Climate Journalist Andrew Revkin on Evolving Beyond Storytelling
As an environmental journalist, Andrew Revkin has come to value fostering dialog together with his audience over telling a story.
Mr. Revkin has covered climate change for over 30 years, primarily for the Latest York Times, but in addition for National Geographic, Discover Magazine and Science Digest. At Columbia University’s Earth Institute, he has been hosting global conversations that navigate problems with environmental risk and vulnerability, made worse by a warming planet, on the Sustain What? webcast.
By writing for a recent blog that launched this summer, Mr. Revkin is widening the reach of his work to incorporate the interaction of a broader audience.
He joined me for the next interview over Zoom from his home within the Hudson River Valley. This version of our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was it about the climate crisis that first drew you to amass such a big body of labor?
I definitely didn’t come into this world aspiring to be a climate-focused journalist. The tug comes from the variety of scales and dimensions of the climate query. It’s every query really – technological, social, behavioral.
The deeper you dig, the richer the questions develop into.
In 1985, you wrote a canopy story on nuclear winter for Science Digest. How did this piece help prepare you to put in writing about global warming?
The essential thing is that the pc models that were getting used to evaluate nuclear winter were the identical ones that were already getting used to evaluate global warming.
One thing that was a really interesting learning experience for me as a young science journalist at the moment was, the concept of nuclear winter could be very stark, dramatic and scary.
[The late] Steve Schneider and Starley Thompson, [leading atmospheric researchers] and another scientists dug in additional on this idea. Even in the middle of the time it took me to put in writing the article, it was becoming clearer to them that it was more like “nuclear autumn.”
Nuclear autumn isn’t a front-page story, nuclear winter is a front-page story. But that’s one among the rhythms of science. The models get more refined, otherwise you get more data, and suddenly it’s more nuanced.
Just a few years later, in 1988, you were a senior editor at Discover Magazine. While there, you wrote one other cover story, this time on global warming. What’s modified since then in the way you communicate climate stories?
My story didn’t have wildfires in it. So, fire is an enormous part of worldwide warming now. The concept of abrupt change was not fully within the science yet at that time in ’88.
There have been a few studies, [including by Columbia geochemist] Wally Broecker’s work on the “indignant beast” [the climate system], that suggested there have been these disruptive moments in climate, that things could occur in very short time scales. That was less a component of that 1988 story than the concept of abrupt change now.
You hear so much about tipping points, and the Arctic was less prioritized then.
What has stayed the identical because you began reporting on climate change?
The things that haven’t modified are the profound underpinnings of the climate problem. The largest one is that we simply value energy greater than we value climate risk. Energy availability by whatever means still outweighs our long-term climate concerns.
That’s powerful enough to me that I diverted.
My friend Bill McKibben diverted toward, “We’d like to have less energy, we’ve got to essentially tamp ourselves down,” and he began a movement. He’s been great in any respect that stuff.
I became convinced that we’re a high-energy species, that we’re not going to be tamped down.
Would you say that your writing will not be activist journalism?
The emerging reality that humans will need more energy, not less, made me more of an activist for reality than an environmental activist.
Until energy can come from non-polluting sources, and food can come from non-deforestation sources reliably and affordably, it’s not like we’re going to alter ourselves to the extent that you just would wish to do to decarbonize through shrinking us as a phenomenon on the planet.
I’ll be writing more about this soon, I believe, since the whole nature of life is in pursuit of energy.
Some species do it at hydrothermal vents, deep beneath the ocean. Some species do it through solar energy, after which many of the others devour those as a option to get the energy they need, and a few of that is thru fossilized plants and algae that we call fossil fuels.
But that’s an inconvenient story because I got here of age within the ’70s and ’80s, once I was young, with the concept of environmental activism, making the case that this can be a social-political problem, that we do need to alter ourselves, and that many things need to change.
I just became more convinced that that path doesn’t take us anywhere near where we want to go to construct a really sustainable relationship with the climate system.
My narrative, the way in which I shape the story in my very own head modified too, through those years.
As your narrative was evolving, how was your profession evolving?
