In Defense of Andrew Revkin

I was, by coincidence, in the midst of reading Bjorn Lomborg’s book this week when Andrew Revkin’s New York Times piece on the sloppy center came out. There is much to like about the book, and much to disagree with (more on that later, when I’ve finished it). But the most important thing is that you’ve got someone here who embraces mainstream science, but comes up with a different policy response. Ditto Newt Gingrich, who has some interesting comments in the videos linked near the bottom of Revkin’s story.

The criticism of Revkin’s piece has been predictable. But I think he’s doing an extraordinarily valuable service here. Journalism gravitates toward the extremes, the loudest voices of the members of the climate wars tribe. In capturing the headlines, that creates this false picture in the public mind, I think, of the nature of the climate debate. It is an orthogonal example to the way Revkin’s “tyranny of the news peg” is typically used, but it’s just as relevant in this case. On the right, journalists look for people who question the science. On the left, we look for people who proclaim a coming doom. The result is a paralyzed discourse, which Revkin delightfully describes as “a world where energy and environmental policies are still forged mainly in the same way Doctor Dolittle’s two-headed pushmi-pullyu walked. (It didn’t move much.)” (If you’re reading, Andy, 10 points for that one!)

That views other than the typical caricatures exist and are worth hearing seems entirely much for those entrenched in the tribal warfare. Predictably, for example, David Roberts went apeshit. It’s much easier to poke holes in Chris Horner’s embarassing repetition of the global cooling myth, or criticize Al Gore’s use of Hurricane Katrina in his movie. But that’s becoming a pretty tired and unproductive sort of discussion.


  1. John-

    I disagree that Lomborg embraces mainstream science. He is explicitly assuming that the climate will follow the middle of the IPCC’s predicted range … and ignores the possibility of the upper end of the range — the worst-case scenario. Thus, I don’t think you can say he embraces the IPCC.

    In fact, I think many (if not all) of his conclusions are dependent on his eliminating the upper end of the range, and he might find his “cool it” prescription much harder to defend if there’s a reasonable chance of a 5°C temperature rise during the 21st century.

  2. Lomborg’s scam is to loudly claim that he accepts mainstream science when he doesn’t. He’s been doing it for long enough that the misrepresentation must be deliberate.

  3. Yeah, like they said above: Lomborg does not accept mainstream science.

    John, it’s you and Revkin trying to narrow the debate here, not me.

    The fact is, you, Revkin, Pielke Jr., you guys palpably want to be the few, brave, Reasonable Men beset by tribal extremes. You covet that persona, that self-image, so much that you have grossly distorted the actual state of debate around climate — and you accuse others of being loathe to acknowledge that “views other than the typical caricatures exist.”

    The caricatures are yours. There is a dwindling band of skeptics, and then there’s Everybody Else. To say that Everybody Else fits into this monochromatic “crying doom” cartoon is just goofy. There are all sorts of messages and all sorts of strategies among people fighting climate change. They all believe that global warming is a pressing problem that requires immediate action, yes, but that’s because it is, as you’ll note if you read the latest IPCC report. However much you enjoy dulcet, calming tones, nature just isn’t cooperating.

    Your valorization of this bizarre rump coalition Revkin has crammed together under the label “pragmatic center” has little to do with the real range and variety of opinions on climate and energy. All Gingrich, Lomborg, and S&N have in common is that they cast themselves as brave heretics speaking truth to rigid ideologies — thus flattering your intellectual predilections. That doesn’t put them in the center of anything; it’s just a rhetorical style.

  4. Andrew –

    I would agree that the point you’ve highlighted is the fundamental flaw in Lomborg’s work. That was essentially the point Partha Dasgupta made in Nature when the book came out. But it picking a particular point in the spectrum of possible outcomes to emphasize reflects an approach that is similarly used by others at various points on the political spectrum. In his discussion of sea level rise, for example, Al Gore picked one particular outcome in a range of possibilities. What’s needed, in fact, is a discourse that’s robust to the range of possibilities and the uncertainties associated with them. To get that, you to start by accepting that the IPCC provides a reasonable foundation for the discussion, which Lomborg does.

