SPEAKER 1: It's my pleasure to introduce Andy Revkin. And we'd better start because he has a plane to catch immediately after the seminar. OK.
So this is Andrew Revkin's second visit to Cornell. He's an Andy White professor here. And he is both a media professional and an academic whose expertise focuses on multidisciplinary topics, spanning a range of environmental issues and their communication to the public. He began writing about climate change in the 1980s.
Currently, he's the senior reporter for climate and related issues at propublica.org, where he joined the prize-winning public interest newsroom after 21 years of writing on the environment for the New York Times. He most recently worked on the Dot Earth blog for sustainability. From 2010 to 2016, he was also the senior fellow for applied environmental studies at Pace University's Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, and where he taught courses in online communication, documentary film, and environmental communication. He has written three highly regarded award-winning books-- one on the Amazon rainforest, one on global warming, and one on the changing arctic. He's also written articles in academic journals and, most prolifically, innumerable columns and blog posts for The New York Times.
For his journalism, he has received, among other awards, a Guggenheim fellowship, two AAAS Science Journalism Awards, and he is the only two-time winner of the National Academy of Science's journalism award. And amongst his other accomplishments, he is performing songwriter. And for 20 years, he was a frequent accompanist of the folk legend Pete Singer--
ANDREW REVKIN: Seeger.
SPEAKER 1: So, thank you. And let's welcome Andy.
ANDREW REVKIN: Thanks. It's really good to be here again. I was just recalling earlier my first visit to Cornell. I'm quite sure it was in 1984, when I came here to interview Hans Bethe and Carl Sagan for a story on nuclear winter, when we were concerned-- at that time, global warming was already an issue. Super computers were already being used to study the warming impact of greenhouse gases. But at that time, during the Cold War, which doesn't feel so far away these days, the idea was if we incinerate enough cities in a nuclear war, not only would the war be catastrophic, but the aftermath would be as well.
And I did a piece that ran on the cover of Science Digest magazine, 1985, on that issue. And by the time that story ran, more science had been applied to that question. And it became, as Steve Schneider later called it, more like nuclear fall, nuclear autumn. But where's your headline in nuclear autumn? Would that catch our attention? Would we act either to blunt the Cold War or to think more about atmospheric modifications of humans and their effect on the ecosystems if it was nuclear autumn?
And in a way, that process has informed my journalism a lot ever since. Because, and as many scientists know, but it was novel, sometimes, for journalists-- we're always playing catch-up-- more science doesn't always make things simpler. In fact, quite often, it makes things more complicated. The harder you work at something, you understand the mix of drivers or complexities, it gets worse.
I was just now looking back at the 2005 papers of this University of Bergen scholar who came up with, he calls it the uncertainty monster. You chop off one head and the other heads kind of spring up. In science, that's-- and he was looking at ecosystem stuff. But he's a scholar of-- contested science is his field.
He's got a long Dutch name. And I'm not going to try to repeat it. Van der [? Wiese, ?] I think.
So, and then, along comes 1988. So almost 30 years from today, global warming became a story. It had been in newspapers as early as 1912. I blogged about this.
There was a remarkable item, like a 200-word item, that had run around the international press in 1912, which said that basically at that time, two billion tons of coal are being burned a year. That would result in x tons of carbon dioxide and will warm the climate for centuries. And that was 1912.
But in 1956, The New York Times ran a story about global warming, the basics of it, building on the work of Gilbert Plass. So 1988, to me, felt like the beginning of the story. That was when Jim Hansen had testified before a Senate hearing. Yellowstone National Park caught on fire. There was a pretty harsh drought in the Midwest. It was a record warm temperature for that time.
And we had all kinds of headlines. Oh, the IPCC was founded that year. And there was a meeting in Toronto that I attended called the-- it was the first international conference on the changing atmosphere. So think about that in the context of now. We have learned a lot since then.
But we've also learned-- again, this is a tough issue. And just think-- one reason I'm a little flustered today is I've been writing over the weekend about, I was quoted twice in the inaugural New York Times opinion piece by Bret Stephens, who at The Wall Street Journal has kind of made his-- part of his claim to fame there was his pieces dismissing global warming as, in the usual way, as a fabrication, an overstatement, alarmism.
And lo and behold, his first New York Times column, he's won a Pulitzer Prize. The left liked him briefly. Because he's never thought that Donald Trump would be the right person to be president. But now he's kind of inflamed everybody again by saying that there was this claim that global warming was 100% certain is hooey, and now it's clear, and part of the reason the left has failed to engage people on the issue is because they were trying too hard.
And I was quoted in this piece. He referred to a long essay I wrote a year and a half ago, talking about complexities and about the challenge of communicating a tough, wicked problem. And I'm just finishing a piece now.
That's why I literally ran here from another room. And it's not quite done. So I could just finish it here, for the next 45 minutes. But, no, I won't. You don't want to see the backstory, sometimes, of journalism.
At any rate, he was misconstruing some things I said. Selective quotation and cherry-picking is a habit of people who-- and I'm not going to throw him under the bus yet. I think there's potential for him to get more engaged on the question and to look from a conservative standpoint at some ways forward.
But part of what he would have to recognize, and the thing his piece failed to recognize, is that uncertainty isn't just an excuse for more conversation. That's kind of how he ends the piece. You know, if we had more of a sense of the true uncertainty in this issue, we can then have reasonable conversations going forward. But there's this whole field of decision making under deep uncertainty. This is not a novelty, the idea.
