New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin reveals his thoughts on science journalism and Copenhagen.
Award-winning journalist Andrew 'Andy' Revkin has arguably been the world's leading correspondent on climate change for more than a decade. His coverage for the New York Times and its Dot Earth blog is seen as essential reading for those in the field. He recently announced a change of career, and will depart the newspaper to go to Pace University's Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies in White Plains, New York (although Revkin's blog, Dot Earth, will continue in some form).
Revkin took time out from covering the ongoing Copenhagen climate meeting to talk to Nature.
Why have you decided to leave the New York Times and move into academia?
You have a finite professional life and I just felt there were things that I had put on the sidelines that I wanted to focus on. A vital part of what I want to try to do [at Pace University] is to foster a new generation of people with an appreciation of how science works and how it relates to their decisions in life. I can only do so much on that as a journalist.
The course I want to create is not designed for environmental-studies majors or biology majors — it's a course for generalists. Ideally, I want it to be for someone going into the arts, economics, business or psychology, to give them a grounding in global change and global risk, so that they can shape whatever career they pursue with some little part of that in mind.
What do you think the future holds for science journalism?
Oh boy, I don't know. I don't think that there will necessarily be what we now call 'journalists'. Increasingly, there will be people more in academic settings … who can serve as the guides to particular issues, not necessarily as what we call journalists, but as communicators.
“I don't think that there will necessarily be what we now call 'journalists'. Andrew Revkin , New York Times”
The lines between what we call 'communication' and 'journalism' are blurring, and the role of journalism is definitely shrinking — but the role of other enterprises is expanding and I don't think anyone really knows where that will place us. I think that there will still be critical enquiry on important issues.
Does the decline of newspapers matter?
It matters, it does matter. The thing that's going away — the front page of a newspaper or the nightly newscast — was the equivalent of the town plaza. It was the place giving us all a common framing of what we think we know and a blog is a very specialised thing, it's a little compartment that people go to because they know the issue already.
There is a potential to lose that sort of wider conversation about stuff if we all end up just reading blogs on things we already care about.
How has the debate over climate change developed over the years?
It's gotten more polarized and heated. I don't think the overall architecture of what people think about global warming has changed, as most people still don't think about it at all. If you ask them the specific question: 'Are you worried about climate change?', then most people would say yes. But if you open the survey by asking what they worry about, most people would say anything but climate change. It would be the last thing on their list.
What are your thoughts on the leaked climate e-mails — dubbed 'Climategate' — from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK?
When something like that happens, it gives ammunition to people who are already angry, those who are trying to get action on greenhouse gases and those who are utterly convinced or trying to convince people it's a hoax.
What did you think of the Climategate e-mail that allegedly featured one scientist saying you were "not as predictable as we'd like"?
It was great. I loved seeing that. I'm not out here to be a messenger for anybody. I'm out here to try as hard as I can — amid a lot of hype and disinformation and complexity — to clarify for readers the things we know, don't know, can learn, and what's basically unknowable on meaningful timescales — and where that leaves society in terms of personal and policy choices.
Do you think that there will be an agreement at Copenhagen and do you have faith in our ability to combat climate change?
I'm glad you made that into two questions because I absolutely believe there will be an agreement and I absolutely think it will be very debatable whether the atmosphere will notice it anytime soon.
[The agreement] will be incremental because the leaders have already said that there isn't going to be a legally binding final instrument, and that leaves a lot of flexibility. I've tried on the blog and in some articles to get at the underpinnings of the problem, which are that the world does not have the energy sources it needs to have a smooth ride to a population of roughly nine billion people.
Is the media to blame for the current inaction on climate change?
To some extent, but I think it's been overplayed. Everyone from Al Gore onwards has blamed the press for this whole business about balance getting in the way of what we actually understand. That's a problem that the media have fallen into, and it's worse than ever because of the limits on time and space.
But in the past four or five years, I've really dived into the social sciences related to this and it's very clear that as a species, we're not well set up to absorb this message. You could write perfect stories and have them all on the front page every day, but as long as it's not affecting people's lives they're not going to change their ways. That's the sociological reality.