In her speech at Monday’s UN Climate Action Summit, Greta Thunberg told a roomful of global leaders, “The world is waking up.” Yet the science, as she noted, has been clear for decades. Why has this awakening taken so long, and what can we do now to help it along? On Episode 9 of Not Cool, Ariel is joined by Andy Revkin, acclaimed environmental journalist and founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Andy discusses the information gaps that have left us vulnerable, the difficult conversations we need to be having, and the strategies we should be using to effectively communicate climate science. He also talks about inertia, resilience, and creating a culture that cares about the future.
Topics discussed include:
- Inertia in the climate system
- The expanding bullseye of vulnerability
- Managed retreat
- Information gaps
- Climate science literacy levels
- Renewable energy in conservative states
- Infrastructural inertia
- Climate science communication strategies
- Increasing resilience
- Balancing inconvenient realities with productive messaging
- Extreme events
References discussed include:
- Digital Green
- Dot Earth blog
- The Cultural Cognition Project
- Woodward County, Oklahoma: Why do so many here doubt climate change?
- IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ℃
- The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest
Behind the headlines, behind the red/blue, there’s plenty of things to look at that are going in the right direction. And no scientist and no longtime climate journalist like me would say it’s enough; But it’s real.
~ Andy Revkin
Ariel Conn: Hi everyone and welcome to the 9th episode of Not Cool, a climate podcast. As climate week continues at the United Nations and around the world, I’m thrilled to introduce my next guest, who was one of the earliest people to write about the threat of climate change.
Andrew Revkin is one of America’s most honored and experienced journalists focused on environmental and human sustainability, and he recently became the founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Prior to that, he spent a year as a strategic adviser at the National Geographic Society, supporting worldwide environmental journalism. He was the senior reporter for climate change at the nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica. And he spent 14 years at The New York Times.
He has written acclaimed books on humanity’s weather and climate learning journey, global warming, the changing Arctic and the assault on the Amazon rain forest. In spare moments, he is a performing songwriter.
Andy, thank you so much for joining us.
Andy Revkin: Oh, it’s great to be with you.
Ariel Conn: So you’ve been covering climate issues for quite a while, and I wanted to start with your take on how would you summarize what I think is actually a really big and difficult problem to summarize?
Andy Revkin: Well, I guess it’s been 30, gosh, I hate to say it, 33 years, I think now –– 34. My first climate story was about nuclear winter –– it was like the inverse of global warming –– it was 1984 or ’85, the idea that a nuclear war could throw so much crap into the atmosphere that it would chill the Earth, and we’d all suffer, and ecosystems as well. 1988 was global warming and I’ve been at it in different ways ever since. If you include blog posts and stories, it’s way over 3000, plus three books that touch on this, plus several book chapters on how to communicate about climate.
I think the summary I would give right now is that there’s actually two enormous climate challenges. And they operate on very different time scales, and they give us a lot to work on that’s actually addressable right now, even though it feels so global and amorphous and monumental. And the two challenges are: we need to decarbonize our energy systems and our food systems –– you know, we need to stop what we’ve been doing unintentionally for 100 years, which is building this pulsive influence on the climate system through emissions of greenhouse gases. But we need to recognize that that won’t have any benefit for decades, none. The system is big and slow moving, and the climate system doesn’t magically notice; Even if Greta Thunberg and Al Gore became President and Vice President of the world starting tomorrow, the climate system might notice that –– assuming they had a global impact on policy –– sometime around 2060.
Ariel Conn: Oh, wow.
Andy Revkin: Yeah. No, inertia: there’s a great 40 second video I did with a couple of MIT wonks two years ago. I asked them, “What’s the thing about global warming that people, even people who are concerned about it, don’t understand? What’s the biggest thing they don’t understand?” John Riley at MIT said, “Inertia.” He basically repeated what I just said.
We’ve got to get busy decarbonizing because through our pulsive growth and development in rich and poor places, and population shifts into zones of danger, we are building what some geographers have called an expanding bullseye of vulnerability and exposure. What that means is the thing that’s changing way fastest that’s driving risk related to climate is where we’re living and how we’re living.
