The Cornerstone Conversation: Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth blogger, Pace University Senior Fellow

Right-wing firebrand Rush Limbaugh thinks and Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm . Being the target of these two flamethrowers, in addition to writing Page One stories for The Times from the Copenhagen climate summit, running the Dot Earth blog and writing books would wear anyone down. On Dec. 21, Revkin packed it in and left The Times, where he had been a staff writer since 1995. Not, mind you, to run and hide, but to begin the next phase of his career as a senior fellow at Pace University’s new interdiscplinary program for applied environmental studies. We caught up with Revkin to talk about Copenhagen and the future of the climate for our Cornerstone Conservations series with leading executives and thinkers in clean tech and green energy.

GER: What was the Copenhagen climate summit like to cover?

Andrew Revkin: I’m sure everyone over there had a different perspective based on their experience.  I was seeing some really bad signs early on; it was kind of like watching a truck you know is going too fast miss the intersection. There was just no way you were going to get any substantive breakthroughs coming out of something like that.

There was also the chaos factor. The manager of the treaty process admitted they had 45,000 people registered and they figured at any particular hour they’d only have 15,000 people in the hall. Also, having so many heads of state come, you’re superimposing all of those protocols and priorities over a process normally run by functionaries. Which led to some of the fun stuff towards the end.

GER: You’re referring to President Barack Obama barging in on a meeting between negotiators from China and Brazil, among other countries. Did that really happen?

AR: From what I understand, it really did happen There were some private consultations China had arranged with other countries and there was this pattern of China sending some low level functionaries to bilateral talks.

There were hazards here for the president here, since he committed so early on to showing up on the final day. What the outcome illustrated was that there were gambles there. The Obama administration did not have everything in control.

GER: What did you think of the outcome?

AR: The bigger accomplishment of this conference was the things that happened in the months leading up to it. A bunch of countries that had never come close to setting firm targets did so. Brazil, for example, just turned into law their reductions plan. I think we’ll look back 10-20 years from now and see the curve of emissions will have moved away from business as usual. It wouldn’t have happened without the conference.

No venture capital group is going to finance the first gigawatt carbon capture plant because that’s something only governments do.

GER: Did you get a new sense of hope from Copenhagen?

AR: I don’t think, in the end, that’s where you’re going to find it. The thing that will change our energy norms won’t come out of a diplomatic process so much as out of innovations in technology and social innovations. There’s those who still think the business world will still be that place. But from the stories that The Times and I have done on these things – there aren’t really the Bell Labs out there.

I just don’t see Copenhagen as being the game changer. Maybe we need a framework conference on technology change as much as we need a framework on climate change.We need new ways to get energy and the services it provides to people.

GER: Have you seen the discussion on climate shift, over the years, from the scientific to the economic aspects of combating climate change?

AR: Once Kyoto took effect, from 1997 until the mid 2000s, there was an expectation that there would be a grand and ever-growing market for carbon and technology. But with 190 countries – the money flows to the easiest things. My guess is where that’s going to end up is much more like the voluntary carbon market that we see now. I may be cynical but I don’t see the signs of progress toward that.

The whole philosophy, from early on was, let’s build a global scheme and drive the change. The IEA came out with a report that said until even if you get the carbon markets, it wouldn’t make a dent until 2025. You have to go direct at the basic R and D and the large-scale demonstration. No venture capital group is going to finance the first gigawatt carbon capture plant because that’s something only governments do.

GER: Do you think California’s venture capitalists can drive the change as they did for the Web in the 1990s?

AR: I interviewed Vinod Khosla when I was doing a piece on declining R and D (story ), and I quoted him saying that, in the end, the solar push will not save the climate. It just doesn’t come anywhere near matching the scale of supplanting coal that you would need to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

I have yet to see anyone prove to me that the emperor has any clothes and this has been part of the dynamic tension between me and Joseph Romm. His big thing is deployment of technology. Frankly, I just don’t see the solid case for that, looking at energy trends. It’s not like Moore’s Law – it’s getting harder and harder to push gains in photovoltaic cells.

As for the idea of a grand buildout, I see scant evidence that can happen even with the stimulus money. I’m still kind of in show-me mode. I saw [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu give a presentation and he said we’re up to the levels of R and D that had been the norm back in the oil crisis days, but what he didn’t say was that’s a one-time thing. If you talk to historians, you need a sustained priming of the pump.

GER: Why did you leave The Times?

AR: I’m now 53. You get to the point in your career where you say, ‘I’ve got a good 30-35 years left.’  I did a thought experiment – I got in a lot of trouble with Rush Limbaugh for doing public thought experiments – what if I do this for the rest of my career, will I look back and be happy. A lot of newspaper coverage isn’t going to change things if people’s attitudes are ingrained. Already as of 2007 I was fishing around for a possibility. It just all came together Pace University was very excited about what I was doing. The sense of the grind also is there.

GER: Can conventional media hold onto multimedia brands like you and New York Times scribes David Pogue and Andrew Ross Sorkin?

AR: That’s not really the way that I framed my thinking at all. I’m part of a family of driven people; my grandparents are driven people. They always instilled in us this drive. Its about efficacy. I just want to do things that matter and not just do things because I’m good at them. I’m going to keep writing for print, that’s part of my personal culture. Whether I keep blogging for The Times after the next month or so that’s not clear. We’re still discussing what the long term plan would be.

GER: Did you consider going to industry?

AR: In trying to figure out the next platform I explored everything from Google to Pace University. I had very low key conversastion with people I’ve known for a very long time who ended up at Google. But there wasn’t an offer on the table.

Interview conducted and condensed by Matthew Van Dusen.

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