Once I got here to the Latest York Times I used to be writing about regional stuff first, after which around 2000, I got back to this climate beat after writing in regards to the Hudson River coming back.
Once I got back on the climate beat, very soon I got dug in with the energy issue, the energy challenge, and that’s such a profound a part of this.
The opposite a part of the story that emerged was the climate in here [Revkin points to his head], the psychology, sociology and political science part, which I had neglected as a reporter.
You reported from the Arctic in 2003 while at The Latest York Times and in 2006 got here out with a children’s book titled The North Pole Was Here. How did your time there inform your work?
I used to be actually on the ocean ice on the North Pole, landing there in an airplane with scientists for 3 days, and sending stuff via satellite phone. It was amazing.
While I used to be on the ocean ice on the North Pole, there was an editor, Rebecca DuMoulin, an early webpage manager [at the Times]. She said, “Let’s do a live reader Q&A when you’re there,” and I loved it!
It was totally funky. A really slow connection. I used to be on my sat phone and he or she would tell me a reader has emailed on this query, and I’d tell her and he or she would type it. It wasn’t like I used to be online, watching Reddit questions are available in and typing.
It was dictated, but I loved the interactivity. Until then, historically, my relationship with readers was like several reporter. You write a story, you go home, you’ve got supper, you get one call from the copy desk and also you’re done, possibly two if it’s occurring the front page.
You began the Dot Earth blog, on the Times, in 2007. During that point, you mediated some polarizing discussions. What strategies did you utilize to navigate tricky conversations?
I assume a few of this derives from the undeniable fact that I’m a middle child in a family of three kids.
A few of it got here through just understanding that, on issues like climate or energy, nobody is correct. We’re all right-ish. And you possibly can have a lot of right-ish people, who, once you seek advice from enough of them, they sort of reveal an area in the center amongst them.
Blogging felt prefer it was filling within the blanks, not attempting to crystalize every little thing right into a neat clean story.
The entire idea of a story—Jay Rosen at NYU who writes the “PressThink” column [for the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute]—I agree with him completely on why will we presume in journalism that the story is our product? Versus something with larger dimensions than that.
I hope I’m not perceived as a storyteller anymore. I’m more of a story-convener, more of an analyst of narratives than a generator of narrative. Blogging became more of a forum.
I see myself as a selfish blogger because I’m learning in the method on a regular basis. It’s helping me be a greater human and a greater journalist at the identical time.
Which of those tricky conversations stands out to you most?
I believe it was 2014 once I wrote something about fracking and Mark Ruffalo, the Hulk, slammed his Twitter fist down on me.
Someone had written something criticizing me, and he was like, “Yeah, hell yeah!” He’s an anti-fracking activist. But after we had our little kerfuffle, then I reached out to him and we had a conversation, a digital conversation.
There’s a Twitter thread with me and Mark from 2014, where he laid out some things that I agreed with by way of distributed energy, the capability to generate your individual electricity, and what I could do here within the Hudson Valley, where I live, that I pursued and examined. It showed me that even with the Hulk you could find a path. Not with everybody.
Initially, it was a troublesome little moment after which it was, “Let’s talk” via Twitter. Then I did do a video interview with him, a minimum of one, later. I met up with him in town when the Pope was here [in New York] to discuss sustainability.
That just demonstrates to me that for those who spend a while listening, and never just grandstanding, finding common ground is feasible.
Do you are feeling that your work and the work of other journalists are having enough of an impact?
No. But that doesn’t surprise and even upset me now.
The scope of the challenge is beyond conventional storytelling. Anyone who thinks a greater story will solve the climate challenge has not yet fully confronted it.
After joining Columbia’s Earth Institute in 2019, you were interviewed by the Way forward for Life Institute. During that interview, you mentioned that you just began digging into social science late in your profession to get beyond yes/no positions on polarizing topics like climate change. How has that research directed your approach?
With regards to staple items like energy, security, nothing I’ll write goes to alter you. I can offer you information that may construct your sense of concern, conviction or passion from inside, but it surely’s hard to do this externally as a journalist.
