The Climate Debate Is Settled…Except for the Part That Isn’t

Even Climate Science Has Some Known Unknowns

Andrew Revkin
Andrew Revkin on sea ice near the North Pole. Photo credit: Peter West / National Science Foundation / Wikimedia

While man-made climate change is settled science, the full consequences are still unknown and will probably always remain so. But that is no argument for inaction. In fact, citing uncertainty as a reason for doing nothing is a recipe for global disaster.

So says former New York Times journalist and climate expert Andrew Revkin, who was quoted in Bret Stephens’ inaugural Times column on climate change and wrote his own oped in response to it.

Revkin tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman that the debate should focus on how we as a society can make the world less vulnerable to more frequent droughts, fires and floods that are expected as the planet’s temperature rises.

He argues that the advocates of policies to address climate change should take care to emphasize the difference between the scientifically undisputed fact of global warming and the honest disagreements over the best ways to cope with its effects.

Revkin said both sides need to disarm from absolutism and accept an honest assessment of uncertainty and of the “known unknowns” in the area of policy. Clearly, what’s needed is more conversation. Perhaps this was behind the decision by the New York Times to hire Stephens.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to radio Who What Why. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Even in our siloed, hyper-polarized time, there are issues that are subject to and deserve honest debate: the direction of foreign policy and America’s place in the world; even healthcare is a legitimate subject with many points of view about how best to deliver it to the maximum number of people, at the best possible price.

People can disagree, as they can about taxes or education policy. But none of that seems to be so with respect to climate change. In an area where the science is clear, it should be a little like math. Generally there’s only one answer as to the fact that it is happening. The consequences of it, however, can still be subject to honest and open debate.

So why then, does the New York Times think it’s okay to have an op-ed columnist who appears in many respects to be a climate change denier, who is focused on the wrong issues about climate change. And why does he flaunt that in his very first column? To try and understand this and put this in context, I’m joined by a man who uniquely understands both journalism and climate science.

He’s Andrew Revkin. He’s a senior reporter for Climate for ProPublica. He formally wrote about these issues for the New York Times, and is in fact quoted twice, in New York Times’ op-ed columnist, Bret Stephens’ first column.

It is my pleasure to welcome Andrew Revkin to the program.

Andrew, thanks so much for joining us.

Andrew Revkin: I’m glad to be on, thanks.

Jeff Schechtman: Do you sense that there is something uniquely different in talking about the politics and the issues surrounding climate science and climate change, as opposed to some of the other issues we might be talking about and debating about in this day and age?

Andrew Revkin: Well, your intro was really good. The one thing that gets missed in the climate debate is that the facts include a lot of things we don’t know. In other words, it’s clearly established that greenhouse gases function, that more of them warm the world, and that they’re warming the world … There’s no other thing that explains warming since 1950, unless you include a dominant role for the build-up of greenhouse gases from people.

Those are basic things, the long-lived nature of CO2. You release, you burn a chunk of coal that’s been in the ground for tens of millions of years and that’s been out of circulation and you’re adding more CO2 to the air, the CO2 lasts centuries if not longer in circulation, and then that builds like unpaid credit card debt. Just stopping your spending doesn’t even necessarily reduce the amount of the air, just like it doesn’t take away your debt if you slow down your rate of spending.

So those are all facts. But then here the hard thing is that one of … And I’ve kind of said this a few times in pieces, there is 100% certainty that the most important aspects of the global warming problem are still durably unclear. And those are how warm is it going to get and that means from just some given build-up of CO2, you know there’s greenhouse gases like doubling the amount that was there for a very long time before the industrial revolution, doubling the concentration in the atmosphere. Literally, since 1979 there’s been more and more and more science and supercomputers and data thrown at this and we’ve had all those decades of accumulated climate patterns to look at. And the range of possibility is still basically from manageable to catastrophe, you know. From a couple of degrees to seven or more degrees centigrade.