And that’s something you could do something about right away, locally: We can look at your zoning, we can look at building codes and wildfire zones. You can actually make communities fundamentally safer and more resilient to climate stress right now. Those are two very different frontiers. One has immediate impacts –– it’s still hard: Changing zoning and building codes takes time, too, and sustained engagement in your community. But it’s something you can do right now.
And then these more structural challenges. So you have an emissions free energy system, or even eventually something that sucks in more C02, some kind of agricultural or energy system or the like. That’s a great, important, vital thing to be doing now to reduce long term risk, but it doesn’t have any real-time benefits.
Just to make it clear, that means there’s lots to do. That means it’s not to be paralytic, it’s not monumental, and it’s something that everyone can do something about. At Columbia University, where I am now, we just had a big conference called Managed Retreat. What is that, and how does it work, and can we do it? We know one of the most powerful things about climate change that’s so powerfully established is that warmer climates on this planet come with much higher sea levels, period. No debate.
And that means we’re facing sea level rise for centuries to come. And the inertia factor I mentioned means there’s nothing we do with emissions of greenhouse gases that the oceans are going to notice for even more decades, because the oceans have even more momentum and you don’t just magically stop the sea level from rising. That means that communities have to get real with their exposure that’s been built over the last half century in so many places. In America, in China, in Vietnam: any place that’s coastal –– Tacloban in the Philippines, that horrible typhoon that hit in the run-up to the Paris Agreement.
Several thousand people were killed, but the thing that caused the high death toll –– this is an area of the Pacific that gets hammered by typhoons, including extraordinary ones; that one was at the top end of the scale –– but the thing that had changed in the last 40 years was Tacloban, the town: The population had grown four times over. Mostly poor people moving into a city without governance adequate to provide housing and areas that are safe, and so you get crowded, informal development on a floodplain along the coast, and along comes a typhoon, and you have a terrible event.
That’s the vulnerability that we’re building, and rich people are doing the same thing. It’s like the world’s poorest and richest people in cities are building this expanding bullseye. I made it into a hashtag, there’s a hashtag #expandingbullseye, that people can explore. And it’s over and over and over again. It’s even true in places where there’s no evidence that climate change is playing a role in some hazard. Simplest place to look for that is Tornado Alley, where the worst tornadoes, the ones that do the worst damage –– there’s literally no science saying that there’s been a significant change in tornado behavior, in the ones that kill people: F4, F5 tornadoes, for decades; in fact, there’s a slight downward trend.
But what’s happened in towns like Moore, Oklahoma, which I wrote about a lot, where they had a devastating, high fatality tornado strike in 2013 I think it was: the population had quadrupled in the last half century. People there don’t have basements. There’s no code saying you have to have a basement; There’s no code saying you have to have a safe room. The vulnerability was being built at a high rate. We’re talking about rapid rise in risk through building vulnerable structures, and building a lot of them. That doesn’t have anything to do with climate change. So what does that say? It says if you’re not busy on the vulnerability reduction right now, then you’re just setting yourself up for huge hits in the future.
Ariel Conn: Does it seem possible to address the vulnerabilities in ways that don’t then contribute more to the carbon in the atmosphere? Because it seems like if we have to build new structures and safer zones, or if we have to move people, that that’s going to contribute. Or, are there other solutions?
Andy Revkin: The managed retreat I mentioned, related to sea level rise, is something that has to happen, period. Or it can be unmanaged retreat, that’s fine, too; That’s what we call refugees or climate migrants. There’s not a lot of refugees that you can link to climate change. There are people moving, absolutely, related to coastal vulnerability, flood zones. People move. The carbon impacts of that are pretty marginal because people are always moving, cities are always changing.
I don’t think there’s a way to think about that that doesn’t involve some emissions building houses somewhere else. But what can happen, and actually is happening in many places, is you can improve coastal resilience by planting mangroves, for example. Mangroves are like this win, win, win thing. They give you more surge vulnerability for sure, along the coast; They definitely sequester carbon –– in fact, I think there’s some evidence they do a better job of it than terrestrial force; And they’re a biological resource –– they’re a haven for biodiversity. So actually there’s another hashtag, #mangrovesmatter. You’ll see some really cool stuff about that, too. My students at Pace University, when I was there a number of years ago, we did a film on coral conservation and the Caribbean, and one of the lessons there is planting mangroves is also good for reefs, because the fish that tend the coral reefs, I think it’s something like half of the fish species on reefs start out in mangroves. Look for the win, win, win, win, win, win, wins, and that can make up for a little bit of a loss here and there by moving people in one direction or another.
