Other segments from the episode on June 14, 2006
DATE June 14, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Andrew Revkin of The New York Times
discusses his book "The North Pole Was Here" about his scientific
expedition studying Arctic warming
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Journalist Andrew Revkin spent several days living on the floating sea ice at
the North Pole in order to report on a scientific expedition studying Arctic
warming. His new book "The North Pole Was Here" is about that expedition and
why the Arctic is so important to the larger story of global warming. Revkin
has made three trips to the Arctic. He's also reported on environmental
issues in the Amazon. Since 1995 he's been an environmental reporter for The
New York Times, writing extensively about the science and politics of global
warming. In a few minutes, we'll hear an audio recording of the noise made by
the Arctic ice he was standing on as it cracked and shifted around him.
Andrew Revkin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe the expedition that
you write about in the new book? What was the purpose of the expedition that
you were reporting on?
Mr. ANDREW REVKIN: Well, there's a big gap in our understanding of past
climate and actually of current climate trends. It's the North Pole, the
middle of the Arctic Ocean. Just to draw a picture for everyone, we're more
familiar actually with the South Pole. It's farther away for most of us, but
down there, scientists have been able to set up bases. They have doctors and
mechanics. And you can come there and go there, stay for the winter and set
up instruments that take measurements all the time.
The North Pole is in the middle of an ocean. The Arctic Ocean is five times
bigger than the Mediterranean, for example. It's 2 1/2 miles deep, 14,000
feet deep in the middle, and it's covered with this sheet of ice that's always
moving and shifting and cracking and melting, and so if you want to get a
regular set of measurements at the North Pole on what the temperature of the
ocean is doing or what the temperature of the air is doing or how thick the
ice is, you really can't do it. At least, you couldn't, until the scientists
in 2000 came up with an idea for a way to do that. It involves a lot of risk,
a lot of experimentation and things break, and I wrote about it first in 2001,
and I felt like a kid kind of saying, `Hey, can I come along? Can I come
along? Can I come along?' I kept kind of asking them and asking the National
Science Foundation and everything kind of didn't quite work. And then,
finally, in 2003 all of the logistics gods smiled, and there was a space on
the airplane for me and one other reporter, a woman from the Dallas Morning
News, and off we went.
GROSS: We'll get to a little later what the kind of measuring techniques are
for measuring the global ice, but why is it important--why is the Arctic an
important place to measure global warming?
Mr. REVKIN: Everyone--the science community has come to realize the Arctic
has sort of built-in amplifiers so it can turn a slow, gentle global warming
into a pretty profound and dramatic regional warming, and there's various
reasons for that. The simplest one to understand is the transition from
frozen water to liquid water. Anyone who--if you're in the tropics and the
temperature goes from 85 degrees to, say, 90 degrees, it just gets a little
warmer. You feel a little weirder. But--and I spent a lot of time down
there, too. But in the Arctic, if the temperature goes from, say, 28 degrees
to 32 or 33 degrees, you've just passed this really important threshold.
Water that was ice melts and that can greatly reduce the amount of that
floating sea ice on the ocean, and once you do that, then you have dark ocean
instead of white ice, and the white ice at the pole is kind of like one of the
globe's great air conditioners. It blocks--it takes sunlight and bounces it
back out into space like a mirror. When you take away some of that ice and
you replace it with dark water, the water absorbs most of that sunlight and
warms up more than it would have otherwise, so you get this amplifying effect.
GROSS: The temperature in the Arctic has written--has risen as much as 8
degrees since the '70s whereas the average--and the rest of the globe was 1
degree in the whole 20th century. So is it this cascading effect that you've
just described that's responsible for the steep 8-degree rise since the '70s?
Mr. REVKIN: Well, it seems to be the case, and the other thing that happens,
too, is if you have less snow cover on land, you also have a darker surface
than you would otherwise, and that also can warm things up. The thing
that--the reason these scientists need to go to places like the North Pole to
figure this out is Ar--the other thing we know about the Arctic is that it has
a huge amount of natural variability. The climate system up there has all
kinds of wiggles in it, and we feel that sometimes down here in the form of an
Arctic--when the weatherman says, `There's an Arctic blast coming,' there's a
lot of the--the cold temperatures, the atmosphere there has big, giant, wobbly
fluctuations on many time scales, some of them are many years long. So you
can't--you can't point to a recent wiggle and say, `Oh, a-ha, that's finally
us. That's global warming. That's the human impact.' But--so we need to
try--the scientists are trying to figure out more clearly what's behind these
trends. And one way to do that is to look at the oceans, which are kind of a
bank for heat. They--and the more we know about temperature trends in the
ocean underneath that ice, the more we'll know about what's driving the big,
great climate machine up there.
GROSS: Now scientists report that some of the sea ice in the Arctic is
melting. Could you actually, literally, see that while you were there?
