In recent weeks, we’ve made a commitment as a newspaper to help our readers become more informed about the threat of climate change, and with it, sea level rise (see Greening Martha). Martha’s Vineyard is particularly vulnerable, and the time to begin planning was yesterday. There is a growing interest, with the Island Climate Action Network and the Climate Action Task Force, which was recently created by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Both organizations, some with the same members, are working to help the Island focus on the challenges and potential solutions. We appreciate the important work that’s being done, and can’t continue to let that be undermined by people alleging that climate change is a “hoax,” and that people basing their reactions on well-researched data collected by scientists are “climate alarmists.”
We’ve been disappointed by those who have ridiculed the action of children on the Island who have shown real leadership, like those involved with Plastic Free MV who helped initiate bylaws to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles on the Vineyard. The pushback against Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and her efforts to rally her generation has been unfortunate and, at times, cruel and disgusting.
So we’ve decided that we can no longer publish comments that have no basis in fact. We are no longer giving a voice to those who deny the science and visual evidence that backs up climate change science. We are exercising this new standard in our comments online, in our Letters to the Editor (though there are few climate deniers willing to put their names behind their words), and in our news stories.
We don’t take this decision lightly. We try to give great latitude to the people who comment on our website — we allow anonymous comments online, providing a voice for those who are worried that signing a Letter to the Editor to take a position might jeopardize a job or a relationship. We often are criticized for those comments. In the public’s eyes, our decision to moderate and hit “publish” is tantamount to agreeing with the content of what’s written by someone else. That’s hardly ever the case, but that’s the perception. We often don’t agree with the opinions expressed, but give them space anyway.
But opinions are different from facts. We can disagree with whether you believe it’s wise that Tisbury grant a permit to an affordable housing development on Beach Road, and we can air opposing views on how seriously boards should consider climate change when issuing permits. But we can’t publish untrue things. We can’t say that climate change does not exist, that the atmosphere is not warming, that sea levels have not risen, and that there is no dire threat to us. So we will no longer allow commenters to disregard data that shows the earth warming, and Dukes County, in particular, warming at a rate above 2°C, as a report in the Washington Post recently showed. We can’t and we won’t.
We’ve always had clearly stated standards for what we will or won’t allow in comments or letters. We don’t allow libelous or defamatory material; we ask people to be courteous (a tough one to police); we ask people to be respectful; and we encourage debate, but frown on personal attacks. We currently challenge comments that we know are untruthful, or we do not know to be facts — if, say, someone alleges that someone did something, or a certain policy exists at the high school. When we have questions about whether a comment has any basis in fact, we ask the commenter to justify it with a link to back up the assertions. If we haven’t reported on the fact and we can’t verify the truth of it, we don’t publish that comment. We’re extending this standard of proof to climate change.
We’re not the first to take the stand that it’s journalistically irresponsible to continue to allow comments we know to be false alongside credible, well-researched evidence to the contrary. To give them both the same weight is just wrong and misleading.
Here’s what the Conversation, an independent, nonprofit news site that originated in Australia and now has a U.S. presence, had to say about rejecting comments by climate deniers: “Imagine you discovered you had a serious illness, and went to a doctor who recommended an operation. Then you surveyed 10 of your friends about whether they thought you needed an operation. Then, rather than have the operation, you spent the next 10 years, in deteriorating health, every day hearing from your doctor the operation is needed, while a small subset of your mates comment on how the doctor is a nutjob.
“When we do this to experts of any sort, these uninformed comments undermine their authority. People are less inclined to believe experts when their views are presented alongside hostile opinions. But the two things are not the same; they are entirely different types of information, and they don’t deserve equal weight.
“The right approach, if you don’t believe your doctor, is to seek a second opinion from another medical expert. And maybe a third or a fourth. And then you make a decision on how to act, based on the evidence.”
Evidence is the key word. There is a mountain of evidence that climate change and, with it, sea level rise threatens this Island. To continue to allow comments to the contrary undermines and discredits the research done by scientists, and the efforts being made to heed that research.
Chilmark selectman Jim Malkin articulated it well at the board’s recent meeting where the town created its own climate change working group to collect data and recommend priorities for the town. Malkin’s position was clear. The discussion over what created climate change is moot. Instead, it’s time to accept the reality, and seek solutions. “There’s no question we’re facing sea level rise,” he said. “There’s no question we’re facing warming. What are we going to do about it?”
That’s the question we’re focused on, too. There’s no more denying it.
This feeling has been building for a while now, like the waves in a coastal storm. And now the feeling is strong, like that surf pounding against the dunes with a relentless fury — carving away at them and changing the landscape.
It’s an apt analogy for how we’re feeling about those who deny the climate change we are seeing around us.
We’re drawing a line in the sand — while there’s still sand to draw it in.