And global warming is laced with fundamental-- the most important aspects of the global warming problem are the least clear. The extent of warming from a certain buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere is as profoundly unclear as it was 30 or 40 years ago. 1979, the same range of possibilities, which is essentially from manageable problem to catastrophe, is still there. So it's become kind of what I would call a known unknowable. It's not just a known unknown.
And I was just talking with a bunch of people the last couple of days who know way more about the science and the history of the science than I do. And it's kind of a clear fact, that don't count on the IPCC in five years making society's climate challenge clearer through some discovery and climate sensitivity. You get to a point where you start to understand, these things are not going to change in a time scale that will make a difference to those of us who have to make decisions about infrastructure, about where you spend science, about what kinds of policies you employ.
So in the middle of all that, the question arises-- and of course, now, as I say here-- not only is the science still, in the things that matter, the consequential things, has plenty of uncertainty in which someone with an agenda can kind of play. But now, the communication landscape has gotten, if anything, worse. So we have social media, which to me feels like the world-- a friend of mine, David Dobbs at National Geographic, a few years ago wrote a cover story about the teenage brain. Because there were insights that were emerging at that time about neurology, neurophysiology, and the transition from teenage years to adulthood. There are actually neurons that kind of retreat and then reboot. So that awkward feeling-- those of you who are still sort of in your late teens or early 20s, if you're feeling like things are confusing and turbulent, it's because your brains are being unwired and rewired.
So to me, globally, we're kind of at that same stage, where we've got this new thing, this new connectedness. And we haven't really figured out how to use it productively yet. At least, it's being used in all directions.
For example, ISIS has found it's a really good way to recruit disaffected, troubled people to become terrorists, by sending YouTube videos around through that same network that others are trying to use to forge progress. So it's not like it's some magical thing. It's not like it's the end of the world. But it's certainly, if you don't have some attention to how it works and how it can misfire, then it's unlikely that whatever your dream is will work out.
I'll go through a bit of a slide presentation. I'm going to skip most of my slides. Because I want to get to the crux of things.
Well, the crux of things is, the fundamentals of the climate challenge are pretty clear. This is 1750 to now. You know, there's a Twitter account for the Keeling curve, this curve. That's the curve of us. There it is down there, if for any reason you're fixated enough that you want to see what the day-to-day, week-to-week CO2 concentration is. You can find thanks to UC San Diego.
And remember, there's a lot of variability year to year. So it's not like that number stays at 409. But the chances of it going back toward 350, which is the other landmark that 1988 represented-- that was the last year the concentration of CO2 was at that number-- we're not going back that way for a long time to come. And that can lead people to feel like this videographer. I took this picture at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, at the end of all those turbulent talks, where things ended up in this murky, nightmarish way where nothing seemed to emerge.
But in a way, that was also one of those turbulent transitions, kind of like leaving teenage years and moving toward adulthood, or like the early days of the internet. The first, from 1992, the Rio Treaty, until 2009, this dispiriting moment, the-- I want to make sure that doesn't fall asleep-- the global diplomatic community had assumed we could have a treaty, like a targets, and timetables, and rule book, and top-down treaty like we did for chlorofluorocarbons, the ozone-destroying molecules. Well, we did it for that. We had a Clean Air Act.
But what happened from 2009 forward was this realization that to get 196 or 197 countries to sign anything, it has to come with non-binding terms. And that's what ended up coming out of Paris-- sort of a binding structure. But no country is bound by international pressure, other than kind of peer pressure to do stuff. And it's this weird mix of success and failure at the same time. But it's sort of an emergent idea.
And for the first time, it really kind of represented the human way. Again, the idea of having some top-down structure for a problem that's as tough as climate change was probably unrealistic. We're now going to fast forward again. Because you don't need to know my backstory. It's interesting.
Wow, I'm going to really fast forward. And more, and more, and more, and more. Let's go far into the future and get to the communication problem.
So I came to The New York Times. I started in magazines, as I mentioned. I came to The New York Times in the mid-'90s, where everything I felt was like journalism. Writing a magazine story, you get to suck your thumb, and think, and double check, and call someone, and have a fact checker-- actually, amazing thing-- double check that everything is-- ducks in a row.
But newspaper is like, boom, boom, boom. And you have these tyrannies, which I used to call-- the tyranny of the peg is that newspapers don't really cover stuff that hasn't happened yet. We're bad at that. And when we do, no one notices.
The financial crisis, for example, was forecast. There were a number of journalists who did really good work. But you don't really notice those really good stories until you're looking at them after the fact. And so, most journalism is about what happened today, maybe this week, maybe last month, or some contextual framing about a trend, some new hair style, and not so much about things like climate change. It gets to be challenging. That's the peg.
The lure of the front-page thought is, remember, the editors are busy, just like you are all busy. And so what gets your attention as an editor has to have the feel of news. And that's where you run into these barriers as well.
I can pretty much remember conversations where there'd be an important new paper on some advance in understanding of the Greenland ice sheet or methane's role in a warming world. But the editor would say, well, didn't we cover sea level rise? Didn't we already do something?
So these incremental developments in science also don't always merit attention. And then you get this kind of distillation. If you're not careful, you can over-interpret a press release or something.
And scientists have this normal habit in the abstract to a paper of putting in a lot of definitive statements. And then there are some qualifications that are kind of in the back matter of the paper. But the public and the press hadn't always learned that. So you can end up with things that leave out some of the complexities. And that gets to be a problem.
Space and time is just what we all know. We have limited space and time to do anything. And less and less.
