This NYT exposÃ© on lax regulation of the booming natural gas industry is a must read, but the paper of record is very late to the party. And the author of the piece, Ian Urbina, is fairly ungenerous in his acknowledgment of that fact when he notes, one quarter of the way into his story, that “some of the [environmental] problems” associated with a new form of gas drilling has been
documented by ProPublica, The Associated Press and other news organizations, especially out West.
For some reason, Urbina and his editors didn’t see fit to offer any links to the in-depth reportage produced by these news outlets (even though links to other primary sources are sprinkled throughout the story). That’s a disservice to Times readers, who, perhaps interested in seeing more of this prior coverage, might want to click on this recent AP story, or this treasure trove of sustained reporting by ProPublica, or any of these stories and dispatches in High Country News. (Self-promotion alert: while living in Colorado in 2008, I reported on an air pollution angle of natural gas drilling for High Country News.)
For all the vaunted cross collaboration between publications these days, it’s unfortunate that some are still so grudging when it comes to giving credit to one’s peers.
Chamberlain had Russell, Magic Johnson had Bird. But Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, like Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, has no peer. Nobody comes close to matching the breadth and depth of climate change coverage that Revkin consistently demonstrates.
This was amply evident on Friday, when the Global Humanitarian Forum, an organization headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a news release and report asserting that about 300,000 people died annually from climate change.
This striking claim understandably generated worldwide headlines. And the most credulous coverage by everyone in the mainstream media–except Revkin. The three wire stories–from AP, Reuters, and UPI–read like press releases. The Guardian went into more detail about the report, but like the wires, offered no skeptical voices. Ditto for CNN.
Contrast this unquestioning reporting with Revkin’s news story at the Times, which carries a sharp critique of the report by Roger Pielke, Jr. (who calls it a “methodological embarrassment.” )
[[UPDATE: Andy Revkin informs me that "there was no issue with the short (reporting) time frame" that I allude to just below. A copy of the report--though embargoed--was made available to reporters the day before its official public release. Adds Revkin: "As with the journals, this is hopefully to allow folks to do some embargoed vetting and context."]]
Now it bears noting that all of these first day stories–including Revkin’s–were hamstrung by the short filing window after the Forum’s report was officially released. But that’s where the value of Revkin’s essential blog, Dot Earth comes in. At 11:34 AM (EST), Revkin elaborated on his news story in a probing and thoughtful post, which led off this way:
There are significant questions about the robustness of the numbers at the heart of the new report estimating more than 300,000 deaths are already being caused each year by global warming, with nearly twice that number possible by 2030.
After directing readers to Pielke’s expanded critique at Prometheus, Revkin turns to the concerns by some of a “climate-centric approach” to the tragic health problems in poor regions of the world. Debarati Guha-Sapir, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain, in Brussels. offered this perspective:
While there’s undoubtedly a contribution from global warming on impacts on health and welfare, if health and welfare is indeed our primary concern, here are some other numbers: over 5,000 poor children die everyday only in India, nearly three-fourths of them due to diarrhea, measles and respiratory disease. All conditions for which we have cheap and effective medication. Maybe a small share of the billions needed for climate change could be redirected towards reducing these deaths?
At the end of his post, Revkin circles back to the issue of the shaky stats. One of the report’s endorsers, Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, admitted that he and other reviewers had tried to get the report’s authors to stress uncertainties. Sachs added:
There’s no reason to overreach. I don’t think headline numbers that give a sense of precision we don’t have are either necessary or helpful. The facts with all the uncertainties are dramatic enough.
Meanwhile George Monbiot, an influential columnist and blogger on environmental issues for the Guardian, wrote that the report’s
claims appear to be well-supported.
Unlike Revkin, Monbiot doesn’t interview anyone or cite any corroborating evidence to back up this statement. You have to take his word for it.
At Joe Romm’s Climate Progress, which Thomas Friedman recently called “the indispensable blog,” there is mention of the Forum report and a link to the uncritical Guardian story. Romm, who repeatedly reminds his readers that he’s filtering all the relevant climate news for them, so they don’t have to bother themselves, conspiciously ignores Revkin’s Times story and Dot Earth post.
Speaking of filtering, it’s worth pointing out that The Washington Post, LA Times, Miami Herald, and SF Chronicle, among many others, ran the AP story. As newsrooms continue to shrink (and in some cases, disappear altogether), the wire services are going to be relied even more for coverage of events and heralded new studies.
One final note: so far, the questionable assertions and exaggerated nature of the Global Humanitarian Forum report have gone unremarked on by environmental bloggers and pundits. Nobody from this side of the spectrum has accused the press of being stenographers, that’s for sure.
What he rued then still holds true today:
People think about “˜global warming’ in the way they think about “˜violence on television’ or “˜growing trade deficits’, as a marginal concern to them, if a concern at all. Hardly anyone has fear in their guts.”
