Andrew Revkin, founding director of the initiative on communication innovation and impact at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, draws on more than three decades of lessons learned from his environmental reporting for the New York Times and his blog Dot Earth. He discusses ways to bridge gaps between information and actions that cut climate risk, boost social progress, and promote ecological resilience.
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FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the first call of the CFR Fall 2019 Academic Conference Call Series. And welcome back to school. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, www.CFR.org/academic. As always, we take no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are excited to have Andrew Revkin with us today. As an experienced journalist focused on environmental and human sustainability, he is the founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where he is focusing on efforts aimed at bridging gaps between information and actions that cut climate change, boost social progress, and promote ecological resilience. He has written on global environmental change and risks for more than thirty years, reporting from the North Pole to the White House for the New York Times and his blog, Dot Earth. He spent the previous year as a strategic advisor at the National Geographic Society and remains a member of their Committee for Research and Exploration. And from 2016 to 2018 he was a senior reporter for climate change at ProPublica, as well as a senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University. And finally, his most recent book is Weather: An Illustrated History: From Cloud Atlases to Climate Change, which was published in 2018.
Andy, thanks very much for being with us. I thought we could just start with a brief sketch of what—talking a little bit about the science of climate change, and then from there go to what it tells us about what we can do as students, as professionals, in our own communities to be more resilient on these issues.
REVKIN: It’s great to be here and it’s incredibly exciting to see how many universities, colleges, and other schools you’ve been able to round up through the Council. And I love that the Council on Foreign Relations, which I think people feel is kind of a starchy place, is—you know, some universities, even Columbia, can have that feel, but I look now and see the deep engagement with learning and doing around the—around the country and the world. It’s great.
So, yeah, this is a weird experience for me here now, having written about this for thirty years—actually thirty-one, even more—what feels new now really isn’t that new. And the science even, while there’s been lots of reports lately, is still pretty much pointing at what the basics were back in the ’80s when I started writing about this. To go on Twitter and sift down through @Revkin tweets that include (@)CFR_org, you’ll see I posted some things today that are relevant, and one of them is linked to my 1988 cover story on global warming. And the basics are the same as they were then. The hard thing here is that carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas produced by human activities, is a cumulative thing. It sort of sticks around; it doesn’t—most of the sooty pollution that we throw into the atmosphere dissipates within days, anytime there’s a rainstorm or wind. But CO2 accumulates, so it’s—for those of you who have a credit card, and hopefully you’re not socked with debt, but the debt doesn’t go away by slowing your spending; it goes away by cutting your—cutting your spending and paying off the debt. And CO2 is kind of like that, so that fact is what makes it special. And the amount in the atmosphere just keeps building and building because we’re throwing more up there than is coming out through the absorption of the oceans or through tree growth and the like.
And the impact of CO2 is still a little bit hard to figure out. The warming ahead still has a wide range. It’s the same range it’s been for forty years, basically two to five degrees centigrade, and that means that we still don’t know—from a doubled amount in the atmosphere. That means it still could be kind of a snooze. You know, you’ve heard a lot about 1.5 or two (degrees). But it’s definitely survivable. This is not the end times if we hit 1.5 or two degrees. There’s no scientist I know who would say that, despite some of the interpretations of recent reports. Or it could be true calamity, and humans are not set up very well to deal with that level of uncertainty. Politicians particularly crave clarity. And so if you—scientists draw them error bars in plus or minus numbers, it gets hard for the action that’s pretty clearly needed to have a softer warming trend in the future. It’s hard for that to get actualized in the world we know.
The other thing that is clear, of course, is sea level rise. And like CO2’s impact on warming, it’s clear as crystal that a warming world will have rising seas. And not only for just the period when emissions are rising; that’s a long-term impact that lingers for centuries and actually millennia. Once ice sheets get going they—it’s not like they actually stop. If Greta Thunberg and Al Gore became president and vice president of the world tomorrow, it won’t—the seas won’t notice that for a very long time.
So that leads to this other aspect of the climate problem, which is cutting emissions is only part of the job. And especially at the local level, at the level of the communities around your universities, whether you’re on a coast or in—wherever you are, there is a ton you can do and communities around you can do right now to start cutting vulnerability to the hazards the climate system throws at us routinely, let alone those that come with warming. And that’s where I’ve been writing increasingly about what some geographers call the expanding bullseye of vulnerability to fires and coastal flooding and inland flooding and the like that we are building. That’s not a function of climate change; it’s a function of societal change, where and how we build. And that’s something that you can do something about right now.
So if there’s one thing I leave you with I think that’s important to think about, it’s that there are two tasks and they both have real urgency. One is cutting vulnerability to hazards now and making sure that that’s an equitable and distributed capacity, not just, you know, rich cities building walls—that’s kind of the easy thing—but how do you bolster the resilience of poorer communities or distributed agricultural systems that won’t be wealthy enough to withstand risks using technology anytime soon. Those two challenges are both going to be a big part of the conversation at the U.N. in a week or so, the U.N. climate summit. For the first time the vulnerability reduction or adaptation side of the climate agenda is coming to the foreground with equal sort of momentum and argumentation behind it.
So that’s something to really think about. There’s really two climate stories: reducing vulnerability, which can happen in your lifetimes now; and getting seriously engaged in reducing emissions. And that’s all about a variety of frontiers. It’s not—this isn’t like a quick-fix thing. I’d like to think it is, but in thirty years of reporting, you know, I’ve watched the percentage of world energy, the total primary energy used by the world to do everything we do, is still about 80 percent fossil fuels. And it was 80 percent, roughly, more or less, fossil fuels thirty years ago. (Laughs.) And that’s because the whole pie has grown. You know, countries need energy. This is—you know, energy makes fertilizer. Energy air conditions your lives. Energy connects your markets through transport and connects us to our jobs through transport, unless our jobs can come to us through telecommuting. But you can’t telecommute a construction job. So there’s lots of work ahead.