    David –

    I fear we both end up caricaturing one another here, and that this is a discussion that would work far better if we were in the same room. Next time you’re in Albuquerque…. 🙂

    I’m not sure how you’ve successfully intuited my inner journalist in determining what I “covet.” I’m the one getting the emails and letters to the editor from a wide range of Albuquerque Journal readers, so I know precisely how “beset by tribal extremes” I am or am not. What I “covet” is to provide the people who read my work with a reasonable sense of the scope of thoughtful views on this issue, and I therefore stand by my comments: that more polarization views tend to get more news media attention, and therefore create a caricatured view in the mind of the casual public, and that Revkin is doing responsible journalism when he tries to show that a fuller range of views than those caricatures exist, and further by emphasizing that those views have some value in the discussion.

  5. Tim –

    I’m loathe to become Lomborg’s defender here, because I’m not sure I buy his argument. But I will simply point out that, with respect to the point you raised over on Revkin’s blog, Lomborg’s underlying argument seems to be quite consistent with one of the major points made by WGII: “Alternatively, an age of sustained health could result from more wide-ranging investment in social and medical services, leading to a reduction in the incidence of disease, benefiting most segments of the population.” That scenario, which Lomborg endorses, is clearly entertained as a possibility by the IPCC.

  6. John,

    I found the discussion on…”an age of sustained section 8.3.1 of WG II and then read the summary of Policy Makers section pertaining to health:

    Projected climate change-related exposures are likely to affect
    the health status of millions of people, particularly those with
    low adaptive capacity, through:
    • increases in malnutrition and consequent disorders, with
    implications for child growth and development;
    • increased deaths, disease and injury due to heatwaves,
    floods, storms, fires and droughts;
    • the increased burden of diarrhoeal disease;
    • the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due
    to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone related to
    climate change; and,
    • the altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease

    I found no contradiction there but it made me even more resistant to Lomborg’s view of the future.

    Without question, investments such as being made by WHO, Gates Foundation, USAID are fundamental societal obligations/responsibilities that have been a long time in coming to the funding stages programs such as AIDS treatment and malaria treatment are now receiving. However, Lomborg seems satisfied that this is a better expenditure of dollars than the simultaneous investment in mitigation at best (and reduced AGW impact, lat least) to allow the populations at risk the time to build their defenses against the grater threats the WGII projects.

    He would have us scale up the health and wellbeing of the likely first and more severely impacted victims of AGW.

    He gets to feel good about the hands across the sea approach and will not be around when the health gains are wiped out by persistent drought, heat waves, food and water shortages brought on by a warming world.

  7. I read Revkin’s post all the way thru early before the reactions came out. I didn’t have a problem with what he wrote and my reaction was much the same as John’s.

    I read Dave’s reaction the same way as the reaction I got from Joe Romm when he was foaming over Schellenberger and Nordhaus. Same thing – they have a policy response that differs from yours, Dave, therefore they must be vilified. Reminder: I personally think Lomborg is a shill.



  8. Opinion space is multidimensional, not linear. That is my problem with Revkin’s approach.

    Journalism’s common error isn’t just about concentrating on extremes, it’s about modeling the whole conversation as a one-dimensional spectrum of opinion.

    In particular I cannot think of dramatically different positions prominently held where I lie on a line between them.

    For instance I believe that 1) we will be in big trouble if we don’t change course 2) changing course will not be technically difficult nor have a large impact on lifestyles 3) changing course *will* be socially difficult 4) the short-term impact of this necessary difficult adjustment will be negative on the whole 5) changes in individual behavior (green shopping) not only don’t matter significantly but are likely to be modestly counterproductive in non-obvious ways 6) nuclear power and coal with carbon sequestration are likely to be necessary 7) geoengineering other than carbon sequestration is far too dangerous to consider 8) universal development and dignity is possible but only with very careful planning.

