Revkin: “The idea that we’re going to fix the climate change problem or solve global warming has always been a fantasy, totally wishful, from my standpoint.”

File this under “Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Below is an excerpt from the Friday Greenwire story (subs. req’d), “Treaty, regs won’t solve warming problems, former NYT reporter warns.”

If the quotes are inaccurate or incomplete, the former lead climate reporter for the paper of record can clarify and/or expand upon his remarks here or at DotEarth:

[UPDATE:  Revkin’s initial elaboration on his comments are here.]

Policymakers should abandon the notion that a binding international agreement will be the primary tool for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, a former New York Times climate reporter told an environmental law conference here yesterday.

Andrew Revkin, who left the Times last year and is now a fellow at Pace University’s Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, said regulations probably aren’t the best way to address global warming. But he cautioned that he was not advocating tearing up the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

That treaty, he said, has spurred spending and “soft commitments” for “moving people away from business as usual,” Revkin told the American Bar Association’s Conference on Environmental Law. “But,” he added, “there’s a difference between wishful and aspirational.”

U.N. negotiations in Copenhagen last year failed to produce a binding agreement, in part, because each nation had a completely different objective, he said.

“Sub-Saharan Africa wants money, Europe wants influence on the process, the U.S. wants what Congress will pass, and China is China,” Revkin said. “There’s not much more to say.

“How do you have a negotiation when everyone’s coming with a different orientation of what the problem is?”

Well, it isn’t easy, but the commitments that were put on the table last year in the months leading up to Copenhagen were quite real for most countries — see, for instance, “Brazil’s Lula turns Copenhagen pledge to cut CO2 emissions into law.”  Europe now seems likely to pursue its target strictly as a matter of maintaining competitiveness with China and Japan in clean energy and who  doubt that China will easily beat its target.  And  these commitments by themselves would put the world 65% of the way toward the needed 2020 target for stabilization at 450 ppm (as discussed here).

Maybe the U.S. political system is incapable of taking the necessary action to enable a global deal, but part of that is certainly due to the media’s own belief —  as conveyed in countless stories —  that national and international action is a fantasy and that the problem isn’t as serious as the scientific literature and leading climate scientists say.

Revkin also urged policymakers to eliminate the term “adaptation” because it implies there’s something definite that humans can adjust to. “Resilience,” he said, better captures scientists’ uncertainty about the severity of climate change’s impacts.

“‘Adaptation’ implies a faux sense of concreteness and that we know the change that’s coming,” he said. “We need changes in values, not changes in laws or regulations.”

Among those changes, he said, could mean embracing genetically modified crops that can be tailored to changing conditions.

“The idea that we’re going to fix the climate change problem or solve global warming has always been a fantasy, totally wishful, from my standpoint,” he said.

Revkin also brought up population control, an issue that earned him a bashing from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh late last year.

As an example of “resilience,” Revkin recommended improving sanitation in schools in developing countries so girls would stay in school instead of adding to the population of at-risk humans.

“If girls don’t go to school, they have more kids,” he said. “And they end up increasing climate exposure.”

I think it’s great to improve sanitation and have more girls in developing country stay in school.  If we get to 750 to 1000 ppm, which is where we’re headed on our current emissions path, I wouldn’t call that resilience:

Science advisor John Holdren divided things into mitigation, adaptation, and misery.  You do the first two to minimize the third.  But if you don’t do the first one, you mostly end up with misery.  “Resilience” implies a faux sense that we don’t know what’s going to happen if we buy into the myth that solving global warming is a fantasy.  We do.  “Resilience” implies a faux sense that what’s coming is something we can easily bounce back from.  If only (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).

Anyway, the quotes in the Greenwire story are too short and too lacking in definition of key terms to know what it is that Revkin is really trying to say.  He has certainly indicated to me in the past that he understands we risk 700 to 1000 ppm if we keep doing what we’re doing.  Two years ago, he interviewed Nobel laureate Sherwood Rowland, who agrees with the view we’re headed to 1000 ppm.

Naturally, scientists haven’t spent a lot of time studying the impacts of tripling or quadrupling atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from preindustrial levels — because they never thought humanity would be so self-destructive as to ignore the warnings.

But in the last two or three years the scientific literature has certainly given a clear enough indication as to what we risk by century’s end  on our current emissions path:

And that’s just business as usual.  The worst case —  current emissions path plus  strong carbon cycle amplifying feedbacks — is much worse much sooner:

Since Revkin is now clearly freer to express his own views on global warming, I’d be interested to know:

  1. What specific set of policies and strategies does he think the world should embrace?
  2. What does he think the world is likely to do, what CO2 concentrations would that take us to in 2100, and what kind of impacts does he expect that would bring about?
  3. What concentration levels and impacts would result if we actually kept listening to the like of WattsUpWithThat?