The bad news is it’s going to take time. The good news is there’s such a diverse array of fronts to work on that everyone can play a role. So whatever—this isn’t just for environmental studies students. That’s the other thing I hope to emphasize. At Columbia we’re building a network across the university of anyone in any department—the arts, engineering, history, philosophy—we need philosophers—sociology especially, behavior—(laughs)—and journalism, and the basic sciences at the Earth Institute—so that we can together come up with new ways to propel progress, whether it’s working with teachers around the New York City school system on programs they can do at their schools to cut energy waste and build resilience, or build interest in careers that are necessary going forward. Like, New York City has a shortage of the kinds of working skills that you would need to have a renewable energy expansion. We just—or efficient technology. We don’t have—there aren’t enough people trained to do that stuff. So there’s tons to do. The good news is everyone can play a role.
So I’ll pause there and see what more questions we have.
FASKIANOS: Terrific. Thanks so much. Let’s open it up to the students for their questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we’d like to open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will be from Dr. Catherine Zeman from the University of Northern Iowa.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
Q: OK. Thank you so much for your presentation and your time, and we greatly appreciate that.
And I was just wondering if you could reflect on concerns and issues related to what you’ve seen over the last thirty years as the whole issue around CO2 and its accelerating release has increased and our awareness. We’ve also become aware of these interacting cycles like the fact that we’re losing permafrost. I mean, do you—have you seen, in a sense, an acceleration in that concern? And do you identify that as something that’s really pressing so that—you know, what level of urgency do you assign to that? Ocean acidification combining with permafrost loss, methane hydrates—
Q: —accelerated loss, et cetera. Thank you.
REVKIN: No, that’s a wonderful question, and I’ve written a lot about it over the years. I’ve been to the Arctic four times, really gifted—you know, it’s been a gift to be a journalist and get to explore this stuff in the field.
The challenge with the—questions like this is that they’re new questions, so—and most of the data you would want ideally on something like methane released from Arctic soils or from the seabed in the shallow parts of the Arctic Ocean is to know what today’s emissions there, how they relate to previous history, you know, through the last thousands of years. And there are some signs that things are looking worrisome. Clearly, even the name permafrost is losing its meaning; I’ve been calling it “impermafrost” because it’s clearly warming and melting in many parts of the—not just the Arctic, but the regions around the Arctic. Like in Siberia there’s this belt of permafrost that’s not even in the Arctic, but.
So the question there, though, is physics. And a lot of scientists are cautious about overinterpreting the emissions we see today, even some of these newsy items like when these blowholes appeared in the tundra three or four years ago in Siberia that I wrote about and some of the bubbling of the Arctic Ocean that was measured by ships. There the question remains how much of this is new. And the other reality is that most of the mass—the volume of permafrost—is enormous and it’s down deeper in the earth. And one thing that I’ve compared it to is, for those who are from the U.S., you have this tradition of thawing a Thanksgiving turkey that’s frozen. And suppose you’re pouring boiling water on that frozen turkey because you’re late for dinner and you got to get it cooked, and you can pour a lot of boiling water on that turkey and—which is ill-advised for health reasons, but—(laughs)—it will take a long time to thaw the middle of it. And so a general interpretation so far is still that the methane rise is more like a positive feedback. It adds—it adds concern, but it’s not a—not really demonstrated that it can be looked at as a tipping point, that some giant cork is coming unglued and there will be a mass release.
There are other issues like this. The Amazon rainforest, where I’ve spent months back in the ’80s writing a book called The Burning Season, there is a theory that the rainforest could start tipping into a—basically to a drying where it becomes a different kind of ecosystem, and there absolutely are parts of it that can do that. Will it? That’s a function of fragmentation and roadbuilding, and of course we can talk more about—in a few minutes about the policy questions there. Brazil is a—is a hot-button question. Maybe we’ll get that a little later in the call.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Kentucky Wesleyan College.
Q: Yes. I’m Morton Holbrook (sp).
My question concerns California’s lower emissions standards for automobiles, which are now being challenged by the Trump administration.
Q: Could you comment on the likelihood of success by the Trump administration on the one hand, and whether California will be a good example for other states? Are other states following their lead, on the other hand? Thank you.
REVKIN: That’s a great question. California has such an interesting place in our history of environmental regulation because they were—they actually were getting rules in place before there was a Clean Air Act and the like, and that’s given them more legal leeway to set standards on their own, including what you can interpret for automobiles.
How it plays out in the courts is hard to know. So far the Trump administration has done a lot of things trying to roll back regulations, and my colleagues at the Sabin Climate Law Center here—on Twitter it’s ColumbiaClimate, just @ColumbiaClimate—they run a—what’s called a climate deregulation tracker, and they’re keeping very close track of these kinds of questions. So I encourage anyone on the line to go on Twitter to @ColumbiaClimate and you can dig in and actually, you know, ask some questions for more specifics.
I think it’s going to be challenging for the Trump administration to undo that. California then, by having that primacy that’s already established in the courts, has provided a template that other states can latch onto. My sense is—and you’ve probably seen some of the coverage that even the auto industry doesn’t want to go along with the Trump administration plan. I think some of this is showmanship, more by trying to do things that play well with a political base but that won’t necessarily play out in—you know, in the long haul.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Pomona College.
Q: Just regarding the issues of (transborders ?), obviously, we have a giant problem in the Amazon rainforest at the moment, and I guess there’s a debate over should these species and plant species that are currently being burnt down belong to the whole world, that in the Brazilian borders that how do we protect these species in transnational cooperation talks.
REVKIN: I caught most of—the gist of that. You’ve touched on the point I was going to make earlier, which is there is this really interesting paradox, and this is really important to think about in the context of any kind of diplomatic or trade-style initiatives related to trying to rein in climate change.
