Annenberg's 'Sink or Swim' exhibit misleads public about climate change facts

This page describes my reaction to the Sink or Swim exhibit that was on display Dec 13, 2014 to May 3, 2015 at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. The exhibit conveys the false impression that we can simply build our way out of climate change with resilience in architecture.

February 22, 2015 letter to Annenberg Foundation (adapted for hyperlinks)

Dear Annenberg Space for Photography curators,

I have thoroughly enjoyed many of your exhibits over the years and I commend you for generally excellent work. I was also pleased with the artistic aspects of your "Sink or Swim" exhibit, but I was very disappointed because three items in the exhibit are gravely misleading about the facts of climate change.

First, the introductory statements claim that "some scientists believe" that climate change is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. The reality is that over 97% of climate scientists, after careful analysis of the available data, agree that the primary cause of climate change is anthropogenic (see articles by Anderegg et al., 2010 and Cook et al., 2013). Your formulation perpetuates a serious disconnect between public perception and reality (see figure below by John Cook).

Second, the introductory statements also claim that "If the West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt entirely, sea levels could rise nearly 16 feet". While that statement is approximately correct, why remain silent on the rest of the Antarctic continent? The East Antarctic ice sheet is far more voluminous and would melt as well. The reality is that melting the Antarctic ice sheet would result in a sea level rise of about 200 feet, not 16 feet. (Quick facts about ice sheets from the National Snow & Ice Data Center)

Third, the entire documentary is based on the premise that humans are resilient and can adapt to climate change through ingenuity in architecture. While the Dutch have indeed been able to reclaim land that is about 3 feet below sea level, there are no physically realistic solutions for preserving large expanses of land that are 20 feet or 200 feet below sea level. The documentary never states how much land would have to be abandoned if we do not curb the combustion of fossil fuels. It promotes the deplorable fallacy that humans will be able to deal with climate change solely with architectural projects.

Please let me know if you plan to address these issues in your exhibit, and, if so, how.

Thank you,

Jean-Luc Margot
Dept. of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences
Dept. of Physics and Astronomy
University of California, Los Angeles
595 Charles Young Drive East
Los Angeles, CA 90095
(310) 206 8345

Response from Annenberg Foundation


Response from the Aquarium of the Pacific

The Sink or Swim exhibit traveled to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA (Jun 1, 2015 to Sep 15, 2015). President and CEO Jerry Schubel informed me that they had changed the statement "some scientists believe" to "nearly all climate scientists are convinced that the current warming trend is related to the burning of fossil fuels during the last two centuries". Congratulations to the Aquarium of the Pacific for their commitment to accurate reporting on this important issue!