The tyranny of balance is the familiar idea of "he says, she says." This happens in courtroom litigation as well. You just roll out an expert with a PhD or an economist, and you can have dueling-- social cost of carbon, you know, there's all kinds of interpretations of that. So the reader can end up really fuzzed out.
And, of course, the lure of conflict and debate. You know, just like with Bret Stephens, the columnist, he gets the most attention for being contentious and provocative. And that arouses the other side, who gets contentious and provocative. And the public looks at all of this yelling. And it doesn't always progress knowledge, and certainly not the response. And that's part of why I started to get kind of tired of that game.
And, again, let's go forward. So I started Dot Earth in 2007. I had been to the North Pole in 2003. And we did an online, live Q&A with readers while I was on the sea ice with scientists, floating at the North Pole. And you're drifting two miles a day on eight-foot-thick ice, over a two-mile-deep ocean. There's a lot of stuff to tell people that doesn't fit into a news article.
And a wise editor said, let's do a forum. And I got hooked on that. And I went to Greenland in 2004 and did kind of a proto-blog. And then by 2007, the climate question so clearly became a prismatic question, not a simple question of gases, law, solution, that I felt a blog was a good way to interrogate the problem in its full dimensions. And it fit-- I was doing that even as I was doing news articles.
But blogging has its own discontents. And, I'm going to fast forward again. But I learned some stuff.
Some of the stuff I learned about complexity of the problem includes the word "we." So many things that we talk about imply that there's a global "we." "We" need to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 or whatever.
And as a journalist, there would be pieces I would write-- you've seen pieces-- "we" think-- because science thinks the world is some way, we use the word "we" a lot. But as I got around the world a little bit more, I started to realize there is no "we" when it comes to energy and climate issues, for the most part.
If you're rich, like people in Singapore, or people here, you can-- I'm sure someone here has been to Singapore. Have you been to the Gardens by the Bay? It's unbelievable.
This is, like, the world's largest glass-enclosed greenhouse. And they have actually, like, a museum of climates, basically. When I was in it, I realized that's what I was in.
They have this giant dome that's kind of a Mediterranean climate dome. And so you go in there, and there's olive trees. You're on the equator and there's olive trees. And you can hear the hum of all the machinery and electricity that's used to dehumidify that air and keep the temperature down.
So if you're wealthy and technologically able, you can insulate yourself in many ways from climate risk. And if you're living in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, you're burning charcoal for your supper, much of which is smuggled in from Somalia. So your limited choice of cooking fuel is making Somali warlords wealthy. And you're exposed to all kinds of hazards that we pretty much don't think about.
And so you start to think, there is no "we." There's no "we." And that's one reason why it's been a fractious challenge getting agreement on what to do about global warming, and about energy, particularly.
And scientists-- one of the other things I realized diving into the social science, behavioral sciences, is that there's no "we" in terms of attitudes about-- perceptions of the same body of data can vary powerfully. And a guy named Dan Kane at Yale, along with others, has done this work-- empirical work, experimental work-- that shows that scientific literacy is not the thing that sorts people on their views about global warming. This is just one tiny little example, where you can kind of choose a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to support essentially any position on global warming, from derision to energetic concern and action.
And that was very dispiriting. When you get into that stuff as a journalist, and what you're looking at, the science you're looking at, is saying that information doesn't matter most of the time. You know, at that point, I'd already spent 20 years writing as a science writer, thinking that science journalism, well, you know-- and it does matter.
It can matter. Believe me. But it isn't a determinative. And that people's divisions, and the level of invective, and the level of passion are much more a function of culture and feeling. And that's also been clear in our information environment, more generally, these last couple of years.
Fake news is easy to find. It's easy to figure out what's fake news. But you have to have the motivation to figure it out. That means you have to care about reality. And most of us, a lot of the time, don't really care so much about reality.
If something fits our predispositions, or if it's at the other end of the spectrum-- it's an OMG thing-- then it resonates. But determining what's true-- I've been fooled by stuff on Facebook. There was a really cool aerial image of clouds kind of sweeping past Mount Fuji. And I reposted it. And it took, like, three seconds for a couple of readers to notice a fundamental flaw in the imagery in front of me.
So, you know, we all kind of have that habit. And you could start to get pretty bummed out. And this is not just about global warming. After the earthquake that damaged the nuclear reactors in Fukushima so badly, I was digging-- I'd already been writing about earthquake risk a lot.
And I learned about these tsunami stones. These are centuries old. And some of the villages along the same coast that had had that devastating impact from the waves-- and what they say is, "high dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build below this point."
Oh my god. We do forget. And so, if we're that bad-- and this is an area where seismologists have identified, historically, there's plenty of reason to be concerned about tsunamis. But we kind of forget. And then we remember again. And then we forget.
And so, the good news is, it's not just a climate problem. But there's a challenge there. And early on in Dot Earth, a reader posted a comment one day. He was from Germany, I think.
The comment was, are we stuck with blah, blah, blah, bang? And, you know, I'm hoping not. I think there's still reason to think we can get through this.
But it requires attention. It requires, as I said a minute ago, motivation. It requires stepping back from your own feelings occasionally, and thinking about why you're feeling the way you are. It requires overcoming the disincentives we have to talk to someone who is fundamentally different.
You know, we all live in bubbles of various kinds. It's not just on Facebook. Where I live in the Hudson Valley, I live in a little town. Right over the hill is a lot of rural places that are-- in fact, in my town, there's clusters in Cold Spring and Nelsonville, where people voted very differently. And it can get interesting.
