The Outside Blog


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.

SturgStandHelping release a tagged male sturgeon on the Hudson River, 2010.

You’ve taken a little bit of heat for saying you can’t say in one blanket message that this storm is a result of climate change. Can you describe how you cover Sandy, or any extreme event?
Well, it’s not just Sandy. David Appell, a longtime physicist who is also a science blogger, wrote a piece summarizing my writing. Every time an extreme event comes up there’s this eagerness to attribute it to global warming, I think with the hope that people look out the window and say, OK, this is it. We have to be cognizant.

Look closely at Climate Central or Real Climate. People who are dug in on these questions of science related to extreme events will acknowledge straight out that the attribution question—attributing a rare outlier event to an outlier cause, or saying this is mostly driven by global warming—is just a complete distraction. You’re in an area of young science where there is persistent uncertainty or gaps in knowledge. The history of extreme events is pretty constrained. I’ve written a lot about this field, called paleo tempestology. Looking back in history, what were patterns like? The problem is, they are rare enough, even using pretty sophisticated techniques, that it’s pretty hard to get high confidence on that. We know that our understanding of what’s rare and extreme is rare to begin with.

It actually provides ammunition to those who sow doubt and maintain stasis on energy norms, because when you push too hard on the connection it allows them to say, Oh look, you’re hyping this, so why should we trust you? A lot of people resist messages when they see attempts to hype them up. And this has come up over and over and over again: the wildfires in Colorado, the devastating fires east of Austin. I wrote about both of those in the same context.

Heat waves are about the only extreme for which there is a high confidence of greenhouse signal, and that’s exactly distinct from drought. Drought is a consequence of heat, but also of other things. And when you get out from there into things like storminess, you set yourself up for failure if you’re going to make the case for action based on that, unless you make the case carefully, and that gets back to nuance.

Google “Irene” and “McKibben” and you’ll see last year’s fight laid out on this very subject, and I could basically repeat the same fight this time, but it’s just a waste of time.

When Sandy first started, you opened things up to scientists. Can you talk about why you did things that way?
Well, again, I was just getting into gear, and making the rounds. It’s what I always do. One thing I hope people understand about Dot Earth, is, it’s an interrogatory blog. I’m not telling you what to think. It’s an open view of me thinking and seeking. And so often I’ll send a note out to a lot of people who know a lot about hurricanes, or about sea ice, or about energy, or fracking, or whatever, and I’ll take the temperature of the science or the economics. That’s what that post was meant to do.

And from there, you’ll make a judgment and write about what you think is most important?
Yeah, in fact, I’m probably going to write a piece about the attribution trap. What is it that keeps causing this particular effort to play out? I think it’s distracting and counterproductive.

And on Sandy, you’ve chosen to focus on risk, building, and disaster mitigation. Can you talk a bit about why you chose to do that?
Well, the reality when you look at New York’s Hurricane history and the East Coast’s history of hurricanes is that this is a city that despite it’s wealth and sophistication has been complacent to an implicit risk: the risk of inundation from storm surge. And this illustrates just how impactful an event can be. One can assume that lower Manhattan won’t be rebuilt in the same way after this electrical infrastructure showed how vulnerable it is—like that 14th Street station that exploded. That was a real reason for the blackout over much of Manhattan. That’s not reasonable. The consequences are going to be in the billions of dollars just from the electrical loss, let alone the physical damage to things.

I’ve heard that one building is probably not going to open until January. So the bottom line is, if you live in harm’s way, it would be a good time to review why that is. This refers to policies, you know, take coastal flood insurance. Look at what Carl Safina wrote in his piece, where he said, I live where I live because you give me flood insurance. I mean, that says something really important, that if we can’t figure out the policies and the behavioral trends that allow us to build in harm’s way, then we’re in trouble.

Now, there’s a piece, an economist from the World Bank, who I quoted in one of my pieces, said we do this because it’s worth it. That even with theses losses, it’s worth it to move close to the coast, to have your city where shipping is, and all that stuff. So that overall it’s still a net plus, so that’s why we are in harm’s way.

So, if you were just to distill the biggest lesson of Sandy into one sentence, what would that be?
Examine what allowed us to get into harm’s way. Then examine, really rigorously, even if we had a perfect policy on climate, would that change anything about the previous examination—where you’ve set your priorities? And I think the answer is no.

