Former New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin discusses advocating for reality, slow-drip problems and a looming murk in the media's coverage of climate change with ecopolitology's Dave Levitan.
[Our ongoing series “Communicating Climate Change” with Dave Levitan will feature conversations with journalists and other communicators who face the challenge of writing on climate issues- Ed.]
Andrew Revkin recently left the staff of the New York Times, but while there he was the paper’s lead reporter on climate change and related issues, and he also wrote the popular Dot Earth blog. Though no longer on staff, he will continue to write the blog as well as work on several book projects. He is also now a Senior Fellow in Environmental Understanding at Pace University. I spoke with Andy about a few of the issues surrounding his career and writing about climate change. Emphasis and links are (mostly) mine.
Dave Levitan: One difference that a lot of people tend to focus on between traditional journalism vs. blogging is the presence or absence of advocacy in the writing. In your “second half” post about leaving the paper, you wrote that you provide “a service akin to that of a mountain guide after an avalanche. Follow me and I can guarantee an honest search for a safe path.” Do you see the blogging part of it as having any degree of advocacy involved, or is it purely that guide role? Is writing about climate change at all basically advocating action? Or were you trying to stay away from that the way that traditional journalism tries to stay as objective as possible?
Andrew Revkin: This will sound funny, but I don’t see Dot Earth as a traditional blog—it’s funny to think of blogs as having a tradition because they’re such a new form. But I do see it as fundamentally interrogatory. It’s an open exploration of what seems to be happening. It’s not centered on me telling you what to do, or trying to state conclusions with each post. Which is very different than most blogs. Particularly with the environment, but I think in many arenas, they’re mostly framed around some particular person’s viewpoint.
And I have a viewpoint, and I’m an advocate, absolutely, but I’m an advocate for reality. I’m passionate, and a campaigner for really revealing what we know; what we can learn through more inquiry; what is essentially unknowable on meaningful timescales; and then what society is left with when you strip away the hype.
And that’s why I sometimes I get a lot of heat from, well, everybody, because that’s a position that doesn’t always suit a policy agenda, one type or the other.
DL: Since you mention the heat you’ve received: even in the last few months I’ve seen you had the interesting Rush Limbaugh incident as well as Climate Progress’s Joe Romm going after you (and here, and REALLY here) a bunch –
AR: Oh yeah.
DL: Those are from the far reaches of each side of this issue, which is interesting. Does this affect you at all? How have you handled, or viewed those kinds of attacks?
AR: Well it’s tiresome. If I didn’t say that it would be silly. I think that they haven’t made me waver in my approach. In fact the more I see polarized discourse, the more I think my approach, however difficult, is necessary. Otherwise, if I just cede the entire discourse on something like climate and energy policy to the most strident voices, then that really does threaten to have society pull away entirely from considering these kinds of issues, because they just end up seeing it as a yelling match.
So I’m trying to delineate something that – and I’ve been punished sometimes by liberal bloggers for calling it the middle, so I won’t say the middle – but to build a sense of what the information is that is not controversial, and then build outward from that, rather than to start at the edge – climate is a catastrophe – and then pick and choose facts that support the conclusion and ignore those that don’t.
DL: I hate to keep throwing your own words back at you, but, well, I will: You also wrote recently that some critics of the press “have inflated expectations of what media coverage, without a direct punch from nature, can accomplish.” I’m wondering if you can expand on that a bit, and if that’s true, then what is the goal of covering climate change? And if it is such a tough thing to cover, as it isn’t a particularly visual thing, not an easy thing for the public to grab on to—what is the goal if the media is so limited?
AR: Having spent the first quarter century of my career in the media, it’s something that’s troubling. It’s probably in the last five or so years that I’ve really started to dive into the sociological literature and psychology to some extent, on climate and related issues, what I call slow drip problems. And you know, it’s very sobering stuff. I think it’s the scariest of all the science in the whole pallet of things related to climate, and humans and risk, because it shows how hard it is for us to change practices or priorities based on looming bodies of evidence that are rational but not physical.
I’m not giving up on journalism entirely, but as I’ve written, at the very least I think words alone are kind of worthless. That’s why I’ve experimented with multimedia and visuals and I’ve written posts about the role of art and the arts in conveying messages (DL: and here and here and here, and here, sort of), and the role of religion and values.
I’m looking now in all these arenas for evidence that we can outgrow some of the more troublesome personality traits that our species has. And I think the New York Times and conventional media serve a very important purpose, I think blogs now serve a very important purpose now too, the web generally has great potential to do good and bad things—I think overall the good will prevail—but at the same time if I’m not studying more closely how people receive messages and what changes peoples’ behavior, and getting to the root of the recipient side of the communication puzzle, I could be spinning my wheels a lot. So why spin your wheels, if you’re doing something that won’t actually change anything? That gets at why I’m making some of the changes I’ve been making for myself.
DL: One last question: do you have a big-picture view on how climate change is being covered right now? Do you think it’s getting better? Worse? Where do you see it heading?
AR: I think we got a burst of coverage in 2007 for a variety of reasons, 2006 and 2007 with the movie, Katrina, the IPCC report, and now I think the media are settling in to one of those reality check periods. This has happened periodically in the history of coverage of climate. I wrote intensively about it in 1988 – we had a hot summer, Yellowstone was burning, the burning of the Amazon was becoming a big issue, and Jim Hansen for the first time testified about perceptible signs of human influence on climate – and then the ‘90s came around and we literally went to sleep. Our energy prices were very low, the world cooled for a few years because of Mt. Pinatubo, Desert Storm was a distraction, and then there was this thing called Kyoto that was sort of a blip, but even that went away.
And it wasn’t until George Bush got into office that climate became a big story again, mainly because he rejected things. But there was a long period there of sort of somnolence, and I think we’re probably now getting into a fairly murky period of coverage for a while, because the world realized it can’t turn around with some magic dramatic treaty in one meeting.
And I think it’s going to take a long time for society to really settle in on the reality that the underlying issue, which is basically energy policies, is an issue for the ages. We grew up thinking about this as basically just another pollution problem, and it’s different. It’s fundamentally different. The sources are so dispersed, and the outcomes are so complicated, and the sources and the impacts are so separated both in time and space, that you can’t think of it as the old story: LA has smog, we need a Clean Air Act, put catalytic converters on the car, lo and behold the air gets cleaner. It’s a very different process, and again, the reality of that is not something that makes for a simple page one news story. So I see a period of murkiness.