Pulitzer Center Update

‘Losing Earth’ Sparks Broad Debate—on Climate Change, Blame, and Gender

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In March, Geophysical Research Letters reported that the western part of Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at its fastest rate in at least 450 years. Some scientists believe that the Arctic hasn’t seen ice melt like this in 5,000 years. If the ice sheet melts entirely, sea levels would rise 20 feet, leaving Lower Manhattan underwater. Jason Gulley, a geologist, and Celia Trunz, a Ph.D. student in geology, have been conducting meltwater research by releasing a fluorescent red dye to determine how and why more rivers form on the surface of the ice sheet and what will happen as a result of these new and turbulent flows. So far, they have found that the rivers lubricate the ice slab, making the sheets move faster toward the coasts, which could cause even more icebergs to calve into the ocean. Image by George Steinmetz. Greenland, 2017.

In March, Geophysical Research Letters reported that the western part of Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at its fastest rate in at least 450 years. Some scientists believe that the Arctic hasn’t seen ice melt like this in 5,000 years. If the ice sheet melts entirely, sea levels would rise 20 feet, leaving Lower Manhattan underwater. Jason Gulley, a geologist, and Celia Trunz, a Ph.D. student in geology, have been conducting meltwater research by releasing a fluorescent red dye to determine how and why more rivers form on the surface of the ice sheet and what will happen as a result of these new and turbulent flows. So far, they have found that the rivers lubricate the ice slab, making the sheets move faster toward the coasts, which could cause even more icebergs to calve into the ocean. Image by George Steinmetz. Greenland, 2017.

Comments and responses to “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” have been pouring in online. Many readers offered their appreciation, reflections, and assessments of Nathaniel Rich’s work in the comment section of the article while others took to Twitter and Facebook to express their opinions.

In the first two days after the story went live online over 800 people left their thoughts in The New York Times Magazine comment section. Many were deeply moved and impressed by what they viewed. One reader stated that “The New York Times is to be thanked for analyses like ‘Losing Earth’” and another praised the “extraordinary reportage by Nathaniel Rich, and earth-shattering photography by George Steinmetz.” Others expressed their sadness and heartbreak about the United States’ inability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the readers also implored the media to highlight climate change regularly, wishing that publications “place a story about climate change on the front page every single day” like The New York Times did this week.

Environmental journalists Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic, Rebecca Leber of Mother Jones, and Emily Atkins of The New Republic offered nuanced critiques of Nathaniel Rich’s article. In the article, Rich delves into the history of climate change policy, examining the role of scientists, activists, industry, and United States government officials from 1979 to 1989. While Meyer, Leber, and Atkins praised the content of the story, all three argue that Rich should have included more coverage of the fossil fuel industry’s role in undermining climate science and the Republican Party’s role in promoting climate change skepticism in the halls of power and among the public. They agree that the oil and gas industry and the G.O.P are not the only people to blame for the failure to enact climate change policy but that they were major contributors to the opposition movement. According to these critiques, Rich should have emphasized that the fossil fuel industry and Republicans shoulder much of the blame for the United States’ inaction.

Rich directly addressed this criticism in interviews with WNYC’s The Takeaway and Democracy Now!. He notes that he writes about the research on greenhouse gas effects that ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute conducted and industry awareness of the problem more generally in “Losing Earth.” He argues that there is a difference between the actions that the fossil fuel industry took before 1988 and its actions after that year. Before, oil and gas companies and lobbying groups had been on the defensive. It is only after the introduction of emission bills and international treaties in the late 1980s and early 1990s that they go on the offensive. That is when the organized disinformation campaigns began in earnest, Rich says. He also stated on The Takeaway that he “think[s] they will be remembered in history as perpetrating crimes against humanity, [with] some of these disinformation efforts.”

Climate researcher Diana Liverman and photojournalist Sarabeth Brockley raise another critique: the lack of women and people of color in Rich’s narrative. Both science and activism are rarely conducted alone and many people contributed to our understanding of climate change and the fight to enact policy. Scientist Inez Fung worked with James Hansen, including co-authoring the paper that formed the basis of his 1988 testimony. The lack of women and people of color named or quoted in “Losing Earth,” this criticism suggests, may leave readers with the impression that the movement to reduce carbon emissions in the 1980s was led exclusively by white men.

Several environmental groups and activists including 350, Harriet Shugarman, and Jeffrey Gracer used the publication of the article to remind people that the fight to combat climate change continues and that, despite the article's title, Earth has not been lost yet.

If you want to join in the discussion about “Losing Earth,” you can read it and comment online using #LosingEarth. You can also learn more about how climate change is currently impacting people and ecosystems across the world by exploring climate change reporting by Pulitzer Center grantees. The Pulitzer Center supported this project in the hope that it would spark a broad debate. We are so pleased to see that debate unfolding—and encourage people everywhere to join in. If you’re educators we hope that you’ll make use of our free online curricular material to bring this urgent issue into your classrooms.