The Intersection

Andrew Revkin Interview

Seed has just published an interview I did with the Times global warming reporter Andy Revkin to discuss climate change coverage and his new book, The North Pole Was Here, which is unique in that it is a GW book that’s aimed at an audience aged 10 and higher (after all, they’re the ones that are going to have to live with a different planet). There was some really good stuff in the interview, in my opinion, like the following:

Mooney: Is there anything that science journalists ought to be doing to focus attention more acutely on this issue [global warming]?

Revkin: 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.”


Mooney: 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?

Revkin: 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?”

It was a fun interview to do. Again, you can read the whole thing here, and you can pick up Revkin’s new book here.


  1. #1 Jon Winsor
    April 21, 2006

    From the interview:

    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.

    Interesting. This sounds very different from what an Elizabeth Kolbert or a Ross Gelbspan would say. Is there something different that Revkin sees in the science? I would be interested in why their approaches differ on the issue. Don’t we want to move the public beyond an “Alfred E. Neuman” frame of mind?

  2. #2 Don
    April 21, 2006

    Chris, do you have any thoughts (or have you seen any good ones..) about the recent Duke study that questions the seriousness of global warming impact..or at least that’s how the Washington Times presented it today.

    One difficult thing about being a (complete) non-scientist is not really having the tools to critically read scientific reports. The rest of us have to wait for the peer review process to play its way out..and with something like climate change/human existence i’m not sure how smart waiting is! So, I turn to thinkers I trust…like you in this case…and ask the question: should this study make me less afraid of the effects of global warming…and if so, how much? and if not, why not? What do you think?

    Sorry if you posted about this somewhere…I couldn’t find it.

  3. #3 laurence jewett
    April 21, 2006

    What Revkin says about the North Pole representing “the last true edge” reminds me of arguments made by others (Aldo Leopold, John Muir, etc) for the value of wilderness in general.

    There is value in knowing that wild places still exist, even if one never visits them.

    Some may consider it “elitist sentimental nonsense” to be concerned about the loss of wild places, when most people on the planet are just worried where their next meal is going to com from, but I find it sad to think that future generations may not even get the chance to dream about visiting such places.

    Some of humankind’s most noble impulses (imagination, courage, cooperation, pursuit of knowledge) and greatest achievements have been inspired by such places.

  4. #4 ray z
    April 21, 2006

    I am not an expert, but to briefly answer your question based on what I have read, the Hegerl et al. study finds a low upper limit to the response to doubling CO2: 6.2C. However, those results showing a very high upper limit (11C) were not generally accepted, so the new paper supports a lower upper limit. The results do not decrease the importance of a doubling of atmospheric CO2.

  5. #5 Steve Bloom
    April 22, 2006

    Don, go to Real Climate (linked to the left) for that.

  6. #6 Jon Winsor
    April 23, 2006

    One more thing from the interview. Revkin states that:

    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.

    When you consider the risks discussed in the IPCC reports, doesn’t this sound like a fairly mild statement? After all, we’re not just talking about interest rate hikes or the like. And the word “society” in this context is fairly abstract. Aren’t we talking about societies, plural? This could present a whole different layer of problems. Take a look at this recent article on

  7. #7 gerald spezio
    April 24, 2006

    Like the Easter islanders, we keep building our statues. “Yabut, the economy must expand.”

  8. #8 laurence jewett
    April 24, 2006

    I know this changes the subject, but if what these physicists say is true, “the North Pole” may not be our biggest worry right now:

    “Thirteen of the nation’s most prominent physicists have written a letter to President Bush, calling U.S. plans to reportedly use nuclear weapons against Iran “gravely irresponsible” and warning that such action would have “disastrous consequences for the security of the United States and the world.”

  9. #9 Jon Winsor
    April 24, 2006

    Ok, Revin’s most recent NYT article makes his position a little clearer:

    Stressing the problem’s urgency could well be counterproductive, according to “Americans and Climate Change,” a new book by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The book notes that urgency does not appear to be something that can be imposed on people. Moreover, it says, “Urgency is especially prone to being discounted as unreasoned alarmism or even passion.”