The Amazon—Brazil’s relationship with the Amazon going back decades has been one of strategic concern. Brazil’s military rulers in the ’70s—and when I was there in the ’80s the government was still reflecting this policy—they had an active policy that they called ocupar para não entregar. That’s Portuguese, bad—my bad Portuguese. It means “occupy so as not to lose.” It was really an occupation strategy of the Amazon. So the roadbuilding and development there is not even just about resources, it’s strategy. And when President Macron a few—a couple weeks ago on Twitter was going at Jair Bolsonaro and used words like “our house is burning,” meaning the global house, that for Brazil actually empowers the minority but the strong minority of nationalists that support Bolsonaro because it’s—it makes it into an us versus them, it’s Brazil versus the world. It’s our—you know, Brazil says this is nossa Amazônia, it’s “our Amazon;” you guys, you know, you have no right to tell us what to do there.
And they—when I was there in the late ’80s, you know, there were many ranchers who said, hey, what did you do to your West? (Laughs.) You know, we killed our Indian populations and we ravaged many parts of the landscape. And they look at our history and they say you have no right to tell us what to do. So it’s very hard for the world to make the argument that it’s a global resource, and we’re just not there yet in terms of people thinking actively on the ground in places like the Amazon—the development-focused folks there just will never accept that model of what they would do or not do.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. I wrote a piece for National Geographic that I can add to that Twitter string that gets at the paths forward, and there are many. One is to press Brazil, as France is doing, that France won’t accept imports from Brazil unless they can be demonstrably shown to have come from land—you know, soybeans or beef that came from an area that did not require new deforestation. So that—there are ways forward, but there are not really—directly the sort of global commons argument doesn’t really work.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Howard University.
Q: Hi. I’m Joy Johnson, senior international business major at Howard University.
And my question pertains to the statement that you made towards debt and credit cards, which is very interesting to me when you said that the way to eliminate it is not to limit it but to cut it out completely.
Q: So do you think that that can be implemented with global climate change? Because firms talk about or they strive to limit their operations that increase global climate change, but do you think that eliminating it is something that can be done? And if so, how?
REVKIN: It’s a great question. And this is like the ultimate—you know how many, many arguments are kind of and/or arguments, do this or do that? But the climate problem is all and—it’s and/and.
And so energy efficiency matters a lot. You know, using less energy, using less wood or less soybeans or eating less meat really do play a role in slowing deforestation or, you know, getting more kilowatts—more lightbulbs out of the same lump of coal or volume of gas while we use those fuels. But it’s clear that you can’t—you cannot stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by slowing emissions. This gets right back to what you said. That helps slow the rate of growth, but take it to zero—to take the growth out, to having no growth in emissions in the atmosphere, you have to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
And at Columbia University we’re getting into gear—there’s already a number of researchers around the world and here working on ways to take carbon dioxide out of the air. This can be through large industrial-style processes, sort of like vacuuming in air and using catalysts and other means to capture the CO2. The volume issue is a huge one. You know, we’re talking about forty billion tons of CO2 a year being pumped out into the air, and anything—the volume you would need to take it out of the air, even to capture 5 percent of that, is something humans have never done. So it’s an enormous challenge.
So the road ahead is about efficiency. It’s about advancing the renewable energy sources that already can work. But even there the volume issue—the volume of energy, of electricity, is a huge problem. Even Germany, which has made a lot of progress using subsidies and the like to advance solar panels, they have hardly touched their emissions from driving, from transport, and they still rely pretty heavily on coal.
So it’s like we need to put much more investment into basic science as well. This is something I started writing about in 2006 for the New York Times, that the budgets for basic research on energy-related sciences around the world are a tiny, tiny fraction of the basic R&D that we put into things like medicine and even more into defense, the defense budget for basic science—you know, cyber warfare and preventing bio warfare—is huge. It was up to $80 billion a year. The amount of money we had—invest in the United States in basic sciences related to energy is 2 (billion dollars) or $3 billion a year. So we’re not even close to the level of things that we think matter, and that’s a gap that’s really important.
So it’s and/and/and/and. (Laughs.)
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Fordham University.
Q: Hi. Thank you.
You mentioned to reduce vulnerability one strategy would be to stop building and to then relocate people out of vulnerable areas. I was wondering if you had any interesting successful example or policy ideas of that being done successfully, whether—
REVKIN: Yeah, I do, and it’s a—it’s a really important question. And there’s a lot of insights that have already come out and there’s actions in communities that have changed behavior. And what the challenge there is to communicate that so that people elsewhere can live smarter. I’ve been trying to—that’s one of the goals I have at Columbia at the new Communication Initiative.
But a really good example identifying the problem—I think I mentioned a few minutes ago the—I started using a hashtag #expandingbullseye. So if you go on Twitter and—it’s the research of two geographers, a guy named Steve Strader and another one named Walker Ashley. Steve’s at Villanova and Walker Ashley is in Illinois. They map very precisely, like, how many houses have been built in fire—areas of fire risk, and flooding risk, and tornado risk in Tornado Alley, and coastal risk. And it identifies very clearly the danger that we have created.
On the solutions side, there are these efforts that are way too small that could be bigger and better. And one is there’s a website, LivingWithWildfire.org, which is part of an initiative to offer communities help with their long-term planning. If they are in an area of wildfire risk, it gives them a template for how to think about how to build, where to build, where not to build, so that you’re limiting the chance of the whole neighborhood getting burned up.
The American Geophysical Union has a really interesting enterprise called Thriving Earth Exchange, and the website I think is ThrivingEarthExchange, or is it ThrivingEarth? Hold on. Yeah, it’s ThrivingEarthExchange.org, and it’s essentially a Match.com for a community experiencing some problem, like chronic flooding from heavy rains, and scientists. In that case it would be a hydrologist or urban planner who can help them, you know, work out a better design for their drainage system and the like.