But how much do we talk to each other in a way that doesn't involve yelling at each other is another question. And out here, you've got-- I was looking at your congressional district. It's pretty unusual. So, how does that work out? I don't know. And gerrymandering sucks.
And I'm going to fast forward again, to get to the crux of the matter. In fact, I'm going to pull out here. If there's a quick question right now, before I go forward--
Yeah. Unless we're supposed to use mics and stuff. I want to get to some of the good stuff, the encouraging stuff, as quickly as possible. That's what I want to do.
So, once you learn all this stuff-- you know, it's complicated. It's hard for us to find common ground. We have these habits that make it hard, whether it's tsunami risk or climate change risk. It's hard for us to just set a target and rigorously pursue it when the path is unclear. Deep uncertainty, as I mentioned.
There's a whole field. There's a society for decision making under deep uncertainty. This piece I'm finishing has a scene when I went to the conference of that group.
So some of what we have to do is-- "we"-- see, there's the "we"-- is figure out pathways that are robust, even when you know you don't know all the answers. And that's hard. And it required from me, thinking about goals in new ways.
If a numerical goal, like 350, or 80 by 2050, or whatever, is not easily actionable, then what do you do? And I kind of came to this realization. Well, there's a lot you can do. Because you start to look around you and say, well, what are the things in society, what are the traits, what are the capacities in an individual or in a community, that facilitate outcomes that go in a direction you think is robust?
And I think we can all think of them. I came up with my own list. And I just distilled it to words, like, bend, stretch, reach, teach. I'm a songwriter. So it's almost like-- I don't do hip-hop, though. But it's like, bend, stretch, reach, teach, reveal, reflect, rejoice, repeat.
And each one of those stands for a quality that can be pursued. And I think it's a good fit for a complicated problem in a diverse world, especially with something as prismatic as climate change, where you need progress in so many fronts that thinking about it that way-- well, where are some little knobs I can tweak that facilitate the right direction-- can be liberating. But not in a way that's negating the scope of the problem.
It's different than saying, you know, recycle, and you're done. But it reflects a very different approach to the climate problem, which-- even calling it a problem implies there's a solution. As opposed to, when you think about public health, what comes to your mind? Does it come into your mind as a problem to solve? Or if you think about national security, is that a problem to solve?
So climate change is becoming, at least to me-- and I'm not saying I'm right. I'm just saying, my perception is, it's more like an enduring, new, emergent field issue that we work on. And even Bill McKibben in his life, he talks urgent, urgent, urgent, which is great.
But look at his life. He gets up every day and does the same thing over again, and over again, and over again. And it's 30 years, the same length of time I've been working on this in a different way.
So it's like, discipline is one of them. Repeat. The word at the end.
So I'm just going to quickly go through a couple of examples. I'm just going to try to articulate some ways forward. The word bend is about resilient systems, obviously. And resilience is about uncertainty.
As opposed to adaptation. Adaptation implies some kind of understanding of what's coming. But in sub-Saharan Africa, we don't know-- "we"-- scientists have not determined yet, after 30 or 40 years of looking at this, whether that region is going to get wetter or dryer.
So what do you do? Do you just give up? No. But you think, OK, well, resilience in the face of that level of wet-dry uncertainty in a warming world, and you know that's it's an area prone to drought-- so you work on water access, water conservation, water availability. And you can make that little part of things a little bit better. That's one example.
But resilience and bending is not just-- it's about personal experience too. I really like the story of Billy Parrish, who's this barefoot guy. I met him in 2005 at the climate talks in Montreal. And he was one of the energy action founders. Brilliant young guy. A real, hard-pushing, in the face of the negotiators, kind of presence.
And it was great. And at a certain point-- and it's not just because he grew up. And not everyone has to put on a suit. But he did.
He now runs this thing called Mosaic. Go to joinmosaic.com. It's a solar financing project where small investors can put a few hundred bucks in a savings account and [? get ?] [? paid-- ?] you get a 4.5% return on your money. And that capital provides funding to help finance installations of solar panels on the roofs of nonprofit groups and that kind of thing.
And he's still pushing. There's a lot to do there. He can only do it in New York and California. And there's all these ridiculous impediments, regulatory impediments.
But that, to me-- you know, he's kind of like a salmon swimming up a stream or something. Oh, that didn't work. I'll go over here. He's got a vision and he's got that agility to keep going. So that's a bending thing.
But bending is also-- again, one of the hard facts about the climate system it took me a while to grapple with is commitment. The system is a slow-moving-- you nudge it and it's like the beginning of a bus starting to roll down a hill in San Francisco. And some of that momentum is really hard to slow down. And so that means we're in for a lot of sea level rise and climate change. It's already in there.
And so you can't think about islands-- and you can think about islands, just in a woe is me way, and where are these people going to go? Or, as a scientist, you can get focused on historically, what do islands do? What have they done in the past?
And Paul Kench, who's a really interesting geographer from New Zealand, has been doing peer-reviewed work for a long time on islands in the Indian Ocean. These are the sandy, low ones. I've been to the Maldives twice. And he's done this work there, and in the Marshall Islands, places in the Pacific. He's done this work in places in the Pacific where the rate of sea level rise, for various reasons, is twice the global average because of geological things going on.
And islands, turns out, over long periods of time, islands actually are dynamic. Almost-- they're not living systems. But they're dynamic systems. And they sort keep up with sea level rise in many instances. Not all. But that means that there are these opportunities-- they involved a lot of reinvention-- to have many small island communities persist well into the next century, if-- but this is a big if-- if they developed the way the capital island of the Maldives does.