Mr. REVKIN: You can't really. In any one season--it's kind of like with
hurricanes. You can't look at any one season and say that retreat of the ice
or that hurricane was a function of this global warming trend. But while I
was up there, I was learning a lot of scientists about the measurements that
they've been doing with satellites that show the remarkable retreat of the sea
ice in summers and recent years, and it's very hard now for them to explain
that retreat with anybody looking at anything other than the growing
greenhouse effect from things like carbon dioxide and these gases that trap
heat. But when you go there on any particular year, you can't kind of say,
that open water at the North Pole is our fault or anything like that. It's
not that simple. We did see open water, you see gaps in that ice. It's kind
of like a huge America-sized Scrabble board and the Scrabble tiles are these
ice floes that each one is hundreds and hundreds of yards across and they kind
of grind into each other. So there's always some open water, even in the
middle, but what's noteworthy is the pullback of sea ice around the edges of
the Arctic Ocean in recent decades, and that seems pretty rare. It seems like
at least in the last 100 years, that hasn't been seen. So that's where they
start to get the sense that something new is happening.
GROSS: So one of the things you were doing at the North Pole was reporting on
the scientists who are trying to measure whether the sea ice is melting, and
at the same time, you're living on the sea ice while you're there. What's it
like to be on--what are some of the amazing aspects of this sea ice that you
were living on for three days?
Mr. REVKIN: Well, everything is kind of amazing. The whole idea of getting
into a 15-ton airplane in the northernmost place in Canada, flying north for 2
1/2 hours. Basically you fly north until there is no more north. That's when
you know you're at the North Pole and then looking down, and there's this
little camp that these Russian guys have set up, and they've brought a
bulldozer on a helicopter from Siberia, and they've kind of carved a runway
into one big flat plate of ice. Now remember everything below you is floating
on an ocean, 10 Empire State Buildings deep, and then the pilot's circling and
telling us he's going to land, so we're landing a 15-ton airplane on ice
that's about six feet thick on top of an ocean, and that to me was kind of a
grab-the-seats kind of moment and, you know, `Should I be doing this?' The
scientists around me had already been going for a few years, so they were more
blase. A couple of them were eating apples and peanut butter sandwiches while
we were getting ready to land. And then you step out of the plane, and once
you step out of the plane, you feel like you could be on the tundra of Alaska,
just, you know, or Antarctica, on a big frozen continent, but after a while
then you start to realize that you--that you're not on a landscape. You're on
a seascape. It just happens to be frozen. And one of the things that tells
you that is sound. It just--one of the spookiest things there was when we
were at the base camp, the Russian-run base camp, and I walked away for--over
towards where the helicopters were parked, and I started hearing this sound.
It was like--it was like every possible sound you can imagine involving things
rubbing together, everything from the Styrofoam cooler lid squeaking to giant,
kind of chugging sounds and huffing sounds and hooting sounds and kind of
everyone sort of wandered over there--the Russian pilot and some of the crew
and one of the scientists--Tim Stanton, he's an oceanographer from Monterey,
California--he's a New Zealander, he's been up there for a few of years. So
he's very kind of like, `Oh, yeah, this is one of those ridges that start to
rise when the ice that we're on starts to collide with another big flow of
ice, and all the sound you're hearing is just the--you know, things
happening--it's like a--sort of like an earthquake but it's an icequake under
our feet on top of this ocean.'
GROSS: Well, you actually made a recording of what you're describing. Why
don't you introduce it for us...
Mr. REVKIN: Mmm.
GROSS: ...because we're going to hear it. It's on your Web site, and we have
a recording of it so...
Mr. REVKIN: Yeah, well, basically, when I went up there--when I go to some
far weird place for The New York Times, I feel if I don't come back with this
story in every possible medium, I'm not really doing my job, and so I took
a--these TV cameras and one of these neophyte kind of cyberjournalists
collecting whatever I can, taking pictures and stuff. And so I kept the
cameras running while we were walking over to this big ridge of ice forming,
and Tim Stanton, the oceanographer I was with, starts to explain what's going
on, and it was rather unnerving what he was saying.
GROSS: So that's who we're going to hear?
Mr. REVKIN: Yeah, and that's--basically, you'd hear his voice saying, `This
is starting to crack,' etc.
GROSS: So this is Andrew Revkin's recording of the Arctic ice.
(Soundbite of recording of cracking ice)
Mr. TIM STANTON: You can feel this the...(unintelligible)...plank that we're
on actually starting to fail a bit more, probably hairline cracks up
Mr. REVKIN: OK. So does that mean we should back up?
Mr. STANTON: Not yet. You can always jump over a crack. The power's
just--it's unstoppable. There's no mechanical system you could really design
to live through a thing like this. The forces are just stunning. And that's
the risk, that's the risk we take.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Well, that's Arctic sea ice. It sounds like a motor engine.
