Q&A: The New York Times’ Andy Revkin on Edward Mazria

Andy Revkin talks about his view of the environmental road ahead

In the course of reporting my piece on Edward Mazria, I had a very interesting conversation with Andrew C. Revkin, for years an environmental reporter for the New York Times. Today he writes the paper’s Dot Earth Blog and also teaches at Pace University. A big admirer of Mazria, Revkin has an altogether clear-eyed view of the environmental road ahead. An edited version of our talk follows:

Martin C. Pedersen: First off, what’s your role at Pace?

Andrew C. Revkin: I am Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at the Academy for Applied Environmental Studies.  And I co-teach three courses. One is a new course I’ve launched called Blogging a Better Planet. In the spring I co-teach a documentary production course, where we do films on sustainability topics, and an environmental science communication course.

MCP: You’ve been aware of Ed’ Mazria’s role in the environmental movement for a while. How would you characterize it?

ACR: His case—and it’s a good and simple one—is that buildings really matter. He’s trying to shift how we design them, and how we design architects, as well.

MCP: How does his advocacy differ from someone like Bill McKibben http://www.350.org/?

ACR: I think Ed is focusing on things that are imminently more doable. Bill is very good about building movements around numbers, but has not adequately articulated how you get there. In other words, besides yelling at fossil fuel companies. That may be something that needs to be done, but it’s not a path that will actually change a lot of things. Ed is working in a space where there’s a lot to be done, both on existing structures and on new buildings. There’s huge potential to make big gains.

MCP: Ed is in the trenches, dealing with codes and other arcane stuff.

ACR: But again, it’s stuff that’s consequential. It’s the same thing in dealing with disaster risk. Right now there are engineers who know how to make a building in a developing country going up right now fundamentally safer, in an earthquake zone, just by changing the way you play with the materials. So shifting the norms and creating an awareness about simple things can make a big difference.

MCP: For the broader environmental movement, what has to happen? It seems like a lot of stuff is happening at the grassroots level, but we’re stuck at the top.

ACR: I think this notion that you’ve articulated already of really digging into things, like building codes. There is so much opportunity to reexamine the norms, some of which are, unfortunately, political. So that means they’re hard to undo. But I’ll give you one other example from another realm. I just did a piece about natural gas leakage from distribution systems. There’s been a lot of focus on the emissions from fracking, but if you look at an old city like Boston, it’s a sieve, with hundred-year-old pipes. There was a fascinating study showing how much leakage there is from this system. Again, there’s a way to get at that, but until you make people aware that the norms just don’t work, it won’t change. So what needs to happen is a culture change as well.

MCP: Do you think we can change in time? Are we going to get there?

ACR: We don’t know. There is no there. Sustainability is a practice, not a destination. Any idea that we now know how we’re going to get there is fantasy. We don’t. You can’t get there from here with our current state of knowledge, and with our current norms. This all evaporated a few years ago with the idea of a climate treaty or a climate bill as THE solution to the global warming problem. And I think, in a way, that’s good.

MCP: You think it’s good. Why?

ACR: Because it wasn’t going to happen. You could pass a bill and then countries would find ways to get around it. If we had a cap on carbon here, all the emissions—as happened in Europe—would move to China. And then we’ll just buy their stuff. Australia passed a carbon cap and they’re selling millions of tons of coal a year to China. Is that a solution? Not even remotely.

MCP: Now are you a China-optimist or a China-pessimist, in terms of what they can do to push the environmental agenda?

ACR: Pessimistic in the short run. They need growth more than they need to constrain carbon. And their best way to sustain growth is to burn a lot of carbon. In the long run, there are ways of looking at what’s happening there and see decent outcomes. But it’s all about: can we do this in time? We have to get comfortable with the reality that some of this is just going to play out. A burst of short term emissions in poor countries has to happen. It will happen. Unless someone magically comes up with a renewable technology that can be massively deployed at a cost near that of coal.

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