And those are just two tiny examples. I did write a significant story for the—for National Geographic when I was there last year on adaptation that had some other examples. The Wildlife Conservation Society has a project underway, and their Twitter address for this is @WCSClimate. They give—they’ve given grants for projects that have dual value of increasing resilience to flooding and the like and also boosting biodiversity, boosting wildlife. You know, like mangrove—planting mangroves in southern areas is a known strategy for boosting coastal resilience and creasing a lot more habitat for wildlife, and there are inland ones as well. So (@)WCSClimate on Twitter would give you some more ideas. Or just Google for my name and National Geographic and the word “adaptation” and you’ll see some more stuff.
Q: OK, yeah.
Q: I do love those—(inaudible)—but could you follow up on—I thought you mentioned about building outside of fire areas or about—outside of flood zones.
REVKIN: Oh, oh. Well, well, one—yeah, yeah.
Q: How would you do it if people own property there? Has there been any example where the government paid for them to move? Or how would you do that, whether it’s in Vienna or if it’s in the—in Africa in the Sahara or something and desertification?
REVKIN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it’s not—there are buyouts and the like underway right now in coastal areas. They have mixed records so far, and they can come with all kinds of issues related to justice and the way—where you move to and the like.
I was just thinking of a couple things to tell you on that front. Well, we just had a big conference at Columbia. The name of it was Managed Retreat, which if you did a Google for the phrase “managed retreat”—and actually on YouTube there’s—a bunch of the sessions were taped and they’re on YouTube—you’d find a trove of information on the various strategies that are trying to get people out of harm’s way. To me it’s—that’s almost harder. There are so many areas around the world right now where we’re actively building into harm’s way. So it’s kind of like you can do the work to get people out, but it’s also important to not keep doing the thing that’s fostering people to move in.
And one of the really interesting lessons that hasn’t been understood from the wildfires in the West is that a big part of the growth in the areas around San Francisco particularly, the Bay Area fires, has been driven by the lack of affordable housing in the cities, you know, Palo Alto and San Francisco. So until we have more available housing in cities, people will be sprawling into areas of more risk. And you know, it’s not always rich people. The Paradise fire was sort of like retirees, many of whom were, you know, middle-class at best, and they couldn’t afford to live in the cities anymore so they moved to these, quote/unquote, “suburbs in the woods” and then they were incinerated.
And that—so thinking about urban housing is a—and by the way, urbanization in developing countries, if it’s done—if you foster sustainable urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa, that’s a great strategy to reduce the vulnerability to, you know, sort of what the climate system can do to people who have to rely on rainfall for their crops. I wrote about that first in 2007 in a package for the New York Times called The Climate Divide. And urbanization, if it’s done right, can actually go a long way toward making more resilient regions.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Washington and Lee University.
Q: Hi. My name’s Gabriel Worthington (sp).
So I was wondering, you know, for years now we’ve been—in the media and scientific literature it’s been this push to try and get people who haven’t already accepted the reality of climate change to, you know, admit it. But from what I’ve seen the thing that made me think of this question was I was seeing people wear these, like, polyester T-shirts that said “save the turtles” on them, obviously not thinking about the impact that had. So is our greatest obstacle to limiting climate change those with limited information who mean well, or those with malicious or nonchalant attitudes? And does scientific or media messaging need to shift to reflect this?
REVKIN: Oh, man. These questions are all so good. And again here it’s an and/and answer, I’m sorry to say: these are both big issues.
There are some very simplistic visions of the pathway to a climate solution, and most of them emerge when people think there’s one pathway. And that’s just not the way it’s going to happen either domestically or internationally. You know, China and Russia are actively developing new generations of nuclear power plants. Whatever we think about nuclear power, whatever Elizabeth Warren thinks or anyone thinks here about nuclear power, it’s going to be moving forward. And those who are not pursuing it or are not willing to keep existing power plants—nuclear plants running as part of a climate solution face some challenges, you know, in terms of how could you call yourself a—if it really is a climate emergency, how could you be not thinking about keeping nuclear power plants that have been running safely running longer? So that—I think what I see generally is the simplicity of some arguments here, and in Europe too, devolves from having a singular sense of the path forward.
And on the other side, there is a lot more hope, I think, to really isolate the true voices of denial. And you know, they’re mostly professional. The people who are really trying to slow things down are not the, you know, disengaged folks in the middle of the country who doubt climate science for cultural reasons. They’re the professionals who are working as lobbyists and working on Congress to keep people promoting the status quo in energy. And there there are enormous opportunities to hold better conversations with people so that we’re not—I see too many conversations that start with, “hey, you’re a climate denier,” or “you need to believe we’re in a climate crisis just like I do for us to move forward together.”
And I’ve written a lot about examples where there are people who will never vote for, let’s say—who never would have voted for Hillary Clinton who—in Oklahoma, the most—(laughs)—and there was one thing in 2015, the most skeptical county in America was found to be in Oklahoma, in the oil patch. And John Sutter, CNN correspondent at the time, friend of mine, interviewed a bunch of people, and this guy who said to him at one point that God controls the environment, you know, that feels kind of discouraging for some of us. Then he said we have half of our roof covered with solar panels and we’re going—we want to get off the grid entirely. And that’s really encouraging. So that—but you realize it’s really not productive to try to convince someone who has that set of views to put climate in the foreground when they already care deeply about getting off the grid for other reasons.
So that’s where—that’s where the key opportunity is. I think broadening the conversation and getting more engagement with folks on new energy pathways is often more about listening than about messaging.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from DePaul University.
