BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the threat posed by bird flu is over hyped, then what about climate change? For years, news reports played the threat down by playing up the impression that the jury was still out on the causes of global warming, not to mention its effects down the road. But lately, at least in the pages of the American press, we see more and more signs of impending apocalypse. Polar bears drowning in Alaska, hurricanes intensifying, record-breaking temperatures. "Be worried, be very worried", warned a recent Time Magazine cover and this Wednesday, select theaters premier "An Inconvenient Truth", the new documentary about Al Gore's climate crusade. [APPLAUSE, CHEERS]
AL GORE: I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States of America. [LAUGHTER, CHEERS, APPLAUSE] [VIDEO SOUNDTRACK]
AL GORE: This is Patagonia 75 years ago, and the same glacier today. This is Mount Kilimanjaro 30 years ago, and last year. Within the decade, there will be no more "snows of Kilimanjaro"
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you take climate change seriously, you might think that all the recent media is good news, but New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin isn't entirely thrilled. He's covered climate change for more than two decades, during which he's noticed a pattern of playing up the spectacle, at the expense of the science.
ANDREW REVKIN: When you start focusing on the things that are happening in the here and now world, like hurricanes, my God, it doesn't get any more vivid than that, so you're really - every bone in your journalistic body is trying to find that link. Where's the front page thought here? And the front page thought is clearly that global warming has somehow juiced up last year's hurricane season specifically, in a way that is our fault. You get into this realm where there is legitimate debate still in the science, and you move away from the things that no one disputes, that these gases, like carbon dioxide, trap the sun's heat, they're warming the climate, and they will warm the climate more in coming years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you say the fact that CO2 is building up in the atmosphere is now beyond doubt. What is still dubious?
ANDREW REVKIN: Well, the debate now is about how fast consequences will play out. Whether sea level rises two or three feet in each century is different than if it rises, let's say, ten feet in one century. When you look ahead at the Arctic later this century, there's not a scientist around studying this stuff who doesn't see the prospect of basically a blue pole at the top of the world for the first time in human history, meaning summertime open water ocean, just like the Atlantic or the Pacific, all the ice gone. But when you look at the near term, there's been a lot of melting, a lot of strange things going on with the sea ice that they can't ascribe this particular year to our influence on the climate system. They know it's contributing to change but there's enough variability in the Arctic that you can't make a slam dunk case. So that's a nightmare for the media. You know, my editors -- the one thing that makes them glaze over immediately is the word "incremental". That's like, at The Times, and I'm sure any other newsroom, that's a death sentence for a story. And global warming is kind of like the Social Security and national debt of the environment. It's there, we all recognize it's some kind of big bad thing, but it's always kind of a "someday, somewhere story."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And there's something else they have in common - no good pictures.
ANDREW REVKIN: [LAUGHS] Yeah, that's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can photograph dead birds at an oil spill, you can photograph the destruction of the rain forest.
ANDREW REVKIN: Even the ozone hole, the atmospheric problem that we grew up with in the ?80's, had a clear glaring symbol, this sort of purple bruise in the atmosphere over Antarctica.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And easy to identify bad guys -
ANDREW REVKIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - just those people who produced chlorofluorocarbons.
ANDREW REVKIN: Right, right. A very different kind of problem, and it's very easy to cast an administration or industry as the bad guy here. It's much harder to realize that this buildup of these greenhouse gases is caused by every single thing we do in modern life -- building a new power plant, turning on a car, that it's hard to think, oh, we're the bad guy. That doesn't make for such a convenient story either. Many people out there, including many scientists I've talked to, are incredibly frustrated that scientists have not been able to kind of explain this situation in a way that galvanizes a big public response. And so, this is almost a natural reaction, to kind of reach out, to grasp a little farther toward the thing in the here and now world that might make it a media story or might get people's attention. This can backfire. You get into a realm where there's enough debate that opponents of action on global warming can jump right in and say, "You're just fear mongering."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And as we've said on this show, there are efforts on the part of industry to exploit the journalistic practice of offering balance, the "he said, she said" kind of argument, in order to play up the idea of uncertainty, where it might not exist.
ANDREW REVKIN: In fact, in The Times in 1998, Jack Cushman, a colleague of mine, revealed a document that essentially was the game plan of the energy lobbies to fight greenhouse gas restrictions, and it expressly laid out a budget and how to hire some scientists, to train them to speak about uncertainty and get out there in the mix.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we have a quote from that memo here. "Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom." We also have a tape that was launched just this week by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian group backed by ExxonMobil. Let's listen to that. [SOUNDTRACK]
SPOKESPERSON: Greenland's glaciers are growing, not melting. Did you see any big headlines about that? Why are they trying to scare us? Global warming alarmists claim the glaciers are melting because of carbon dioxide from the fuels we use. Let's force people to cut back, they say. But we depend on those fuels to grow our food, move our children, light up our lives. And as for carbon dioxide, it isn't smog or smoke. It's what we breathe out and plants breathe in. Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Andrew, I have to ask you, why do you hate children and plants?
ANDREW REVKIN: [LAUGHS] Well, nobody hates children and plants. And carbon dioxide is, and has always been, a component of the atmosphere. But we're doubling the amount from what was there before industry got busy and before we got busy, 150 years ago, burning coal and oil. And there's, again, a huge body of evidence that that's leading to a world that will be a very different place than we are familiar with. This is the breaking news - the breaking news is humans are transforming the way the world works.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it's the breaking news today, tomorrow, next week, next month and for the end of the century -
ANDREW REVKIN: [CHUCKLES] And--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and for half of the previous century.
ANDREW REVKIN: It's breaking news in terms of the scope of the history of human life on earth, right, which is for most people, a snooze. I guess it gets down to what is journalism about. I do think there's a part of journalism that needs to explore the things that don't necessarily fit our norms. In other words, let's for the moment leave aside the things at the edges of the science that are compelling and weird and scary but that we don't really understand very well and get back to the bedrock. This is what carbon dioxide does. More of it will make the world warmer. A warmer world will have less ice. That will make seas higher. And that will lead to profound transformations that we need to pay attention to. And if it takes writing a story that way, where you literally start the lead of the story, "This isn't a story as we know it, but this is a story, let me tell you why", I think that's a - that could work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe once. [LAUGHS]
ANDREW REVKIN: I think basically -- you know, well, maybe once. Maybe once. And maybe it means that in this 21st century world, the front page needs to evolve a little bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.
ANDREW REVKIN: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew Revkin covers climate science and policy for The New York Times. His new book is called "The North Pole Was Here: Puzzles and Perils at the Top Of the World".