Examining Climate Change On The Air What is the media's role in shaping public opinion on global warming and the environment? New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin talks with Ira Flatow about the changing climate of science reporting, and why local meteorologists may be delivering more than just the forecast.
NPR logo

Examining Climate Change On The Air

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99800039/99800011" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Examining Climate Change On The Air

Examining Climate Change On The Air

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99800039/99800011" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to Science Friday on NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next this hour, the changing climate of public opinion about climate change. In spite of a steady stream of reports from scientists telling us that the Earth is getting warmer - and you just heard a couple of those reports just few moments ago - and that we humans are among the causes of that happening, it seems like the public's concern over climate change is starting to cool.

Let me throw some figures at you. According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who see global warming as a priority for the president and Congress to deal with has fallen eight points in the past two years, from 38 percent to 30 percent. There's also a new Rasmussen report that says, of those polled, more people in the U.S. believe global warming is caused by long-term planetary trends than by human causes. And if you are a Republican, you are much more likely to believe, as a Republican, that the cause of warming is due to the natural cycles of the Earth, rather than anything we humans are doing.

My next guest has written about these topics and many more having to do with climate change in his blog for the New York Times called "Dot Earth." Andrew Revkin, he's a reporter for the Times, he's also the author of the book "The North Pole Was Here." Welcome back to Science Friday.

Mr. ANDREW REVKIN (Reporter, The New York Times; Author, "The North Pole Was Here"): It's great to be with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Good to have you, Andrew. What did you attribute the drop in these polls to?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, you know there's a lot going on, especially with the economy, and man, you know, I can't tell you how many times over the last 15 or even longer years (Laughing) I've written stories about how this is - for most people, climates remain kind of a disposable issue. It comes when you're not thinking about other things, but as soon as something - some more pressing issue comes up, people tend to just shine it on.

FLATOW: Could you also put the peak of it probably to when Al Gore was running around talking about it and his books and his TV tours and things like that?

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. Well, 2006 was - you know, we had the memories of Katrina.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. REVKIN: We had the Al Gore film and all the publicity that surrounded it. There was a spike in energy prices, and that got everyone - and the Arctic, there was a lot of news out of the Arctic, some of which I - I wrote a lot about, too, that, you know, the sea ice had pulled back a record amount. And now though, again, you look at the window and Europe and North America, it's - we're having an unusually cold winter - not record breaking, not a sign we're going into an Ice Age, as Pravda recently (Laughing) said we might be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REVKIN: But you know, it's the kind of thing that makes us all...

FLATOW: Well, it's not just Pravda. If you watch Lou Dobbs any time…

Mr. REVKIN: That's right.

FLATOW: You'll see on that program also.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah, in fact, I alluded to that recently when the climate science blog "Real Climate" complained about Dobb's treatment of the issue. So it's - but again, for most people - and you know, really in the end, as I've been writing a lot well as, you know, this is still - the impacts are still some day and somewhere, not here and now. They're more likely in sub-Saharan Africa and places like Bangladesh to have big, harmful impacts in the short run than they are here.

And as soon as you get to the near term, the uncertainties get larger. We don't know how fast sea levels are going to rise between now - or how far - between now and 2100. We do know - there's lots of work showing, you know, warming world, less ice, less ice, higher seas, but that's again, kind of a disposable thought. And the sociologists - I wish I could've had a longer story in the paper today about this - there's a lot of work saying, you know, there is an argument for urgency, but it's based on starting to reduce these emissions, which are cumulative, and if you don't start promptly - it's like if you leave all your homework till last day before the test, you're in deep doo-doo.

FLATOW: And so, are people saying, what the heck, I'm in deep doo-doo any how, why should I worry about it?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, you know, again - and you've looked at this issue for a long time to, but the longer I look at it, the scariest science by far is not the glaciology or what's happening with Antarctica or how the ocean is responding it. It's the sociology.


Mr. REVKIN: It's how people deal - human nature and looming risks that are cumulative are not a good mix. I recently wrote on "Dot Earth" somewhere that essentially, a lot of people have the perception - well, if we slow emissions, then we'll be fine. But it's kind of like thinking if you slow your credit card spending, that makes the debt go away. It just doesn't work that way.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. You wrote about the American Meteorological Society giving it's top honor to James Hansen, the famous climate scientist. It's interesting there, because there's seems to be a little friction between weather scientists and climate scientists about who should be chiming in when it comes to global warming, doesn't it?

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah, well, there is. I'm not sure I've seen studies, but I sure have a strong perception that the typical meteorologist, focused on week-to-week forecasting, has a very low confidence in the long - the forecasts for greenhouse gas driven warming and everything that would come with it in the future. They use models differently. You know, climatologists have been so imbedded in their simulated - in their simulations, I think. And they're very complicated, this stuff is very hard, so, you know, there's some sense that, well, we know. (Laughing) We understand; we just can't quite translate it for you folks out there. And they really don't think the meteorologists have gotten it. Obviously, they're - that's not a uniform pattern.

