Q&A: Andrew Revkin

NYT reporter discusses climate, sustainability, and long-haul reporting

Last month, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin received Columbia University’s prestigious John Chancellor Award, along with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. A video of his acceptance speech is below. The award is given to journalists that have demonstrated excellence in the coverage of a particular beat—in Revkin’s case, climate change, and in Mayer’s, the Bush administration’s war on terror—over a long period of time. Revkin has covered environmental issues for over a quarter century. He started working for the Times in 1995, where his reporting earned the esteem of journalists, scientists, politicians, and policy advocates on all sides of the climate story. In October 2007, he launched the Times blog Dot Earth, where he covers sustainability more broadly. CJR’s Curtis Brainard talked to Revkin about the past, present, and future of environmental reporting.

Curtis Brainard: In your Chancellor speech and on Dot Earth you made the argument that climate is not the story of our time, but rather a subset of that story, which is sustainability. When and how did you realize that? Or have you always felt that way?

Andrew Revkin: I guess 2002 was really the first time that I shifted gears toward the broader theme. There’s a line in my 1992 book on global warming that gets at this, where I say, essentially, that this is all the growing pains of a species that has to come to grips [with living on a planet that has finite resources].

And I had a conversation around 2003 with William Clark, from Harvard, who runs a sustainability science program there, and he was already expressing concerns then that climate, since the 1992 Rio treaties, had taken too much of the oxygen out of the environmental arena – that the loss of biodiversity is equally consequential and also irreversible.

So there’s been a growing sense through these years that the issue is bigger than climate. But in 2002, we did a whole section of Science Times called Managing Planet Earth, about how we limit our impacts on the planet as we go through this growth spurt. So in a concrete sense, that’s really when I absorbed this, but, until Dot Earth, my reporting was still not really centered on the bigger question.

Chancellor Awards ceremony, Columbia University

CB: Do you think that the public sees it the same way?

AR: No. In fact, if you look at the press release (pdf) that came out when I got the award, Nick Lemann, [the dean of Columbia’s journalism school,] says that the stories of our time are global warming and civil liberties. I think there’s this sense—and this probably devolves from the Al Gore push—that the climate crisis is the issue of our time.

[The media] try to distill as much as possible, but the problem is that the reality is complicated. And of course it’s a lot harder to say, “The human growth spurt is the story of our time.” It’s a lot harder to get a headline out of sustainability and the bigger question of how we manage our infinite aspirations on a finite planet. It’s very hard even to write a short sentence about it. People have been trying and failing to describe sustainability—you know, what is that?—for decades.

CB: Given the lack of public engagement with sustainability issues, would the world have been better off if the media had clued in to the bigger story sooner?

AR: Well, in that sense, I think the media inevitably migrates from theme to theme. That’s almost unavoidable. There’s interest in the news, and when you have a confluence of events that make something seem important—Katrina, Al Gore’s movie, the IPCC reports in 2007, [melting sea ice] in the Arctic—that kind of defines the issue.

So we’re always going to be bouncing from one thing to the other, and there’s no way for the media to take up the more nuanced issue. In fact, one reason I started Dot Earth is that it’s hard to find space in the newspaper for these other issues. Many of them are what I call “slow drips,” or “iffy” looming catastrophes. We don’t do well with “if” stories and we don’t do well with dispersed stories. So the blog created a space to keep sustained focus on them.

CB: But a while back, you wrote that you’d be spending less time on Dot Earth in order to do more for the paper. It doesn’t seem like that’s happened. Or am I wrong?

AR: Twice—at the six-month point and at the one-year anniversary—I posted that I was going to slow down, and I find it almost impossible to do. The flow of stuff is just too interesting, and how do you not engage? But yeah, this year, I’ll be shifting gears significantly toward the print side of things to examine some of the same issues.

We’re all grasping for the balance here, and when I ask it of the Times management, there is no answer to the question of how much of our vigor and our resources we should be devoting to our online efforts and how much to print. No one really has an answer for that. They want all of both. A page-one story still matters and being active and innovative on the Internet still matters. So we’re being tugged in several directions, and I think that’s appropriate.

CB: Thinking specifically of the climate-change story, you said in your acceptance speech that we’re just now moving into the second act of what might be a three-part story. What do you mean by that, and what are the parts?

AR: Yes, the first act being recognizing, for the most part, that humans are influencing climate even though there are still big questions about specifics.

