Andrew Revkin hasn’t just come around to accepting global climate change; he has been on the beat since 1988, even before becoming a leading science journalist at The New York Times. In addition to penning more than 250 articles on the subject, he just released his third book, The North Pole Was Here: Puzzles and Perils at the Top of the World.
What’s intriguing about Revkin’s latest work—besides the fact that it overflows with detailed anecdotes from one of his greatest reporting adventures—is that it’s written for an audience aged 10 and up. The author says his mission was to explain global warming to the next generation. After, all they’re the ones who will really have to deal with its effects. It’s a remarkable departure, both for Revkin as a journalist and from a recent spate of climate-themed books that have all addressed us grown-ups.
Seed recently spoke with Revkin about his new project (in stores on Earth Day—Sat., April 22nd) and the challenges and pitfalls of global warming coverage. And heck, we even talked a little bit about his acoustic-roots band, Uncle Wade. Traveling to the uninhabitable Arctic, singing Americana songs—Revkin is a busy guy.
Climate change coverage is heating up again, what with Time magazine’s cover story (“Be Worried, Be Very Worried”) and all. Are we really at a tipping point in terms of attention levels, or is this just a natural cycle in media behavior?
I would like to think we’re at a tipping point, but I don’t think so. It’s kind of like climbing a range of mountain peaks: Each one is moving us more perhaps towards a tipping point. But when you talk to environmental groups, they’re talking at least a few more Congressional cycles before they get to a bill to limit carbon that they would find acceptable.
You probably saw the recent polls, which try to cast everything as being urgent. But those polls do not include the key question, which is the blind question: “What worries you, question mark.” If you ask Americans what worries you, without calling to say, “I’m here to ask you about global warming,” they wouldn’t even think of global warming.
Is there anything that science journalists ought to be doing to focus attention more acutely on this issue?
The bottom line is, I don’t see some new science study coming out in the next year—or two or even 10—that will suddenly say, “It’s crystal clear now, this is an easy problem like all the environmental problems you grew up confronting: dirty water, black soot coming out of smokestacks.” I don’t see that happening. There will not be a truthful headline in a newspaper that will say, “Global warming happened today. Seas are rising, people must flee coasts.” Because it’s not that kind of issue. And there will always be plenty of science to serve everyone in the room.
And the harder thing to convey in print as journalists, and for society to absorb, is that this is truly a century-scale problem. It is a problem of loaded dice, of increasing probability of things we don’t like, but not the kind of thing where you can point around you right now and say, “Be worried; be very, very worried.”
You’ve suggested that a pitfall of the new spate of coverage is that journalists are trying to do the impossible: link global warming to specific events in the here and now. Are they falling for what you have called the “tyranny of the news peg”?
Basically, journalism and climate science are so antithetical. Journalism is always sifting for the front page thought, and so am I. That’s my job—to find the new paper in Science that sounds most like news as we know it. The trap there is that you can’t then abandon the caveats. They’re real. They’re substantive. Those error bars are meaningful. Just think about the recent spate of papers on Antarctic and Greenland melting. They reflect that this is an early stage of scientific understanding.
The journals themselves are doing the same thing. Science and Nature are in constant competition for our attention—the attention of the big media. So they do their own—I wouldn’t call it hyping—but the normal process that public affairs people do. You have the scientists sometimes adding those extra little lines into their papers that say, “This is significant because it relates to global warming.”
Is that why in your new book, The North Pole Was Here, you wrote for the younger readers who will have to live—not with one specific change to our environment—but with the whole sum total of them that accumulate over the next several decades?
I have two goals with this book: One is to engage a new generation and re-enchant them with science;that it’s the trajectory that counts—not one study or another. Once you’ve established a body of understanding, that has real significance. We always focus on the new study, but it’s the bigger compass direction that counts.
But also, frankly, I don’t think today’s grown-ups are going to get this climate issue unless they sit down with their kids and absorb the reality of it together. It’s very clear-cut that, later in the century, there will be more patterns of things we don’t like happening, that cost society. So, it really is fundamentally their issue, and at the same time, it’s fundamentally our problem, because of the nature of carbon dioxide—its long lifetime. And that’s the great paradox: Until you have your kid on your lap and are looking at this issue, I don’t think the average American or Briton is really going to get it.