But the other culture of scientists, I think that - there has been some polling that shows there's geologists, who deal with very long time scales, who have seen the earth, you know, through their work, when it had 10 times as much CO2 in the atmosphere and temperatures and seas hundreds of feet - seas hundreds of feet different in height and temperatures very different, they also have low confidence in this, which doesn't help the public because the public sits out there going, well, you know, I hear all this yelling and whether it's on Loud Dobbs or on blogs or it - a little uncertainty on an issue like this goes a long way toward pushing it - for most of us, toward a back burner.

FLATOW: Well, it is amazing to me how politically polarized this is.

Mr. REVKIN: Oh, yeah. Well, I wrote about…

FLATOW: Yeah, you know?

Mr. REVKIN: The Pew Research Center last year at this time, did a pretty in-depth look at what Republicans and Democrats think, and they found - and this is kind of startling, initially at least - if you're a Republican with a college degree, you're more likely to be skeptical of the Al Gore view - or not just Al Gore, but the view that global warming by human causes a danger, than if you're a Republican without a college degree.

Now, if you're a Democrat with a college degree, you're substantially more likely to be convinced that global warming is dangerous (Laughing) than a Democrat without a college degree. So, it's kind of like the more - once you're in a silo, intellectually, you kind of go out into the universe and choose information that helps you reinforce your silo. That's one interpretation.

FLATOW: Yeah. I - when people ask me, how do you explain this? The only thing I can point to is going back to Ronald Reagan when he took the - ripped the solar panels off the White House. And that create - I don't remember or recall before then that the climate had been, well certainly not discussed a whole lot but that energy conservation - whatever - had become a political football. But now, anything to do with energy seemed - had been polarized by that - you know, undoing what Jimmy Carter had done.

Mr. REVKIN: It's true. Although, you know, actually, in writing about our focus on energy technology, one thing I've learned is a lot criticism went into Reagan doing that, but when you look at what - through - since then, both Republican and Democratic administrations have (Laughing) invested in energy research.

FLATOW: (Laughing) Yeah, that's true.

Mr. REVKIN: So, it's like we all lost interest.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's true. Do you suspect though that we're going to be getting interest back, this new administration is going to put it in our faces up close and personal?

Mr. REVKIN: Oh, I do think so. And the reason is this isn't just about climate. There are so many reasons that an energy quest in this country, from your light bulb in your house to the laboratories - the federal labs - and corporate boardrooms and the White House, is something that will have multiple benefits. You know, even if you're a climate doubter, there's many reasons to see those benefits.

On Dot Earth, I hear from skeptics and, you know, people who are very worried about global warming all the time. And there are a number of climate skeptics who are totally focused on energy efficiency and advancing technology. So, there's a political and obviously just a basic economic and ethical imperative to come up with cleaner, non-polluting energy choices in a growing world.

FLATOW: You know, my fear is that a lot of the research and a lot of the advances are just never going to get out to the public, because we're seeing science journalists being fired left and right and - you know, look what happened to Miles O'Brien and the whole CNN science staff.

Mr. REVKIN: And the Weather Channel's Forecast Earth group - yeah, we're in trying times in the media as it is. And when you add on that - the sense among some that science - some managers, newsroom managers, whatever - the, you know, the public really - they really want to hear about Britney Spears, and why should we, you know, give them science. Thank God for places like Science Friday and the New York Times, which despite its own dire circumstances right now has created a - we've created a group here dedicated to environment coverage and energy that is bigger than it was beforehand. So, that's kind of like - there's a man-bites-dog aspect to that (Laughing).

FLATOW: And we can share in your dire circumstances. We have our own (Laughing) going on here, so…

Mr. REVKIN: Well, you know - isn't it something?

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's see if we get a phone call or two in. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to…

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) - turn down the radio, please. Didn't want to turn down the radio. I guess we couldn't take that call. Let's see if we can take a - let's see if we get any better luck - Larry in Frankfort, Kentucky. Hi, Larry.

LARRY (Caller): Hey.

FLATOW: Hey there.

LARRY: I'm so glad to get on here, and this is such a timely topic. To me, it just - and I live in Kentucky, where coal is king, you know (Laughing), so it's one of these things where it seems to be it's all about the economy, stupid, that when people get scared about their money and everything and they think they're going to have to spend a little bit more money to fix things like - and do things, like seek restoration or this non-existent coal - clean coal technology that they're going to clean up, then they start balking.

And it seems like there are two fears going on. There's the fear of the destruction of planet Earth, which to me seems like the more important one. But then there's the economic fear, and it seems like with humans, the economic fear always trumps the other. And I just - I don't know when people are going to realize that we're going to have to see about preserving our planet in order to preserve our way of life, but it seems like they keep putting the cart before the horse and money seems to speak, even though they don't realize that by putting in energy-saving standards and standards that would help the CO2 emissions and carbon footprint, they could actually save money in the bargain as well, so…

FLATOW: Yeah, it's a good point. And you know, I think when - I think part of the blip on the radar that disappeared was when the price of gasoline dropped from $4 to $2.

LARRY: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: You know people were talking about the price of energy all the time, and suddenly, now it's back down to $2 and people are saying, gee, it doesn't cost me a hundred bucks to fill up anymore.