Ariel Conn: Okay. You’ve just started at Columbia and they had an announcement about your new role, and one of the quotes was, “We want to tackle specific climate and sustainability challenges where the impediment to progress is an information gap, a paralyzed conversation, or a missing connection between disciplines or sectors of society.” I want to go into that quote a little bit and talk about what examples are of each of those things. What would you say are some examples of the information gap that we have to address?
Andy Revkin: The lack of information, you can see that everywhere around the world. The worst gaps are of course in developing countries, poor places, or communities here as well. You don’t have the internet, you don’t have access to information. Those are fundamental gaps that give outsized advantage to people who are wealthier and more linked in. But some specifics are, here in the Hudson River Valley where I live, through a lot of hard work and innovative policy and some technological advances, you can have your community become a wholesale buyer of renewable energy.
So you’re not individual homeowners anymore just paying a bill. This community choice aggregation option, CCA, is spreading pretty rapidly. But it could spread a lot quicker. People just don’t know how to do it. They don’t know, how do we make our town one of the ones that can be part of this process? If you’re not even aware that it’s an option, if you don’t have a local newspaper anymore that’s looking at things like energy choice, then you’re not going to have that information.
Those are the information gaps. And in India, there’s 120 million farming families in India –– that’s families, not individuals. And one of the great achievements in North American farming history was extension service: Cornell and other land grant colleges who provide advice to farmers. But how do you do that in India? How do you plant a more resilient crop?
There’s an organization called Digital Green that has built sort of a YouTube network where some facilitators go into villages, they talk with farmers who’ve taken on a better practice using water more carefully, or trying a new seed variety. And the farmers create these little videos in the dozens of local languages that you have around India, so that it’s a farmer telling another farmer, “You might want to try this.” That’s kind of the problem and the solution all in one. The problem is that there’s too many farmers. The solution is help create a network.
Broken conversations I see all the time. When I was doing my blog at Dot Earth, my New York Times blog which I started in 2007 while I was still a reporter there, half of the time I was mediating these brittle arguments between people who are, “Hell no fracking” and people like me who think you could have fracking happen in a responsible way, and natural gas is better than coal in many circumstances, and there’s a lot of it, and we need energy in the northeast to heat and cool our homes.
You can have legitimate debates about a lot of these things, but they end up getting stuck in these yes/no positions. And what I started doing was digging in more to this other big body of science, not just climate science and energy emissions science and the like, but social science. How do mediators do their job? What is a mediated conversation as opposed to a yelling debate on social media? There is a science to that. Some of it’s peer reviewed science, actually. At Columbia, there’s an initiative, there’s a guy who I just met at Columbia university, Peter Coleman, who runs what he calls the Difficult Conversations Laboratory. How many difficult conversations do you know of that happened in this arena? GMOs versus organic; what’s the role of nuclear power; no nukes, yes nukes. What I’m looking for is some nukes. That’s a hashtag, too: #somenukes.
And then more fundamentally, the behavioral science that I started to learn way too late in my reporting journey: peer reviewed work also shows that science literacy is not an indicator of consensus. It’s not like if you made a large population literate in climate science –– that doesn’t automatically shift the argument towards solutions. In fact, there’s demonstrable work by this group at Yale –– they invented a name for the field, it’s cultural cognition, and there’s a website, CulturalCognition.net –– they’ve shown that more literacy in science, you see it most frequently at the two ends of the dispute over climate change: So people who are most dismissive of the message about climate concern and the people who are most worried have similar levels of climate science literacy.
Ariel Conn: That’s interesting.