Q: Hi. I’m a journalism student here at DePaul, and I am really interested in the type of reporting that you’ve been doing. And so I guess I’m just wondering, how do you think that journalists should report on climate change? You know, maintaining the integrity of the fact that it’s really dangerous and that people need to go into action, but without perpetuating this narrative of doom and gloom, which I feel like sometimes, you know, discourages people from learning more about it. It just kind of puts people into a mindset of defeat rather than inspiring action. So I’m just wondering how you think that going forward journalists should report on that type of thing.
REVKIN: Well, again, a great question. I think you’re spot on. I think too much coverage has been the kind of coverage I did thirty years ago and did for twenty years and, you know, won every—all kinds of awards for, which was just telling the story of the climate science and finding ways to get it on the front page. And if you go on Twitter you’ll see the front cover of my 1988 article has this—the Earth kind of melting on a hot plate, you know. And then I got into the behavioral science. I started writing more and more about behavioral and social science, and it shows you that just doesn’t work. You can’t—you can’t argue somebody into being worried about something. You can’t communicate them into being worried. You enable their sense of needing to change something with information.
And that’s what led me to do the blogging I did at the New York Times for nine years. My Dot Earth blog was much more exploratory and not preachy. And there again, just like with the last question, there are forms of journalism emerging that are more interrogatory, that are more engaging communities. And actually at the—next month at the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting in Fort Collins I’m running a panel on this emerging format for journalism, which is more where you convene a community meeting and you say, you know, let’s talk about vulnerability; why are we always getting flooded in the Midwest? You could—I could see a really great conversation across the Midwest, those areas that got badly flooded, and what do we—you know, how do we go forward with this level of flooding?
And there is—there is this initiative that’s working with some newsrooms. It’s called the Jefferson Center. Write that down. And in the Midwest and—well, in Minnesota and a couple of other states they’ve been running what they call rural climate dialogues, including with the Sierra Club. And they’re—but they’re a community meeting strategy that’s more just exploratory and not explanatory. So moving from explanatory journalism to exploratory journalism, meaning, how do we make our community more resilient? How do—how would we change our energy norms? You know, what is our energy use? If journalists—if the media—local media could offer communities help in doing an energy audit so you even know what you’re—you know, where you’re using the most energy, that’s a good start.
And they’re very different forms. The Solutions Journalism Network, which I’m involved with as well, has—is working on this. So if you search for “solutions journalism climate” and—especially on Twitter you’ll see some things that are relevant.
And by the way, with anyone on the call I’m happy to follow up. My—@Revkin is my Twitter account. I’m on Facebook, very active there. And firstname.lastname@example.org is the best email. So this is—this could be just the start.
Anyway, that was a good question.
Q: Thank you.
REVKIN: Oh, I forgot to mention—sorry—the Columbia Journalism Review next week is launching this initiative called Covering Climate Now with the hashtag #CoveringClimateNow. They have 170 media partners lined up to do a burst of coverage, and the idea is to spread and deepen climate coverage generally. It takes more than just a hashtag to actualize this, and at the Earth Institute we’re working with the Journalism Review and others to help build the capacity of journalists to reach the scientists they need to reach to get the information to convey the—you know, the path forward, whether it’s in an old-fashioned story or in some other—some other form.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Miami Dade College.
Q: Yes, hello?
Q: Yes, hi. My name is Richard Tapia. I’m a professor of political science here in Miami, Florida.
Quick question talking about adaptation. I want to talk a little bit about rising seas and adapting to hurricanes as they become more powerful because of climate change. One, what would you see as the margin of error? I know you spoke earlier about margins of error in getting the bullseye. How much rising seas should we adapt to, do we believe is going to happen within the next fifty, hundred years? How is that bullseye changing as, let’s say, currents—the Gulf Stream begins to change and thermodynamics begins to shift things around? And how do we adapt if the rising seas is going to be more than we can basically adapt to? Resiliency, besides planting mangroves and planning, if Florida’s going to be underwater, is the best plan for resiliency—I’m not being facetious—but is it to buy a boat and evacuate? And what would climate—
Q: —refugee and systems within the United States, not just basically welcoming our fellow Americans from Puerto Rico and other places that are going to be hit by hurricanes, in the Virgin Islands, but let’s say from the Bahamas, our neighbors next to us, after Hurricane Dorian we’ve been trying to give them humanitarian relief but certain roadblocks have come up within our own government, within the Trump administration, due to documentation reasons. So how do we—
Q: How do we adapt? What is—how do we accurately measure the margin of error of the rising seas? And what type of resiliency plan can we really have if we’re not—if we’re not really clear on what the picture’s going to look like? I hope I—
REVKIN: No, this is—
Q: I know there was—
REVKIN: Oh, this is—no, everything you—no, this is great. No, it’s—the meeting I just mentioned, the Managed Retreat meeting, has a big focus on all those parts of the—your question. And this is, unfortunately, one of the areas where there’s some of the deepest uncertainty, both for hurricanes—well, let’s—I’m going to talk about hurricanes in a minute. Let’s start with sea level rise.
Sea level rise is this paradox where the long-term picture is crystal clear. You know, it’s like leaving your freezer door open; it’s going to melt, period. And the Earth is going to have rising seas for centuries to come, period, and it’ll be meters of rise. You know, we’re talking ten feet of sea level rise within five hundred years, or maybe a thousand. But as you say, we live in the now, and mayors along the coast of Florida or Georgia or in the Maldives, you know, in the Indian Ocean, aren’t thinking about five hundred years from now.
So the problem is that the rate of sea level rise between now and 2100 remains about where it was when I was writing my article in 1988. If you go online you could find it, the 1988 story, and there’s a whole section on Miami. And Miami, as you probably know, has this added vulnerability. It’s build on limestone and it’s kind of porous so that the water is percolating up under the city regardless of—you can’t just build a seawall and say job done.