UPDATE:  Revkin writes here that “Joe poses some good questions” and “I will be more directly describing my current view of the path forward soon here in what might be called Dot Earth 2.0.”

Revkin wrote “I’d like to thank Joe Romm for not jumping to conclusions based on what appears to be a substantial mashup of what I said in my first speech on ” two decades of greenhouse diplomacy “” and rising greenhouse emissions.”  I tried not to jump to too many conclusions since I myself have often had words misquoted or taken out of context by the media.  I expect to be doing a lot of media when my book comes out next month, so I have no doubt this will be happening to me.  Of course, in my case, I’ve had more freedom than Revkin to spell out my views, so in general I don’t think there’s a lot of ambiguity about them.

27 Responses to Revkin: “The idea that we’re going to fix the climate change problem or solve global warming has always been a fantasy, totally wishful, from my standpoint.”

  1. ken levenson says:

    These quotes make Revkin sound strangely like John Yoo to me…rationalizing us with language games into oblivion. It is all sooo clever!!! Not.

  2. mike roddy says:

    At some point in the last couple of years Andy became emotionally exhausted over global warming. One outcome has been his treating the studies showing the trajectory to and the consequences of 650 ppm and up with great caution, if not disdain. And when I or someone else would keep reminding him of things like accelerating ice loss or Walter’s Siberian lake data, he would cite an alternative study or, more often, make a statement like “this whole field is rife with uncertainty”.

    Andy has become the wrong journalist to address what the science is telling us, and he does a lot of damage due to his past accomplishments. Now, instead of delving into data from the Met or MIT, Andy is more likely to listen to elevator music from someone like Roger Pielke, Jr. I also believe that Revkin is capable of waking up, which would make a difference in the world.

    We need people with the ability to read and understand scientific papers, and the fortitude to communicate them in direct terms. It’s going to take more hard work from the likes of people like Romm, Hansen, and many others to get this done. We don’t know if this effort will succeed, of course, but lack of commitment to change humanity’s ways of producing energy is no longer a reasonable option. Burning most of the coal and oil remaining in the ground leads to Venus, or something approaching it. Those who want to do it anyway have to be held publicly accountable.

    I found it interesting that Andy believes that international negotiations are basically useless. That leaves allowing the market to take its course. We can already see the result of that.

  3. Ivy Bear says:

    I very much hope that Mr. Revkin will fully and explicitly make his views known. I agree that he has seemed to cherry pick the literature to downplay the seriousness of climate change. I used to read DOT Earth pretty reliably, but now only occasionally glance at it. The quality of the blog topics and comments seems to be going downhill.

    So if this quote is correct, Mr. Revkin thinks that a binding global climate treaty seriously addressing climate change is a fantasy. Well, then we should get ready for 4+ C degrees increase in our climate, which is climate hell. Sure, it is a very difficult task. But to label this a fantasy is to resign ourselves to a world in which neither “adaptation” or “resilience” will allow us to continue on as normal. This leaves us, as John Holdren says, with the only alternative left – suffering.

    Revkin also has a vague notion of shifts in “values” – which is a mushy, not well thought out reference to some sort of change of heart. This reminds me of the Ghost Dances of the Native Americans – magical thinking about some sort of widespread cultural transformation that sets everything right.

    Perhaps Mr. Revkin will spend some time really getting into the nitty gritty of climate change, and earn some credentials as a serious thinker, and not just a chronicler of the debate.

    Ivy Bear

  4. Jeffrey Davis says:

    I’ll believe Revkin’s position isn’t simply one of convenience when I hear that he’s also gotten rid of all of his insurance policies.

    Fatalism is, 99% of the time, sentimentalism in disguise.

  5. Wit's End says:

    Andy Revkin made himself irrelevant some time ago as far as I’m concerned. Who cares what he thinks policy should be?

    He made a statement in his Yale360 interview to the effect that humans may have to resign themselves to a hermetic existence. I take this to mean we should accept that nature is going to die and the only way any humans will survive is in climate controlled cubicles with filtered air and water. He may well be correct in that but, in my opinion, we don’t have to take this lying down.

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    As for where we are and where we’re headed, I highly recommend the article linked from this Cornell press release:

    World policymakers have underestimated climate- change impacts, says Cornell expert

    Don’t look for happy news; Greene et al. say that we’re already locked into well over 2C of warming by 2100, and that’s without invoking a massive feedback effect from permafrost/hydrates.