Andy Revkin: It’s more than interesting. As a journalist, when I started diving into that work around 2006 through 2009, it was kind of an existential thing. What do you look for as a journalist? You’re a reporter, writer, because you want to identify a problem and energize people towards solutions, whether it’s gun violence or climate change. And it turns out that on issues –– especially ones like climate change and gun violence that have become polarizing –– that more information doesn’t change anything. You look at that and you go, “Oh crap.”
This issue with broken conversations to me is significantly about broken perceptions. Meaning, if you’re trying to change the world and decarbonize the energy system in service of creating a safer climate, and you go to Woodward County, Oklahoma, and you come in saying, “Hey, everybody here. You have to agree there’s a climate emergency or climate crisis so we can get busy solving global warming,” you’re actually making your job harder than you would be if you went in after getting more understanding of the people who live there. There was a great revelation of this in 2015 when John Sutter, a CNN reporter at the time, went to Woodward County, Oklahoma, as part of a big two degrees project he was doing around the world.
He went there because Yale University and partners had identified Woodward County, Oklahoma, as ground zero for climate disbelief. So he went there and he started interviewing people, and there’s a great summary of the interview, like a three minute video clip on YouTube. The Yale survey also showed that in Woodward County, Oklahoma, people actually are really supportive of renewable energy. Some other part of their brain, some other part of their soul, some other part of their heart likes to be independent, and have the capacity to generate their own energy rather than pay someone for it.
So he went in there –– and this is this weird phenomenon: he interviews a guy who’s got a pressed blue shirt and a nice conservative tie, and he says, “You know, God controls the environment,” and for me, as a progressive coastal person, listening to that, my hair’s starting to prickle. But then a minute later, he’s talking about energy; he says, “We have half of our roof covered with solar panels and we want to do the rest, and get off the grid entirely.”
And John Sutter visited him at his house and sure enough, he had more panels and he was going to do this. When I show this to audiences, I say, “Knowing what you know about this guy, would you run into that town going, ‘Climate emergency, climate emergency,’ expecting to build consensus, or would you go into that town saying, ‘Hey yeah, that’s cool. You’ve got solar panels. What’s up? Maybe we could talk about ways that more people could get that capacity.'”
The moral of the story is that telling your story is often a disservice to the bigger question –– that listening is job one, and then you can engage ideally over time and build a constructive conversation about renewable energy standards or the like, and certainly about vulnerability, in ways that don’t polarize the issue by relying on these existing “them and us” templates that we have for the world.
Ariel Conn: So how has your own work changed as you’ve realized this?
Andy Revkin: Well, I think the blogging is what really got me moving in a more nuanced direction. Believe me, most commentors on the blog were not providing useful information, but absolutely every week, there was an insight that I gleaned by listening and tracking this conversation that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, or an idea about a different way to ask a question.
So it’s that interactivity that’s vital. Most journalism, like most science, has been an outward-focused process: “Hey, look what I just did. Here’s my story. I interviewed these guys, I went to the North Pole.” I mean, that stuff is important. Going to the North Pole and writing about sea ice melting and going to Greenland and writing a book about the burning of the Amazon, those things were important; That always will be important. And investigative reporting is even more important, and more endangered.
But on these sticky problems, these wicked ones like climate change, where it’s energy policy, it’s innovation policy, it’s politics, it’s legislation, it’s law, it’s science, climate science; it has a lot of uncertainty; we know the world’s warming, we know we’re the main driver, but we don’t know how hot it’s going to get by century’s end –– that mix of characteristics make it implicitly not one story. It’s many things. So breaking it into pieces, as you could do with a blog, or as I’ve seen other efforts are getting underway, to interrogate questions, to listen to the audiences, to then shape stories that are open and engaging, as opposed to prescriptive: there feels like more possibilities.
Ariel Conn: And do you feel like you’re starting to see people changing and adopting to climate, like in the Oklahoma example you gave? Where maybe they’re starting to do something that is beneficial, but maybe not for the reasons that scientists would like, but if they’re doing it regardless.
Andy Revkin: Yeah. In 2017, for a while I was working for ProPublica, an investigative reporting, independent newsroom. That was right as Trump was getting into office, so it was chaos-filled, and a lot of doom and gloom for many justifiable reasons. But I did a piece assessing, if you actually look carefully at states around the country on energy policy, there’s some very conservative states that have actually been leading the charge on renewables expansion, often not for reasons other than economic ones.