Mr. REVKIN: Yeah, that last part reminded me of someone trying to start an
old truck or a tractor.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Or even like a propeller or something.
Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. And the thing that's so remarkable in all this and one
thing I try to convey in the book--not just the findings about Arctic climate
change but the adventure of science. These are--these are--this team is doing
science on the edge of the possible. They--everything they were doing, every
bit of equipment they had, they had to kind of design for this project and as
he was--as Stanton was saying, you know, that `Things break.' He had an
instrument that he left in the ice a few years earlier and back in his lab in
Monterey. He was watching the signals coming from it showing that it was
starting to tip sideways and then--and then it went dead, and he knew that it
had been crushed by one of those ridges. So it's all sort of a work in
GROSS: When the scientist said to you--you asked like what do the cracks mean
and the scientist said, `Well, you can always jump over the crack.' That's a
prospect that I'm sure you would not have welcomed. That's a frightening
Mr. REVKIN: No. While we were at the camp, over a period of hours, there
was a crack--what's called a lead--it's basically an opening in the ice where
these two big Scrabble tiles are rubbing together. It opened up, and you're
looking at it, and it's just sort of white ice on each side and black water in
the middle and it's very mesmerizing to stare at that. At one point, I was
watching one of these open leads and--I don't know if you remember the movie
"Jurassic Park," where the water in the puddles is vibrating before you see T.
rex--but the puddles, the openings, were all--the water was kind of rippling
to the tune of that huffing ice. And a--and a seal popped its head up. It
was the only life we saw in three days and sunny nights on the North Pole ice.
Just one seal popped his head up.
And then, at another point, I was just standing there and watching this and
looking at these things called frost flowers that start to form on the thin
ice in these openings, and the Russian camp chief came running up, `Nyet,
nyet. Come back. It's dangerous. Last year, tourist fall into ice--into
ocean.' And it's at that moment that you remember the water you're staring at
is not just some little sort of creek. It's 14,000 feet deep, and that really
jolted me back and was kind of a sobering experience, too.
GROSS: My guest is Andrew Revkin, an environmental reporter for The New York
Times. His new book is called "The North Pole Was Here." We'll talk more
after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Andrew Revkin, and he's an environmental reporter for The
New York Times. He reports on global warming, among other things, and his new
book, "The North Pole Was Here," is based on his reporting on a North Pole
So the observatory is actually on this floating ice. So what are the problems
it poses for scientists to be reporting from a station that isn't stable.
Mr. REVKIN: Well, they came up for a method for collecting information there
in a routine way, in a place where nothing is routine. And what they do, they
actually don't stay--the instruments that they deploy don't stay on the
surface--some of them do. They put these buoys in the ice and they just sort
of float away. There's even a Web cam. There's a North Pole Web cam that you
can go to right now. Just--if someone Googled for `North Pole' and `Web cam,'
they'd find it, and it's on our Web site, too, that they left behind.
But most of the instruments, the most important stuff, is dropped through a
hole that they melt in the ice on a big long chain, two miles long, this
Kevlar line studded with instruments that all up and down through the Arctic
ocean from the sea bed to the ice itself is a recording of things like
temperature and salinity and which way the currents are pointing, and they
leave that there for a year. It's got little hard drives and those--collects
this data for a whole year and then they come back, like we did, and they get
ready to pull that one out and put another one down, and because it's under
the ice and it's not actually attached to that floating, drifting surface, it
stays in one spot the whole time.
But the one--one of the other things that makes this kind of polar science
really challenging is they have to have divers--two of these guys we were with
were divers who actually go under the North Pole, essentially, they dug--they
went down through the same hole this--about the size of a manhole, through a
nine-foot thick flow. They drop into the ocean below, and they're in 28
degree water that's 14,000 feet deep, and they're looking back at the surface
at this little hole, and they go down there to tie a rope onto that big chain
of instruments so they can pull it back up again.
GROSS: How did the scientist divers describe to you what it was like, what it
looks like, to be in the Arctic Ocean under the ice.
Mr. REVKIN: Well, these are very rugged guys, obviously. There're several
of them who rotate every year. One Jim Osse, burly guy, bearded. He's dived
all over the place. He's an engineer. He's designing--he's also a brilliant
sort of inventor. He's working with others to design a probe, a glider that
some day will allow scientists to collect information under the Arctic ice
without having to go below the surface, but that's for years in the future.
He said, basically, it's the closest thing he'll ever see on this planet to
being in space. You're floating in an ocean that's crystal clear, there's no
real silt or anything. He said that the visibility is like being in Belize or
the Caribbean, hundreds of feet visibility. And you have this kind of glowing
translucent ceiling above you of sea ice. He said you could even see the
shadow of our--the little camp through that ice even though it was six or
eight feet thick, and below you, of course, is just utter darkness, and he
said it was a very spooky experience.