That’s kind of, it’s the same. It’s been the same. And actually the range widened between the last two reports from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. So it’s almost approaching what I call, what you could call a known unknowable. There’s no evidence that some magical new study a couple of years from now is going to suddenly say, oh, no, no, now we know for sure that it’s going to be three or four degrees, a real danger to everything.

So that’s a problem, because that means when you have that little of uncertainty, then that allows anyone, with a … Well, if you have an agenda that means you can find your agenda in that uncertainty, whatever it is. And it means that the policy responses are tougher and it’s always harder for us to … It’s different than if an asteroid was identified that’s going to hit the world in 2035. And I’ve written a lot about that very scenario, where there’ll be a day when an astronomer will spot an asteroid, and with precision he’ll say … You know, you can actually calculate cause the mathematics in astronomy are wonderful. Okay, it’s going to hit the world on August 25, 2035, and we’d still have some thoughts about what to do. So, that’s different than global warming.

And that’s just one of the durable uncertainties as I wrote in my piece. I wrote a piece that responded to, that reflected on Bret’s piece, for ProPublica, that included more granular issues that are also durably uncertain like, is Sub-Saharan Africa going to get wetter or dryer? Science doesn’t know and still doesn’t know after decades of science. So that means uncertainty … And that’s one of the things. He was pointing out the uncertainty. There’s tons of it and it’s real. And the science has never hidden that or the debates have hidden that sometimes, but not the science.

Jeff Schechtman: The problem is, that the uncertainty, the legitimate unknowables, as you say, give issues to both sides. To the deniers, it gives them license, or they think that it gives them license to make the denial case. And on the other side when you debate these issues and you talk about these uncertainties and what the consequences might be, it prevents a really full blossoming conversation about that, for fear that somebody is making the case that they’re being deniers of climate change.

Andrew Revkin: Well, it’s kind of worse than that. I think some of the fear of acknowledging the uncertainty has been a legitimate fear that people fuzz out. You know the average person. It’s not just sort of the faithists and activists. It’s most of us who live fossil fueled lives and you know, nudging society to get serious about moving in different directions.

There’s this what’s called status quo bias. Social and behavioral scientists have all these very scary bodies of science. The other science that people sometime deny is that people are really not good at facing certain kinds of uncertain risks. And I think there’s been a fear of acknowledging the complexity of uncertainties, because then well, we’ll all just fuzz out. You know, I think that’s a legitimate fear. Although there’s all this work that I also have written about for years saying that trying to jog people to worry about something … There was a famous cover story in Time Magazine cover, back in 2006, the cover was a polygram looking at open water from an ice flow and it said, Be Worried, Be Very Worried.

Jeff Schechtman: (laughter)

Andrew Revkin: You know, the idea that you can impose urgency on people and make them nudge them out of their comfort zones, is not really supported by the science either. So I kind of understand why … And that’s why of course, that’s why, Scott Pruitt of the NCPA testimony, and in a bunch of statements recently, including on MSNBC, the new EPA administrator, where he talks about, we don’t know therefore we need to discuss things more. Which completely, and that’s part of the argument that Bret had that I found hard to see a basis for because, when you know something’s unknown, but you know that the one side of it is really consequential and can last for centuries of impacts, that’s not automatically an argument for stasis. And certainly not an argument for more study because the science says clearly, the more analysis isn’t going to narrow that range.

Jeff Schechtman: And one of the impacts that is has, as you were alluding to before, is that it overstates and drives people to overstate the potential calamities on the other side.

Andrew Revkin: Yeah, I wrote a piece in 2006. It was the same year. It was Earth Day 2006. A piece called, ‘Yelling fire on a hot planet’ and it was about all the … That was, the yelling was getting louder back then already and it really did sort of … That was the biggie. That period was when the intensity really built around this issue. There were other periods earlier. The run up to the Kyoto  Protocol in the 90s. I’ve been writing about this since the 80s. I see these patterns come and go.

But, yeah, it’s a natural tendency for people to run for the ramparts. And sadly, it’s an issue where over-simplification doesn’t really hold up. And how that gets us progress in a world where everything is a meme or a hashtag is too hard see.