This shows you, I think, about-- yeah. 1896 to 2009. So this is a 100-year history of this island. And you can see, it moves and shifts. The sands form and a storm will come in. But you can't do that if you build like that.
So they kind of took on the Manhattan-style development model, with a lot of financing from Japan. But now they're locked in. They're brittle. And you can't think about this if you've done that. So that one's-- I've been to [? Mal-- ?] the last time I was there, in 1984, it did not look like that.
But thinking that way, what can we do? And polar bears-- there's a group of scientists who have come up with a long-term polar bear conservation scheme in the Arctic, working really hard on decarbonization, but what can we do for polar bears in the meantime? And they've already done this assessment-- Stephanie Pfirman and Tremblay, Bruno Tremblay, and others-- where because of sea ice modeling, there's pretty good understanding of where there still will be sea ice in the summertime in the Arctic in the end of the century. It's not like a melt, no-melt kind of thing.
And it's around Greenland and Ellesmere, those areas. So they wrote some papers proposing that the Arctic Council, arctic communities, should come up with a robust conservation strategy for polar bears that keeps those places particularly friendly for polar bears. And you can have better odds of having polar bears go into the 22nd century.
I'll fast forward. Just another example here. Scenic Hudson, where I live on the Hudson River-- the Hudson is actually a fjord, essentially. It's tidal, right up to Albany.
But what they've done there is they-- Scenic Hudson and a guy named Sacha Spector, a scientist who-- they've plotted out along the river-- one of the things Scenic Hudson does is they get easements from landowners to preserve the biodiversity quality of marshes and stuff. So if sea level's rising, Constitution Marsh, which is-- actually, that's further north. Marshes of today will be bays of tomorrow. But that also means that there's some shoreline spot that will be the marsh of tomorrow.
So they're already getting in touch with landowners, based on their modeling, saying, we would love to talk to you about having an easement on your riverfront property. Because it's going to be a marsh in 2100. And we're really excited about that. And that's such an interesting, creative, sort of proactive form of conservation planning, I think. I can think of many other ways that kind of thinking can work in the world going forward. But it requires kind of a different vision of things.
This is a good example. I'm a guitar player and stuff. And I don't have a Taylor guitar. I have no interests in this company.
But Taylor, the guy who founded it, he-- they were running short of ebony, a lot of which came from Madagascar. A terrible toll on forests there from illegal logging. So, in West Africa, they found an area where there's a lot of ebony. That's that beautiful black wood for violin bow-- violin fingerboards, guitar fingerboards. Beautiful stuff.
But he had this challenge. Because there's a lot of ebony in this region. But it's more like a mottled color. So his creativity is he's changing their marketing. He's trying to change the mindsets of his customers, to think that having a marbled quality fingerboard on your $3,000 guitar is the thing you want. And not every company is doing that.
So, working with the customers-- I saw some guy from Nike at some big meeting on sustainability and commerce. And he gave this big blah, blah speech. And I asked him, I brought up this thing. And I said, how much are you working with your customers on educating them-- not just selling to them, but educating them?
And he kind of said, well, you know, he said, we've done a lot of marketing surveys. And when we label something sustainable, it's less popular. Because it implies compromise.
You can probably think how that would make sense to a consumer. Well, there must be something wrong with it. Is the rubber not as good? So to me, that implies that there's work to be done, by any company, on figuring out not just how to be sustainable on paper, but to think about fundamentally new ways to conceive of your products.
I'm going to fast forward one more time. Yeah. So, climate is tough. I mean, climate change is a tough thing to try-- I'm not confident that communication innovation will be the thing that will somehow magically make people grab onto this issue in the traditional way and have us magically move forward to a post-carbon world.
There's enough divisions. There's enough resources still. There's huge amounts of natural gas.
I see some people in the audience who are very concerned about it. But it's there. And there are all these different arguments. And there's a way forward. But there's no single solution. There's no single way to create a fully engaged, fully happy community on all of these things.
So to me, one of the things is to break this piece into pieces. There will always be pieces that can be worked on. Resilience-- kind of like that island I mentioned, there's a ton that every community can do to focus on building resilience to the hazards in the climate system, whatever is driving them. And there, you can have a lot of buy-in from people with fundamentally different cultures.
Farmers. Libertarians don't like to have our country paying out subsidized flood insurance payments to people who built in zones that are fundamentally prone to flooding. So libertarian doesn't like that. Liberals concerned about climate change certainly think it's a bad idea.
There actually was progress on that, the Biggert-Waters bill-- bipartisan, signed by everybody-- which was going to rationalize the cost of flood insurance. And then what happened was, in that case, it was a great victory. No one really wrote about it. Because it was kind of under the radar.
But then people started getting these higher bills for their flood insurance. And whether they were Democrats or Republicans, people were calling their legislators and saying, what happened? What happened? I can't afford to live where I live anymore. And it got rolled back.
So this is all kind of this iterative process. There's no easy path forward. And that means-- as I said, you can use communication to build better portals, better exchanges between people to work out and resolve problems. I wrote about some of this at that URL up there for the bulletin of the World Meteorological Association a few years back.
I moved to a new home, journalistically, which reflects so many of the changes that are underway. It's a nonprofit model, 10 years old, to do the deep-dive journalism that no one can afford to do anymore, except a few entities-- The New York Times, NBC, Washington Post. You know, there's still some of that. But it's greatly reduced.
