Where is the Climate ‘Middle’?

Revkin’s new Dot Earth blog sparks healthy debate

In late October, The New York Times finally gave its climate reporter, Andrew Revkin, what he has wanted for some time: a blog of his own, called Dot Earth.

Blogging might not seem like the next obvious step for a journalist like Revkin, who has made global warming a conspicuous subject in the Times’ news pages. At least part of journalism’s future lies in the type of interactivity and dynamic coverage that blogging allows, however, and Revkin is helping to elevate the practice’s stature by, ironically, attracting a fair amount of criticism on Dot Earth.

It’s not that the Times has anything radically different from the considerable number of other climate/environment blogs that have been around for years. But, as one might expect from someone like Revkin, who has led global warming coverage for at least the last six years, Dot Earth has a very smart and diverse group of regular commentators. During the blog’s first month, a few of them have disagreed vehemently with Revkin’s work.

There is a great debate taking place this week, for instance, about which individuals and positions accurately represent the “middle” of the debate over climate change. It began with an article that Revkin wrote for last Tuesday’s Science section about three new books that represent what he calls “the pragmatic center on climate and energy.” The book are by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician who believes disease and poverty are far more pressing concerns than global warming; Newt Gingrich, the staunch conservative who wants to reduce carbon emissions, but not with a lot of legislation; and finally Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who come from the left, but reject doomsday portrayals of climate change.

On Wednesday, David Roberts, a columnist for Grist magazine and another prominent journalist in environmental media circles, slammed Revkin for identifying Lomborg and Gingrich as “centrist.” It is a “preposterous claim,” Roberts wrote in a column that was posted on both Grist and The Huffington Post. It’s not clear whether or not Roberts believes there is a center at all, but he would clearly rather see media attention going to those who have been focused on solutions to global warming (both mitigation and adaptation) for a long time, rather than those who have only recently, and grudgingly, come around to such ideas.

It’s a fascinating debate: is there, in fact, a middle ground on climate, and if so, where? But my point here is not to judge whether Revkin or Roberts is correct. Rather, it is to point out that this is exactly the type of argument that is difficult for any journalist to approach in a one-off column or article because of subject’s inherently subjective nature. On the other hand, it is exactly the kind of argument that blogging was made for, and Revkin’s response to Roberts’ criticism is an example of how the platform can be used most effectively.

On Wednesday afternoon, Revkin posted a retort to Roberts’ morning attack in which he invited Roberts to have an instant-message debate with him that would be posted online. Roberts agreed, and the debate appeared yesterday on Dot Earth. Although Revkin’s comments seem more reserved than Roberts’, it is a good back-and-forth that starts by exploring the middle ground and then moves to a discussion of how the media can engage different audiences without resorting to “climate porn.” What readers should find intriguing is that such blog debates highlight not only reporters’ assessments and opinions, but also their thought processes and decision-making. This, in the end, can be much more revealing than a traditional article or column.

Of course, for readers that are used to traditional journalism, blogging can also be off-putting because of the combative language that is one of its hallmarks. The climate-middle debate is the second kerfuffle to erupt on Dot Earth. Last week, Revkin posted an item about a new study that analyzes how global warming can exacerbate health problems in the developing world. The same day, Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado and another eminent personality in the climate debate, attacked Revkin for “fudging” the discussion of global warming response. Pielke has long criticized those who justify mitigation and adaptation measures by pegging climate to poverty and disease. In his opinion, “Africa’s vulnerabilities for the most part have absolutely nothing to do with Western use of energy or carbon emissions.”

Like Roberts, Pielke rebuts Revkin with legitimate points that merit deep and sustained conversation. But, leaving aside for the moment who has the better argument, the fact that Dot Earth has provided an extremely prominent medium for that conversation is interesting enough. Reacting to Pielke, Dr. Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the lead author of the study that Revkin wrote about, posted a defense of his work (in the comments section). This multiplicity of voices and perspectives is what makes blogging so appealing. And this is especially true in the climate-change arena, where even with reliable science some value judgments will ultimately have to be made.

Again, it is not that Dot Earth is so unique. There are plenty of other climate and environment-oriented Web sites out there with equally erudite readerships. To see Revkin introduce one at The New York Times is heartening, though, and hopefully, having such a blog in the mainstream press will make this discussion more accessible for readers who still have trouble seeing the roses for the thorns.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.