Texas, under Rick Perry, who’s still very quietly the Secretary of Energy, had I think the biggest expansion of wind power in America. I’d have to see if it compares to Europe. Remember, Texas is pretty big. And none of that really had to do with politics. It was mostly about opportunity. And there were other states in the West, I think I remember Carbon County, Wyoming, which is named for the black stuff that they’ve been digging up –– this is a couple of years ago, I’m not sure if this is still going forward –– they had a plan to have what would be the largest single wind farm in the country, with the electricity being targeted toward West Coast cities like Los Angeles. Also, a lot of the states that were fighting in court against Obama’s clean power plan, I believe it was 14 of the 17, were on a pace to hit the targets of the plan, through like 2023. So not like the longer targets, but the short term. Behind the headlines, behind the red/blue, there’s plenty of things to look at that are going in the right direction. And no scientist and no longtime climate journalist like me would say it’s enough; But it’s real.
This gets to one of the other limits on thinking about the communication strategies in the context of something like global warming: There are limits to what you can do with storytelling, given all the inertia that’s in our system, too. It’s not just climate inertia. There’s infrastructural inertia: We have thousands of gas stations, we have dozens of charging stations. That takes time. We just chose a newish Prius rather than an EV, because we do some long drives too, and I’m not ready to go to full EV, so here I am writing about this stuff for 30 years –– I’m not quite there. So inertia’s real, which means we have to divide this issue into the things we can do and the things we would like to do but we know we really won’t be able to do. Getting some momentum in a certain direction, even if it’s inadequate, feels to be vital. It’s something that those campaigning for a perfect approach can’t really embrace, because it undercuts the urgency rhetoric, but it’s just there.
Ariel Conn: The IPCC report that came out last year that gave us a vague 2030 as a deadline for making massive change: as someone who’s trying to communicate about this, how do you try to get through to people and how do you maybe turn back to the scientists sometimes and say, “This isn’t possible?” Or, do you think that that’s not an option?
Andy Revkin: The way the IPCC is structured, it makes it hard for them to say something’s impossible. They’re asked questions by the 188 countries or whatever that chartered the IPCC to exist and pay its budget. In the context of the Paris Agreement, they were asked to tell the world the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees. That was what that report was about.
There’s no scientists I know who says he or she knows in the world that we know, how we would get anywhere near a 1.5 target, but they were asked a question. They had to answer the question. So, it creates an artificial answer. Scientists are not good at saying, “We can’t help you with that.” They want more science, they always want more science. A friend of mine who was a climate scientist was on a panel in I think the World Meteorological Organization at some kind of recent conference with frontiers in climate.
Someone asked the panel, each of them, to say, “What would you do if you had a trillion dollars to spend on this problem?” She was kind of struck that the other people on the panel each said, “More climate science. Better computers.” She’s much more focused on resilience on the ground, and community impact, and she was kind of shocked. Scientists are great, but the majority of scientists involved with the IPCC are geophysical and ocean science. There have never been enough social scientists, anthropologists, sociologists.
They’re in there, but they’re a tiny minority, and they always feel overwhelmed. That’s kind of unfortunate because you end up with this, when the message gets out of the IPCC process into the world, it’s interpreted in a very caricatured way. 12 years, the clock is ticking, and everything falls apart. There’s no one, if you go on Twitter and look for 12 years, there are many, many climate scientists who have gotten onto Twitter and stressed, “That’s not what this means.” This is not like a cliffhang, it’s a slope into a tougher future. Every year we’re not cutting emissions, we’re adding to that long term outcome that’s not going to be easy to recover from. But it doesn’t make for a good headline. 12 years to doom, there’s a headline.
Ariel Conn: Yes, that gets a lot more attention. So, I do want to keep talking about what’s been changing, because it feels like to me, it seems like in the last couple of years I am seeing a lot more awareness globally about the climate issue. I was curious what you’ve seen change and what you think is some of the biggest factors driving more people to be concerned?