To understand why this is, read yesterday’s cover story in the The New York Times magazine. There’s a lot to chew on, much of it probably familiar to anyone who has looked at environmental issues through a cognitive science lens.
There are two take-away points, though, that bear mentioning, as the debate over how best to communicate the urgency of climate change revs up:
1) As Anthony Leiserowitz, a social scientist who directs the Yale Project on Climate Change, observes,
most Americans think about climate change as a distant problem. Distant in Time, and distant in space.
2) Research by Elke Weber, an economist at Columbia University, indicates that humans have a “finite pool of worry,” which Jon Gertner, the author of the Times piece, characterizes to mean that
we’re unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem–a plunging stock market, a personal emergency–comes along. We simply move one fear into the worry bin and one fear out.
Overcoming the way evolution has hardwired us isn’t going to be easy when it comes to climate change. A slow-moving event, like melting glaciers and rising seas, won’t focus the mind the way the Cold War once did.
The most effective fear-inducing method, according to Weber, is “personal evidence” of global warming, which I take to mean the immediacy of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, severe drought, or floods. The problem there is that it’s still so difficult to distinguish current catastrophes caused by natural climatic variability and that stemming from the greenhouse gas effect.
But if this tactic is the best means of persuasion, then we can expect a continuation of screaming headlines like this, and a ratcheting up of fire & brimstone rhetoric.
There’s got to be a better way.
In 1995, William Cronon published an earthshaking essay titled “The Trouble with Wilderness.”
In a nutshell, Cronon argues that wilderness is wholly a human creation, not an exemplar of primordial nature. Cronon knew his claim would be received as “heretical” to
many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet–indeed, a passion–of the environmental movement, especially in the United States.
And, boy was he right. Leading environmentalists of the day, from Dave Foreman to Terry Tempest Williams, pounced. Without rehashing the furor, suffice to say that Cronon was widely vilified as an egghead academic who probably wouldn’t recognize an old-growth redwood tree if it fell on him.
Not since Murray Bookchin challenged the self-loathing Deep Ecologists had environmentalists been compelled to eat one of their own. For Cronon, a prominent environmental historian, is actually quite a passionate nature writer. One of the highlights of my editoral tenture at Audubon Magazine was convincing him to write this essay in the issue following 9/11. Like everyone else at the time, we magazine editors experienced an existential crisis in the days and weeks afterward, which translated into: what the hell does it matter what we do?
So we devised a special section for the 2001 Nov/Dec issue, called, Why Nature Still Matters, and I lobbied for Cronon to write the introductory essay. He turned in a a gem.
Before I explain why Cronon’s shabby treatment in the mid-1990s is reminiscent of the hazing Andy Revkin is enduring today, let me say that most of Cronon’s critics missed the main point of his essay, which was to show that wilderness was a false idol for environmentalists, an outdated religion that should no longer serve as a main tenet of contemporary environmentalism:
In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature””in all of these ways, wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century.
In vain, Cronon also tried to inure himself from the attacks he surely must have anticipated:
By now I hope it is clear that my criticism in this essay is not directed at wild nature per se, or even at efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land, but rather at the specific habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction called wilderness. It is not the things we label as wilderness that are the problem””for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world do deserve protection””but rather what we ourselves mean when we use the label.
I encourage anyone who wants to think deeply about this to read his essay in its entirety, or better yet, check out the book where it appears with other essays by scholars exploring the meaning of nature in other socio/cultural contexts.
Now, criticism against Cronon took two tracks: he was offending the Church of Wilderness, and that was just sacrilegious. Secondly, he was providing succor and ammunition to the enemy–anti-environmentalists in Congress who during the Gingrich years were quite determined to roll back environmental protections. (This gang has proved to be pikers compared to wrecking crew under George W. Bush.) That was also unforgivable.
After Cronon’s essay was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, some astute readers immediately recognized how tempting it would be for conservative Republicans to hijack Cronon’s essay. Alas, as David Foreman chronicles here, attempts to pervert Cronon’s thesis were made by the likes of Helen Chenowith.
I have never talked to Bill Cronon about this episode during his career, but I have heard secondhand that he was disturbed and hurt by the efforts of Greens to caricature him as some kind of Ivory Tower anti-environmentalist.
So what does this have to do with Andy Revkin, and to a lesser extent, Roger Pielke Jr?
Consider that a similar vitriolic campaign by climate advocates is now being waged against both invidividuals. See Joe Romm latest screech here, calling on Revkin to apologize to Al Gore for this article. As Romm says,
I have written multiple emails to Andy in an effort to get him to clear Gore’s name in print, and he refuses. If he won’t, I feel that someone must for the record and the search engines.
Romm has also made a point, in multiple posts during the past week, of calling on Andy to apologize to Al Gore. I have ridiculed this childish tactic here.