GROSS: One of the things that probably make it spooky is unless you find that
little manhole that you came down through, you're covered by a ceiling of ice.
Mr. REVKIN: They had--they had a rope.
GROSS: Oh, yeah...
Mr. REVKIN: Just in case.
GROSS: ...good. OK.
Mr. REVKIN: And, by the way, and this gets to the reason I called--one of
the reasons I called the book, "The North Pole Was Here," is these--the
scientists who were working at this camp sort of as a goof, when they first
got there, they set up a little sign with a barber pole, kind of like everyone
who goes to the North Pole does--the tourists do this, too--everyone seems to
bring their own barber pole to the North Pole. And they put a sign up that
said "North Pole Is Here." But they were aware that after a couple of days
their camp was miles from where they were when they started because the ice
that we were on, not only is it cracking and shifting and making noises, it's
moving about 400 yards an hour. So if you're at the North Pole right now, you
have to take a step every 15 seconds to stay there, and that's why they--after
a day or two, they crossed out the word `is' on their sign and put in the word
GROSS: What are some of the things that the scientists are measuring in the
North Pole, and what are they learning from those measurements?
Mr. REVKIN: Well, one thing is that they're trying to understand basically
the relationship between the energy coming from the sun and the--how much of
it gets into the ocean and how that relates to what happens to the ice. The
ocean up there is sort of in layers. It's like a layer cake, where you have a
fresh, very cold layer up near the top. And you have actually much warmer
water deeper, which flows in from the Atlantic Ocean but is sort of salty and
denser, and it stays down low, and what's happened recently is that that upper
layer, that fresh cold layer, which actually helps to insulate the sea ice
floating on the top, has gotten a lot thinner. And one thing they're trying
to figure out is is that layer going to go away, and if it did, then you'd
have that much warmer salty water getting really close to the ice, and it
would help melt it even more. And, basically, they're trying to understand
things that are called feedbacks, where again, some warming of the system
leads to much more warming, and that's one that they haven't published the
data yet because this is a project that has to go on for a number of years
before you can get a sense of a trend, and again, one of the most important
parts of the puzzle of global warming is to understand when something that's
happening now is--to distinguish whether it's a wiggle or a trend, and they
need more than a couple of years of data to get that understanding.
GROSS: You know, in reporting on the Arctic and on scientific experiments
there, you talk a little bit about some of the unusual effects of global
warming on the Arctic, and, you know, part of it is that, you know, as that
region, you know, warms and it's in a warming trend, people are starting to
see the region as a potential bonanza. For what kind of things?
Mr. REVKIN: Well, good old-fashioned fossil fuels is one of the things, for
sure. We did a big series of stories last year in the Times called "The Big
Melt" on how already companies and countries are jockeying for their portion
of the Arctic Ocean seabed or the coasts where it's clear there's oil and gas
reserves that haven't been tapped yet, and the other thing that's happening is
a significant and real concrete push to develop sea lanes through these
legendary passages that were impassible for most of human history, not just
the northwest passage but actually more likely first the northeast passage,
meaning going over Russia from Europe to China and back. You could have
commerce where it was never conceivable before, and there's talk of sea routes
from northern Canada across past Greenland and up into the Arctic Ocean into
Murmansk and Russia. And then--it's not--I guess it's not surprising that's
sort of the commercial realm companies, entrepreneurs. They're usually the
first people to test the changes, to look at a change and see, `Well, what's
the upside here?' and they're out there.
And there was another science project, where they took a core, a cylinder of
sediment out of the ocean floor in the Arctic in 2004, scientists
international project, and this had never been done before, because you can't
keep a ship in one place long enough in all that moving ice that it makes
things--life up there so difficult to drill into the seabed, but they finally
were able to do it. They pulled out this core, and they found that not only
was the Arctic Ocean 74 degrees at the surface 50 million years ago, but it
was full of organic stuff, algae and ferns and things, and there's enough of
that organic stuff down in that sea floor, even right toward the North Pole,
that some of the scientists feel there's a good chance there's oil deposits
yet to be discovered even as far out in--as the center of the Arctic Ocean.
And, by the way, one thing to keep in mind about the Arctic is, long after
it's mostly a blue ocean, there's still going to be a ton of shifting,
drifting, floating sea ice up there to make life difficult, and that has some
people concerned about the idea of these shipping routes, where you might have
oil tankers moving through water that's still pretty tough going, and that
could lead to accidents.
GROSS: Andrew Revkin is the author of "The North Pole Was Here" and is an
environmental reporter for The New York Times. He'll be back in the second
half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Andrew Revkin, an
environmental reporter for The New York Times. His new book, "The North Pole
Was Here," is about Arctic warming and his experiences covering a scientific
expedition at the North Pole measuring climate change there.