That doesn’t mean that others can’t or shouldn’t do this. There are lots of young climate journalists today who are only great firebrands, you already know Emily Atkin, who’s very successful as an independent author. She’s a really invaluable voice. It’s just not my role to be there.
I see myself as one node on this map of approaches.
this concept of this lone ranger journalist rushing into a problem, saving the world, doesn’t have much meaning once you’re taking a look at something as big and complex as global warming.
I’m comfortable not feeling like I’m leading some pack. Now once I was a reporter at The Latest York Times, I used to be breaking stories, I used to be leading the pack in a small way on the politics of climate change under the Bush administration, that sort of thing, but ultimately at this stage in my profession I’d moderately not give attention to that. I feel prefer it’s a smallish, essential component of the storytelling and reporting on the problem, but it surely’s not the one I feel best suited to.
During that very same Way forward for Life Institute interview, you highlighted a Yale study, “Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem,” that found increased climate science literacy is unrelated to greater public acceptance of human-caused global warming. It seems easy to assume that constructing consensus to act on climate change is about providing more information, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
More information doesn’t necessarily solve an impasse.
[A person] at Columbia who’s taught me so much is Jeff Schlegelmilch, who now runs the National Center for Disaster Preparedness here. He’s a long-time skilled in disaster preparedness, risk reduction and disaster communication.
He said, “Sometimes the final thing you wish is more information, especially in an urgent issue,” and at the identical time, that’s what we appear to reflexively seek.
There are presidents who’ve just wanted people to dump more papers on their desk. He [Schlegelmilch] said, “What you wish more is insightful community around you,” so you could have a cupboard that has a science advisor, who’s not only delivering a report, but who’s in an lively, sustained dialog with the opposite cabinet members to assist determine what to do when a dam is bursting, a constructing has collapsed, or a war is imminent.
I believe that illustrates more generally the worth of getting the capability for sustained, trustful conversation on anything essentially that may construct the capability to navigate the tough things once they come around.
At Columbia, it feels like you’re working to assist people have those conversations, is that correct?
Yeah, and a few of those are conversations across Columbia’s landscape, like between the humanities, the humanities, and the sciences.
The very first thing I did once I got here here two years ago was to start out to construct a little bit of a network, a sustainability communications network. A few of that was face-to-face things that in fact went away instantly with the pandemic.
When lockdown happened, I did my first Zoom-ish thing using StreamYard. To me, it was like going back to where I had been because a lot of my journalism work had been online that this recent webcast world was form of like what I used to be doing, just more video discussions than a Dot Earth blog summarizing a bunch of input.
I’ve done dozens of those [Sustain What?] shows, they’ve been great and so they’re global. I had on people from Bhopal, India live once they were using an existing social network to create a food distribution network during lockdown.
[Show themes include] policy issues like how will we navigate this pandemic, how will we take care of disinformation, climate stuff, after which the massive questions like, can we essentially construct a digital immune system for the planet?
Can now we have a sensory system in order that we will have a greater sense of some urgency around early signals, whether from a pathogen spreading in China or from the Amazon, or gold miners invading an Indian preserve?
What’s next for you?
I actually have a recent gig. I’m still here at Columbia, but I’m cutting back on my hours here because I’m launching a recent column, form of like what I did with Dot Earth.
There’s a recent platform called Bulletin. It’s like Substack or Medium, a platform for writers.
[My new column is] also called Sustain What? And it’s very integrated with the webcast. Sustain What? is an issue. I first used this in 2015, once I taught a course for middle school students once I was on the Times, and I called it Sustain What?
It gets people out of the habit of just using words without excited about them.
Sustainability has no meaning until you begin to say, “Sustain what?” “For whom?” “How?” Then you definately’re actually talking. Sustainability has no meaning, it’s like what’s that, although my title has that word in it. It’s all, “Let’s discuss this.”
It must be fun. Once I was doing the Dot Earth [blog], it was so organically just a part of how I lived, that it was hard to provide it up. At National Geographic I used to be doing a little writing that was just like what I did with Dot Earth, and now here I’m going back to it.
I keep migrating back to this, constructing a productive conversation space, aiming toward betterment.