The New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin is no stranger to the environmental beat. Over the past 20 years he’s covered some of the most important stories in environmental history, including the Kyoto treaty, global climate change, and the controversy over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). In early 2006, he broke one of the most talked-about stories of the year: the Bush administration’s efforts to prevent NASA from releasing scientific information that might contradict the administration’s policies. Here, the veteran reporter discusses the politics of covering the environment; his new children’s book on climate change, The North Pole Was Here (Kingfisher); and the effects of global warming on the Arctic.
Last winter you reported that the Bush administration had tried to discourage NASA scientist James Hansen from speaking out about global warming.
I’ve written a bunch of stories over the last four years about instances in which scientific findings were rewritten or scientists were muzzled so that the facts were consistent with administration policies. But when Hansen made assertions that his comments had been suppressed, and then all these mid-level people at NASA came on record confirming his statements, that was a real bursting of the bubble. A week after his story ran, I received word of all these examples of the government trying to alter scientific data that were much more disturbing — for instance, NASA press officer George Deutsch, who was appointed by President Bush, told a web designer to put the word “theory” after all big bang mentions on NASA websites. It was interesting how it ballooned.
In the two decades that you’ve been working as a science reporter, how has the environmental beat changed?
Global warming didn’t start to really percolate as a news story until the late 1980s, but it’s only gotten stronger with every passing year. Most reporters glaze over when they think about climate change, but to me it contains all the elements necessary to make a story powerful: it’s unexpected and it’s representative of a major turning for the human race. We’re becoming aware of how much power we have as a species. I could spend all my days writing about wolves in Yellowstone, or about how manatees are endangered — they’re great stories. But the thing about climate change and these biggerscale issues is the permanence. We’re talking about largely irreversible changes.
Why write a children’s book about global warming?
There’s such a woeful lack of understanding of science these days. Most people see science as a set of facts that are just sitting on a shelf, and that’s the way science is being taught. So I’m hoping that a book like this can help the younger generation — and maybe their parents as well — understand the value of a body of knowledge accumulated through the scientific process.
How do you think our ideas about the planet and our relationship to the planet might change if the North Pole melts?
Throughout history the Arctic was always untouchable — it killed everyone that tried to go there. But now, thanks to climate change, what was once impossible — drilling for oil, shipping supplies back and forth — may now become feasible. And the end result is that the Arctic will be just another humanized part of the earth. It reminds me of what Bill McKibben said: We’re endangering, not so much the polar bears, but the special nature of the place. Our whole notion of [the Arctic] is going to change.
It’s interesting because people have used that argument with ANWR — “this is the last wild place” — and it doesn’t seem to have worked well.
Actually, I tend to hear the opposite. I think there is an eagerness among environmentalists to make their arguments science-based. For example, they might say, “Caribou won’t breed well with pipelines around.” But now it turns out that caribou don’t mind the pipelines so much. If you use a science-based argument and then discover that the ecological impacts aren’t there, it undermines your cause. So I think a better way to frame the fate of ANWR is to ask ourselves, “Do we want a national wildlife refuge to be industrialized?” That’s a different question than “can caribou breed there?” It’s a values question, even somewhat of an aesthetics question. And I think those things need to be part of how we make decisions.
What do you think we need to do to move forward toward sustainability?
Education. People don’t always appreciate the impacts their lives have on the environment. I gave a talk at Bard College last winter to a bunch of graduate students in Environmental Studies. They were pretty energized at the end of the talk, and they kept asking, “What can we do?” And I said, well, I would start with an energy audit of this building, because there are drafts coming through the windows. Just look around you — you’ll find things to do.
Story by Erika Wetter. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.