I have thought quite a bit about Revkin since. I saw him as two-faced, and others have struggled with this as well. People who have met Revkin find it hard to entirely dislike him (I have since entered into that category), and people who have been interviewed by him especially so. There's an obvious sincerity and wit (not matched by musical talent, alas) that makes the two-facedness even harder to account for.
I have since decided that it's best to think of Revkin as the Larry King of the sustainability world. A good interviewer of the friendly sort - the type that brings out the best, most convincing, most coherent, in anyone he interviews. When he interviews somebody basically sound, the result is extremely helpful. When he interviews someone basically confused and/or ego-driven, or tries to address both "sides" of what ought to be a noncontroversy, the result is toxic. On the whole we end up with a few gems in a total contribution that is not helpful.
A key controversy is on the "stridency" question. Journalists face competing ethical pressures - to tell the truth as it exists and to be open to challenge. This is a tightrope act. As such, journalists are suspicious of advocates - those who only tell one side of the story. I sympathize.
In the end my position on all this is closed to Gavin Schmidt's. What we want from all this communication is for real conversation based on realistic assessments of evidence to replace all these idiotic proxy arguments we are having instead. But when the proxy arguments are hopelessly skewed away from reality, representing a success on the part of the advocates of policy paralysis, the best thing to do is not always the thing that looks to the confused public as the most balanced.
So a case in point arises in a recent kerfuffle between Greg Laden and Andy Revkin.
It begins with an article Greg writes that is heavily critical of Andy, suggesting that he is becoming an active agent of the forces of confusion and denial.
For what it's worth, I wouldn't have written it that way. I don't think Andy has changed much. As Greg points out, it's the evidence that has changed, and there's little sign that Andy has moved along with the evidence.
But of course, that misunderstands what his role in all this. He has always been a de facto agent of confusion and denial, because his kindness and essential neutrality combines with excellent interview skills to produce this mass of wonderful and terrible articles, the net effect of which is terrible. Andy Revkin, though I like him, is the embodiment of the problem I set out to solve when I started blogging.
True to form, Andy is open to criticisms of himself, but decides to put some focus on this paragraph of Greg's:
There is plenty of room for variation in policy approaches to climate change. But there is absolutely zero room for considering the reality of climate change or its severity. We can honestly argue about thresholds, and which decade will see what severe effects, but we can no longer argue about the existence or overall seriousness of the problem.Revkin picks up on Olson's critique and in his response replies sarcastically
“Zero room.” That’s scientific.and expands
It is on the severity question that his “zero room” for debate meme fails.Randy "Don't be Such a Scientist" Olson (grrr...) runs with it:
By pinpointing the “zero room” comment, Andy got right to the heart of the problem, and even cued a more specific elaboration from Greg of “zero room for debate.”
There’s your problem. In just two words you’ve captured much of the core of the failed climate movement of the past decade. And it is failed, given that there was once climate legislation in the works and bipartisan support for action, but today there’s nothing.
In 2006 Gore’s movie gave rise to the misguided “there is no debate” communication strategy. It took Climategate and Jon Stewart ridiculing the climate science community to show that actually there very much is a debate if you use the broader public’s definition of the word “debate” (that half the public does not support climate action) rather than the academic community definition (all the data point one way).
“Zero room” captures the self-defeating arrogance and tone deafness that has characterized the American environmental community for decades. Thank you, Greg, for distilling it down to just two words.
But look, it's obviously wrong. The question is what Greg meant by "zero debate" on the "severity question". Does it mean zero debate on HOW SEVERE, or zero debate on WHETHER IT US SEVERE. Because if it's the former, there's certainly room for criticism. But see, Greg already answered that for us. Since bits are free, I'll repeat it with emphasis:
There is plenty of room for variation in policy approaches to climate change. But there is absolutely zero room for considering the reality of climate change or its severity. We can honestly argue about thresholds, and which decade will see what severe effects, but we can no longer argue about the existence or overall seriousness of the problem.Although the second sentence is open to criticism on one interpretation, it is immediately paraphrased in the third sentence. And that paraphrase makes clear that the zero debate question refers not to quantitative dickering but to the basic facts of the matter, facts which Revkin insists that he accepts.
In short, this particular line of attack is baseless and at best very sloppy.
Beyond that, I'll let Andy and Greg slug it out. I don't entirely agree with either of them on their characterizations of what Andy does (and what most of the rest of the American press does too).
In the large, Greg is wrong when he (implicitly) calls Andy a sell-out. (* UPDATE/NOTE - Greg says on Twitter that he wouldn't use that description.)
(It's perhaps unsurprising that Andy turns around and defensively calls Greg a zealot, and that's wrong too. I don't always agree with Greg, but I think we've learned that tiptoeing around the climate issue trying to sound like a proper scientist is not having the desired effect. Greg can be reasoned with - he's reasonable in that sense.)
The problem at root is a totally confused sci-comms ideology that has gripped the press, exemplified and championed by Dan Kahan. And the best illustration of it has been provided, ironically and apparently unwittingly, by Andy Revkin. Watch.
Sorry. A bit excruciating, I know.
But if you ever wanted to see what ideological blinkers really do to a person, listen to how Revkin ducks and weaves to avoid answering Gell-Mann's simple question. (Ironic, no?)
A real pity the camera is facing the wrong way because Gell-Mann is the interviewer. (A hat tip to Steve Bloom for the reminder.)
And this bizarre abdication of responsibility by the press leaves nobody willing to take responsibility for the public understanding the issue. And that's the problem. I'm hard pressed to see how we reach a point where the public "believes in" something it doesn't have any understanding of.