And ProPublica-- it's sad that it takes a disruptive election to do this. But they're thriving right now. A lot of money has flowed in. You'd like to think that people understand the value of investigative journalism all the time. But for whatever reason, it's thriving.
And what this does demonstrate, though, is that there are these other models that can start to work. ProPublica is just creating, right now, an Illinois version. It's like a mini-me ProPublica for Illinois. And if that works, they'll be more of them sprouting up.
And at the community scale, this can happen. It's the hardest thing to have sustained good coverage of these days, is state houses. And town politics, sometimes, as well. Because that's where the capacity is really diminished.
But I'm really glad to be there. We're given the time, and most of the time, the resources to get beneath the surface of things. And we get to partner with other media to help to get the story out.
So the stuff I'm working on right now may not appear for a few months. But hopefully it will get out there. And this is the form of journalism that absolutely still matters. Because everything we do is--
It's called accountability journalism, meaning numbers matter. Don't tell me what you're doing. Show me. And if you can't show me the numbers, then I'll find them anyway. That kind of thing.
And I'm surrounded by geniuses. It's amazing to look around the newsroom. It's a small newsroom. But it's really cool.
So there is this ability to build journalistic capacity from the bottom up. And there's an ability for anyone to communicate, now, more effectively, if you're motivated to do so and if your university or your institution helps. Randy Olson, a good friend, talks about escaping from the nerd loop. You know, too often we-- I love that phrase-- we talk to each other about communication, like we are right now, instead of just communicating. And he's a good example of that.
And I used to experiment with that on Dot Earth, where I'd partner with a scientist who was going to Siberia, Andy Bunn, and his students. And they provided me with material from Siberia. I put it in a [? forum ?] on my website. And it wasn't journalism conventional. But it was really good stuff. So there's ways forward.
Twitter can be your friend. Not always. It seems to be Donald Trump's friend, too, which I'm not sure makes the whole country's friend. But I guess we'll find out.
But it can matter. It can engage people in discussions. You can cut through the noise. There's a lot of noise. Bieber, Bieber, Kardashian, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.
But hashtags are a great invention. They were invented by a guy, Chris Messina. He invented the hashtag 10 years ago.
He just sort of threw it out there. He said, hey, let's-- to other people at programming-- he was at Mozilla. And he said, let's just use a pound sign in front of a phrase to coordinate a conversation and all this stuff. And it caught on in a quick way. So now you can do this. You can cut through the noise.
iamascientistbecause was a really good one, which was people explaining why they do what they do. And I think it's a great starting point for scientists, or journalists, or just about anybody else. If you want to engage someone to understand what you do, I think it would be a great starting point, is to focus more on why you do it than on what you do. Nouns are boring. Verbs are interesting.
The manthropocene. A woman named Kate Raworth, environmental economist in England, who wrote a really good new book called Donut Economics-- when I was a member of the Anthropocene working group for six years-- this is this small group of people who are trying to decide if we would become a geological force. And at one of our face-to-face meetings in Berlin in 2014, I looked around and I realized everyone there was a guy. And in one of my Dot Earth posts-- there were two or three women who were part of this group, but they weren't there. So I wrote, you know, it would probably be good for the working group to diversify.
And Kate posted this-- one of the best tweets ever. The tweet was, I'm not so worried about the Anthropocene. I'm worried about the manthropocene. And she included a little visual of nine, I think it was nine, women who could easily justify being on that group.
And it resulted in some change. So, again, it works. It works. farmhack is a really good one. Some people here probably know that.
And there's ways past the shouting matches. Not all the time. But sometimes.
And it turns out that people who are really divided on some issues can come together on others. This is data that was from 2009. But there's been many other studies that show this.
So back in 2009, during all the debate around having a climate bill, this Yale group did their survey of this-- they called it Six Americas. They found that, basically, we cluster. And we range from alarm to dismissive.
And when the question on the floor was support for a cap and trade policy, even the alarmed were barely above maybe. So that says to me, that bill was going to have a tough road, if even people who were alarmed about global warming think it was, like, a "meh" thing.
But then, if they asked support for providing rebates for purchases of solar panels, look. Everybody is suddenly above the mid-line. Even the dismissive are like, maybe. So that says something interesting.
But then the economists-- there's probably an economist here who would look at that and say, well, that's just because you're give something away. It's a subsidy, right? But then they asked this question, which is pretty interesting. Support for requiring-- a mandate-- you know, conservatives hate that-- 45 mile per gallon fuel efficiency across vehicle fleets, even at a $1,000 price premium. And only the dismissives are sort of drifting down toward the no.
So there's something different in it-- some of this is framing. There would still be fights and stuff. And obviously our Washington politics is different than this. But it implies that there are opportunities out there.
And they did a 50-state version of this. And it turned out that-- you know, we think about America as red and blue. And it's all kind of pastel colors when you talk about global warming worries. People are worried or not worried. But it's mostly pastel, not very intense feelings.
And taxes are still-- this is a year or two ago. But carbon tax seems to be a negative. Something about the T word. There's a lot of talk of this now as a possibility. But it's still going to be a tough go.
Estimated percent of adults who support regulating CO2 as a pollutant. And by the way, this hasn't changed. There was a new version of this recently.
That's yes. That's a yes color, just so you know. And that's kind of interesting.
Estimated percent of adults who support funding research into renewable energy sources. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Where is the red and blue? And this hasn't changed, either. These have been updated. So I think there's reason for hope.
