NYT author discusses recent story on climate ‘centrism’
On Tuesday, NYT environment reporter Andy Revkin published a piece called “Challenges to Both Left and Right on Global Warming.” The following day, I wrote a highly critical response: "Centrist dog food." With typical graciousness, Revkin offered to discuss the piece, so I took him up on it and we fired up a Skype chat. Here is the transcript:
David Roberts: Thanks for doing this.
Andy Revkin: So I’m always more eager to search for points of agreement than difference. Seems best way to progress. So what do we agree on related to the range of voices out there in the debate over how to respond to the reality of human-forced climate change?
DR: The way I see it, there’s a wide range, that’s growing wider all the time, with a whole crazy mix of tones, positions, perspectives, etc. I think we agree that it’s a good thing that more voices are entering the discussion. And particularly that the Republican Titanic is attempting to dodge the Denial Iceberg. (If you will.)
AR: You’re right. Some of the climate experts I’ve talked to over the years predicted that more clarity on the science actually could widen the range of policy views. We may as well cut to the chase on the hottest button, the mention of the word "Lomborg."
DR: The way I see it, Lomborg is a unique case. He doesn’t represent a school of thought — or rather, he represents a school of thought of one. He acknowledges some of the science, ignores some of it, and generally — in my view — misunderstands the big picture. But precisely because he’s unique, it seems bizarre to me to characterize him as in the "center."
AR: I indicated in my blog post that this "center" is not necessarily right, for one thing. And you’re right, it IS shorthand to describe a midrange view (climate is a serious risk worth a carbon tax and big boost in R&D) as centrist, perhaps. But I think it’s legitimate shorthand, particularly given that he only got about 250 words out of a 1,000-word piece. The real reason I feel it necessary to write about him (and a lot of my Dot Earth commentators and a heap of angry scientists thought I shouldn’t have) is that he’s been kind of an intellectual lifeboat for a lot of doubtful, disengaged, or disinformed people out there. When this comfort-zone character says we need a carbon tax and a big technology push, that takes away the comfort zone for folks.
DR: But you’re assuming that those people will stop using him when they find out his other positions. Surely the denial/delay community has demonstrated, if nothing else, it’s opportunism. They’ll use Lomborg for FUD, and if/when he’s no longer useful, they’ll use somebody else.
AR: Sure, but as a journalist tracking the evolving game board here, I’ve got to report on when prominent pieces move, no matter what the overall state of the game is.
DR: The way I see it, you’re taking people on the right who are clearing a very, very low bar — acknowledging that there’s a problem and proposing to do something (albeit not much) about it — and showering them with attention and praise. But there’s a large, robust community of people that have accepted the science for a long time, and have interesting debates over the best way to proceed. Why not give them the attention? Why no locate the "center" among the actual debates taking place?
You’ve got to understand, there’s a totemic quality to the terms "moderate" and "centrist," especially when applied by a national journalist. The entire Beltway punditry worships those qualities. So to apply them to these guys … it’s factually inaccurate, for one thing, but it also distorts people’s view of the real debates going on.
AR: Not being an inhabitant of the Beltway, maybe I miss the subtext definitions of words like moderate and center. Did you see my post a week ago on the youth movement? I think it was the only mainstream coverage of the huge pulse of young people who headed to DC to pester their elected officials. I’m not here to offer praise (that’s the turf of our opinion writers). But I am here — absolutely — to chronicle who is acting meaningfully on this issue. Same goes for the newspaper columnists I blogged on in Kansas who did the spoof ad complaining about Big Coal’s ad attacks against the governor there. I’m all for reporting on what is, and is not, meaningful.
