Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Yesterday evening, a bevy of student groups came together to bring Andrew Revkin, the head environmental writer for the New York Times, to Swarthmore’s campus. Revkin has worked at the Times for more than 12 years and has written 1,100 articles. Before then, he worked for nearly a decade at other major newspaper across the nation including the Los Angeles Times.
Revkin came to Swarthmore to discuss both the intertwined history of journalism and environmentalism, and his broader vision of the environmentalist movement.
After an introduction by Mara Revkin ’09, his niece, Andrew Revkin marked his entrance declaring he has “more of a sense of hope than of despair these days. … I think we’ll figure something out without too many irreversible losses.” This upbeat statement set the tone for his entire talk.
Still, he did caution that “human nature, more than any politician, is what will impede [human] progress.” Today, the countries that have an ability to deal with climate change–notably the most developed nations–are the ones who have minimized the first effects of climate change. “We are adopting to climate changes constantly, already,” explained Revkin. “We have billions of dollars. We have desalinization plants. We have resistant crops.”
Despite this concern, everyone agrees on the basic. “Just think!” urged Revkin. “What gets lost in all this [polarization], with one side saying it is an emergency and the other side saying it is a hoax, is that everyone agrees on the basis.” No one, not even the most virulent foes of climate change, debates the most basic assumption of climate change: more CO2 will result in a warmer world. Instead, they debate whether sea levels will rise, if polar bears face extinction, will the thermohaline shut down?
Fifty years ago, the world saw Earth rising over the moon for the first time, and environmentalism suddenly became an “important priority for America.” With a strongly divided government, the “Clear Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species act” all managed to pass through Congress. Then, however, the world only supported 3.5 billion people. Now we have 6.5 people, and by 2048, Revkin argued the world could hold more than 9 billion. Despite the actions of the past, we now “exist at a unique point in human history. We are at a juncture. We are seeing irreversible changes, but we are also at a burst of potency. Half the planet has been on a binge of resources and the other half…well, 2 billion people are cooking with firewood. How are we going to get 9 billion people who want to live like us without destroying the environment?”
Before trying to answer his own question, Revkin gave some of his own background.
He began as a scientist with a Watson Fellowship. He headed to the South Pacific, and soon found himself on a fishing boat sailing from New Zealand to then-Yugoslavia. “It was things [I] saw on this trip that made me want to be a reporter,” explained Revkin. “In Djibouti, there was someone who was selling hundreds of leopard pelts. And I just couldn’t think but that this was not sustainable.” When he finally returned to the United States he entered Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and went straight to work in Los Angeles, a city where “it is hard not to be confronted by environmental problems!”
All across the country in the 60s, environmental problems were in people’s faces. “There was smog, burning your lungs. The Hudson River had turds floating in it,” said Revkin. His talk leapfrogged from this point to the present.
Today, people can no longer depend on simple in-your-face issues like 60s activists did. “If Al Gore got in his plane and went around the world and turned EVERYTHING off right now, the climate wouldn’t notice for twenty years!” The problem is such that we “can’t address it unless we can change the way our brains work” argued Revkin.
The problem with climate change is that it doesn’t really fit into newspapers, and it is an even worse fit for television, posited Revkin. On nearly every journalistic test–of balance, of space, of a peg, of balance–the story is a weak one. Climate simply “doesn’t make the first page,” Revkin argued.
It doesn’t help that both left and right are trying to modify the story of climate change. On one hand, Revkin presented Philip Cooney, a former-White House staff member who repeatedly rewrote climate change reports. On the other, he brought up a slide of a polar bear. “On the environmentalist side, they don’t do so much disinformation as emphasize the hot content. … When you are writing headlines, polar bears sell.”
Journalists find themselves in the middle. Ultimately, however, he firmly argued that “The realities are about as clear as they are going to get. What needs to happen now is a shift in people’s appreciation for risk. The findings aren’t going to get a whole lot more refined.”
Now, he urged the attendees, it is time to start really researching science. In 1931, Edison wrote “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” He was, Revkin assured his audience, right then and even more right today, in a modern context.
“It is your climate, and your children’s climate being shaped right now. Not mine. And if you aren’t doing something, we are stuck. So I hope you will take that message with you. And I think it is a hopeful message,” Revkin urged his audience. Perhaps his message took root.