This is an exchange with Andrew Revkin of the NY Times regarding a post on his blog, dotearth. The original article was The Climate Challenge. Same as it Ever Was?

My post in reply

You seem to feel that your 1992 article could be republished as it was. That would be a serious mistake:

  1. You make the claim that there were hordes of activists stating that humanity is about to "turn this rare blue sphere into a cinder of bedrock" - but as usual when reporters such as yourself try to "balance" the two sides, you cite no examples. Contrast that with your easy location of slanders to quote made by the anti-environmentalists (and it would have been trivial to find others, even more extreme).
  2. You state that "Obviously, the case is not open-and-shut. It's still possible that the current warming trend is some natural variation caused by factors we don't understand." This has essentially been ruled out by scientists since 1992, who state in the latest IPCC report "Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is [more than 90%] likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations."
  3. The IPCC has looked into the likelihood that "things will turn out just fine" - and the results are not encouraging. They find that it is at least 2:1 likely that the "Area affected by droughts increases", "Intense tropical cyclone activity increases", and there will be "Increased incidence of extreme high sea level" during the coming century.

Unfortunately, the lack of urgency you advocated in 1992 has been followed by nearly two decades of almost total inaction in this country, and inadequate or nonexistent responses everywhere else.

Revkin's Reply

ANDY REVKIN responds: I pulled the piece out of the archives as an artifact of a time and situation, not because its summation of the science back then equals what science reveals now. Just one example: In 1992, the ice-core record of past CO2 levels only went back 160,000 years. Now it goes back around 800,000 years.

The post is mainly about societal response to the science, and there has been little change. As for my portrayal of the situation at that time, I stand by it today. As for environmentalists painting dire pictures, I don't have time to sift the archives but I guarantee there was plenty of apocalypse-speak, which many activists still think is the only tonic for the denial on the other side of the issue.

But does hot rhetoric work? The answer, given how things have played out over two decades, doesn't seem to be yes. Maybe words are worthless in the climate fight? Again, as a communicator, I hope not.

My second post

To Andy Revkin, regarding your reply to my post:

I apologize if I misinterpreted your intent in reposting the article. The title of the column "Same As It Ever Was" left me with that impression.

That being said, I'd make these replies:

  1. I believe that there is a general consensus among the members of the media in my acquaintance that there was a general failure in media reports to convey the actual scientific situation as it unfolded during the last two decades. The public to this day is left with the impression that there is significant scientific uncertainty in many matters when in fact none exists. In my opinion, the "split the difference" tone of your piece (starting with the title "Let's Be Sensible on Global Warming") likely left many readers with the impression that you were advocating against strenuous action.
  2. There are always people in any debate who make overstatements, so the fact that you might be able to go into the archives and find one or two tells us nothing. The question of who they were and how seriously anyone took them is quite important. Your anonymous activists were being counterposed to the U.S. President and a widely published political columnist.
  3. My impression was that by-and-large even the more strident environmental organizations (such as, to name one, Greenpeace) generally quoted scientific statements - perhaps mentioning just the high end of a range of predictions. It would be interesting to go back and check what was said in 1992. But as a journalist, I don't think it's right that you paraphrase an entire half of the debate using an extreme statement that no one really made. This is a strawman.
  4. Perhaps the phrase "Save the Planet" in response to the dangers posed by climate change strikes you and many others as alarmist, and it certainly hasn't been effective. But that is largely a matter of taste, or strategy, and calling for "Being Sensible" in response is misleading - the call to "Save The Planet" is not nonsense, even if you'd prefer other words.

But let's not worry to much about the rhetoric and get down to policy. Do you / did you think that in 1992 the calls for rapid cuts in emissions were alarmist? If not, then why call for "sense"?