October 18th, 2013


Strategic Adviser for Environmental and Science Journalism, National Geographic Society

Author and Entreprenuer


Andy Revkin and Paul Hawken brought refreshing perspectives to the global warming debate at Climate One. Reflecting on NASA scientist James Hansen’s clarion call to Congress about human-caused climate change 25 years ago, they discussed how we have arrived at our present understandings and misunderstandings.

Revkin, author of the Dot Earth blog for the NY Times, noted the challenges of motivating people in the face of complexity.

“Overstating the case I think can be harmful,” Revkin said.

While some media sources over-simplify the problem, it will also be ignored if it is communicated in a complicated, overly scientific way. The core science has become conflated because different people are attempting to interpret the results, according to Hawken, an author and entrepreneur.

“This is a complex, non-linear system that is unpredictable by its nature,” Hawken said.

Hawken talked about past temperature rises documented throughout history, noting that dramatic increases are “fine for Earth, not so good for civilization.”

Heated arguments develop between people who downplay complexity because they are eager for action, and those who are eager for stasis on energy, Revkin said – these arguments have led to our present deadlock.

“Unfortunately, a lot of reality gets lost in the mix,” Revkin said.

Many climate deniers see themselves as heroic, involved in a Joan of Arc-like quest to save Americans, according to Hawken, and “in that kind of mind space, no amount of data or facts are going to change their point of view,” he said.

“So I feel like the way forward is not to fight, it’s not to win, because fighting and winning is what brought us into this situation,” Hawken said. “If we’re going to get out of it, we have to radically change how we communicate with each other so that it’s inclusive and listening.”

Most importantly, we need to get past the idea that there’s nothing we can do to help, because it’s disempowering, he said.

“It needs a different narrative,” Hawken said. “It’s a different story than the one of apocalyptic heroism.”

The climate conversation should move from goals to traits, making sure we maximize the possibility for movement in a sustainable direction, according to Revkin.

One thing that’s happened in the climate conversation is that carbon has become demonized, Hawken said. He described it as an “extraordinary misinterpretation and distortion of life.”

“I feel like carbon is our ally, it’s the answer to our nightmare, not our nightmare,” said Hawken, clarifying that the problem is instead the combustion of hydrocarbons. “Right now the attitude is that climate change is happening to us, and if you think it’s happening to us, then you’re going to look for villains and demons,” he said. “Instead of the idea that actually climate change is happening for us.”

“Carbon is the element that holds hands and collaborates in nature, and we’re going to have to be like carbon and hold hands and collaborate and to do that, we have to change how we talk to each other and how we listen.”

People need to be able to participate on all levels, but right now we don’t know what we can do, Hawken said.

“Humans are problem-solving animals – you would never know it reading the press,” Hawken said.

When asked if the media has adequately covered the complexity of the climate debate, Revkin compared it to how the media covered healthcare in 2013 without offering information about its impacts until after a bill was passed.

“During the debate, we covered it as if it was some kind of sporting event, and we did the same thing with the climate bill,” Revkin said.

Hawken agreed that the media has not done an adequate job of communicating the complexity of the issue.

“You can’t have a democracy unless people have a free flow of unbiased information, and we do not,” Hawken said.

During the audience questions, the speakers were asked how the dialog could change from the “doom and gloom” story of human-caused global warming.

"If we're going to make change, we have to actually dance, sing and celebrate,” Hawken said. “This movement is really about becoming alive."

- Danielle Torrent
Photos by Astra Brinkmann
The Commonwealth Club of California
October 18, 2013