Revkin during his coverage of Hurricane Ivan in 2005. Courtesy of Andrew Revkin
Well, it always does seem like it’s an issue that’s off in the distance somewhere.
And I think that’s partially related to the current lack of care about it. In the economic sphere, social security and the national debt are the economic equivalent of global warming—always looming. We know it’s bad, but we put it off a little longer, and a little longer. Someday, it will be a real problem for somebody.
That’s why I tried to do the book: to create a go-to place for everybody. And also, I don’t think this notion of turning global warming into a scary thing has much merit. It’s a challenge. The world is changing, and we’re part of that now, but it’s more profound. We are now fiddling with planet-scale systems, in a way that we weren’t before. And that’s something to pay attention to. Whether you call it something to be worried about is another thing.
One powerful theme behind your current book is the notion that someday, thanks to global warming, the North Pole may well be just sparkling blue water. What significance does the North Pole hold in the global human psyche, and how much of an effect would that have on us?
The North Pole represents the last true edge, the last place on Earth where humans remain totally uncomfortable. Where you can’t be there, literally, for more than two weeks in a year. I’ve had the ice under me start making sounds, and you know it’s a temporary, hostile landscape/seascape. At least Antarctica is a continent. The North Pole is a testimony to inconstancy.
So, it was interesting for me to be there and sort of grok to this notion that it’s the first place on Earth where we’re transforming it without actually being there—through the influence of greenhouse gases. I think somewhere in the book there’s a line that says it’ll be a place where later in this century, if you’re some alien species who’s been monitoring the world for a while, you’ll see a fairly abrupt change: “They’ve got a blue ocean up there.” And that will be a signal of our influence. To me it’s pretty profound, but I do think there will be a generation for which that will just be normal, and our current history will be seen as a kind of, “Gee whiz, can you imagine that people once fought and clawed and died to get to this place, and now we’re sailing there in a sailboat?”
Threats to the Arctic—and the connection between Arctic melting and possible dramatic sea level rise—seem to be at the forefront of the new wave of attention to global warming. Could the historical and cultural significance of the North Pole be feeding into this?
I think it’s more the touchy-feely polar bear imagery that has caught some people’s attention. We love symbols. And there are still big questions about polar bears, in terms of how poorly they’ll fare. There are some parts of the Arctic where the sea ice is so thick that they don’t really like it. So in that area, an ice-reduced Arctic will probably become friendly to polar bears. So chances of extinction have been greatly overplayed, but it is a really nice icon, especially after we had helicopter surveys seeing drowned polar bears.
Well—again—it gets people’s attention.
There’s a classic trap. The media has a bias towards the heat—the hot stuff, generating emotional content. No matter how many biologists you have saying, “We’ll see what happens,” the image of the drowned poplar bear wins.
It’s fascinating that your book—a New York Times book—conveys the paper’s institutional memory by referencing long-ago published stories about the North Pole, which suggest it might contain an “Open Polar Sea” or even be hollow. Do you think that in 100 years time, readers will be rolling their eyes at some of the things that we believed and wrote about science?
Undoubtedly. Although, I certainly work as hard as I can to reflect not only what we know but what we don’t know. It’s very hard to get what we don’t know in, and it’s very tempting to go with the front page thought and negate that. But part of what keeps me focused on making sure I’m not overstating things is the traps we’re getting into some times. Just think to 2000 when a colleague of mine wrote a story about open ocean at the North Pole. It was a major front page story. The problem was, the first third of it was wrong. It’s important not to overstep.
What is Andrew Revkin’s next big reporting adventure going to be?
In terms of prioritizing my own to-do list, I tend to be focusing on things like loss of biodiversity, climate change and avoidable human losses, which will be a bigger focus of mine soon—as things that matter most, especially in this century, when we’re moving towards 10 billion people and a greatly increased human footprint on the planet. I’m also going to break away to write a book, and it will be on this whole question of, “How do we get through the next 50 years and avoid truly irreversible problems?” That will probably take me most places—parts of Africa, Asia, I’m not quite sure. So it will be, Andy’s big adventure continues. Maybe a little less focused on climate for a while.
And there’s always music. If all else fails, there’s the street corner.
Originally published April 20, 2006