    I’ve just about given up trying to figure out Revkin. Every time I think I have him solved, he says something on Dot Earth or in an interview that proves me wrong.

    I can certainly understand the notion of people becoming emotionally eroded to the point they can no longer deal with the ramifications of climate change. I have no idea if that’s the case with Revkin, but I’ve come very close to that point myself several times in the last year.

  7. Revkin is burned out. He should take a long vacation. He has stopped making any sense what so ever.

    The bottom line of his reasoning is that we should all go out and party because mass extinction is inevitable.

  8. Leif says:

    Fishoutofwater, #6: I agree, Revkin needs long hike in some pristine wilderness and a serious vision quest.

  9. GFW says:

    Perhaps an even better phraseology than “mitigation, adaptation, misery” would be “prevention, reaction, untold misery”.

    I’m basically looking for terms that will remind people of what they already know – that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

  10. Mark A. York says:

    This is no time for handholding with denialists. Taking on third world population control is the least likely avenue from which to expect change. In that regard, population collapse will have to take over when life in certain locales gets to carrying capacity. The climate collapse will help this along. In the meantime, solid legislation can help stem the warming tide. We need to get on that pronto arriba.

  11. Dano says:

    Human nature is such that most of us do not take action until a threat becomes clear.

    That is how it is.

    The issue in my view is whether we have a hard landing or a soft landing, as we are incapable of steering our ship in a decent direction to head this off. History is not kind to those who seek a different answer.

    This is not to say the small %age who get it should not agitate for change and overcoming history. Indeed, it is our moral and ethical imperative to do so.



  12. climateprogressive says:

    Agree with all of that, Dano (#10).

    The trouble with the hard landing is that it isn’t going to be a one-off horror beyond the imagination in the 9-11 ilk: instead it will go on, and on, and on. We leave this until it’s too late and it will be like being attacked on several fronts at once by several different armies with many varying characteristics, the only thing in common between them being that they will not negotiate. The laws of physics don’t integrate a White Flag anywhere! They don’t accept apologies. They are neither kind nor cruel: they are, simply, there.

  13. Revkin has a piece on response on Dot Earth today, with a video that explains his views in more depth. I think it’s easy to become discouraged watching what has happened to the U.S. political system over the past 30 years, and I can’t disagree that addressing all of the environmental problems we currently face is an extremely daunting proposition.

    Side note: in the video, he refers a couple of times to the difficulty of storing energy from variable technologies like solar and wind, as if this were some overwhelming problem. It isn’t. For more on why this is so, see our fact sheet on “Wind Power and Energy Storage” at .

  14. fj2 says:

    To play it “safe” it should be assumed that we are in a period of runaway climate change and only #1 is worth considering:

    “1. What specific set of policies and strategies does he think that the world should embrace?”

  15. pete best says:

    In the UK just last week the Royal Engineering Society printed an analysis of what the UK has to do in order to cut CO2 emission by 80% come 2050 and its not a optimictic read. The one thing that crops up is the idea of cutting back on energy usage whilst at the same time sourcing the energy differently. We need to drive a lot less and drive electric cars fewer miles. Lagging our 25 million homes (100 million is the USA) so that we use a lot less energy to heat them and by using a lot of PV solar to heat hot water even when its next to useless in the UK winter.

    Large scale CCS coal fired stations are needed, 40 nuclear reactors, massive wind generation of 500 ft tall turbines out at sea, 20,000 of them. Its daunting even if we cut back.

    Here in the UK we use 125 Kw/h a day of energy, the USA uses double that and then we have oil based transport to consider.

    Go into cultural teritory for cutting back and its a losing game unless we are forced to do it. Leave it optional and its not going to happen in time. Even if the Government was to subsidise a lot of it as it is inroducing its not going to be easy here let alone in the EU and the USA.

    I can see anyone becomming defeatist and even frustrated about the science and how the media reports it.

  16. “If girls don’t go to school, they have more kids,” he said. “And they end up increasing climate exposure.”

    That’s male rabidity. As a husband and young parent, i find this morally revulsive.

    On the whole, I believe that too much is being made out of what individuals believe, there seems to be no attempt to explore a moral radar to judge what actions are permissible, and what are not.

    I forgot to mention this in an earlier comment on CP – as a regular reader, I feel indebted and so thankful to Joe and his team for anchoring the climate science communication. You’ve done tremendous service to humanity. You’ve built a robust foundation for climate science communication and answered reasonable doubts and clarifications.

    It’s time now to move to the next level. What so many people around the world are looking for are smart, systemic solutions.