Andy Revkin: Well, there’s been significant surveys in the US, and I think a few global ones, that show for sure experience with recent events. Not just the headlines, but people’s direct experience with the drought or an extraordinary rainfall. Like, nothing they could remember, or the wildfires in the West, for sure. Those have been linked statistically to the level of concern people register in the surveys. It’s definitely changed.
When I look at the background things, many things have changed. Just thinking about my own community here, this little village in the Hudson Valley, 10 or 15 years ago we did not have an option to be a community that can buy all renewable energy, and we can, and it’s happening as of September something or other. And you can opt out of it if you’re a curmudgeon, but it’s happening. The community voted in on that.
The last mayor of my village is a Republican, and under his tenure we became a “climate smart community” and we’re trying to make that actualized. The idea that that would have been happening 10 years ago was unthinkable. All around the world the price of renewables has gone way down and their applicability and utility is going up. It’s not nearly enough. The fossil energy needs are such that it’s projected pretty confidently that even 2030 will still be 80% fossil. Again, inertia in energy systems is another reality. It’s never enough.
For every one of these arenas where I could cite progress like that, I can also point to Brazil where I was reporting in the Amazon in 1989 after the murder of Chico Mendes, I wrote my book about his life and death, and from that point forward, violence against forest defenders, deforestation rates dropped quite remarkably from like 2004 until the last couple of years. And now of course it’s an upsurge.
It was happening to some extent before Bolsonaro was elected, but now he’s kind of, just through his rhetoric, he’s liberated illegal loggers and miners to dive into the Amazon in ways that are very troubling. None of this is happy times, but there are abundant examples of progress out there. That’s when I get energized about, “Well, what’s the role of communication innovation and spreading that progress?”
Ariel Conn: On that note, one of the big questions that I have, because I feel like I’m in this category, is how do you communicate to people who are totally onboard with the fact that we need to be doing something, what they actually need to do? You talked about how people aren’t necessarily aware of the option with the community energy sources. How do we address the fact that there’s those of us that want to do something and just don’t know what to do?
Andy Revkin: I actually just put in a proposal to South by Southwest on how to help spread and expand local successes on energy and climate resilience. I think it’s an open frontier. Again, the answer really is not communicating to dot, dot, dot. It’s absolutely communicating with or enabling communication, empowering people to connect with each other, like those farmers in India.
A perfect example is right here in New York City in the school system. Another great discovery at Columbia University for me is the education, the teacher’s college folks have a sustainability program and there’s a guy there named Oren Pilmony-Levy, who’s been working pro bono for the New York City schools sustainability unit. They have a million students, 65,000 teachers, 1400 schools, something like that.
Under Mayor Bloomberg, 2013 or so, every school had to identify someone to be their sustainability coordinator. That’s all great, but what do you do with that? These are volunteers, and everyone in the school is busy. He’s been doing a statistical analysis of these volunteer sustainability coordinators, and some of them are really engaged, and they’re actually doing more than they should. They’re fantastic at working with teachers, or they are teachers, and they’re building this into the curriculum.
They do something that I think is a fantastic first step, which is a boiler room tour, when students go down into the bowels of the school and learn how it works as a system. In New York City it’s mostly oil. In New York City, schools right through the ’90s were still burning coal in their basements. Students learn about energy history, they learn about what you can and can’t do with renewables. They start to integrate that into the learning. You said there’s a number of schools where the kids are measuring the waste that they generate and creating tables and using math and statistics to understand trends of recycling.
The communication challenge is how do you spread that stuff? He said on Instagram, there are teachers, they have thousands of followers and they have their syllabus out on Instagram for other teachers to adopt. As I was talking with Oren, over and over the thing that was coming up is how do you help facilitate teachers trading ideas with each other? That’s not me telling a story. It’s what can we do to enable communities of practice in that case? Or communities like mine or anyone’s to do an energy audit in a community? That’s hard, actually, so how do you do that?
That’s what excites me every day. That means they’re frontiers, they’re our best practices, and people creating surprising progress, but then how do you spread that? That’s the new communication frontier, really, to me. It’s still funny to do a storytelling. Data visualizations, animation, integrating into the arts, those are all fantastic, important fronts too. But it’s more of the enabling story sharing and idea shaping.
