Andrew Revkin on Lessons Learned From Sandy

8139104515_60be5b0033_bHurricane Sandy after landfall. Photo: NASA Goddard

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Revkin celebrated the fifth birthday of his Dot Earth blog by writing a post examining the ways he could improve it. Revkin started Dot Earth to bring others into his effort to learn about the science behind reducing humanity’s impact on the planet. It’s a platform built to engage scientists, experts, and everyday readers in a forum where they can learn more about each other and the environment. “I’m convinced that there is vast untapped potential to use the Web and other means to build global awareness and meaningful relationships,” he said in a 2009 post.

In order to bring people in, he insists on writing and corresponding with a healthy amount of nuance. He’s written more than 2,000 posts and responded to thousands of comments, each time making sure not to oversimplify the science or the takeaway. Doing otherwise, he says, could lead to polarization. He’s seeing that polarization now, as a reaction to Sandy. “Just seeing how this plays out, as the activists on both sides try to amp up the messaging as a way to get traction on climate or to resist it,” he says. “Over and over again you see reality go to the side.”

After Sandy hit, he avoided saying in a flat and simple way that the storm was or wasn’t the result of climate change. Instead he wrote posts that asked scientists to chime in on climate change’s influence, he called for an examination of what can be learned from building near the coast, he assessed the political message of Mayor Bloomberg, and he pointed out energy innovations that worked during the storm. His goal was, and is, to build a level of trust based on reality, so that people will have continued faith in his dispatches. “Lately, I’ve been describing the kind of inquiry I do on Dot Earth as providing a service akin to that of a mountain guide after an avalanche,” he said in a 2009 post. “Follow me and I can guarantee an honest search for a safe path.”

That mantra hasn’t changed, but now he’s even more interested in engaging in discussion to find the correct path, something that has continued to improve in the last half decade on Dot Earth. I called up Revkin, who I took an environmental science journalism class from in 2004, so he could take us inside his process as he writes about the lessons of Sandy.

In 2009, Dot Earth moved to the editorial side of paper. Can you explain why that change happened?
Yeah, it’s actually different than what people think. The Times has no tradition of having a daily news contribution from someone who’s not on staff. In other words, there are stringers in, like, Istanbul and Shanghai or Iraq who will be feeding stuff, but other than that, there are no freelance folks who are a daily presence on the news side of the paper. And the environment desk, which was new in 2009, didn’t have a budget line for blogs. Over at Op-Ed, they have more of a tradition of having contributors. Like Linda Greenhouse, a former Supreme Court reporter writes online commentary there now. Tim Egan, a national correspondent, is there. They are both online. So it was just a better fit, and they had a budget line. So I moved over there for practical reasons. And, of course, I have gotten to a point where I do have ideas about things, and there are constraints that come from a news approach to information.

There are things I think I know enough about to have an opinion on. Now, I’m a bad fit for the editorial side of the paper, because my opinion is often, We don’t know. So I’m not going to give you an easy answer. I’ll never be a Paul Krugman. I’m just not out there to give you a particular worldview. I’m a slave to reality, and that includes uncertainty.

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