You know, we talked a little about the sea ice, which, the base which you were
reporting on, was located on. Is this observatory also looking at glaciers
and whether glaciers in the Arctic are melting at an unnatural pace?
Mr. REVKIN: This particular project is one pinpoint on the map, it's in the
ocean. I've been to the Arctic three times since I went to the North Pole,
and the other two trips were to study changes on land in the Arctic, and
they're really important because, well, Greenland, where I stood on the heap
of ice that is Greenland in 2004, and it was quite an astonishing experience
to be on top of a pile of ice that formed over hundreds of thousands of years.
It's an ice sheet that's twice the size of California and about 13,000 feet
high in the middle. I did--I spent a couple of days with atlases and
e-mailing a couple of oceanographers. I wanted to convey to readers how much
water we're talking about is locked in the ice in Greenland, and it turns out
it's basically the equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico, and the melting zone
there, that in summers, the area where you get a lot of melting on the
surface, has been expanding a lot recently in recent years, and the
temperatures are starting to change.
Greenland was sort of in a cool spot in the Arctic for a while, and now it
looks like it's warming up. And it's an important question what happens with
this ice because it represents about 20 feet of sea level rise, so if
Greenland somehow magically plunked into the--back into the ocean, sea levels
from Bali to Boston would rise 20 feet. That's a big deal. It would never
happen overnight. It will not happen over even a century or 10 centuries. It
will probably take several tens of centuries for all that ice to melt, but it
would profoundly--set us on a new course basically where we'd have to redraw
coastlines every century, so--or so you'd have a fundamentally new coastline
to deal with, and if you're in a coastal city like most people are these days,
that means a lot so--up there, though, still it's hard to figure out trends.
But many of the experts who are out there, doing these individual projects say
the thing to try to reflect on in considering what to do or not do about
global warming is get the whole picture. Meaning, if you look at what's
happened with Arctic sea ice, if you look at what's happened with melting in
Greenland and melting in the glaciers on mountains in the tropics and in
places like Alaska, if you look at the growing heat in the ocean, which has
been measured pretty clearly now, and you look at what's happening with these
gases in the atmosphere that trap heat and make the world warmer than it
otherwise would be, it's that grand sort of overall picture that is the thing
that makes many experts say we need to move promptly, right now, to start to
develop ways to get energy without releasing more of these gases.
GROSS: I'd like to hear what you think of Al Gore's new film "An Inconvenient
Truth," which makes a case that we are undergoing global warming and
speculates about what those changes are. What did you think of the film?
Mr. REVKIN: It--well, it's a very effective film as a film is. Even the
sharpest critics of Al Gore, people from the industry, industry lobbies, say
it works as a film. My sense personally is that it builds a very lawyerly
case, meaning that we're in a planetary emergency right now, that's kind of
his conclusion. I--and he points to specific things happening, like changes
in disease patterns, drowning polar bears, Hurricane Katrina, in ways that
strongly imply that these things are essentially our fault and that that's why
we need to act now.
My personal sense of the science having covered this for coming on 20 years is
that it's hazardous to try to sort of connect those dots in a way that
minimizes the uncertainties that really are there, that it's the overall
picture, the thing that gets lost when someone tries to say this is a here and
now catastrophe. Everything that's happening in the world around us is a
function of greenhouse gas increases. That doesn't hold up as an argument in
the end, and it distracts from the things that we know so profoundly. One of
the things I tried to do in the book and--that was done really well in a book
a few years ago, kind of a--not an exciting book but an important book, "The
Discovery of Global Warming," that I reviewed for the paper, is to build a
picture of our understanding of the basic idea. In other words, we know
enough, just in knowing that these gases are--trap heat, there are more of
them, they're coming from our activities, and we're heading toward a
profoundly transformed world later this century, that seems to be enough, and
I think the best thing that we could do is just convey in the simplest terms
in the most profound way without the distraction of the legitimate debate
about current events that we're changing the world and that has circumstances
that need to be paid attention to.
GROSS: So you're critical of Gore's film for pointing to specific events that
have happened very recently and saying ,`This is a result of global warming.'
Mr. REVKIN: Yeah.
GROSS: You think that there's a larger pattern that seems to prove that
there's global warming, but we can't look at the individual events and say
this one is definitely the result of global warming. What do you think of the
science that he presents in the film as, you know, as explanations of what
global warming is and what it conse--what its consequences might be?
Mr. REVKIN: Well, he--the way he conveys the basics of what it is, how it
works is really fabulous, you know. It's kind of a basic primer on how
greenhouse gases work. He even includes a whimsical cartoon, sort of a
Simpsons-style cartoon that's like a 1950s science class documentary that
really gets across the basics in the clearest possible way, and that stuff in
pretty unassailable, I think.
GROSS: And the consequences that he talks about?
