On Septic Tanks and Global Warming
Next time you contemplate the pros and cons of acting on the potential risks posed by climate change ...
Step back. And think a moment of the relative pros and cons of acting, or not acting, on having your septic system pumped-out.
That was among countless tips provided reporters attending the Great Lakes Environmental Journalism Training Institute at Michigan State University this past June. The roughly two-dozen attending reporters and editors, many of them Canadian reporters and freelancers, heard Kansas City Star environmental reporter Mike Mansur, for instance, remind them to become determined students of their home towns and areas and to "learn to see" things happening all around them that those less observant might miss.
"Ask dumb questions," Mansur beseeched. "Act as dumb as your grandparents" all the better to elicit information and insights. As for overcoming writerís block? "Know that everyone canít write," urged Mansur, a former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), a conference supporter. Those prolific and nimble writers of flowing environmental prose "are not better writers, they just work harder," Mansur insisted.
The "think of septic tanks" counsel came in a June 5 opening keynote talk by New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin, whose piece on a breaking National Academy of Sciences global warming report led his newspaper the next day.
Relaying the maintenance challenges posed by his 70-year-old farmhouse 50 miles up the Hudson Valley from New York City, Revkin told the reporters "the thing nagging at me the last couple of years was the septic tank.
"You know youíve got to get it pumped, but you want to stretch out those pumpings as far as you can to save money. But you donít want to wait too long or the septic field becomes a swamp."
He said he and his family in the end "lucked out. Finally got it pumped last month, and it was more than ready. And there were some tree roots growing into it and ... Enough detail, you get the idea. I took a calculated risk."
To Revkin, "climate change is a little like septic maintenance. You try to get information on the risk, the rate, the costs of waiting years versus the cost of acting."
Emphasizing the long lead times in showing the effects of climate change, Revkin told the reporters, "Youíre never going to wake up some morning, pick up the paper and read, ĎThe average temperature of the planet jumped five degrees yesterday ... Sea levels rose sharply ... The most heavily populated sections of Bangladesh were also inundated, creating millions of refugees. Crops withered in the tropics. Fires scorched the west."
"Even though all of these things are possible consequences of the phenomenon," Revkin continued, "if they occur, itíll be scattered over decades. A thousand little cuts."
Revkin related a Times colleagueís mishandling of a story on open water at the North Pole ("Better yet, they had pictures!!!!!," he exclaimed in capturing the juice behind the story, which occurred while he was away on vacation.)
Notwithstanding the "compelling" nature of that story, which was written late on a Friday on deadline, "it almost immediately became clear that the heart of the story was wrong," Revkin said. "Thereís often open water at the Pole in summer because that eggshell cap of ice up there is a milling, churning jumble of pieces. Other things are happening to the Arctic, as I recently wrote, but this was not one of them.Ē
"OUCH," Revkin said in illustrating the pain in the Times newsroom over that mishandling of a would-be major story. He said such incidents in the newsroom can lead to a form of self-censorship which on its own can be a concern.
"The story has haunted me and the Times ever since," Revkin told the group. "Our editors became gun-shy about subsequent, more legitimate, climate reports. I rarely got climate news on the front page, even when it deserved to be there."
While environmental reporters at many newspapers may yearn for the kind of play Revkin gets with the Times, he has a somewhat different take: "The paper treats astrophysics better than it treats environment," he told the Great Lakes meeting, although he expressed confidence that Editor Howell Rainesí affections for fishing and the outdoors could open some new column inches for issues ranging from wetlands to oceans.
Discussing his own experiences in covering global warming in particular (Revkin noted that until the National Academy of Sciencesí June 6 report to the President, the Bush White House had steadfastly refused to use the term "global warming," instead preferring "climate change"), Revkin suggested that reporters "donít trust anybody until you find somebody you can trust." He said he finds it useful in his reporting to have some sources whom he likely would never quote or name, but rather use instead for fact-checking.
"There are people who make their living just being the solar variability curmudgeon," Revkin joked, urging the reporters to "quote invisible people" whose expertise and independence they have come to respect.
"Iím not just a science reporter," Revkin told the group. "Iím always first just a reporter as far as I know."
Reprinted with permission. Published in Environment Writer newsletter, July/August 2001, by the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center.