The Grey Lady's Green Guy

An interview with Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times environment writer.

| Wed Nov. 19, 2008 4:38 PM PST

Mother Jones: How does "whiplash coverage" of global warming damage people's understanding of the science?

Andrew C. Revkin: It's one of the many reasons this issue hasn't grabbed hold of people in a concrete way. The aspects of global warming that matter most to people—how rapidly will the seas rise? Are hurricanes already getting stronger? How strong will they get as a result of warming?—those are still immersed in complexity. So in those realms that catch people's attention most, or that get used as symbols by environmental campaigners, those facets really do come with significant back-and-forthing. Early stage science always has these disputes, and they're normal. You've heard a lot about the deniers and the professional campaign to muddy the waters and highlight uncertainty—that's another factor, but this is perhaps even more profound because it's deeper and not a function of some campaign. It's just reality. For the average person who's not attuned to the rhythms of science it just looks like one thing: "Oh, they're questioning aspects of global warming. I don't have to worry."

MJ: So what's the alternative?

ACR: The responsibility of the scientist or journalist is to convey the context. If you're talking about the Arctic Sea ice, you have to embrace the reality that there's a huge number of other things that influence that on a year-to-year basis. So, when I wrote a long story about the retreat of sea ice last year, I made clear it could go the other way for a while, and that doesn't mean we don't know that a warmer world will have less sea ice. It just means there's a lot of variability and people can pay too much attention to the big swings in one direction or the other.

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MJ: There was this Project for Excellence in Journalism finding that said the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have basically buried most environmental stories—climate change or otherwise.

ACR: I can tell you many reasons why environmental stories don't get adequate attention in conventional media. That's one reason I started Dot Earth. Basically, environmental risks don't fit the norms of journalism. They're incremental. We hate incremental. That word is death for a story at the New York Times. "Oh, isn't that story incremental?" In the newsroom discussion, that really is a guarantee your story is going to get buried or cut.

MJ: What exactly do you mean by incremental?

ACR: Well, "Didn't we already know the sea ice was retreating? Oh it's retreating more. Didn't we already cover global warming? Or population? So you say another African monkey is vanishing?" That aspect of it is very clear, and we demand a peg: Why now? Why are we writing about this now? And it's always things that happen today. I've written two book chapters on the media and the environment, both of which go into this. The things that happen today are an earthquake, another bomb in Iraq, some big jolt on Wall Street in oil prices, and then you have some new study on drought patterns from climate change. Or another little incremental improvement in photovoltaics. Where do those fit in to the daily stream? They don't. The same goes for other creeping issues. The daily loss of thousands of people from completely avoidable illness from drinking polluted or tainted water and breathing sooty air. These other things just don't fit in to our template of news. That's another reason I started Dot Earth.

MJ: What's the response been like?

ACR: When it started, it was nothing. Now it's getting viewed about a half million times a month. It's not like our health and wellness blogs, but definitely a significant audience. So, build it and they will come. And it really seems to work. There are some great websites out there that are really great, but they're more [about lifestyle]. I'm not trying to plow that terrain—what's the coolest new gadget for your electric lawnmower. I could have a bigger audience, I think, if I focused on lifestyle stuff, but I really am trying to stay rigorously to the fairly wonky question, but the one key question of our time, which is how we head toward 9 billion people with the fewest regrets. That automatically is framed around energy, climate, biodiversity, equity.

MJ: You've been focusing on those issues for more than 20 years. With respect to the global warming stuff, how have people's reactions to your stories changed over the years?

ACR: The stories that have gotten the most action and the most play are on the politics, which frustrates me, but they're kind of necessary. When I exposed what the former oil lobbyist was doing in the White House, when I broke the story of what was going on with Jim Hansen and other scientists at NASA, those far and away were the most consequential if you measure influence by people leaving jobs and policies changing. It's almost unfortunate, because they're in the realm of politics that tends to be the most polarized aspect of this. Every time someone reads a story about the politics poisoning the global warming stuff it makes it feel like a political story, meaning it's Us and Them, instead of what it is: this profound challenge we face given our energy norms right now, the fuels of convenience toward something new. No matter what the politics are, it's still an enormous transformation that has to take place. So I'm a little frustrated with my own coverage sometimes.

MJ: The debate over whether climate change exists—is it really finally dead?

ACR: There are still people in this country and others who essentially live in intellectual silos and either read Mother Jones or watch Fox News, based on their worldview. And they pick information out that reinforces it rather than keeping an open mind. So, that's another reason I frame Dot Earth differently from most blogs. I'm trying mostly to ask questions. And not just trying to stake out a position on something, but also trying to define the stuff we agree on. I'm having battles with comment posters trying to insert a little sense of order so it's not just a long pissing match between the edges, which is, again, what I think a lot of the blogosphere is tending to do.