Mr. REVKIN: Well, the--I guess it gets down to what you think will work as a
strategy to engage the public, and Gore's film and a lot of media coverage
lately has tended to sort of try to cast global warming as the kind of
environmental catastrophe we all grew up with in the last century, meaning
something that's very simple and clear cut and a challenge right now and
that's why we have to respond to it. And things like the Exxon Valdez wreck
or Chernobyl. You know, we had it so easy in the 20th century in terms of
recognizing these things because they were right in your face. They had clear
effects right now. The dirty black stuff coming out of a smoke stack was
affecting your health right now. And I guess there's an attempt under way to
try to cast global warming in that same light because perhaps to take
advantage of the fact that people tend to focus on the things that are risks
to themselves and not their children and their grandchildren. Unfortunately,
I don't think it's that easy. I think with climate change, if we neglect to
sort of cast it as what it is, which is--it's an issue really that ultimately
will be a much more profound one for our children and grandchildren than for
us, and that, to me, I think has enough power in it too, potentially, to get
people to move to change the way we use fuels now.
GROSS: The Al Gore movie refers to a story that you actually broke in The New
York Times, and it has to do with Phil Cooney who was the--had been with the
American Petroleum Institute, which is a lobby group for the oil industry.
President Bush had appointed him to serve as chief of staff of the White House
Council on Environmental Quality, and in that capacity, he was editing a
report on global warming and toned it down and was accused of censorship. You
broke that story, and a couple of days later, he resigned from the White House
Council on Environmental Quality, and then shortly after that, went back to
the American Petroleum Institute. How did you get the story?
Mr. REVKIN: Well, actually, shortly after that, he went to ExxonMobile.
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. OK.
Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. I--along with covering the science, I tend to focus part
of my time, and I've almost been forced to, as sort of the truth police, for
years now, trying to understand when someone on one side of the issue or the
other is spinning things in a way that doesn't hold up. And for years, I was
finding evidence provided by people within the bureaucracy of government
within science climate agencies and that kind of thing were sending me
examples of editing or rewriting by the White House that was trying to
sprinkle more uncertainty into reports than the scientists felt was justified.
And this was a case where someone who I had met in 2002--early on, I kept in
touch with him and he kept saying, `Well, you know, I've got some stuff here
that when I leave government, you'll find pretty interesting.' And just sort
of by cultivating a source over a period of time and being patient and doing
what is fairly rare in journalism these days--a lot of us rotate too quickly
from one beat to the other, but I've sort of been on this for a while. That
helped me to get those documents finally when he left government and put them
in the Times.
GROSS: So had he kind of like drawn an arrow to the downplaying of global
warming that Phil Cooney was responsible for in this report or did you just
kind of stumble onto that among...(unintelligible)?
Mr. REVKIN: Well, there were no arrows required--sorry, what was clear in
the documents once I got them, was there were actually the handwritten editing
marks of Mr. Cooney, and it was all there. In fact, we published it in the
paper sort of visually you could see the way the paragraphs and sentences were
changed to add a word like `may' instead of a word like `probably' and that
kind of thing. That was all in his own handwriting. There was no
GROSS: You've been reporting on climate change for about 20 years. Is it any
more satisfying to report on it now that there's more awareness of the issue?
Is the awareness of the issue changing your life as a reporter?
Mr. REVKIN: It's--I guess at the Times now there's been a lot more
engagement on it, and the thing that's encouraging is that departments of the
paper and--not just our paper but BusinessWeek, for example, last year did a
big series on global warming, and to think of that 10 years ago was probably
unthinkable. So, in a sense, it's broadened out as being not just an
environment story anymore. I guess that's the biggest realm of progress
there's been. It's really a story about energy, about the nature of how we
integrate science into how we behave and about looking a little farther into
the future than we usually do in the media. So I'm very encouraged to that
GROSS: And about politics.
Mr. REVKIN: And it's clearly about politics, and it's about energy politics
which is the sort of knockdownest politics that exist.
GROSS: Since your new book is about science at the North Pole, leave us with
an image about what it's like to actually be at the top of the world?
Mr. REVKIN: It's--standing at the place where the sun goes in circle above
you, where you're on a transitory surface of ice that's moving and shifting,
and that's been essentially unchanged for tens of thousands of years. It's
been a place that humans can never feel comfortable, and when I saw a seal pop
its head up through the ice, the first thing I thought about was, `Oh,
wherever there are seals, there are polar bears, and polar bears like to eat
people as well as seals.' It's a place where you can never feel comfortable,
where humans will never, at least for a long while to come, be able to sit
easy, and yet it was a place, as I was standing there feeling that 20 degrees
below zero air on my cheeks, thinking that we're potentially transforming it
in a way that my children, certainly my boys, their children, will--later this
century, might see--might see it as a completely different place than the kind
of thing we've grown up with. That's sort of a profound feeling and--the one
other thing it was was it's the one place I've been on Earth where there's no
distractions, no sense of anything other than that you're standing on top of a
planet, and it's a planet spinning in space around a sun that you can see in
the sky 24 hours a day. And that's kind of a remarkable feeling, too, to have
none of the--you know, here back in the real world, where sort of you're
driving your car or you're sitting in a radio studio, you don't think that
you're on a planet that's hung in space, a great gift from whoever, and there
it's hard to get away from that feeling, because there's nothing around you
except sort of planetary forces playing around.
