Andrew Revkin, NYTimes science and environmental journalist and blogger, spoke to a crowded Milstein Hall Auditorium on Monday, September 24 about his experiences covering environmental issues for a nonscientific audience. As a NYTimes reporter from 1995-2009, Revkin wrote about environmental issues covering areas from the Amazon to the Arctic, and now as an environmental blogger at DotEarth he addresses the problems facing the world in the next fifty years as its human population increases to 9 billion people. In his talk, entitled “Important Science in an Urgent Age,” he spoke to Cornell students and Ithaca residents about his views as an opinion blogger on climate change and hydraulic fracturing. His lecture was a part of the Atkinson Center’s “Outside Voices” speaker series, which spotlights multiple viewpoints on sustainability issues.
A Conversation on Climate Change
Much of Revkin’s journalistic work has dealt with environmental issues related to climate change. He said climate change is a complex topic and most of its effects are uncertain. Since scientists can not be sure of how much ocean levels will increase in the next hundred years or of how rainfall patterns may change, climate change is challenging to write about, and it is difficult to determine how people should properly prepare themselves for its consequences.
In addition to climate change difficulties, Revkin also spoke about the challenges involved with climate change mitigation efforts. He said that people take an incorrect approach to climate change by often viewing its causes as being less urgent than many of its effects. People devote most of their energy to fixing problems that arise as a result of climate change because these issues involve pressing matters like human health and can be fixed immediately.
He gave the example that climate change has made it possible for malaria carrying mosquitoes to increase their geographic range — which has led to increased outbreaks of malaria in human populations. The root of the problem is greenhouse gas emissions that alter ecological relationships by creating climate changes. According to Revkin, since this problem does not have a quick solution, people are more likely to focus on fixing problems of health care availability instead, which are more direct, less expensive and offer easier solutions to preventing illness.
Revkin’s Views on Fracking
Revkin also spoke about his opinion on hydraulic fracturing, which he said are different from most environmental journalists like Bill McKibben. According to Revkin, the hydraulic fracturing method of natural gas extraction, although known for emitting methane into the atmosphere, produces miniscule emissions when compared with the carbon pollution produced by the rest of the world. He also said that the benefits of using natural gas in place of conventional oil outweigh the risks in terms of carbon emissions. Therefore, from a global perspective, hydrofracking is not a primary concern that people should have when figuring out ways to mitigate climate change, he said.
Instead, he said that people should do their best to make hydrofracking as clean as possible, in terms of methane leakage and water chemical regulation. He said that the shale is a valuable resource that should be harnessed — if it can be done so correctly. Revkin also said that he acknowledges the need for revision in current hydrofracking methods before they are implemented in New York State.
He shifted his focus onto broader examples of climate change mitigation. Although China is rapidly increasing its use of sustainable energy, the country is doing so while still relying primarily on coal for its energy needs. America, he said, needs to use transitional energy sources because it cannot currently fill its energy needs using only sustainable sources, and thus would still be primarily dependent on coal and oil. It would be best for America to move away from conventional energy sources by increasing reliance on natural gas, a cleaner fuel source, and build upon that with renewable resources, he said.
“The challenge here is that there’s no easy tradeoff,” Revkin said. There will never be a perfect, clean energy source, there are going to be negative aspects associated with every form of energy. He also said that banning hydrofracking altogether eliminates the possibility for a discussion to improve the process so that it becomes something that could be beneficial.
If New York State were to switch to hydrofracking, Revkin said that now would be a smart time. The urgency to find cheap energy has, for the time being, passed. Since New Yorkers don’t need to rush into anything it will be easier to make more informed decisions. Gas prices are currently low and will remain to be low for a few years, he said. The states also seen the negative impacts that hydrofracking has had in other states and are prepared to ensure that this does not happen again.
Insight on Science Reporting and Environmental Blogging
During his talk, Revkin also addressed the challenges facing science journalism. One reason that Revkin said that he switched from being a news reporter to an opinion blogger was that science news reporting does not provide enough background for the non-scientific public to fully understand the complex issues that the world faces today. Revkin said that with news coming from numerous places like the Internet, science journalists would only be more reputable than other news sources if they provide a scientific framework, which he feels many do not.
As a blogger, Revkin said that he is able to provide a scientific platform for his readers through his own voice. He can also lead his readers to other news sites where they can find further information on topics that he covers like resource utilization, population increase, the consumption question and the issue of decreasing biodiversity.
“We’re more in harms’ way than ever, even though we’re safer than ever,” Revkin said, referring to issues such as crop insurance and healthcare which are both topics he said on his blog are created to protect people from the negative impacts of climate change. With population growth at its current rate however, people have been urbanizing in areas of geologic unrest and areas prone to natural disasters.
Revkin said that the main challenge as a science writer is to bridge the gap between scientists and the public because the dangers that are present in the world today are dangers that should be understood by everyone.