The same offense, on Gore’s behalf, has been amply registered by Michael Tobis, most recently here, where the bulk of the vile is aimed at Roger Pielke Jr., For those of you new to the controversy, check out this excellent dissection of Tobis and Romm by Tom Yulsman, and this broader overview of the whole ruckus at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.
As best as I can tell, the frothing by the likes of Romm and Tobis is now being sustained by some pathological desire to get Andy Revkin to cry uncle. Thus the endless calls for Revkin to apologize to Gore. I didn’t really understand what was motivating this until I thought back to Cronon’s ordeal.
It’s the Church of Al Gore. Revkin and Pielke Jr. have committed blasphemy by somehow besmirching Al Gore’s good name. Cronon did the same with wilderness and environmentalists were outraged, largely, I believe, because he struck a nerve.
To climate advocates, Gore serves as a similar and singular oracle. He is the man, the one person who has done more than anyone to elevate climate change as a leading issue in the world. As such, he is revered and ready for sainthood. If you are perceived to sully his reputation–especially on matters related to climate change–you are sullying the Church of Gore.
Clearly that won’t be tolerated in some quarters.
What are we to make of the ugly campaign still being waged against Andy Revkin for this piece, and, in a parallel effort, against Roger Pielke, Jr, who, in mid February had pointed out that climate data was misrepresented in a Gore slide show at the AAAS conference?
What are we to make of Michael Tobis, a University of Texas climate scientist, who on his blog recently said this about Revkin:
I don’t think his dragging Gore into Will’s muck was a minor transgression of a fine point of propriety. I think it was palpably evil.
Palpably evil. Chew on that one for a minute.
Oh, but wait, Tobis is just getting warmed up. In the comment thread of his post, he has this exchange (which I’m excerpting) with Roger Pielke Jr (who Tobis and other bloggers blame equally for his role in the Revkin piece that equates Gore with Will). Tobis:
It is difficult for me to state how grave I think the transgression of ethics committed by Revkin and Pielke in this matter is.
Consider some statistical expectation of human lives that will likely be lost as a consequence of the delay due to this confusion. I think such a number could present a very grave picture indeed.
If you think that it was unethical for me to point out that Gore was misrepresenting the relationship of disasters and climate change (based on my research I should add), then I am really amazed.
What kind of scientist says that misrepresentations are OK or should be ignored if politicians with the right values are making them?
[And maybe I read you wrong, but are you really suggesting that Revkin and I are complicit in "statistical deaths"? Please do clarify that odd claim ...]
Implying an equivalence between Gore, who is constantly treading a fine line between effective politics and truthful description of risks, and George Will, who is wrong from beginning to end in conception, detail and emphasis is unacceptable because it perpetuates this dangerous skew.
As for the scope of the ethical risk, let us consider the possibility that the behavior of the Times and the Post this year increases the chance of an extreme event with a premature mortality of a billion people by a mere part per million, a per cent of a per cent of a per cent. The expected mortality from this is a thousand people. Is that morally equivalent to actually killing a thousand people? It’s not all that obvious to me that it isn’t.
Pielke is incredulous:
These sort comments give far more ammo to your political enemies than anything I could ever say or do.
Eye opening stuff.
It’s worth reading the exchange in its entirety to see the debased logic now being employed by some climate advocates.
I have a theory as to why Tobis and Joe Romm, to cite two of the most relentless and over-the-top critics of Revkin and Pielke, Jr., are so hellbent. That’s in the next post.
By now, Andy Revkin must feel like a tackling dummy. All this week, numerous liberal bloggers have singed him for this piece he wrote on the misrepresentation of climate data, in which he essentially equated Al Gore with George Will.
Today, it’s George Will’s turn to be offended. In this column, Will throws a few soft jabs at Andy’s reporting and then digs in his heels over this previous column that triggered the fracas several weeks back. Taken together, both of Will’s columns play Twister with science data to claim that concerns over global warming are exaggerated. Anyone familiar with Will’s position on climate change knows that he has sung this tune for years.
Yet, the outrage hurled at the Washington Post for publishing Will’s columns is off the charts. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. This is not 1998, when the American public was still pretty fuzzy headed about global warming. The debate today has moved past Is global warming happening to How do we de-carbonize the world economy. I don’t see anybody in Congress (besides Inhofe) arguing about the science. The battlefront has moved to policy.
Sorry, Joe Romm, but I think you’re stuck in mud, fighting an old war. You and your cohorts are working up frothy umbrage for naught. What’s more, it’s totally out of proportion to Will’s actual influence and reach. Sure he’s got a nationally syndicated column. But Thomas Friedman has a pretty large megaphone too and I’d argue that he’s been a whole lot more effective at bringing the nation’s thought leaders ( and politically moderate Americans) over to your side.