GROSS: And you were there during the period of 24-hour sunlight.
Mr. REVKIN: Three long days and nights of brilliant sunshine.
GROSS: Well, Andrew Revkin, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. REVKIN: It's really been a pleasure. Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Andrew Revkin is an environmental reporter for The New York Times.
His new book is called "The North Pole Was Here."
Coming up, the controversy surrounding a project in the Amazon designed to
help slow global warming.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Environmentalist William Powers, "Whispering in the
Giant's Ear" author, talks about the Amazon Project in Bolivia,
world's largest rain forest-based program to slow global warming
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest William Powers describes Bolivia as `a mecca of environmental
innovation.' There he ran the Amazon Project, the world's largest rain
forest-based program to slow global warming. It required getting the
cooperation of multinationals and the indigenous people living in the rain
forest. Powers has written a new memoir about this work and the controversy
surrounding it called "Whispering in the Giant's Ear." He now works with the
Friends of Nature Conservancy in Bolivia. The country elected its first
indigenous president, Evo Morales, last December. In May, he nationalized the
nation's oil industry and is trying to increase state control over other
The Amazon Project was about working, you know, developing an arrangement
between multinationals and environmental interests. Would you explain what
the deal was?
Mr. WILLIAM POWERS: Well, the deal was that the Bolivian governments would
set aside a vast track of Amazon, three million acres, forever, and that the
multinationals would agree to help pay to have that happen, and they would do
that through the international climate change agreements that have taken place
over the past 10 years, where they are able to reduce their emissions to slow
global warming, through one of two ways. One is by reducing emissions or
putting in clean technologies. Those are brown sources. And the other is
through green sources or saving rain forests. So this is one of those saving
rain forest types of agreements where the net benefit is something like, you
know, billions of tons of carbon reduced from the atmosphere, and they are
able to go ahead and get credits for that.
GROSS: And can you explain how preserving rain forest can counteract carbon
Mr. POWERS: Well, you can think of rain forests as a sponge. It sponges
carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and releases oxygen. So it's actually
very simple--it's a very simple idea, and it's capturing those--what we call
on the business--ecological services of what the planet does to maintain our
water supply, to maintain our climates, to provide any number of services,
including aesthetic values, to monetize it, to give it a monetary value.
Basically, we're changing the way that global capitalism works. It's changing
the fibers of the global economy in ways that are positive because you've
suddenly made something that was free, like polluting or cutting down a rain
forest, not free. Now it has a cost, and that cost causes a different
behavior on the part of corporations.
GROSS: So the cost for polluting is that you have to preserve, in this case
rain forest, because the vegetation in the rain forest will inhale the bad guy
Mr. POWERS: That's right. That's exactly right.
GROSS: ...and exhale the good guy oxygen and...
Mr. POWERS: Exactly.
GROSS: ...and does this strike you as--you described this project in your
book as anti-Utopian. What do you mean by that?
Mr. POWERS: It's anti-Utopian in the sense that it's not relying on the good
will of companies or governments to do the right thing. It's changing the
economy, the global economy, it's changing economics...
GROSS: So you think of this as a really pragmatic approach in the short term
to dealing with the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And you
had people who you knew in Bolivia who were basically accusing you of being in
bed with the multinationals. They didn't see it as pragmatic. They just saw
it as bad. So what was your response to people who you knew, who thought that
now you were a bad guy, too.
Mr. POWERS: Yeah. Well, that's sort of a knee-jerk reaction that if you're
doing something that involves these corporations, it must automatically be
bad, and I agree that it's not the only solution, and I don't want people to
have a warm and fuzzy feeling about it, `Wow, you know, if we just save all
the rain forests, we can go on driving two SUVs and burning fossil fuels for
the rest of history.' That's not true. I think that you need both sides of
the equation. You need to be doing these types of rain forest projects, like
we did. You need to be working with multinationals for the financing, unless
someone else has a better idea for how to fund it. And the other side of it
has to be really focusing on consumption.
GROSS: When you got to Bolivia, you were told that in the environmental
world, the world divided between grapes and watermelons. So who are grapes
and who are watermelons?
Mr. POWERS: OK, well, the watermelons are red on the inside, sort of very
left-leaning progressive, change capitalism, need to destroy capitalism, but
green on the outside. That's one paradigm. The other were the grapes. Those
are people who are green through and through. They come at it from more of a
preservationist-conservationist perspective. Those are the
GROSS: And what was the conflict between the grapes and the watermelons?
