise led by Dr. Strauss for the nonprofit organization Climate Central appears to be the most elaborate effort in decades to estimate the proportion of the national population at risk from the rising sea. The papers are scheduled for publication on Wednesday by the journal Environmental Research Letters. The work is based on the 2010 census and on improved estimates, compiled by federal agencies, of the land elevation near coastlines and of tidal levels throughout the country.
The ocean has been rising slowly and relentlessly since the late 19th century, one of the hallmark indicators that the climate of the earth is changing. The average global rise has been about eight inches since 1880, but the local rise has been higher in some places where the land is also sinking, as in Louisiana and the Chesapeake Bay region.
The rise appears to have accelerated lately, to a rate of about a foot per century, and many scientists expect a further acceleration as the warming of the planet continues. One estimate that communities are starting to use for planning purposes suggests the ocean could rise a foot over the next 40 years, though that calculation is not universally accepted among climate scientists.
Gillis eventually found room for an opposing view in paragraph 12, but dismissed him as one of a “handful” of skeptics.
The handful of climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming do not deny that the ocean is rising. But they often assert that the rise is a result of natural climate variability, they dispute that the pace is likely to accelerate, and they say that society will be able to adjust to a continuing slow rise.
Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group, said that “as a society, we could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability.”
Gillis definitely has chosen a side in the battle over global warming. On March 6 he reviewed a book for the paper’s “Green” blog by global warming advocate Michael Mann, creator of the now-discredited “hockey stick” graph that purported to show a sharp spike in global temperatures over the last few decades. Gillis defended Mann and the hockey stick and questioned why skeptics targeted it so fiercely: “But many of the contrarians have been obsessed with the hockey stick for a decade, gnawing it over and over as a dog would a bone. They seem to think if they can disprove one small element of climate science, the whole edifice will collapse.Unfortunately for our future, the findings of modern climate science are a great deal more robust than that. They do not depend on the validity of the hockey stick, as Dr. Mann himself makes clear.”
Clay Waters is the director of Times Watch a project of the Media Research Center that keeps tabs on the liberal bias of the New York Times. He worked in the news division at MRC HQ from 1993-1998. After a stint as opinion editor at a financial news wire in Manhattan, he returned to the fold in 2003 to head up the new Times Watch project.