And the question what do you do is—there are—there is a lot of people working on this. There’s a whole—believe it or not, there’s a serious organization called the Society for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty. And, yeah, I can’t say the name without smiling. They invited me to speak a few years ago at a meeting in Washington and they’re very serious people. They’re at places like the RAND Corporation, which I—you know, advises the Defense Department. They’re big insurance companies. They’re climate scientists. And they—there are ways to make decisions under deep uncertainty. We do it all the time. You know, investors—big investment houses are always hedging.
And when you think about the word “adaptation,” this leads me to think—and I think this is part of what you would want in your menu going forward—if we shift from the idea of adaptation, which has kind of a concrete feel to it—we’re going to—we need to adapt to three feet of sea level rise—if you shift to thinking, how do we build a capacity for adaptation, meaning adaptability, that feels better for the level of uncertainty we face. Meaning, how do we figure out a way to build smartly along our coasts or to retreat smartly, knowing that we don’t know how fast seas will rise but we know they’re going to be rising for generations to come? You can get answers to those questions.
And the good news there is—and I know this is true in South Florida—you can have a lot more of a nonpartisan approach to having resilience and adaptability in the community, whatever you think about global warming, because it’s sort of baked in. It’s not like some magical policy. You know, if Greta Thunberg and Al Gore became president and vice president of the world tomorrow, the seas are not going to stop rising for generations. That’s already clear. So you can kind of set aside some of the partisan stuff and still make progress. And I know—there are people who have worked on this in Southern California—I mean, in Southern Florida. I could—I can follow up with you and, you know, dig in deeper.
Q: Please. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Clarkson University.
Q: Hi. I was just wondering, in your history of reporting on climate change, what kind of pushback did you get from national governments when you were negative about their efforts?
REVKIN: Well, when I was writing about the Bush administration and—sort of around 2005-2006, when they were doing things similar to what the Trump administration has been doing now, they weren’t using Sharpies to redraw hurricane maps—(laughs)—but there were things happening that were, you know, muzzling science, essentially. There were people who had to leave the White House because of stories I wrote, and that felt to a certain extent good, although, you know, I would not want to look back on a reporting life and think that the only things I accomplished were stopping bad things. You know, I’d like to encourage good things, and that—we need both.
And when I was in the Amazon writing my book The Burning Season, of course, there were many landowners and local wealthy people who were aggressively—no one threatened me, but they were not happy I was telling that story. There are people who are much more vulnerable now whose lives I wrote about who are—you know, who are truly in danger from government policy.
So it’s not so much—my concerns aren’t so much for—with pushback against my writing as they are with the real pressures that can, you know, kill people. Or like the head of the space agency in Brazil who was forced to resign by the president because his agency was accurately charting the deforestation rise in the Amazon. You know, that’s devastating to me. And that’s the—that’s the part of government policy that needs to be really aggressively reported and shared so that hopefully there can be some shift in things.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Kenyon Community College.
Q: Hi. I’m Helen Cunningham from Kenyon College.
And a lot of people on this call are students. As students, what action can we take to advance the issue of climate change domestically in America and abroad? And how can we be most effective in making political change?
REVKIN: Great question. And you know, I’ve written quite a bit about the—well, I haven’t been writing so much lately. I’ve been on social media a lot. And in past years I’ve written a lot about youth—the role of youth, and at Pace University I taught six years of courses in environmental communication.
The thing that I would think is most valuable is to engage, for example, on the Fridays for Future push, which is, again, aimed at political change for sure globally and, you know, where it’s relevant nationally or at the state level. What I would love to see is for a next chapter in that activism to focus more internally. One thing I’ve been excited to see, even in areas of low incomes and schools with low capacity, is where students, they march not just out to strike but they go into he boiler room of the school and say, hey, how much oil are we using to heat our school and how much—what can we do to cut our energy budget—energy use. Or they look at—they work—at Pace University a group of students is one of the—part of a class that we taught there, a clinic—we had a class that’s an environmental clinic, and the students engaged with the food services company that supplies food for the cafeteria to see if—this is not so much on climate, but on whether they can get locally sourced food or humane—shift toward—away from meat and the like. And so the students were engaging with the school as a system, not just as a place to learn. The more of that, the better.
And I’ve seen this in Kentucky. I’ve seen it in The Bronx. There’s a high school for energy and technology in The Bronx where they do a boiler-room tour as part of their learning, which is awesome. And if you Google for “boiler room tour” and “Revkin,” you’ll see that even AOC liked one of my tweets about this because the school in The Bronx caught her attention. And so I think that’s a next step.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from the University of North Florida.
Q: Hi. This is Nancy Soderberg calling. Thanks so much for doing this. This is really wonderful.
REVKIN: Thank you.
Q: I run a public service leadership program trying to get students involved in public service issues, including climate, and you mentioned in your opening remarks how students might enter the field and get students a lot of internships. And just wonder if you could sort of put some food for thought out there if they want to have a career in this field. What’s the best way for them in undergraduate and then later to get involved? And which organizations would you recommend they take a look at?
REVKIN: Oh boy. There is—well, part of what I said at the initial discussion was that there’s something for everyone, meaning whether you’re in the arts, education, whether you’re a psychologist, whether you go into business, there’s some way you can shape your career path around something related to building a safer relationship with climate. So it’s really a menu, you know.
And that’s where it becomes more of a motivational thing. It’s not so much any particular job that can get you on a path toward having some impact on this tough issue. Every job can if you find the niche or the way—there are ways to communicate. One of the challenges right now—I just got an email yesterday from a—someone who graduated from Columbia’s—the Earth Institute’s master’s program who’s working in Westchester County, New York, on climate there—Climate Smart plan, and their challenge is trying to communicate—find other municipalities who are facing similar challenges so they can share information and accelerate progress. And that to me perfectly crystallizes this—the possibilities, the frontiers that are there.