MJ: Wired's green issue said keep driving your SUV, use plastic bags, do whatever you need to do; what we need to stop global warming is large-scale policy change. So they set up a debate between the policy people and the conservation people. Is that something you see in the media a lot?

ACR: I think some of my coverage has reflected that conservation is only the first step. Energy efficiency can slow growth in emissions, but as you look at the global picture you're left with fewer options. We're left with rising carbon dioxide concentrations from here to eternity. It's one of the most inconvenient realities in this whole thing. There are others who would say this is still very much about personal lifestyle stuff, but it's pretty clear that just changing cars—if you think that gets you off the hook for also supporting an incredibly ambitious energy research initiative, then you're just fantasizing.

MJ: But it's not one or the other, is it?

ACR: Of course not. In fact, the positions that make the most sense are those who say, "Look, you need an accelerated shift away from the fuels of the last 200 years, basically everything we've built our modern economy on." It will not happen through incremental change. It requires the kind of initiatives, both socially, politically, and ecologically, we're not familiar with. The Manhattan Project model needs to be applied socially. You need to redo the tax code, the way Gore and some of the others have proposed to really propel things economically in a way that would be viable politically and effective. You also need, for sure, an energy quest from the socket in your house, to the laboratory, to the boardroom. Multigenerational, sustained, evolving relationship with energy. You do need both, in the end. And then when you bring in the developing-country side of things, you realize that's where the new technology options must come in. You simply will not have time for China to grow through the old 20th-century-style pollution bulge and come out more prosperous and able to deal with greenhouse gases. You can't have both sides, can't have that curve happen fast enough just through the normal, traditional process. And that means someone, probably today's rich countries, according to a heap of people I talk to on this, who have to then essentially find a way to help pay for the incremental costs.

MJ: Is there a green bubble right now?

ACR: You never know you're in a bubble until it pops. But Columbia Journalism Review recently did a piece examining how many green magazines and green special sections in newspapers have proliferated, including here at the New York Times. It sure looks, smells, and tastes like bubble. There, again, public attitudes will largely determine what happens. There is the question of, "Are words worthless in the climate fight?," which was the title of one of my blog posts early on. For the moment I'd say the answer is yes. Words may very well be worthless. I quoted Paul Hawken, who may very well be the ultimate green communicator, and said until there's some huge eruption from nature saying "You've really screwed up humanity, better really get busy," he doesn't even really think people will act meaningfully.

MJ: So what would it take? What kind of scale are we talking here?

ACR: Well, who knows. I wrote about the earthquakes in China. Oregon has 1,300 schools, with a quarter million students who are at equal risk of death and destruction that was seen in Sichuan Province, and this is one of the richest states, or at least parts of it. Because they haven't actually experienced the earthquake yet; they're still in slow mo when it comes to reinforcing schools that they know will fall down in the next earthquake. And they know the earthquake is coming. So what does it take? That's why I don't just focus on climate. I focus on this issue: why, even in a world with greatly advanced science and technology giving us ever-clearer senses of risks, we still don't act meaningfully to mitigate them. And climate is just the ultimate example of that. It's just the slowest time scale.

MJ: Have we passed the point of no return?

ACR: The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says that even if we had a freeze in emissions at 2000 levels, the climate will keep warming. Even if the entire developed world turned off every machine right now the growth in emissions from the developed world will keep emissions rising and concentrations rising for decades. There's already enough warming in the system and ocean heat content that they already expect another degree or so of warming. Even if we had complete global economic meltdown. So, we're in for a lot more warming. The question is: Is the world serious about limiting the pace and extent of that?

MJ: If we've passed the point of no return, what's the point of even trying?

ACR: There is that nihilistic approach, sure. The answer that's most convincing is that what we're talking about here is an energy revolution, not a climate revolution. The world needs, will need, at least double or maybe more than the current amount we get from fossil fuels in the next several decades if today's poor people and the 2 billion who are coming are to have a remote chance of a decent life. And because energy is everything. Energy is food, whether it's a tractor or growing something efficiently. Energy is water, because of desalinization or filtering. Energy is everything. A lot of people have been making this point for a long time and haven't really been heard adequately. I'm not talking about the green-jobs argument. I'm talking about the transition to leave a sustainable world with people living decent lives with populations stabilized, which will happen by one means or another, you have to have energy to have that happen. And once that happens—I talk to young people who ask what they can do. I just say "Geez, jump in." Whether you're a sociologist or an artist, an innovator, an engineer or a tinkerer, a communicator, if you can just shape your entire life around some facet of this transformation. And that to me is a really good story. That is the good news story. We're an amazingly adaptive and resilient species. Once we put our mind to that, I have no doubt we'll figure a way through here that won't lead to utter calamity.

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