    The question is, though, how do we simply get the issue into circulation? Mere presence in the news cycle counts for quite a bit, even if it comes with what some people label as “unreason” or “passion”. Things are never going to happen perfectly (even if some Yale guys are on the case (-; ). At a certain point you have to stop overthinking things and just pitch the ball and go on with the game.

  10. #10 gerald spezio
    April 24, 2006

    Jon, I take a very different tack on Revkin’s latest article. These pompous Yalies (The Yale Science-to-Action Collaborative in Ivy speak)sound downright dangerous and very cognitive linguistic with their pleas for adaptation as a viable strategy.

    The Yale group calls global warming “the perfect
    problem” – meaning that a CONFLUENCE of charac-
    teristics make it hard, if not impossible, to solve.
    Its impact remains clouded with SCIENTIFIC
    UNCERTAINTY,… (emphasis mine)

    Satanic Pat Michaels and Fred the Corporate Singer couldn’t have framed it better. Boola, boola, give the schmuckery the hoopla.

  11. #11 gerald spezio
    April 25, 2006

    After much more careful study of the Yale Group quoted above (“perfect problem, confluence of characteristics…, and scientific uncertainty.”) my worst suspicions were confirmed. I openly claim that these Yalie suits are almost surely more double agents in corporate morterboards. Doubletalking goes with the assigned territory. It is much worse than I originally surmised. Look for yourself.

    Daniel Abbassi’s frightening propaganda piece for “packaging climate change as an energy issue”, AMERICANS AND CLIMATE CHANGE, is as foul a scientific masquerade as anything hacked out by Pat Michaels. It is filled with all kinds of linguistic jewels and tools – “framing, re-framing, issue re-packaging, and recasting.” Abassi has many impressive establishment titles – associate dean at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Director of the Environmental Attitudes and Behavior Project for Environmental Law & Policy. He has an M. A. in political science and an MBA from Harvard. His boss, Dean Daniel Esty, is a Yalie lawyer formerly with the Arnold & Porter legal whorehouse. Neither has any formal scientific training listed in their CV.

    A key recommendation of the group is to “recast climate change as a moral and faith issue, NOT A SCIENTIFIC OR ENVIRONMENTAL ONE…” (emphasis mine). Abassi emphasizes “science’s erratic nature” and describes Michael Crichton as “a best selling author with a GENIUS for appealing to the American PSYCHE (emphasis mine). I can’t tell which genius found the elusive psyche, maybe both. AMERICANS AND CLIMATE CHANGE is a living Orwellian horror. It is available on line and will terrorize you.

  12. #12 llewelly
    April 25, 2006

    gerald spezio, one nit: If Crichton was not ‘a best selling author with a genius for appealing to the American psyche’, he would likely be an insignificant obstacle to people sincerely trying to explain climate science, or people advocating carbon cuts. _State of Fear_ is particularly clever; because it is presented as entertainment fiction, Crichton is allowed to imply that that environmentalists and scientists form the kinds of dishonest conspiracies which occur in the novel, but he can easily evade any explicit challenges with ‘oh, it’s just a story’. Yet at the same time his reputation of being scientifically accurate (I’m well aware he doesn’t deserve such a reputation, but among the scientifically illiterate, he does indeed have that reputation) allow him to imply that his graphs, figures, footnotes, and so forth, are ‘sound science’.

    If _State of Fear_ was stripped of Crichton’s reputation and his considerable entertainment skills, it would be revealed for what it is: A trite conspiracy theory of ‘We Never Went To the Moon’ caliber.

  13. #13 gerald spezio
    April 26, 2006

    llewelly, precisely and then some. All 200+ pages of Abbassi’s childishly slick linguistic charade is available on line at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science. It illustrates with a vengeance how bad top-down paternalism can get. Sampling from its mine field of pregnant aphoristic pearls;

    “Career has become arguably the most identity-defining feature of life in modern democratic capitalism, and career incentives almost universally argue against investing time in the climate change issue – whether understanding it, communicatiung it, or doing someting about it.” (p. 54)

    Boola, boola. Boola boola; career, status, and mazoola.