Part of that is, is there a communication platform or a way to be a consultant who can connect communities that are trying to do more effective carbon-footprint analysis, or companies? And how do you shape best practices, and how do you learn from each other? How much of that can be done on social media? Those are—there’s plenty of frontiers in all of these areas, and there are artists I know who are engaged actively in seeing this as a way to use their art skills.
I’ll give you one tiny, quick example. There’s an artist named Stacy Levy—L-E-V-Y—in Pennsylvania who has done these works that she calls Spiral Wetland. And what they are is floating constructed wetlands that you can deploy in a—in a polluted pond, and they’re an art—a piece of art but they are actually remediating the pollution. Now, again, this is less about climate. But she built the idea around this 1970 very famous piece of art that’s a big thing called Spiral Jetty that’s down in the Great Salt Lake, and it’s basically a big boulder—set of boulders out in the lake that form a spiral. So she took the Spiral Jetty idea and has turned it into an actual—a piece of art that actually remediates pollution.
So I’ll just conclude by saying again that that demonstrates you can find a path to use any skill and have a component of what you do be remediative or innovative or somehow advancing us toward a world with smarter energy choices and more resilience.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Wheaton College.
Q: Yes, hello? Hello?
FASKIANOS: Yes. Go ahead.
Q: Oh. My name is Khadija Mohato (ph). I’m from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.
And I wanted to know, how can social innovation take place in helping these issues? And where do you see it coming into form, especially for college students and beyond?
REVKIN: Well, social innovation, you—that’s a great phrase because one thing I’ve found—and I didn’t come to right away—is that when people think about innovation and climate or energy, they think about some new cool widget, you know, a new solar panel or an app. (Laughs.) And one of the frontiers there is, what can be done through social—the social dynamics we have? An example is having a QR code or more information on the food we have so that you can know its history. Did it come from the Amazon—(laughs)—or did it come from a farm that’s not deforesting more to grow more stuff at the international scale?
There are—there are enormous possibilities. And how do you integrate visual information in ways that might—on, like, your electricity bill—that might have people inspired to change an energy-wasting practice rather than thinking that just the numbers will do it? And they’ve found that on many places if your energy bill shows you your energy use compared to your neighbors, then that gives some stimulus toward more conservation.
And what I’ve learned is that none of these things work everywhere. Like, I talked to someone who works in energy efficiency in Cape Code, Massachusetts, and there that doesn’t work because half the houses around you are only occupied, you know, for a fraction of the year—(laughs)—so it doesn’t work.
So those are all really good—it’s just good to make sure when people think about innovation they think about social innovation as well. I had a conversation with Bill Gates. You know, if you Google for “Revkin” and “Bill Gates” and “NY Times” you’ll see the hour-long video interview I did with him, 2016, and he doesn’t seem to get that. (Laughs.) He thinks—when he thinks innovation, he thinks about some new cool future nuclear power plant that can change things forty years from now.
Q: Thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Syracuse University.
Q: Hi. My name is Patrick Lee and I’m an undergraduate student here.
In reference to what you said earlier about bolstering resilience for vulnerable communities and reducing emissions, with that in mind, what do you think is the next step needed in the scientific climate research to help facilitate policy? And also, do you think it is necessary to integrate climate activists and scientists into policy formation, or should these individuals only be utilized as consultants in the process?
REVKIN: That second part is pretty interesting if I think—you’re asking what I think, which is should science—scientists—should scientists be involved in the advocacy. Is that part of what you’re asking?
REVKIN: Yeah, this is an arena I’ve written about, and others have too, where I think it’s totally fine for a scientist to be a participant in public discourse. There’s a method that has to be followed to avoid some—that kicking back in ways that can be regrettable later. And the—I’ve tweeted about this in the past. I recommend a two-sentence rule. I think that’s probably a phrase you could Google for, “two-sentence rule” and my name, “Revkin.” And that’s—this is—I learned this from Ken Caldera, who’s a climate scientist out West who studies philosophy, and he says David Hume a couple hundred years ago was writing that you cannot get an ought from an is. You know, ought is the word—you know, we ought to do this. And is is mostly science. Science says this is—sea ice—sea ice is decreasing. The ought is what do we do about it. And so the two-sentence rule is you can say I’m a climate scientist, I study sea ice, it’s going away in ways that we know are linked to global warming, it’s a really big challenge; and I am also a voter and a parent, and I care about the future, and in that part of me I plan to vote for candidate X. So it’s doable. But sometimes what happens is scientists will use their authority as a scientist to convey that they have a special wisdom about a carbon tax or the like, and those are very different questions, though there’s ways to do that.
In terms of science, the role of science in clarifying policy generally, you know, this—unfortunately, we’ve gotten to this phase of American history where it’s not working well. And actually, even there’s been critiques of the intergovernmental climate panel for not really doing well at saying what’s not possible, what is possible. And here we used to have this thing called the Office of Technology Assessment that Congress relied on to help them understand the technologies and complexities behind rules affecting, you know, energy and the like. Without that, it gets really tough. And so it’s a challenge right now because what happens at hearings in Congress is that each side will roll out someone who has a Ph.D. and looks official and they’ll say divergent things—(laughs)—and that can lead to paralysis. So that’s another open—that’s one of the social innovation parts, I think, if you want to include political science in social innovation, that needs a lot of work, is how to better integrate those things.
But clearer ways of speaking can get scientists involved in the conversation in ways that don’t damage their reputation as a scientist.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Monroe Community College.
Q: Ah. Wait, do I press, like, a button?
REVKIN: I hear you.
FASKIANOS: We can hear you.
Q: Oh, sorry. I’m so sorry. All right. My name’s Christopher Spencer (sp). I’m an environmental sustainability major.
And I actually have two questions. Well, it’s more like a two-part thing. But anyway—
FASKIANOS: Let’s hear one part, please, because—
REVKIN: We’re running out of time.
Q: You got it. You got it.