I was teaching the last six years before I got back until full time journalism, in between the Times and ProPublica, and I was teaching online communication courses and how to separate facts from fantasy. The hard thing about fake news and all that stuff isn’t … It’s really easy to figure out what’s fake. It’s really hard to be motivated to do that. That’s where we’re kind of … That’s the hard part. How do you build motivation to care about complexity and to say, you know, this is something we have to act on even though it can never be clear until it’s too late.

Jeff Schechtman: You talk about writing about these things since the 80s. How have those unknowables that you were talking about before, how have the unknowables changed in the past 20, 30 years?

Andrew Revkin: Well, the ones that …. there’s been a robust… The robustness of certain things being unknowable has built. And then you have this tendency … There’s a phrase that’s been used in different ways called negative learning. It’s basically, in science historically, there’s been this pattern where something, an initial idea, that’s stark and dramatic and powerful and gets the front page attention, you know, and then science digs in more. Science is a process of falsification. It’s the whole idea of moving from a hypothesis to an established theory, so that you test and test and test and challenge and find ways to negate what you think might be happening. And what’s left is reality.

So what happens is, like hurricanes, in 1988 when I was writing about hurricanes and the global warming situation. Kerry  Emanuel, one of the great scientists in this area. It was a simple thing. Warmer seas, more powerful hurricanes. They started getting nourished by warm water. And that can happen, but what’s happened since then is much more of a nuanced picture of the environment around a hurricane including things like wind shears. It turns out that in a warmer climate there’ll be, in key zones in the world, there’ll be more wind shear. Wind shear kind of rips the tops off forming hurricanes and tends to kill them.

El Nino years, are bad years for hurricanes, in the Atlantic anyway. And that’s the poorly understood dynamic. So from 1988 until now, almost 30 years, the warmer world, you’re noticing by 2100 looks like hurricanes will tend to get stronger but there’ll be more hurricanes in more powerful categories, but it also looks like there’ll be fewer hurricanes overall. And it’s all with this very long time scale that’s there’s no way right now to say that …

In fact, there was just a study in January which I included a mention of it in my piece on ProPublica.org on the Bret Stephen’s thing. Which said that you know now, it looks like the conditions that fosters the formation of hurricanes also tend to buffer the US East Coast from getting hammered by them. With this warm water you can get sort of this buffer zone and … So again, more study doesn’t always lead to more clarity. And that’s, as a science writer, that took me some time to learn that even.

The piece that Bret Stephen linked to of mine, described my own sort of learning curve in science journalism and that stuff.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the other impacts that it has is it makes it, not only hard to write about, but much, much harder to try and craft public policy around.

Andrew Revkin: Yeah, although there is … There is some really smart people who’ve been working on this a long time. And last fall I was invited to come speak at this meeting of the Society for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty. It’s deepuncertainty.org is their website. It sounds kind of like out of some movie. Who could these people be? But they’re from all over. They’re from the World Bank, from the Rand Corporation, that’s this entity that grew up after the 40s onward to help the government deal with complex problems, including defense stuff. So they’re, it’s not like liberals. You know, they study financial collapse, risks, and stocks and all these kinds of areas where there’s deep uncertainty but you have to make a decision, and a throw of the dice doesn’t do it. There are strategies that actually make sense. And when you know things that you don’t know … This all sounds very Rumsfeldian, but, he was right about some things. But known unknowns and known unknowables can help you shape how you build policy.

And I’ll say, some of this is beyond my realm, but there are people that I draw on that know it very well and is a system  integrated into the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change reports. So it’s something that’s doable. And it’s hard, and none of that … How do you get soundbites out of, sort of, nuanced conclusions about things? And that’s the hard part.

Jeff Schechtman: How much of this sense of what we’ve been talking about, how much do you think that entered into the decision that was made by the New York Times to put Bret Stephens on the op-ed page to begin with?