I think I have time. I want to just show you-- this is like a three-minute video if it works. And it's worth-- let me see if it works.
- I'm not a real firm believer.
ANDREW REVKIN: Oh, darn. I thought we had it worked out. But maybe not. Well, anyway, I'll just tell you what it says.
So these people, the first three minutes are people really skeptical about global warming. And where is she? There's a woman here, she says, oh, out here, Al Gore's name is cuss word.
OK. So you get the idea, right? Oh, gosh.
And then, the middle, only God controls the climate. And he says, oh, you know, but God controls the environment. So you're thinking, whatever, you know, this is not going to work.
But then, this same guy-- and the last half is about energy. And he says, you know, we've put $30,000 worth of solar panels on our roof because we want to get off the grid entirely. He's the owner of an oil company.
But his thinking, I guarantee you, has nothing to do with climate concerns. It has to do with independence. You know, I guarantee you he did not vote for Hillary. I don't know for a fact. But I'd put pretty good money on it.
So he doesn't want to be beholden on a top-down climate policy. But he also doesn't want to be paying checks to a utility. So if you go into that community in Woodward County, Oklahoma-- this was the most skeptical county in America, according to that survey by Yale-- and you go in there, saying, climate crisis, climate crisis, climate crisis, you're missing these allies on renewable energy that would otherwise be part of the conversation.
And so how that works out in a big way going forward is still an open question. But it does imply that there's things that can be done. In education, you know, bend, stretch, reach, teach-- there's models for education that I think are untapped that could be beautiful.
This is one in the Bronx. There's a Bronx public high school, long, great story behind it. It's the Bronx High School of Energy and Technology. And it's one of these specialized high schools. A lot of the kids who come out of it end up in the heating and cooling business.
And they do a boiler room tour. They just go for a day into the boiler room. The custodian who manages the [? school's ?] systems is their instructor for the day.
They learn how much oil they use. They learn that 20 years earlier, that school burned coal in its own furnace. And they learn a lot. And they learn that their school is a system, which is the most valuable thing to learn about anything.
And that could happen in any school. And there's no field trips, no permission slips. Great cross-cultural richness and just going into the back chemistry of a building. Same thing for food services. Where does our food come from?
Some schools increasingly are-- the students at Pace University were doing this, where they were talking to the food suppliers about, is our chicken humane, and if not, what can we do about it, and all that kind of thing. So getting to know your school as a system is a great way. And I'm sure this is done here in some ways or other. A great way to spread the kind of understanding that can make things better.
Oh. And for things like concerns about natural gas emissions, if you're not approaching the problem in infrared photography, you're missing a great opportunity. This is a beautiful sunny day, an oil storage tank in Colorado, near Denver. And this is the same tank through an infrared camera.
And this came out really in a big way when the Aliso Canyon natural gas gusher in Los Angeles happened. I guarantee you that Environmental Defense Fund and the other group that did the aerial images of that black plume coming out-- I guarantee you that that gravitated public officials to that way quicker than would have happened if had just been a beautiful sunny day. So lots of potential there, too.
We live in a time when transparency can be imposed on people who maybe don't want it, in a way that's never been possible as easily. The whole Volkswagen story, the backstory is amazing. I'm sure many of you know. It was a very small clean air nonprofit group, and a lab at West Virginia University, who-- a tiny grant. I think it was, like, $30,000.
They were testing cars' emissions against what the computer in the car was saying. And it was not to reveal the problem. But they found the problem. And it became this huge unraveling of Volkswagen's duplicity. And that sent a big signal through the whole industry, where there's clear evidence-- Europe right now is still having revelations about other car manufacturers tweaking their software to get away with things.
And that happened because of this little-- it's sort of like what's happening with journalism. Having the capacity for ProPublica to be a community-funded operation, the capacity to do some of this has never been greater. And that's, I think, always a good thing.
I want to leave some time for Q&A. So I'm going to skip a couple more. I was at the Vatican in 2014. I was really privileged to spend a week at this meeting that was called Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Planet, Our Responsibility. Should have had a question mark at the end.
And it was a week of economists, theologians, climate scientists, fisheries scientists, a community organizer from Buenos Aires who was part of the pope's posse, all together, discussing what-- in the end, we at the meeting realized, for sure, what happens going forward is a mix of data and values. Science mostly just paints the perimeter. And quite often, as I said earlier, it's a fuzzy perimeter.
You can have legitimate, real, scientific complexity that isn't answerable or clarifiable on a reasonable time scale. And that means it's up to society to figure out how to go forward. And on a global issue like global warming, where emissions sources and the impacts of climate change are different places, it gets pretty challenging.
But the first step toward a comfortable path is to recognize that it's data, and values, and variegated values as well. It's not an easy process. But it's very much a human process. And the more you have community, the more you commune, the more you have a chance to move forward.
And one of the things that happened there was really representative to me. The piece that I wrote that Bret Stephens-- I wish he had quoted other parts of it. But he didn't.
It ends with this scene at the Vatican, where I'm sitting with Walter Munk, this legendary oceanographer from the Scripps Institution in California, who was 96 at the time. He's still with us, as far as I know. I think he turns 100 this year.
I'm sitting with this guy. He's a physical oceanographer. He helped win World War II, among other things, by working on wave height models, forecasts for beach landings.
And so I asked him, at the end of this thing, I said, so, Walter, what's it going to take to get us through this century? And he paused. And we'd had wine and stuff.
And he said, it'll take a miracle-- he's a scientist-- a miracle of love and unselfishness. Which to me encapsulates the opportunity, but also the challenge in all this. It's not going to be an easy thing to do. We're not very unselfish most of the time. But we're capable of all that stuff.