Brad Plumer of the Washington Post did a good piece on how an epic effort on greenhouse gases might sort of slightly lessen the chances of this sort of thing by the end of the century. I’ve never discounted the importance of moving beyond the idea of today’s energy norms, but don’t think that if somehow Al Gore had been in office and we had pushed forward on a perfect rigorous greenhouse policy, that that would insulate New York City from this implicit risk?. It wouldn’t. It would change the odds, but it’s there.

If you were in charge of New York City, what would be the first step you would take in evaluating the dangers? What’s the next step that should be taken?
I think Bloomberg has given the right signals, as did Cuomo. And Cuomo in some quote earlier in the week reflected that it took decades to get into this bollocks. That these are slow moving things. That the building codes, the trends, evolve slowly, and we were lulled, for sure. The 1938 hurricane hit Providence. It didn’t hit here.

Now, it’s going to take time to shift some of those norms. At Pace University we just had a resilience summit in January and we’re just convening today to think about part two, using this as a case study. It has to not just be, How can we fix the stuff that broke? It has to be, How can we build more smartly going forward, recognizing sea level rise, recognizing that even with great climate policy that our development patterns here are putting a lot of us in harm’s way, and then, trying to shift toward more sensible norms. There will be resistance. The first step is to review what happened.

There’s a piece I posted that leads off with a guy from the American Meteorological Society, named Bill Hooke, saying that maybe we need an NTSB for disasters. What the NTSB does for aviation disasters is a very thorough review of what went wrong, all the way back down the chain, and then how to make it less wrong. But we don’t have that for disasters like this on a national scale. I think something like that would be a smart thing.

So where does the action have to start? You examine what’s gone wrong, maybe you have a government panel or an outside panel saying here’s what’s wrong, but does the action have to start with people deciding not to move next to the coast or the government saying....
Well, government is still small compared to business and just, humanity. So I’m sure there are a lot of CEOs of companies who are saying, again, How did this happen? How did our business fail? And there is one, like, distributed power generation—I think I included the link—where the light stayed on because they use cogeneration. There was a piece in Forbes that I tweeted that said Natural Gas infrastructure is a parallel power grid. And there are a bunch of buildings in Manhattan that are doing cogeneration, taking the gas and making their own power, fuel cells. If you can do that, you’re limiting your exposure to power failure. So look at the systems that failed, find out how they failed, and decide what are common sense steps to make that not happen. Then, on a deeper level, what are the policy innovations that could fundamentally shift us toward more resilience in a world of changing climate?

I live in the Hudson Valley. Twice in recent years we had roads wash out and we qualified for FEMA money, but from what I understand, FEMA money comes and allows you to build your road back to existing standard. Swinging back, that gives a great ability to educate people about climate at the local level. Saying. Hey, Why in the world would we be building these roads only back to the existing damage for drainage and flooding when one of the most powerful findings in climate science is more rain coming in the downpours? That’s another one that’s robust. So splitting it off from the, Oh, we need to reduce emissions argument, which is very divisive, you can at least get traction on that.

And so if people take certain things away from Sandy in terms of climate change, in your mind, what would they be?
Well, rising seas will exacerbate the surge impact from any storm, and, in the long run, and that means dealing with global emissions. And remember, China’s emissions are more important than ours in the sense that we’re actually reducing our net emissions. China is still in high gear. So if you care about the long run challenge of patterns about blunting risk from extreme storms, start on a path toward the world developing new energy norms.

But, at the same time, the core message is that the coastal city is a sitting duck. And what about our risk calculations for investing in things like storm barriers or storm drains, big pumps in the tunnels, versus other things that we tend to focus on because they’re more of a near-term priority? Reexamining those decisions is vital.

In terms of science, do you think there’s something to be learned from Sandy?
Well, yeah, the very first piece I wrote on Sandy was about making sure we keep our investments up in informational and analytical infrastructure, in computer models and other things, so we can have the best chance of being prepared on the ground for this sort of thing. That’s another area, observation and monitoring, that we’re really bad in keeping up investments in. Whether it’s acid rain deposition or weather satellites, we’re just really bad at that. And that just really gets at our bias at the near and the now, and how do we? That’s one of the reasons I left journalism, to dig in on how it is we end up making the wrong decisions, or what looks like the wrong decisions.