    Some of these opinions are not widely held, and some which are widely held individually are not often held pairwise by the same person, but I find them entirely consistent. Where does that put me on the “spectrum”?

    I am not objecting to the idea of being reasonable. I am objecting to the idea that the “middle” is a useful construct. It trivializes irreducible complexity and also suggests the feasibility of complacency and modest action.

  9. Michael –

    If you can find an approach to the task of writing a 600-word newspaper story about a topic this complex that does not trivialize irreducible complexity, I will cheerfully gift you my Humphrey Bogart journalist’s fedora. It’s what computer scientists, I believe, call “a compression problem.” Newspaper stories are lossy. No other way.

  10. The nature of newspaper stories is an interesting topic, and one which my wife and I have been talking about lately. (She is reconsidering why she found journalism school such a poor match for her thinking that she transferred out. This is the same J school that didn;t let me transfer in, Medill at Northwestern.) More to follow.

    Anyway, I have to disagree. I admit that all nontrivial verbal communication is lossy, but Revkin’s point was made in several blog entries and he has as many words as he wants.

    “Middle is not a useful construct” has six words and “irreducible complexity” has only two. My entry above defending the first by alluding to the second has 233 words.

    I don’t say that journalism is easy, but I don’t see that as a way to justify oversimplifying things and especially not as an excuse for treating every damned thing on earth as a race between two horses.

  11. Michael –

    My point is that there are essentially an infinite number of shortcuts through what I call story space. Any one of them that Revkin could have chosen would require a simplification that would be arguably wrong on the same sort of grounds that you have raised. In fact, I would have a greater complaint about the kind of simplification your summary above argues for than his. He is very explicitly trying to describe the public face of the debate. You are asking him to instead describe what happens in the bowels of the debate among specialists like yourself. Those are two very different things.

    Revkin does many stories that explore the complexity you describe. His piece on the decline of arctic sea ice was a classic in that regard.

    Nora –

    I promise. When I get the book done in January, I’ll read ’em both.

  12. Michael –

    The highly visible, public face of the debate (the part of the opinion space that his broad readership sees) is very much characterized by the linear dichotomy Revkin sets up in his introduction. Revkin has the standing as the subject matter expert to characterize that public face of the debate, and I believe he does it accurately.

    The simplification you describe, a multi-dimensional opinion space, would I think not be an accurate description of that public face of the debate. It’s an interesting topic for a story, and Revkin’s work has gone there over and over again. But this is a story about something different.

    In fact, this story very much *is* an attempt to go beyond the linear model and describe several more dimensions.

    A common journalistic tactic is to anchor a story in what people already can be expected to know and then lead them from that familiar ground into new territory. Revkin explicitly does that here, and in fact he seems to be doing the sort of thing your argument suggests should be done. He starts with the linear public face of the debate, with which most readers ignorant of the details of climate change will be familiar, and leads readers out into additional dimensions. Sound to me like a good start toward doing exactly what you’re asking for.

  13. Is it possible that the perceived highly visible linear dichotomy is a direct consequence of journalism oversimplifying the matter?

    Check this exchange between Ray Pierrehumbert and a correspondent to RealClimate:

    Jonathan: Why is there a consistent reluctance in the scientific community to put forth nuclear energy as an option to mitigate AGW?

    Ray: Why is there such a consistent tendency for people like you to assume that I would object to some expansion of nuclear energy.

    My answer to Ray is that the obsession with simple contests between two positions has been imposed by journalists.

    Look, here’s an article in the Statesman about football.

    I can’t make any sense out of it. It’s vastly more sophisticated and multidimensional than I can handle; it appears to be about which bowl game UT will be in, and the upshot seems to be that “we” would be better off beating A&M next weekend, which I already could have guessed, but beyond that I don’t have the context to make heads or tails of it.