    It’s not the government or the market, as they are, that will deliver. It’s the leadership, that has to deliver – not national leaderships, b’coz this problem transcends national boundaries. A leader who can rise above national gravities. Are we getting there?

  17. There is no way that any effective climate treaty is ever going to get 67 votes in the US Senate. Our political system is broken; whatever it does will be too little and too late. And, furthermore, we have some hope of getting 51 votes for some sane policies, and no hope of getting 67 votes, so we should focus on strategies that only require the former, not the latter.

    That’s not “defeatist”, it’s reality. The people who talk realistically about the political situation that we find ourselves in are not guilty of downplaying the threat. They are just approaching the political situation as it actually exists.

    Was Winston Churchill a defeatist for declaring to all who would listen that the coming conflict with Nazi Germany couldn’t be avoided through binding agreements?

    Good journalism is reporting on the world as it actually is, rather than how we would like it to be. It is not the job of journalists to talk up the prospects for a binding agreement as a way of trying to make that happen.

  18. We basically agree that population growth and appetite are the key causes of increasing danger from global warming. India had a population growth rate of 1.41%, China, thru its wise and courageous policy- just 0.66%. In twenty years they will cross over when both will have 1.54 B. Then India would be number 1. Can any one from the outside make a significant influence on this growth?
    In two decades these two countries alone may emit probably over 5 times more GHG than the rest of the developed world combine.

    What we do in the US and Europe may have little impact on GW unless we learn to cooperate globally to find effective ways to significantly reduce the growth in GHG. And unless we help them with money and technology. Otherwise we will reach the point of no return when higher temperatures will create the positive feedback that James Hansen, and Dr. Martin Weitzman of Harvard are telling us about .

  19. From Peru says:

    I think that Revkin is right: the Copenhagen NON-agreement of last year supports his views of the non-usefullness of Global Treaties.

    Sad to say, only local actions can be taken, and these will be strong enoght only after a series of mega-disasters (like a CAT-5 hurricane on New York, an ice-free Arctic, a Super-Typhoon on Beiging, a Mega-Drought in India…) convinces governments of drastic actions.

    Only after that a Global Agreement will be possible.

  20. James Newberry says:

    My response to your question number one:

    First change of policy: Make bad fuels very expensive, i.e. phase out (linearly) within one decade, the half trillion dollars or so of annual global subsidies for fossil (and fissile) “fuels”.

    As to strategy: redefine coal and other mined hydrocarbon materials, as well as uranium, as mined Material Resources and not as “energy resources.” De-commodify them. Define clean energy as nothing to do with mining/extraction, except for manufacture of equipment that eliminates the need for the mentioned “fuels” (through public investments such as clean-powered transit).

    “Science says” there is no more time for forty year plans.

  21. Irv Beiman says:

    There is an answer to the fundamental Q: What specific set of policies and strategies … should the world embrace? It is a METHODOLOGICAL answer that enables a scientific approach to the description, communication, implementation, results analysis and adjustment of the STRATEGY. It is derived from the business literature, understood & accepted by many business leaders, and familiar to some elements of many governments, including the US and, most notably, China.

    As a first step at a template for a comprehensive strategy, and some detailed discussion of how the strategy might be implemented at the CITY level, go to this google docs folder link:

    For all the silo’ed technologies, and silo’ed writers, and the disconnected millions around the world, THERE IS A WAY to connect and take action, IF we can agree in general on a high level generic strategy that is implemented according to local conditions, at multiple levels of abstraction: 1 global; 2 regional/national; 3 organizational [transnational]; 4 cities/communities; 5 individuals and families.

    The link above enables consideration of critical strategic objectives that are layered according to hypothesized cause-effect relationships, with critical outcomes at the top, technology solutions in the middle and capital flows, policy, education, best practice sharing and alignment as intangible enabling objectives at the bottom.

    The template is based on 2-3 years of research and quick skimming of more than 1500 articles, which I will share with anyone who sends me a USB.

    Without a strategy, we are “pissin in the wind”. Everyone who reads Joe’s blog wants action, but feels powerless. As an organizational change agent for 30+ years, from coal mines to textile mills to nuclear installations and then to China, be advised there is a prerequisite for effective change: 1 identify key leverage points [i.e. critical strategic objectives] > 2 align all available resources at all levels of the power hierarchy for the collective strategic intent [see the strategy map templates at the link above] > 3 take independent action that is aligned with the strategy > 4 build a sense of community thru shared information, best practices > 5 adjust as you/we go, learning along the way.

    The alternative is to die.

    We must grow into a collective force for survival. It is the most basic human need. Strategy execution methodology provides the way. The templates are subject to revision based on deeper expert knowledge and practical results.