Why does that happen?
Politics derives from human nature, and we’re just really bad at that. I’ve written about the tsunami stones that were written on the slopes of Honshu Island in Japan. They said, Don’t build beyond this point. If we get the tsunami risk wrong, what makes us think we’re going to get the climate risk right? A message was actually etched in stones there from experience, on the ground, and they still forgot.

This storm did bring climate change back into politics. Do you think this could be a tipping point, where climate change comes up more often in politics? Or is there no hope for that?
I think not, because it plays into both sides' arguments. Look at the op/eds on the Tea Party-type sites. This has given them more ammunition than ever, to say they’re hyping the risk. And so for every democrat or liberal who has been energized, there’s been someone on the other side who has been energized as well. Given the realities of our politics, the need for a 60-vote super majority in the senate, things like that, I don’t see it really changing things. Except on the adaptation side, and the imperative of making cities resilient.

Cop15protestRevkinCopyCovering a demonstration at Copenhagen climate treaty talks in 2009.

 What would change that?
It has to be evolving technology. Jessie Ausubel at Rockefeller University says, The human brain does not change, therefore technology must. I think that’s a little too extreme. I think we can learn disciplines. We can learn how to do some longterm thinking and some resilience thinking and not always be stuck in the here and now. But overall, especially with climate, since nearly all of the growth in emissions is going to come in poor countries, if you can’t come up with energy choices that are less greenhouse gas emitting and also are cheap, they are just going to keep burning fossil fuels. But again, we don’t invest a lot in innovation, in energy. It’s a tough situation. I’m not confident that we’re going to go forward in any meaningful way, even with hard knocks.

The reality again, like when energy prices get high, is that we innovate on extraction rather than new choices. For every breakthrough in solar panels, there are many more breakthroughs on how to get gas out of the ground, which is what fracking has been. That’s been demonstrated clearly. Higher energy prices won’t do it either, unless you have real carbon restrictions, real regulatory restrictions, which we are going to have in this country, but it will always be affected by economic realities as well. Now, this all sounds kind of mushy, but what it leads me to is that we’ve been measuring the wrong things. The idea that we say X billion tons of CO2 is too many. I think we should be measuring capacity for resilience, capacity for innovation, and capacity for empathy. And when we do that, we may have a better chance of having companies and universities and young innovators focusing on ways to thread the needle going through this century.  

Can you describe what you mean a little more?
Resilience is getting people a little more familiar with the opportunity to gird ourselves against risks. Keep in mind, in sub-Saharan Africa, there’s implicit risk of megadroughts. So whether or not global warming is going to make that worse is kind of a side note compared to the reality that right now East Africa could be settling in for a century-scale drought. If we’re not thinking seriously about fostering resiliency there that can endure that kind of risk, then we’re going to be fighting a losing battle. So that’s step one: resilience.

Empathy is about global awareness. If you’re a student here, you’re thinking about energy poverty as much as how to build a better lightbulb for our over-energized lifestyle. They both matter, but thinking globally matters. We’ve never had a better opportunity because of global connectivity occurring at a fast pace. And again, with the greenhouse problem, you have to recognize the global nature of it. Just look at Australia. They passed carbon restrictions and legislation, but they’re also exporting millions of tons of coal to China. That is not accounted for in their carbon legislation. So they’re not thinking globally, or they’re cheating. Their citizens might be thinking, Oh, we don’t have to do anything more. We have a carbon bill.

And then innovation, on its own, will just lead to more stuff. So you have to have this mix. The values come from empathy. If you just have innovation on its own, you’ll just end up with more fracking. I’m not opposed to fracking if it’s done responsibly, but it doesn’t change our energy norms. It still leads us to more, more, more. So what I try to do is foster ways to communicate to build those things: capacity for innovation, resilience, and empathy and care.

This interview is the second in a series of interviews about Sandy.
Part 1: Hurricane Researcher Brian McNoldy on the Science Behind Sandy
Part 3: Dr. Ralph Ternier Talks From Haiti About Sandy and Cholera

—Joe Spring

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