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.