It’s just that whenever I voice a suggestion that America would need to cut themselves off wholly from fossil fuels in order to switch to renewables, I’m met with, oh, well, we’d be screwed since we rely on coal for our electricity. Why is it that there isn’t more outrage and action on this issue, since I’ve seen it all at this point when it comes to just, like, the deleterious effects of pollution, plastic, and otherwise? And can we mostly—yes—and can we mostly agree we need to implement cleaner energy? Would we ever be able to stop using fossil fuels, even if we run out? Because we’re, like, it seems like we’re so obsessed with them?
REVKIN: Yeah. Well, one thing I’ve learned is we’re not going to run out, at least not in time. Don’t rely on shortages of fossil fuels to drive the change. Unfortunately there’s lots more gas, oil and coal—certainly coal. And poor countries are going to use more coal right now because they’re just trying to catch up, have enough energy to keep the lights on. India has more than three hundred million people who still don’t have any access to electricity, and almost half a billion who don’t have reliable electricity. And so when India says they own a certain chunk of the carbon space that’s left in the atmosphere, they have the right to do that.
So where do we go from here? Well, you can’t—you can’t get to a new menu of options and no carbon options without a lot more cheapening of the options that would replace the coal, or the fossil fuel. And that’s where I circle back to the lack of basic science that’s happened, lack of basic R&D. You know, we look at the flashy renewable push that’s underway right now, you look at Elon Musk’s innovations, nearly everything that’s in a Tesla, or the batteries in a Tesla, came from basic science that was funded mostly during the Cold War, actually, during the post—you know, post-World War II technology race with the Soviet Union, and now with China. That was what drive that big burst of science that led to lithium ion batteries, and LEDs and the internet, which allows us to telecommute, and all these things.
So—and we’re asleep at the wheel on that stuff right now. So it—sometimes it feels hard to my friends who want a rapid change to think, well, we can’t talk about more research, we have all this stuff. But if you look at what drove the evolution of that stuff, it was largely basic R&D that created a bigger menu of things for then entrepreneurs and innovators to put together into revolutionary products. So it’s—and I was happy to see the Green New Deal. The original Green New Deal architecture that was floated by the Sunrise Movement and AOC and Markey in February included the word “research.” And that felt very—it gave me hope that there’s enough thinking behind that. That it’s not simplistic. Some people have claimed that it’s, you know, kind of silly. There is a Green New Deal to shape, but it has to include things way down the pipeline towards basic science as well.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Andy, do you have about two or three more minutes? I’d like to squeeze in—we have so many questions in queue?
REVKIN: Well, maybe one more. I think my meeting is starting now—the other people I have to go. So it’s right outside the door where I am. But—
FASKIANOS: All right. So we’ll take—sorry, everybody—we’ll take one last question.
REVKIN: One last question.
FASKIANOS: And keep it short.
OPERATOR: All right. Our last question will be from Stanford University.
Q: Hi. I would like to just ask a quick question about smart urbanization. I was very interested on the impact of climate on mega cities, particularly low-middle, LMIC, countries, particularly slum areas. And so my question to you is as these slum areas—we’re building peri-cities around them as we more rapidly urbanize. What kind of urban governance do you think can be constructed for climate mitigation impact?
REVKIN: If you mean resilience—so the resilience side, the vulnerability side, or the energy side, it comes down—
Q: Both of those—both of those sides, around this rapid urbanization of slum areas.
REVKIN: I saw this in Nairobi, where the biggest slums have such limited transportation options to get to where the jobs are, that they’re stuck with this—until you have more transportation or more mixed housing, these cities will continue to sprawl. And decades ago in Brazil it was the same, it still is. The slums have just moved out. The favelas around Rio got—get gentrified. The people who live there end up having to commute for an hour or two into the city. And I think I might have mentioned this earlier, but maybe not, in California the wildfire risk—the exposure to wildfire has been driven, in your area of the country, by the lack of affordable housing in the cities.
REVKIN: So housing policy, transportation policy can go a long way toward limiting sprawl. And that, I think, implicitly helps with some of the downsides from climate hazards. There’s much more to say about all these things—
Q: And the question is—
Q: The question is about urban—how do we get the urban governance together, the governance around these issues? That’s the question. I recognize the problem.
REVKIN: Well—yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I don’t know yet. The Rockefeller Foundation tried this 100 Resilient Cities Project. But it required a lot of maintenance. And, you know, the key goal was to get agencies to talk to each other so that the agencies dealing with storm water are also talking to the agencies dealing with transportation, because if you pave over a whole area you end up with more flooding from storm water. So getting—breaking down the walls is a key part of going forward and, of course, making sure that those financing these—the growth have enough information to—on the risks that they are designing that into their investments. This is an area that, at Columbia University, again, using this multidisciplinary Earth Institute, we’re attacking aggressively. And right now we have a new project that’s just launching today. That’s the meeting I have to run to. (Laughs.) That’s going to provide the information on resilience the people need.
Q: Right, of course. Yeah. We have a smart cities—yeah—a smart cities project as well. Got it. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Andy, sorry to keep you late from that meeting. Thanks to all of you for your questions, and to Andy for the amazing reporting that he’s done over the past, you know, thirty years. And we look forward to seeing what you’re doing at the Earth Institute. We will have to have you back. And I’m sorry we couldn’t get to all your questions. And, again, you should follow Andy on Twitter at @Revkin for his research and updates, as well as to access some of the resources that he mentioned during this call. So we hope you will do that. Please follow CFR Academic on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for new CFR resources. And finally, our next call will take place on Wednesday September 18th at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time. Christina Bain formerly of Babson College’s Initiative on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, will be the conversation on combatting human trafficking.
So thank you all, again, for joining us today. Thank you, Andy Revkin. And we look forward to continuing the conversation.
REVKIN: Fantastic. I’m glad to do it.