Andrew Revkin: I haven’t talked to James Bennet. When I did Dot Earth, the last six years of Dot Earth, my blog at the Times were written for the Opinion Desk. My opinion was that reality matters to those who are curious and that’s why I was never very good at it. It was like doing a simple Opinion Column.

But I haven’t talked to Bennett about it. I don’t know. My guess is that they were focused on that wide range of things that he writes in, foreign policy, in which Bret seems to be comfortable and I feel the fire. My guess is climate wasn’t something that was even really on the radar, in terms of thinking about his merits, detriments as a columnist at the Times. I don’t know. Because it’s not … It’s still even … The paper is doing amazing things hiring a batch of new people and pulling together an effort under Anna Fairfield, whose now the… First time they’ve had a climate editor to integrate a lot of reporting and graphics and everything, laying this issue out for the news side. But it’s overall still an issue that’s tended to be kind of wonky and not necessarily the front of the pack.

Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that it does a disservice to people trying to understand all these aspects of climate change and really the nuances that we’ve been talking about, when these subjects become such hot button issues as they did, for example, with respect to a) the hiring of Bret Stephens, and his first column?

Andrew Revkin: Let me come back at you in a different way. One thing that I concluded about this story, is that it’s not one story. But what we keep bundling is the climate change problem. It’s really about two things and for the most case, energy choices and vulnerability to the hazards that the climate system can throw at us. Along with sea level rise, coastal hazard.

And there’s a ton that can be done to build cogent, simpler stories with a much broader buy-in when you break it down into: What do we want our energy future to look like? And how do we want to build societies, here and elsewhere, especially in poor places, that are less vulnerable to droughts, floods, wild fires, etc.? Theoretically, the question is, what do we want? You know, what do we want? And I think what we want is a sustainable relationship with the climate system and sustainable energy choices. And this is true across a much wider swath of, not just American society, but society more generally. And so then you can start to have richer, more concrete, and answerable questions.

You look at the wildfire zones in the west, and you say, what’s actually causing the losses here that matter to us? You realize right away, so far, by far the dominant factor driving wild fire patterns through much of the west is where we’re building and how we’re building. Or increasingly, it’s invasive species of grasses that have moved into parts of the west that now provides the tinder for these fires … There was a really important study that showed connection between that grass and wild fire intensity.

It’s zoning. It’s harder for Governor Jerry Brown, or someone to say, hey, you know, we’re going to keep having these terrible losses in Monterrey area as long as we’re building in these woods that are just so, not just prone to burn, because of a hundred years of fire suppression, they’re never really going to burn. Let’s focus on, can we have an agreement on how to do more managed burns of the fires so that they’re not calamitous. That’s something you can do right now and doesn’t it get into …

Oh, and by the way, one of the other important realities about the climate change problem that gets, I won’t say denied, but it’s kind of negated, is that the system has momentum and inertia. It’s in motion. There’s nothing that even a perfect tip policy on mitigating greenhouse gases. Suppose that there’s some magical way, right now, to start reducing them, which won’t happen in a world heading toward nine billion people with a middle class growing really fast. But suppose it could be possible. Then that wouldn’t actually show up in the climate system. You wouldn’t see the response in the system for several decades.

There’s a youtube video interview I did with two guys at MIT that lays this out pretty clearly. So, we’re stuck with the vulnerability being the priority anyway, meaning what can we do right now to make people less vulnerable to these hazards? And you can have libertarians and liberals agree on a lot of things there right away.

So that’s to me, that’s the opportunity that arises. And that’s about … So what is the story? What is the story? If more people, including journalists, stopped and said, Okay, what’s the issue here? And you start to break it into pieces, I think it gets to be more addressable and less likely to get into these kind of flame-throwing caricatured arguments.

Jeff Schechtman: Andrew Revkin, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Andrew Revkin: I appreciate it, always. And it’s a long story that will continue.

Jeff Schechtman: Andrew Revkin, thank you so much for spending time with us.

Andrew Revkin: Take care, thanks.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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