    Irv Beiman, Ph.D.
    Pro Bono advisor for resilient sustainability
    skype: irvbeiman

  22. Steve Rankin says:

    I’m very pessimistic. I don’t think action will be taken until it is too late. The best thing that could happen is for terrorists to sieze the Saudi oil fields and force the price of energy to permanently high levels or back to back severe droughts in the American mid-west making starvation a real possibility. Unless there is a real in-your-face crisis that gets people’s attention nothing is going to change. I’m reading Hansen’s book – “Storms of my Grandchildren”…our present situation is truly depressing and yet many people are like zombies…they just don’t care or can’t be bothered to determine the facts on their own.

  23. Wit's End says:

    Steve Rankin, you can get your zombi apocalypse survival gear here:

  24. Lou Grinzo says:

    For perhaps the 87th time, let me recommend George Monbiot’s book Heat, which takes a detailed look at what it will take to get the UK to an 80%-by-2050 CO2 reduction. It ain’t pretty.

    [JR: Hmm. Not the biggest fan of that book. An 80% reduction is, however, pretty. It’s the alternative that is ugly.]

  25. pete best says:

    Some people are optimisitic about doing something about climate change and other not so. Lets take the changing of the US administration. Every 4 to 8 years means a change and that mainly means swinging between the right (republicans)and the left (democrats). No doubt a lot can be done to mitigate carbon emissions but not doing enough is currently winning out. Oil, gas and coal usage presently is increasing. The USA and the EU can cut back and probably will but will south america and Asia in any meaningful way as their populations are growing to the middle of the century.

    Anyone giving up on mitigating carbon emissions by the necessary 5% per annum is not defeatist but probably a realist. Lets try by all means but progress is slow and not even agreed.

  26. J4zonian says:

    Granted, Revkin is that annoying type of intelligent person who says an extraordinary number of idiotic things—I call the affliction SISS, Psychologically Induced Stupidity Syndrome. And we should be careful about language. But nothing is perfect, especially in the context of a powerful media-controlling right wing who is in touch with the worst impulses of humanity and who will, for political advantage, warp and twist anything in any way possible, whether the warped argument makes sense or not. We can’t be afraid to use words just because far right nutcases will twist their meaning; they will abuse whatever words we use. And the fact that people buy into their word abuses is a result of their control of media, messaging, unexpressed fear, anger and grief, and our current political deadlock of 2 right wing parties’ duopoly on the whole spectrum allowed into the public arena. pete, it’s not a matter of right and left, but of right and far right. Witness yesterday’s anti-abortion deal by a Democratic Party president, refusal to consider single payer and Obama’s threats and arm-twisting of progressives toward the right, Dem’s refusal to even try meaningfully to transfer subsidies from coal, oil, and nuclear to renewables, and Democratic appointments and policies that continue to favor corporate fossil-fuel and soil-destroying chemical ag and fight against climate-saving organic farming and permaculture.

    “Resilience” is an excellent term and goal—we use it in the Transition Town movement as a general criteria for judging direction in the face of climate change and peak oil/peak everything*. Local, renewable, truly democratic, simple (user-repairable, etc) ecosystem-enhancing… etc. are all parts of building a resilient society, for which I know of no better word. We can’t stop using words; we just have to explain them better than the right.

    Anyone who says this is an extraordinarily difficult thing is being realistic. Anyone who embraces or implies or instigates defeatism, directly or with sideways comments (pete best, Steve Rankin, i’m talkin to you) is hurting, not helping. Would you, just before leading your team out on the field for the Superbowl, say to them, “Look, we’re probably going to lose, but let’s try anyway”? Getting the best effort out of people involves not only different words than that but a different attitude.


  27. Chris Winter says:

    Lou Grinzo wrote: For perhaps the 87th time, let me recommend George Monbiot’s book Heat, which takes a detailed look at what it will take to get the UK to an 80%-by-2050 CO2 reduction. It ain’t pretty.”

    Actually, in the book he goes for a 90% reduction, because of a paper he read while researching it.

    I think the great worth of Heat is Monbiot’s willingness to challenge assumptions and dig for the information required to back that up. He points out the possibility of getting the desired reduction in GHG with little discomfort in every industry segment he looks at except air travel. There, he paints a grim picture.

    On the other hand, many details of his proposals can be questioned, and he has a poor grasp of electric power production. He should have consulted an expert in that area before publishing. Also, he dismisses nuclear power too readily.

    The book is worth reading, but I also recommend Kicking the Carbon Habit by William Sweet as a complementary text.