Ariel Conn: To getting people to communicate with each other as well, as opposed to just hearing what you or I have to say.
Andy Revkin: And actually that’s the job in Columbia. Just today, we’re going to be the architecture to build a network within Columbia, which as dozens of departments, probably hundreds of centers, meaning little funded things. There’s public health researchers, and there’s two or three energy innovation teams. The Earth Institute has the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory up the Hudson, that does this great work on paleoclimatology, past climates.
The same campus has RRI which is an institute that studies risks from climate, like El Nino. They don’t talk a lot. I’d like them to talk more. I’m not discrediting any of them. They’re doing great work, and it’s really hard to poke your head up and say, “Hey, maybe I should share my work and ask some questions of others and that kind of thing.” We’re going to build an internal network for making things bigger and better, and more shareable, and then that’ll spill out hopefully into the community and between scientists and reporters, between scientists and teachers for sure.
Ariel Conn: Do you think we’re asking enough of people? Or, do you think we’re maybe not being realistic enough with the public about what changes need to be made?
Andy Revkin: It’s a great question. The challenge I guess, is that brutal realism on climate means making sure people understand that the worst impacts are still in the future. That’s not convenient if you’re trying to generate urgent action. Sea level rise between now and 2100 is still deeply uncertain. 30-40 years of global warming science, including science on ice sheets is not really advancing much beyond where it was 30 or 40 years, in terms of how do you integrate what we know about ice behavior with what sea level rise is likely to be in the year 2100? Or 2050, 2050’s worse.
Brutal clarity on climate science leads to inconvenient realities in terms of messaging. And I’m all about being brutally honest, and then examining, making sure people understand that the de-carbonization part of the climate tasks that we have, cutting emissions, is a legacy that we are leaving for the world of the future, including for species, too. Biodiversity, acidification of oceans, disruption of ecosystems.
We’re leaving a legacy for the planet system, not just for humans of the year 2100. And as I said earlier in our chat, the stuff we’re seeing out the window right now, like the deaths in Tacloban in the Philippines, from that surge from the Typhoon Haiyan. Or the fires in the West. Nearly all of the losses, there’s absolutely a component of global climate change, meaning C02 driven warming, in the behavior of fires in the West.
The dry/wet cycles, you get a lot of growth of stuff, then it dries out, then you have heat and more drought, and some idiot drops a cigarette, or PG&E doesn’t trim the branches around its wires, and you have a horrible conflagration. But the thing you can miss and it’s totally scientific, is all that building, all that development that happened in the woods there in the last 50 years, if the same fires had occurred 50 years earlier, there wouldn’t have been the tragedy of Paradise.
That town is pretty newborn. It grew up in an area of known vulnerability fire. There were a couple of really close calls. They didn’t add escape roads, and you look at satellite images and you see these horrible situations where the houses burned down because wind borne embers got to a little housing development. But the trees around the development didn’t burn there.
And you realize it was, as one scientist at Arizona State called it, an urban fire in the middle of a forest. The science says that’s something that could have been mitigated, absolutely, by building codes and more careful attention to the details about how houses are built so embers don’t get in through little gaps, and 85 people died. The death count, the losses, the financial losses, the primary driver of the losses is still where and how we’re building, not the change in the climate system yet.
Ariel Conn: That was the problem with Houston as well, wasn’t it?
Andy Revkin: Oh yeah. Puerto Rico. Even Hurricane Maria, I wrote a story in 2007 about past patterns of hurricanes in Puerto Rico, revealed by digging into the mudflats behind the beaches. The salt marshes. There’s a record of past strong storms and it shows that that area of the Caribbean has actually had pulses of really hardcore hurricane activity, even when the climate was cooler.
We look at that and some people are eager to make the horrible, devastating, pain and suffering and loss there about global warming. It’s not scientific. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about dysfunction, it’s about lack of investment, it’s about a federal government that doesn’t care about Puerto Rico. Those are really important stories. But even in terms of hurricane patterns, we can’t say with any confidence that in a warming Caribbean you’ll end up with more storms like Maria.