  14. #14 SkookumPlanet
    April 27, 2006

    My first glance at the Yale website had me agreeing with you, but perhaps our reasons vary. I’ve since looked slightly deeper, and am a bit less negative. I’ve no time to read the report or downloaded pages in more depth. Still the Yale-yada-yada website gives me the creeps.

    An overwhelming point instantly struck me. The site never uses the expression “global warming”, only “climate change”. A site search on “warm” gives only 3 hits, all comments in forums. This may seem trivial, but from the horse’s mouth….

    Here’s Ed Luntz from the infamous Luntz memo, 16 leaked pages on environmental politics from his 200+-page Republican briefing book. The pages are all about language, how to spin environmental and public health issues.

    We have spent the last seven years examining how best to communicate complicated ideas and controversial subjects. The terminology in the upcoming environmental debate needs refinement, starting with “global warming” and ending with “environmentalism.” It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation.

    “Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”. As one focus group participant noted, climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.” While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.

    It’s hard to be more explicit, or the website be more unambiguous. It’s descended from a 100-person conference last October, and intellectually feels committee-built, sometimes being sensible, analytical, and scientific in approach and then vastly naive in the next.

    Gerald, you said “A key recommendation of the group is to “recast climate change as a moral and faith issue, NOT A SCIENTIFIC OR ENVIRONMENTAL ONE…” Actually, it’s one of 39, many of which I disagree with, yet I understand their probable reasoning. Why did you single this out, what’s the specific objection?

    Reality in America’s communications environment is complex science issue can’t be sold if there’s a savvy, well-funded, professional opposition. Reality has faded to second place, behind Americans’ perception of reality, especially in politics. This should be abundantly clear. Look no further the selling of the Iraq invasion. Beyond “Saddam is a bad guy”, every bit of justification has been shredded. No one, the left, the U.S. media, the world media, foreign governments, nobody could communicate reality to the American public — a majority of Americans, at least. One would hope such abysmal duplicity from leadership would lead to housecleaning in a democracy but I suspect such hope is in vain in America.

    I’ll start ending here although I’ve written more. The report seems like it’s geared to explaining the reality of life in America to scientists and environmentalists more than anything else. It sets a gargantuan agenda. Not of the scope of radical right’s agenda, but of the general type, and will certainly quickly run afoul of it. Why the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies believes it can stage manage such a production isn’t immediately clear.

    It’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard yet out of the scientific community, yet per above, strangely naive also.

    I’ll close with recommendation #4

    Identify and execute feasible, high-level actions that could modify the financial and reward structures within academia most responsible for inhibiting: a) interdisciplinary and problem oriented research on large-scale, urgent issues like climate change; and b) faculty and Phd student engagement in public communication, policy-making and other public service arenas. Recruit key influencers to meet with university presidents, university funders, and other influencers in furtherance of this objective.

    I don’t disagree with that. But it’s like recommendation #25 to “create a new overarching communications entity” to execute a “multifaceted”, sophisticated “public education [ban such terminology!!] campaign” that would “leverage the latest social science findings concerning attitude formation and change” [did someone say psychomarketing] to climate change using all available media. Their details on this, including the $50-100 million price tag, seem about right.

    Now, understand my analytical and scientific yet naive at once? What do readers think it will take to “modify reward structures” to accomplish 4.b, for example?

    He/it/they are correct about a fundamental point. We ain’t begun to get our shit together, don’t have a clue what doing so will entail, and [it implies] don’t comprehend it’s hopeless unless and until we do.

    This is just from a glance, though. There’s a lot of material. Here’s the PDF report, and a sample webpage, Research to test the impact of environmental communications, strangely devoid of advertising industry knowledge on the subject, or even that it’s social science approach is already a common psychomarketing tool.