    I feel a vague sense of guilt about it though. After all, I ought to be able to read the daily paper.

    Are people really more interested in football than in the future of the planet? I know, that seems like an easy opportunity to be cynical, but really?

    Why do we have to dumb down the stuff that matters?

    It is one thing to start with what people are already expected to know (obviously the football article was too generous to me) and another thing to start with things people are expected to know that just ain’t so!

    This one-dimensionalization is incredibly pervasive and to me it’s massively exasperating! It plays into the hands of both of the major organized political parties but short circuits actual public discourse. That’s not what journalism is supposed to be about, and I suspect this capitulation of journalism to the legal/political mindset is a major player in the decline of functioning democracy.

    I suppose your employer thinks it sells papers, but I’d venture they’re wrong on that too.

  14. Michael –

    Without evidence about the mainstream media’s coverage of nuclear issues, that’s a circular argument. You’re trying to argue that the media’s oversimplification is the reason for public misunderstanding by pointing to an example of public misunderstanding without offering any evidence that the media is the cause.

    In fact, in my little anecdotal world (and this is an issue I follow professionally, so I’ve got lots of anecdotes), I’ve seen lots of discussion of the green pro-nuclear crossover dimension of this issue.

    Your example from the sports page is fabulous, though. Sports coverage is a favorite example of mine of an absolute failure in the ability of journalists to reach outside their own world of jargon and specialized knowledge to those who don’t have that jargon and specialized knowledge. Good sportswriting doesn’t do that. What you’ve pointed to is an example of lousy sportswriting. It absolutely failed to do what you’re asking journalism to do here, which is to communicate to those outside the world of people already in the know about the topic at hand.

    If Revkin were to write about climate science and policy that way, the exercise would be useless and the audience would be lost. It’s not a matter of dumbing down. It’s a matter of anchoring in the familiar.

  15. Hi, John.

    David Roberts linked this conversation from Grist, so I’ll make an effort to strike while the iron is hot.

    Let me say that you were very helpful to me a couple of months back and I would like readers to understand that I write this with respect and best wishes. Despite our disagreements, I think you are a very fine reporter, a serious and careful thinker and a very decent fellow.

    I’ll acknowledge that the referenced sportswriting was so dreadful as to be funny, but my point was that it is only possible in a context where people are capable of absorbing a model of some complexity.

    As for the “green pro-nuclear crossover” you are still projecting everything onto a line conceptually. This line is not the solution for understanding the situation, it is

    Whether this bizarre misconception is or isn’t the media’s fault, I can’t see any excuse for the media propagating it.

    We just have to get off this idiotic two-player zero-sum-game model of politics. It is killing us. As the Texas Observer said recently in a climate change editorial, “we don’t have time for this nonsense anymore”.

    Staking out the “middle” is perhaps a model for electoral politics in a two-party contest, but it is not useful for reasoned discourse about how to cope with our bizarre and daunting circumstances. Please try to forget the horserace sometimes and remember the actual situation.

    best regards and happy holidays

  16. D’oh, there’s my nonlinear writing style biting me again.


    “This line is not the solution for understanding the situation, it is”

    please substitute

    “This idea of a ‘line’ of opinion with two extremes and a middle is not helpful for understanding our situation. It is not a useful approximation. It is pernicious and part of the problem.”

  17. I recall sports stories solving that problem with a decision tree diagram, decades ago, showing all the original teams, all the paired games, and the variety of outcomes leading to the following pairings. It actually made sense. It led the reader to visualize a lot of the less likely outcomes, without having to draw in every possibility.

    Something like that might be done with energy policy decisions.

  18. P.S., lightning vs. lightning bug:

    Please don’t write “loathe” when you mean “loath” (put the correct spelling in your spellchecker if it’s Clippy’s fault).

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