They’re there, they’re in the system. The system, it’s like a gun that’s got enough bullets in the chamber that building more hurricanes regardless. Again, the losses, the story is about resilience. In a way, to me that shows how if you look at the science with an objective lens, it leads you to plenty of actionable things to do right now. But to me, it also points to the importance of not always making the conversation about this big amorphous thing called global warming.
Ariel Conn: But also about addressing our own vulnerabilities?
Andy Revkin: Vulnerability and energy, for sure. Absolutely. If you can move to renewables, great. Whatever you do there has to be robust in the face of the hurricanes, period. Those are things we should be actively working on.
Ariel Conn: Is there anything else that you think is really important that you wanted to share that we didn’t get into?
Andy Revkin: Well, more than 30 years in in global warming, my first big story on global warming was 1988 and it says a lot of what I’ve been saying ever since. It’s easy to feel burned out and bummed out by how big this is. It’s monumental, and the Anthropocene, this human age, is one that’s coming with great consequences. We’re changing the world in ways that will last easily hundreds of thousands of years. The changes we’re making in biology will have an imprint on the tree of life going forward for the same time, even longer.
The challenge of our time is how do we take ownership of that, knowing that we can’t change some of this stuff? A lot of it, we can’t, because of momentum. But we can change a lot, too, and we can build a culture, hopefully, that cares about the future. The idea would be to build a culture that has a timescale concern and a geographic concern, which means that we have some empathy and sympathy and interest in the fate of a grandchild of someone living in Bangladesh today, even though we live in North America today.
There’s a continuity here, there’s a continuum, there’s a zone of responsibility that means we all owe each other something. That’s one thing, and then to me, the thing I would work on hardest and feel the best about is leaving behind capacities and toolkits that allow for the magic of connectivity to persist and spread, so that we can look at these tough problems at the community scale, and to a certain extent, the global scale.
And have the connectivity, so the right minds, the right parts come together in ways that can make a difference in a particular question here and there. The biggest thing that gives me the enthusiasm to wake up every morning energized, even though I go to bed bummed out, is when you have a fractal, complicated, humongous, super wicked problem like this, it means there’s some facet of it that every person on the planet can do something about it. Artist, communicator, teacher, engineer, entrepreneur. There’s something in it for everybody.
Ariel Conn: That’s one of the interesting things about climate change for me, is we deal with so many different, really big problems, like nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, all these things that most people really can’t do anything about. You can vote, you can try to be active, but climate change is one where you really can, every little bit really does help.
Andy Revkin: Bingo. When we think of social media these days, it’s really easy to get bummed out as well. The communication environment is a jungle. There are trolls and hackers and presidents who have co-opted these amazing tools that can provide global connectivity. I would love to think of people finding a way to experiment at least with it, to find a way to look at Twitter one more time if you’ve bailed out.
Just dip back in and then look for a hashtag that relates to something you care about, and see if you can enter into that conversation just a little bit. I think if we approach social media as sort of like I should approach calisthenics or something, or meditation, it’s like a practice, something you put into your day, that can really make a big difference. It can make an individual’s impact have that little bit of extra potential to connect with someone in Italy or Iran.
Actually, just two days ago, an Iranian journalist, science writer, out of the blue contacted me. I still haven’t found out quite how, and we had an hour long talk about how to collaborate on spreading some journalism training in Iran that might help with this.
Ariel Conn: Oh, that’s wonderful. I like that. Again, it comes back to the communication between people and we do have some really powerful platforms to help enable that.
Andy Revkin: Absolutely.
Ariel Conn: Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.
Andy Revkin: Me too. We can do it again sometime.
Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, a climate podcast, we’ll be joined by Stephanie Herring, a climate scientist at NOAA who studies extreme weather events.
Stephanie Herring: We are finding more events that we simply cannot replicate in a world where human-caused climate change hasn’t happened. We knew that someday we would cross this threshold, I personally thought that was going to happen much later. I was a little surprised at how soon it showed up in the data.
Ariel Conn: My interview with Stephanie with go live on October 1. As always, if you enjoyed this show, please take a moment to like it, share it, and maybe even leave a good review. And please join the conversation on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.