Mr. POWERS: Well, the watermelons really felt like you should not be
engaging the global economy at all, at least, not the corporate version of
global economy. And the grapes felt, well, whatever it takes to preserve
Mother Nature, even if that means, you know, working with this sort of
GROSS: So your project was a grape project, by these standards. Yes?
Mr. POWERS: OK, by that very simple metaphor, yes, I would say it is.
GROSS: My guest is William Powers. His new book is called "Whispering in the
Giant's Ear: A Frontline Chronicle From Bolivia's War on Globalization."
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is William Powers. His new book, "Whispering in the Giant's
Ear," is about his work in Bolivia running the Amazon Project, the world's
largest rain forest project to slow global warming. It required getting the
cooperation of multinationals and indigenous people.
When the anti-global protest started heating up, you became involved in a
really interesting protest, and it was a protest about the government claim on
part of the land coming into conflict with the indigenous claim to that same
land. Would you describe both parties claim to that land?
Mr. POWERS: Well, the indigenous people said that that had been their land
for generations and generations. That's their ancestral land, that particular
rain forest with its waterfalls and...(unintelligible)...and wild life and
everything. It's part of their mythology, part of their way of living and
their history. And the government was saying, `No, that land belongs to
logging companies through concessions granted 10 years before and that that's
the legal claim to the land.' So it's really a question of law, and the
dispute came down to a clause in the forestry log of Bolivia that does say
original peoples, indigenous peoples who have been on the land for a certain
amount of time, have rights to that land that supercede these concessions,
particularly if the concessions are not under use, and those concessions were
not under use and the companies were not paying taxes, and other issues around
it. So the much stronger legal...(unintelligible)...and sort of ethical case
for the land went to the Indians.
GROSS: But the case is still unresolved.
Mr. POWERS: It is.
GROSS: Now in protest of the government's claim that this land was part of a
logging concession, the indigenous group, in collaboration with your
environmental group and in collaboration with the larger park area, came up
with a declaration. What did the declaration say?
Mr. POWERS: Well, the declaration said that this was an indivisible
territory, what's called the `indigenous territory of the
Bajo...(unintelligible)...and that couldn't be divided up, and it couldn't be
GROSS: So you joined with the indigenous group when it came to protesting the
government's claim that this land should be part of a logging concession. But
then, one of the leaders of this indigenous group said that, in protest, that
the government insisted on keeping that land for the logging concessions, that
the indigenous group was going to go into the big national park, which is the
park where you were running your environmental project. They were going to go
into this park and claim it as their land, in compensation for the land that
they felt that they were losing. So where did you stand on this--I mean, this
is the park that you were using for your project, how did you feel about them,
you know, invading the park?
Mr. POWERS: Well, I have to admit at first I felt rather betrayed, that all
the work we'd done, not just since I'd been there from 2002 to 2004 with them,
but even before that, for years. The relationship that had been built up with
that particular indigenous group was strong and solid, and I felt like that's
a tactic that I could not accept personally, going into a national park and
cutting down the rain forest or annexing it from the national park.
At the same time, politics were shifting in Bolivia. This was during the time
of Sanchez Gonzalo de Lozada's government, when Evo Morales and the MAS Party
was sort of rising in Bolivia, and that group, the Chiquitano Indians, was
joining with some of these other social movements in the east, and it had
become part of the much larger dynamic where the fight was for land and for
territory was the number one issue for indigenous people nationally in the
country. And it was sort of a by-any-means-necessary.
GROSS: So you held your ground in thinking that invading the park was a bad
Mr. POWERS: I did, but then after that was announced and became an issue and
actually caused quite a scandal and led to some meetings on a national level
with the Minister of Sustainable Development and others, and just in informal
conversations with the indigenous people, they said it was a tactic, it was a
media--it was a way of getting attention, a way of going after what people, in
a sense, really care about most, which became sort of obvious in the whole
crisis that, you know, there's a real concern for the environment that even
outweighed the concern for the indigenous people in the area.
GROSS: So they never really did invade the park?
Mr. POWERS: They never invaded the park. There was talk of slashing,
burning a few acres with the TV cameras rolling, but even that never happened.
GROSS: So, were you able to repair your relations with the indigenous group
you'd been working with?
Mr. POWERS: Yeah, I wouldn't even say that they were really that damaged.
The--you know, there was tension like in any relationship, but the
relationship did get better after that and continues, but I'm sad to say they
still do not have that indigenous territory as their own. It's still under
debate. And I'm hoping now with the big change in the country that that
740,000-acre Amazon territory will be legally given over to the Chiquitano
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. POWERS: Thank you, Terry, for having me.
GROSS: William Powers is the author of "Whispering in the Giant's Ear." He
know works for the Friends of Nature Conservancy in Bolivia.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.