    Gerald, thanks for the book tip. Who are Pat Michaels and Fred the Corporate Singer? I think to make the case this general approach is a “living Orwellian horror” one would have to argue the U.S. has become the same. Mind you, that’s not an very high hurdle to clear.

  15. #15 Jon Winsor
    May 2, 2006

    It seems like there’s some dissent out there over Revkin’s article. Laurie David, the producer of Al Gore’s new movie, said in a recent interview (about 21 minutes into the show):

    “First of all, I want to say that I thought that that Revkin piece in the New York Times was off. I thought he was off on a number of points in that article.

    I agree with Laurie David. The important thing is to get people to take the problem seriously in the public sphere. If the story that makes the this discussion happen is something that’s “under construction”, scientifically speaking, that’s not a bad thing, because it can lead people into the larger issues. I agree that we ought to keep our “exuberance” over coverage “rational”–keep the coverage sound and empirical. But to continue with the economics metaphor, often it takes the “animal spirits” (as John Maynard Keynes might say) to drive the marketplace of ideas. People tend not to react to ice core samples and tree ring analysis. They do react to polar bears, record hurricane seasons and the snows of Kilimanjaro. These things are seldom as tidy as our rational minds want them to be…

  16. #16 gerald spezio
    May 2, 2006

    Doctor less-than-cricket Crichton’s literary bamboozle, State of Fear, about phantasmagoric scientific conspiracies and horrible scientist engineered catastrophes so titillated our President that he called a peeyar schmooze with the fabulous fiction guy.
    Canadian scientist, Mark Tushingham, writes a sci-fi novel, Hotter Than Hell, and gets boned, honed, and gagged by Rona Ambrose, Maple Leaf Environment Minister and thought policelady. Apparently, Tushingham totally missed the Yalie/Abbassi axioms about career and no-no-no-global warming urgencies. Tushingham is reported to be in hiding – fearing for his career, identity, and very arse.
    Rona the Bonerlady has a MA in political science as does Abbassi. Rona just loves Ayn Rand and keeps Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead next to her potty to continually develop her core values and environmental perspective.
    Oh, Canada, Oh,Canada, Ohhh…

  17. #17 llewelly
    May 3, 2006

    Fred Singer
    Pat Michaels

    Given how much the history of characters like these two support your political notions, I’m staggered that you don’t recognize them.

  18. #18 SkookumPlanet
    May 3, 2006

    Thanks for the links. What can I say, names dissolve in my memory without built-in mnemonics. Ross McKitrick stuck and his “hockey stick” co-author hasn’t. Many eviscerations of Michaels’ satellite temp claims failed to impress my neurons. They require special names plus special activities, like writing. Ed Luntz qualifies.

  19. #19 SkookumPlanet
    May 4, 2006

    Here’s a note about mass media and GW. Al Gore has oddly bookended himself by appearing on both the covers of Vanity Fair’s and Wired’s May issues. Vanity Fair has him with Julia Roberts, George Cloony and RFK, Jr. but on Wired it’s a life-sized, fill-the-page, in-your-face face. Both mags have multiple-story cover features about the rise of the Neo-Greens. And both use GW as the overriding issue.

    Vanity Fair features an essay by Gore himself, ghosted or not, as well as a piece about Washington doing nothing on the issue, “While Washington Slept”. I haven’t read any of the Vanity Fair, it’s still de-perfuming out back. For some reason, I received a copy in the mail as if I were a subscriber. It’s likely going out to some list of Neo- and/or Paleo-Greens.

    This looks like a coming-out party for Gore the Neo-Green Global Warming Crusader.

  20. #20 Jon Winsor
    May 9, 2006

    Al Gore in a recent interview in Grist magazine:

    Grist: There’s a lot of debate right now over the best way to communicate about global warming and get people motivated. Do you scare people or give them hope? What’s the right mix?

    Gore: I think the answer to that depends on where your audience’s head is. In the United States of America, unfortunately we still live in a bubble of unreality. And the Category 5 denial is an enormous obstacle to any discussion of solutions. Nobody is interested in solutions if they don’t think there’s a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis.

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