DR: I happily acknowledge that it’s worth writing about when a famous Republican like Gingrich acknowledges climate change, or when a useful tool of the right like Lomborg proposes a carbon tax. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t write about it. But the frame you put around it, lumping those guys together with S&N and calling the resulting stew the "pragmatic center," is just inaccurate, and as a news reporter offering an accurate view of the state of play should be the top requirement. Those guys don’t share anything in common. If I was new to the debate, and considered myself a reasonable centrist type, and wanted to know what to believe, what would I learn by reading these three? I’d get all kinds of contradictory signals. There’s no there there.
It seems to me what you really want to get at is this issue of tone, and framing, and whether to talk about climate change as an oncoming catastrophe. And that’s an interesting subject. But to presume, at the outset, that taking the milder view is "reasonable" is just to prejudge the case. I read the IPCC and it sounds to me a hell of a lot like a pressing, urgent problem.
AR: The pressing urgent problem is figuring out a way to engage people on a multi-generational energy quest to move away from a here-and-now fuel (mainly coal) that is cheap and abundant for the sake of a less risky climate future. As you know, the largely-underplayed message of the IPCC report, which I wrote about but didn’t get much coverage elsewhere, is that the atmosphere and climate won’t notice the difference between a Gore-style immediate emissions freeze or a pedal-to-the-metal fossil-fuel party for more than 20 years. There will be no discernible diversion in climate trends for two decades.
The urgency is all about finding a tone that captivates instead of paralyzes. As you know, I wrote about the "Be Worried" message last year and talked to a lot of sociologists who said anyone who hopes that message will galvanize sustained behavior changes should be very worried. I also blogged on that last week in a piece on UK liberal studies showing concerns about overheated press coverage there, which they labeled "climate porn."
DR: I am aware that a pure message of fear paralyzes — as, I think, virtually everyone involved in this issue is aware. The environmental message around global warming is not nearly as monochromatic as you make out. Every time he opens his mouth, Gore says both: it’s a climate emergency, but we can beat it, and we will be enriched by doing so. I see stuff about green jobs, new industries, better health, greater national cohesion, etc. etc. all over the place. The positive message is out there. If you ask me, it’s not the campaigners but the media that’s addicted to "porn" of all sorts.
AR: You’re right, and I’ve written two book chapters on hurdles preventing effective media coverage of climate and related complex environmental issues — and one of the big ones is the importance of not overplaying the ‘hot’ material and forgetting the real complexities, e.g., polar bears are not going extinct. No one (not even the scientists doing the review for Endangered Species Act) says they are. They are hardy, resilient and will have refuges of ice in parts of the Arctic well into the next century, according to the latest studies. But you would never know that from the ad campaigns of environmental groups, or the coverage in many media.
[Here’s a link to one chapter.]
DR: We need more campaigners talking about opportunities rather than danger; same with the media. We need more campaigners talking about adaptation for the global poor rather than all mitigation; same with the media. We need to talk more about the many regulatory and tax barriers to RE & EE; same with the media. I would be pleased if you wrote about all those things.
The only thing I ask is that you not try to pick, out of this wide array of different debates and perspectives, a "center" — that only serves to artificially narrow the debate and marginalize some voices that are bringing us important, and poorly heeded, messages.
We can walk and chew gum — recognize that it’s a big problem that needs urgent action, and also feel exhilarated by the opportunities ahead of us. That’s what S&N are after, I think. But Gingrich and Lomborg, it seems to me, are out to anesthetize, which is a very different thing.
DR: Finally bringing to mainstream attention the very stuff dirty hippies have been yelling and screaming about for over a decade! And good for you. But don’t go dismissing those very same dirty hippies as "extremists" in the next breath. They deserve credit for being ahead on this issue. And Gingrich deserves, at best, a pat on the head. "Thanks for catching up, Newt."
AR: I cover it all, and don’t mind some yelling about one or two stories out of 500-plus pieces I’ve written on this since 2000, not including all the stories I’ve done going back to 1988 … I’ve been writing on climate almost (almost!) since before there were dirty hippies. Indeed, since before there was an IPCC.
Thanks for having this chat with me … Way more fun than dog (food) fights.