The second act would be a reality check on what’s feasible, given that awareness. And that’s where I think most of the media and public have not really absorbed what would be required. How do you take a world that is 80 percent dependent on fossil fuels and go to a world 80 percent free of fossil fuels as the population grows toward nine billion and its appetite for the things that come with ample energy grows? Within half a century—or within a century even—that’s a transformation the likes of which has never happened in human history. It makes the agricultural revolution seem easy, and the reality is that this doesn’t just come by turning off the lights, driving slower, or creating green jobs (unless, as I’ve written, those jobs include scientists, teachers, and innovators). That’s Act Two, and the media have only just started to nibble at it.

CB: And Act Three?

AR: Actually putting in place the programs, initiatives, and policies that would be needed to make [the transformation] happen. And awareness. Act Three definitely depends on Act Two, and having a broader awareness of what’s necessary and a broader of awareness of why it’s necessary—not to save our climate, which is the way it’s been popularly portrayed, but as a way to limit risks of real unexpected, turbulent, and harmful changes that might be avoided with a vigorous change in direction now.

CB: Speaking of change, you broke a number of stories on the Bush administration’s interference with communications about climate science. Do you expect that, as far as access to information is concerned, your job will be a little easier under the Obama administration?

AR: I think that, if anything, now is the time for even more scrutiny and care. You could sort of look at this, oh, finally, everything will be nice and touchy-feely. But so far, Obama’s transition team has been very cagey and careful. It’s not clear how appointments are going to play out [see Dot Earth post]. Steven Chu [his Secretary of Energy] and Carol Browner [his “climate czar”] come from different universes in terms of the climate problem. Browner comes from the regulatory, top-down-style approach to carbon dioxide. Chu has a technology focus and says we need to put a price on carbon, but that nothing will happen until we have a technology revolution as well.

So there are some big dramas that will play out here. How well does [Obama] recognize the mix of long-term technology transformation and short-term policy that’s needed? Will he be satisfied with a political win like a weak cap-and-trade bill that has no meaning at all climatologically, or will he recognize that’s just a starting point? And Congress is still a huge barrier to some of things that scientists and technical experts see as necessary. These are important things for the media to stay on top of.

CB: But the other week you highlighted a new study by Max Boykoff that shows climate coverage has declined significantly this year.

AR: He and I both said that was just a snapshot. Frankly, there’s not as much meaning in that curve as there is in the other graph that I attached to the bottom of that post, which is the curve going from 1980 to 2006. That was from Boykoff’s earlier paper, which shows a huge uptick in coverage. So I think, whatever the little wiggle is right now, overall this is an arena that is not going away. But a big chunk of it is driven by energy. So as gasoline gets down to a dollar a gallon—without that added component of energy urgency—you’re going to see the climate issue fade a little bit.

CB: When you wrote about the twenty-year anniversary of your first climate cover story in Discover, you pointed out that a lot of details, particularly the lack of public engagement, haven’t changed much. Do you think that will change any time soon?

AR: That, to some extent, depends on what Mother Nature throws at us over the next few years. As some people have cynically predicted, it may take something like a mega-drought in the southwest to get the country totally engaged, and the media as well. But a mega-drought in southwest is one of the harder things to ascribe to a human influence on the climate system because, as we’ve learned historically, that’s kind of the norm for the southwest, and we’ve just been lucky to have wetter conditions over the last hundred years. But if we have a big eruption like a Pinatubo-style volcano [which would cause temporary global cooling], then this whole issue could get derailed by that. So if I had to predict, being a realist and somewhat jaded, yeah, I may have to reprise the post I’ve done at least once, riffing on the Talking Heads line, “same as it ever was.”

CB: In your Chancellor speech you mentioned that one thing isn’t the same, though. You wrote a song called, “Liberated Carbon,” but recently changed some of the words?

AR: Well, folk music is a plastic and evolutionary process. Originally, it said, “Satan came along and said, ‘Hey, try lighting this.’ He opened the ground and showed us coal and oil.” And, you know, I thought a lot about that. I probably approached the song initially in the voice of your traditional, Bob Dylan rabble-rouser. And now I look back, and I think, you know, it’s not Satan; it’s normal. It’s just us.

So I changed it to, “Someone came along and said, ‘Hey, try lighting this,’” which is much more human and real. And as many of my free-market, blog-commenter friends would say, look at all the benefits that have come from burning fossil fuels. So I evolved the song. And I don’t see it as an apologist saying, “Oh yeah, that was bad.” I do think it’s correct, so I changed it. And someone can say, “Oh, Revkin, you’re caving to fossil fuels.” I don’t think I’m caving; I think it’s true. And it’s been blogged on before by climate contrarians who thought they had a big ‘gotcha’ thing.

It’s all a process, and when people jab at me like that, I say, look, my journalism stands or falls on its own merits. I’m a thinking, breathing person as well as reporter, and I was a musician before I was a journalist.

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