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[shorenstein] Andy Revkin on communicating climate science

I’m at a talk by Andrew Revkin of the NY Times’ Dot Earth blog at the Shorenstein Center. [Alex Jones mentions in his introduction that Andy is a singer-songwriter who played with Pete Seeger. Awesome!]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Andy says he’s been a science reporter for 31 years. His first magazine article was about the dangers of the anti-pot herbicide paraquat. (The article won an award for investigative journalism). It had all the elements — bad guys, victims, drama — typical of “Woe is me. Shame on you” environmental reporting. His story on global warming in 1988 has “virtually the same cast of characters” that you see in today’s coverage. “And public attitudes are about the same…Essentially the landscape hasn’t changed.” Over time, however, he has learned how complex climate science is.

In 2010, his blog moved from NYT’s reporting to editorial, so now he is freer to express his opinions. He wants to talk with us today about the sort of “media conversation” that occurs now, but didn’t when he started as a journalist. We now have a cloud of people who follow a journalist, ready to correct them. “You can say this is terrible. It’s hard to separate noise from signal. And that’s correct.” “It can be noisy, but it’s better than the old model, because the old model wasn’t always right.” Andy points to the NYT coverage on the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But this also means that now readers have to do a lot of the work themselves.

He left the NYT in his mid-fifties because he saw that access to info more often than not doesn’t change you, but instead reinforces your positions. So at Pace U he studies how and why people understand ecological issues. “What is it about us that makes us neglect long-term imperatives?” This works better in a blog in a conversation drawing upon other people’s expertise than an article. “I’m a shitty columnist,” he says. People read columns to reinforce their beliefs, although maybe you’ll read George Will to refresh your animus :) “This makes me not a great spokesperson for a position.” Most positions are one-sided, whereas Andy is interested in the processes by which we come to our understanding.

Q: [alex jones] People seem stupider about the environment than they were 20 years ago. They’re more confused.

A: In 1991 there was a survey of museum goers who thought that global warming was about the ozone hole, not about greenhouse gases. A 2009 study showed that on a scale of 1-6 of alarm, most Americans were at 5 (“concerned,” not yet “alarmed”). Yet, Andy points out, the Cap and Trade bill failed. Likewise,the vast majority support rebates on solar panels and fuel-efficient vehicles. They support requiring 45mph fuel efficiency across vehicle fleets, even at a $1K price premium. He also points to some Gallup data that showed that more than half of the respondents worry a great a deal or a fair amount, but that number hasn’t changed since they Gallup began asking the question, in 1989. Furthermore, global warming doesn’t show up as one of the issues they worry about.

The people we need to motivate are innovators. We’ll have 9B on the planet soon, and 2B who can’t make reasonable energy choices.

Q: Are we heading toward a climate tipping point?

A: There isn’t evidence that tipping points in climate are real and if they are, we can’t really predict them.

Q: The permafrost isn’t going to melt?

A: No, it is melting. But we don’t know if it will be catastrophic.

Andy points to a photo of despair at a climate conference. But then there’s Scott H. DeLisi who represents a shift in how we relate to communities: Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts. Inside Climate News won the Pulitzer last year. “That says there are new models that may work. Can they sustain their funding?” Andy’s not sure.

“Journalism is a shinking wedge of a growing pie of ways to tell stories.”

“Escape from the Nerd Loop”: people talking to one another about how to communicate science issues. Andy loves Twitter. The hashtag is as big an invention as photovoltaics, he says. He references Chris Messina, its inventor, and points to how useful it is for separating and gathering strands of information, including at NASA’s Asteroid Watch. Andy also points to descriptions by a climate scientist who went to the Arctic [or Antarctic?] that he curated, and to a singing scientist.

Q: I’m a communications student. There was a guy named Marshall McLuhan, maybe you haven’t heard of him. Is the medium the message?

A: There are different tools for different jobs. I could tell you the volume of the atmosphere, but Adam Nieman, a science illustrator, used this way to show it to you.

Q: Why is it so hard to get out of catastrophism and into thinking about solutions?

A: Journalism usually focuses on the down side.If there’s no “Woe is me” element, it tends not to make it onto the front page. At Pace U. we travel each spring and do a film about a sustainable resource farming question. The first was on shrimp-farming in Belize. It’s got thousands of views but it’s not on the nightly news. How do we shift our norms in the media?

[david ropiek] Inherent human psychology: we pay more attention to risks. People who want to move the public dial inherently are attracted to the more attention-getting headlines, like “You’re going to die.”

A: Yes. And polls show that what people say about global warming depends on the weather outside that day.

A report recently drew the connection between climate change and other big problems facing us: poverty, war, etc. What did you think of it?

A: It was good. But is it going to change things? The Extremes report likewise. The city that was most affected by the recent typhoon had tripled its population, mainly with poor people. Andy values Jesse Ausubel who says that most politics is people pulling on disconnected levels.

Q: Any reflections on the disconnect between breezy IPCC executive summaries and the depth of the actual scientific report?

A: There have been demands for IPCC to write clearer summaries. Its charter has it focused on the down sides.

Q: How can we use open data and community tools to make better decisions about climate change? Will the data Obama opened up last month help?

A: The forces of stasis can congregate on that data and raise questions about it based on tiny inconsistencies. So I’m not sure it will change things. But I’m all for transparency. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, like when the US Embassy was doing its own twitter feed on Beijing air quality. We have this wonderful potential now; Greenpeace (who Andy often criticizes) did on-the-ground truthing about companies deforesting organgutang habitats in Indonesia. Then they did a great campaign to show who’s using the palm oil: Buying a Kitkat bar contributes to the deforesting of Borneo. You can do this ground-truthing now.

Q: In the past 6 months there seems to have been a jump in climate change coverage. No?

A: I don’t think there’s more coverage.

Q: India and Pakistan couldn’t agree on water control in part because the politicians talked about scarcity while the people talked in terms of their traditional animosities. How can we find the right vocabularies?

A: If the conversation is about reducing vulnerabilities and energy efficiency, you can get more consensus than talking about global warming.

Q: How about using data visualizations instead of words?

A: I love visualizations. They spill out from journalism. How much it matters is another question. Ezra Klein just did a piece that says that information doesn’t matter.

Q: Can we talk about your “Years of Living Dangerously” piece? [Couldn't hear the rest of the question].

A: My blog is edited by the op-ed desk, and I don’t always understand their decisions. Journalism migrates toward controversy. The Times has a feature “Room for Debate,” and I keep proposing “Room for Agreement,” where you’d see what people who disagree about an issue can agree on.

Q: [me] Should we still be engaging with deniers? With whom should we be talking?

A: Yes, we should engage. We taxpayers subsidize second mortgages on houses in wild fire zones in Colorado. Why? So firefighters have to put themselves at risk? That’s an issue that people agree on across the spectrum. When it comes to deniers, we have to ask what exactly are you denying, Particular data? Scientific method? Physics? I’ve come to the conclusion that even if we had perfect information, we still wouldn’t galvanize the action we need.

[Andy ends by singing a song about liberated carbon. That's not something you see every day at the Shorenstein Center.]

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog ( He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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