By Bud Ward
Journalism on climate change was center stage for an hour on C-Span II Friday, January 5, with The New York Times' Andrew C. Revkin and the Cato Institute's Pat Michaels, Ph.D., volleying well, let's admit it occasional lobs and a few substantive questions from a live audience of magnet-school high school students.
Filmed at the Newseum in suburban Washington, D.C., before students from Alexandria, Virginia's Thomas Jefferson High School, the piece was moderated by Frank Bond, and at times neither the audience nor Bond appeared to appreciate the differences between a mainstream news media journalist, in Revkin's case, and a scientist/policy activist, in Michaels'.
Those familiar with Revkin's schtick in this area won't be surprised that he early used his "slow drip" analogy in pointing out the difficulties the general circulation media have in addressing an issue like climate change and its long-term impacts. That's in contrast with, let's say, the sudden gush of an Exxon Valdez news-maker. Revkin pointed out that a recent story he did on what may be the first extinction of a Cetacean in modern times a white, nearly blind dolphin-like species in China's Yangtze River was buried deep within the Times in a short 10-paragraph piece [see Note].
But back to the C-Span climate change journalism piece, at least briefly.
After Michaels' courtesy introduction and acknowledgement of Revkin as "the best there is, there is no question about that," the two addressed climate science and media coverage, or lack of coverage, thereon.
Revkin immediately raised questions about a Michaels web site for New Hope Environmental Services, Inc., that opens with an offer of "advocacy science" on the nature of climate. "I dont even know what that is," Revkin deadpanned.
He still may not know, as neither Michaels or moderator Bond or the audience of high school students took the bait.
Those familiar with Pat Michaels' spiels also were likely to come away from the program only partially satisfied. Michaels regaled the students, for instance, with his well-worn argument that scientific issues in Washington get funded only if the scientists themselves hype the seriousness of their issue relative to all the other worthy scientific expenditures. With the Cato chyron identifying him throughout the program and not his affiliation with the University of Virginia Michaels called it "a culture of the extreme."
Revkin repeated his position that he doesn't interview political activists/scientists like Michaels on purely scientific news developments, only on policy issues. "I wouldn't call the World Wildlife Fund's scientists either," he said in explaining why Michaels isn't on his call-lists when pursuing hard science issues. Michaels countered that he was merely following the advice of Thomas Jefferson founder of the school whose students made up the live audience that scientists go beyond their laboratories and also be active in their broader society and culture.
Michaels defended getting funding from interests such as Exxon Mobil Corporation by saying that such funding actually has the effect of raising the bar when a funded scientist puts his work into peer review. He said scientists with such funding get more scrutiny from peer reviewers than they otherwise might.
Revkin commented at one point that "whiplash journalism" results when the media mindlessly pursue each new scientific study without regard for the overall context of the research, and he allowed that when it comes to climate change, there is "enough science" available for proponents both for and against confronting the challenge of a human-induced warming. When he allowed that "even Pat" acknowledges some warming of the Earth, Michaels was quick to respond that the "even Pat" terminology "displays a bit of journalistic bias," and he came down hard on what he characterized as the "Holocaust-laden rhetoric" he thinks some scientists use in debunking climate deniers. (Michaels, of course, wouldn't use that term.)
Revkin, in the piece buried deep within The Times, said the dolphin's numbers "had been falling in the face of dredging of the Yangtze's sandy shallows," and that it appears to have given way to the 400-million people plus populating Asia's longest waterway.
He quoted the founder of baiji.org, August Pfluger, as regretting from Wuhan, China, that it's too bad more attention isn't focused on the plight of cetaceans living in rivers, and not just on their ocean-bound kinship more able to move away from human activity.
A NOAA fisheries expert, in a December 26, "letter from the field" posted at nytimes.com, wrote, "For the Chinese, I think that losing a half-blind river dolphin and a couple of oversize fish was a fair trade for all the money that is being made there now ... I think that many other 'expecially third world' countries will be confronted with similar decisions of economic development versus conservation of habitats and animals, and the response will be the same. From now on we will have to choose which animals will be allowed to live on the planet with us, and baiji got cut in the first round."
"The disappearance of an entire family of mammals is an inestimable loss for China and for the world," Robert L. Pittman of the NOAA Fisheries Ecosystem Studies Program wrote. "I think it is a big deal and possibly a turning point for the history of our planet. We are bulldozing the Garden of Eden, and the first large animal has fallen."
And the lesson here? Would that it had only been cuddly, furry, and charismatic. In that case, it might have been a different ending altogether. And perhaps not an ending at all.
Note: The extinction news example may actually present at least as valuable a teachable moment as the Revkin/Michaels exchange. Revkin reported December 17 that "the first species to be ereased from this planet's great and ancient Order of Cetaceans in modern times" appears at least "functionally extinct." But his lead noted that the baiji ("a white, nearly blind denizen of the Yangtze River in China") is "not one of the charistmatic sea mammals that have long been the focus of conservation campaigns, like the sperm whale or bottlenose dolphin." [Back to article]