And I'll end it there. Oh, yeah. There's [INAUDIBLE]
So, bend, stretch, reach, teach, reveal, rejoice, reflect, repeat. Discipline. Keep at it.
So that's it. Thank you. And let's have some questions.
SPEAKER 1: If you want to call on them, I can go give them the microphone.
ANDREW REVKIN: OK. Everyone's shocked and awed.
SPEAKER 1: So I can bring the mic for any questions.
SPEAKER 2: I just have a quick comment. When you mentioned the video of the gentleman in Oklahoma who was totally skeptical but very on board with renewable energy, we have a video from the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions with a farmer from Western New York who has a net-zero farm but did not do any of that for climate change. He did it for energy independence.
ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah. There you go.
SPEAKER 2: And he's a Cornell alumni.
ANDREW REVKIN: That's great. Send me a link.
SPEAKER 2: I will. Yeah.
ANDREW REVKIN: I'll tweet it. Any other questions? No?
SPEAKER 1: Other comments or questions? We have about five minutes, right?
ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah. If that. Hey.
SPEAKER 3: So, how do you get Bret Stephens to actually understand what's uncertain and what's not uncertain?
ANDREW REVKIN: Ah, well, yeah. This is this article. I wrote a 2,000-word piece about his 800-word column over the weekend. But then the editor took it all apart and has asked me to rewrite it. In fact, I was rewriting it until just five minutes before the podium. And I've got to work on it on the way to the airport, or whatever.
I'm hoping-- I'm leaving open lines of communication to him. I want to work-- I'm not going to educate him. But I think I can lead him-- I don't know. You know, there's these open questions.
And it's the same with Trump. How much of what's happening in terms of not having the bureaucracy work yet-- how much of that is purposeful, or just ineptitude? I don't know yet.
And with Bret, I don't know how much of his writing there was truly uninformed or was strategic. And I'll let you know. I'll know soon. But this is this-- until you converse, until you exchange-- and if we all just wall ourselves off, then you never even have the opportunity to know.
A lot of people who, as I said earlier-- intelligence-- scientific literacy is not an indicator for concern on climate change. So we come with all these filters and stuff. And a lot of us skate over the surface of deep problems. And my guess is that's a big chunk of him.
So if I can work on that a bit, I don't know. We'll find out. We'll see when he reads my piece.
SPEAKER 1: We have one right here.
ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah.
SPEAKER 4: Thank you very much for your work. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about-- you know, it's not an accident that the views of the public are kind of sticky and hard to change. Can you talk a little bit about these sort of unseen forces of the money behind climate denial? I mean, oil and gas interests, et cetera.
And they stay very much in the background, like the tobacco industry when they knew full well that there was major damage caused by their product. But they continued to put forth misinformation. So what's going on behind that we really ought to be more aware of? And how can we eliminate those forces?
ANDREW REVKIN: Oh, well, ProPublica. I'm not the only-- there's three of us there, now, focused on climate. And journalism matters.
But, at the same time, there's one other thing-- let me see if it's here. Where is she? One thing to keep in mind-- here we go. Yeah.
Don't expect magical action if you level the playing field. Because environmental groups, like in the run-up to the climate bill in 2009, between 2003 and 2009, by different accountings, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent by environmental groups. Hundreds of millions of dollars. Foundations. And it amounted to naught, because they hadn't paid attention to those six Americas and all that stuff.
And so it's not just money. Entrenched interests are entrenched. But they're entrenched for a reason.
The status quo here is-- I used to talk about this this way. Society right now is like a boulder in a path. And the status quo is that we like fossil fuels.
Suburbia was created using cars that can run around 100 miles a day and stuff. And so far, the benefits of that, we don't acknowledge, are really pretty profound. You know, it's like, how we do what we do, is sitting here in a slightly too-warm building.
And so that's the status quo. And so, industry, or whoever, has got a little feather duster maintaining stasis. And everyone who's been trying to decarbonize-- rapid decarbonization of the economy is pushing on that rock, that way.
So it's not as if it's only that. I'm not saying it's not important. I did some groundbreaking investigative revelations during the Bush administration. I'm doing the same kind of push right now, along with other stuff. But don't count on that being some magical path toward a rapidly decarbonized world, unless we're working on all the other things at the same time.
SPEAKER 1: So, I believe Mr.--
ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah. I've pretty much got to go. I mean, I'm easy to find, @revkin on Twitter. Or just look in Bret Stephens' column.
And it's been great to be here. I'm sorry I came to the podium so "hoo." But it's that kind of day.
Stay engaged. The key thing is engagement. Remember what I said.
And remember what Bill McKibben does. This is the work of a lifetime. There's no, like, problem, solution, done, on to some other thing. It's not like that.
And I think that's a source of comfort. It's also, there is a loss there, too. But it's a source of comfort, to think that this is a big enough deal that it takes more than just one generation-- more than just one president, for sure-- to do it. And go forth. Thank you.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
It seems the only thing changing faster than Earth’s environment these days is the communication environment. Mainstream media are shrinking. Global connectivity is exploding. Facts and fantasy flow side by side. In a Climate Change Seminar hosted by the Atkinson Center on May 1, 2017, journalist and A.D. White Professor-at-Large Andrew Revkin describes paths toward progress, most requiring a relentless focus on engagement and innovation. Revkin has been communicating about climate, energy and sustainable development for more than 30 years.