[Hello, all. As my signature suggests, my name is Brian and I'll be an occasional contributor to NPR Check, writing once or twice a week primarily on the issues of national politics and environmental policy. I've spent the past 10 years or so working in public policy and politics, and of course listening to way, way too much NPR.]
Although one reader (biggerbox) already beat me to the punch in a comment, this morning's ME article about Antarctic sea ice deserves note. Actually, Richard Harris' explanation of the Nature article and the underlying science was fine: researchers have determined that the West Antarctic ice sheet has repeatedly deteriorated over the past few million years, and is likely to do so again if the surrounding ocean temperature increases by 5C. This finding made the climate researchers "nervous," since such a scenario would probably involve sea level rises of 15 to 20 feet.
However, the article placed a bizarre emphasis on the relatively long time it takes such large masses of ice to melt. Harris noted that the researcher "figures that will take at least 1,000 years, and more likely 2,000 to 3,000 years, " and Renee Montagne introduced the piece by saying, "maybe this will make you feel a bit better, we will all be long, long gone before it could happen." No reason to worry, right?
I can't help but feel that they got the focus a little backwards. For example, Harris notes that "while the full effect may not unfold for thousands of years, it would transform the planet into a place we would not recognize today." However, Antarctic ice sheets are already melting rapidly--losing as much as 36 cubic miles of ice per year. Also, although NPR didn't report it, the same climate scientist noted elsewhere that the 5C tipping point was a "rough number," and that "It could be 3C or it could be 6C." Considering that the scientific consensus is that the earth has already been committed to more than 2C of warming by the end of this century, the possibility of reaching 3C, or even 5C, seems far too likely.
It might have been more appropriate to emphasize that the planet is already changing so dramatically that we are now forced to consider the very real possibility that a 527,000 cubic-mile chuck of ice could melt away entirely, whether or not we are alive to see it. Thankfully, the article ends with a glaciologist calling for efforts to curb global warming, but the point is not well connected to the main body of the article, and it would be hard for a listener not to mistakenly take away the implication that the worst impacts of climate change are a thousand years away.