Now let me be clear about something, because I’ve been teeing off on Romm and a few others all this week. I agree that Andy’s equating Gore with Will was off base. My beef is with the way Romm and Brad Johnson went about it. I’ve already made my case for why I think Romm was out of line.
Johnson’s critique of Andy’s column, while civil in tone, is undermined by his irresponsible character distortions of David Ropeik and Roger Pielke, Jr. At least Johnson provided a link to Ropeik’s website so readers could make some kind of independent assessment. With Pielke, Jr., who, like Ropeik, Johnson characterizes as having “ties to corporate, right-wing America,” there is no substantiation offered for this broad and vague depiction, much less a link to Pielke’s homepage, which would reveal an impressive academic record.
Moreover, earlier this week Johnson conducted an interview with Pielke Jr., and didn’t see fit to post any of it in his “updates” of the Revkin critique post. (But he found space for Romm and Gore’s spokesperson and others.) So let me direct readers over to Prometheus, where Roger has posted the entire interview with Johnson. I think Wonk Room readers would find it interesting reading.
I’m all for vigorous, fiery debate. But not ad hominum attacks and weasly, unsubstantiated guilt-by-association smears.
Last May, shortly before I left Audubon Magazine (where I was an editor for eight years), I received a flurry of angry calls from around the country.
None of these people knew me; they were trying to reach John Flicker, National Audubon Society’s President. My phone extension had become mistaken with the organization’s main number and suddenly I was being bombarded by fans of conservative radio host Michael Reagan. On one of his shows and in a subsequent column, Reagan directed his listeners to call Flicker, along with the presidents of EarthJustice and The Natural Resources Defense Council, and implore them to stop opposing domestic oil and gas drilling:
If you want to drill in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico or in the continental U.S.–where billions of gallons of petroleum are just waiting to be tapped–or build refineries, these three people stand in your way.
I’m sure it was news to John Flicker that he had this kind of influence, or that he opposed all U.S. drilling. (Hell, up until a few years ago, Audubon got money from a long-time gas drilling project in Louisiana that happened to take place on a wildlife refuge. Yeah, that was controversial.) But at any rate, Reagan’s listeners must have taken his rant seriously, because I was getting all those irate calls.
This episode sprang to mind today because of recent blog posts by Joseph Romm (see here and here), in which he attacks The York Times for this column by John Tierney and this news analysis by Andy Revkin. I’ve taken a stab at unpacking Romm’s missive against Revkin here and at another of his attacks on the Times here.
Romm’s slash-and-burn harangues are striking to behold for their stridency, and in this one, for his plea to readers to email Times editors and “demand a correction for the egregious mistakes” in Tierney’s column.
A similar vent-your-spleen tactic was employed by The Wonk Room at the end of its attack on Revkin.
Now I don’t have a problem with directing readers to other outlets (be they media or a government agency, or whatever) to express their opinions on a given issue. When I was at Audubon Magazine, providing contact sources for readers at the end of stories was routine practice. But we didn’t whip them up with mad-dog rhetoric or even tell them what to say.
By contrast, Romm and other bloggers are issuing directives to their respective flocks that urges them to express their outrage to the Times.
The intent is transparent: to impugn someone’s reputation. And probably as effective and misdirected as those dopey phone calls I mistakenly got from Michael Reagan’s listeners last May.
Another day, another screed from Joseph Romm.
Joe, do you have any idea how shrill this latest broadside against the New York Times sounds? Yes, there is legitimate debate to be had over the merits of comparing Al Gore to George Will, which is what science reporter Andrew Revkin does in this Times piece published today.
But your main debating points are lost in a blizzard of 1) meandering digressions on previous Revkin stories that supposedly contain factual errors; 2) inane, childish posturing on the use of “imperfect” word choices (in which you basically say, I’ll cop to it, but Andy won’t…) and, finally 3) silly asides (“Revkin owes Gore an apology”).
I think Romm is just driven batshit by his own sense of rightousness on the climate issue. He probably doesn’t even know when he’s being hysterical or inconsistent. For example, just a few weeks ago Romm was lauding Revkin for bringing necessary gravitas and climate change context to the Times‘ coverage of the Australian fires. (Be forewarned, you need to endure another hectoring Rommian post on how the rest of the media got the story wrong.)
Since then, however, the award-winning Revkin seems to have lost his reporting mojo, because now Romm suddenly wonders (in bold, of course):
whether Andy Revkin himself understands the state of climate science today and what happens on our current path of unrestricted emissions. I suggest he reimmerse himself in the recent literature and in discussions with leading climate scientists, if he wants to return to his former position as the leading climate reporter in the country.
Got that, Andy? You better get back up to speed if you want to reclaim that crown. You can start by calling up Al Gore, who “right now,” according to Romm, is the “best climate reporter in the country.”
And Andy, don’t forget to apologize to Al.