LARRY: Mm hmm.

FLATOW: Andrew, what do you think about that?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, yeah. Obama spoke of trying to end our - what he called our shock and trance approach to energy policy, you know, because there's so many fluctuations in energy prices. And I blogged on that, and that relates even more to climate, because as we've been saying, you know, energy costs are right in our face. Climate costs remain sort of a moral sense of what do we owe our children and grandchildren?

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. REVKIN: And for many people, you know, there still is this economic question of well, you know, why should I impede my ability to get wealthier now by paying more for energy and paying a carbon tax and that kind of thing? So they say, even for my children's sake, why shouldn't I just get richer, have more money to give to them and spend on their college education and worry less about this looming risk that may or may not be catastrophic?

So it's - again, if it isn't cast - one thing I tried to get at on the blog off and on and in the paper, too, is that if the argument for action on climate is built round a false urgency - that this is happening right now, look out your window, that's why you need to act - that kind of argument is always doomed to fail because nature's complexity and vagaries guarantee it'll be cool and warm spells on the way to a warming world. And of course, there'll be higher and lower energy costs, too.

So, whatever policy is proposed, if it doesn't have that sustained characteristic, this, you know, we need a new relationship to energy henceforth, not - this is not something you go out an fix, which I think a lot of environmental groups are still caught up in trying to imply this is that kind of problem.

FLATOW: Yeah. Talking with Andrew Revkin, who's a reporter for the New York Times, author of "The North Pole Was Here" and also the blog "Dot Earth," on Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Let's see if we can get a few more calls in. Jerry in O'Fallon, Missouri. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you very much. In reference to the previous caller, I think it was Upton Sinclair who said, it's hard to get someone to understand a point when their income is dependent on them not understanding it. I'm paraphrasing from memory.


Mr. REVKIN: That's pretty good, actually.

JERRY: But - no, I wish I knew more about the subject, but - to debate it with people - but the one thing I think that stands out is that the entity that has bought into this as simply a fact is the United States military, and I know they've done millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of research on what will be geopolitical changes forced by climate change. And if there's any group that normally seems to be respected by more conservative people, it's the military, and it seems like they've already placed their bet that it's inevitable.

Mr. REVKIN: Absolutely true. I actually have written about this a little bit on - both on the blog - I think just on the blog so far, but yeah, the Defense Department is a good place to watch for things to be concerned about. They're very concerned - mainly about energy and having secure supplies for fighting wars. They also increasingly have made doctrine to include - this just happened in the last month or two - the Army came out with a new doctrine that says, fostering stability in troubled places is as important as being prepared to fight wars in troubled places.

So, there's - that's a sense of what can you do to limit turmoil from famine or from water - inadequate water supplies as a way to prevent conflict is becoming part of our definition of how we defend the nation. That's an interesting twist right there, too. And they're also - they and the CIA have recently come out with security studies related to how climate change in different places could amplify conflicts that matter to the United States. So, they're definitely in the loop.

FLATOW: So, climate change is a security issue?

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's a - thank you, Jerry, for calling.

JERRY: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-909-8255. So, where are you going next? I know you go all over the world, Andrew. Are you going back up to the arctic area to watch this summer - the ice melting?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, with our new reorganization of our environment staff right now, I'm mainly going to be going back and forth to Washington…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REVKIN: Based on what's happening with the - Obama's pledge for climate legislation, that kind of thing.

FLATOW: How closely is that being watched? How closely do we think it's going to actually do what it says it will, or will it be chopped apart in Congress?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, Congress is the key. The Senate, particularly on - not just on legislation, but on a treaty - remember, the Senate has to give two-thirds support to anything that we're - any treaty we're going to sign, and that really binds President Obama's hands to some extent, in terms of how he can approach this year, which comes up to Copenhagen in December - a big meeting trying to carve out a new climate treaty.

So, on all those fronts, Congress matters enormously, and history shows us that Congress is - in influence on these kinds of things, can be very erosive, where you just sort of see something that looks good initially, and then it gets whittled away. And the way I try to approach this as a reporter is from the standpoint of the atmosphere. I kind of put on my little atmosphere hat and say, OK, I'm way up here. I'm looking down, and what about this looks like it will actually matter to me? You can have a very aggressive cap and trade thing, but if there are too many out-clauses and, other things, that doesn't impress me.

FLATOW: Alright Andrew, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. REVKIN: Anytime.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Have a good weekend.

Mr. REVKIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Andrew Revkin is a reporter for the New York Times, also author of the book "The North Pole Was Here," and you can read his Times blogging on the blog called "Dot Earth," there on the New York Times site.

We've run out of time, speaking of which.

(Soundbite of credits)

FLATOW: And if you have comments or questions, write to us at Science Friday, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York, 1-double-oh-36; also, go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com. Our Science Friday Pick of the Week - our video Pick of the Week is up there, the water bears. And you can get some great insight into those videos - a lot - a whole bunch of videos up there. We'd like to see your videos, if you have some you'd like contribute. We're also podcasting and blogging and looking for your input. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.