Thursday, October 30, 2008

Interview with Dot Earth blogger and New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin

Mother Jones magazine recently interviewed Andrew C. Revkin about reporting on the environment. Read text below:

INTERVIEW: New York Times environmental writer Andrew C. Revkin on Dot
Earth, intellectual silos, and why "incremental" stories die in the
Times newsroom.

Interview by: Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler is an associate editor at Mother Jones.

November/December 2008 Issue

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.

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,

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

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.

This Web exclusive was a supplement to the November/December 2008 print
issue of Mother Jones.

Kiera Butler is an associate editor at Mother Jones.

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