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.