The nation’s climate change science desk gets a lot smaller come December 21 with the resignation from The New York Times of science writer Andy Revkin.

With its paring of some 100 newsroom and editorial employees, it’s not at all clear how the Times itself can fill the substantial void. Even more problematic, given the dire financial conditions facing most metropolitan daily newspapers, are prospects for others to move in.

News Analysis

The Associated Press’s Washington, D.C.-based science reporter, Seth Borenstein, is probably best suited to lay claim to the crown as the nation’s best climate science journalist regularly reaching a broad general audience, an assessment unlikely to please dyed-in-the-wool Revkin bashers and climate skeptics.

But AP probably trails the Times in terms of respect and influence in policy circles, and Borenstein has a broad science beat, far broader even than the climate/population/sustainability focus where Revkin excelled. It’s unlikely Borenstein will be able to focus as exclusively on climate change as Revkin has.

Like the “hacked e-mails” that could shift the political ground under the politics of climate change, Revkin’s confirmation of his resignation could hardly have come at a more challenging time: in the midst of his covering the long-awaited Copenhagen negotiations; in the steamy heat of the hacked e-mails fiasco; and in the months leading up to possible Senate action on “cap and trade” legislation.

At the same time, one might argue that the focus of climate change over the past few years has shifted from the science to the policy and politics arenas. But given the ruckus raised by the University of East Anglia hacked e-mails, that perspective now appears shortsighted.

Revkin’s acceptance of a buyout designed to pare the Times‘ editorial and newsroom staffs comes amidst continuing financial troubles facing mainstream journalism. In this same week, a number of journalism “staples” have announced they will go out of business or significantly cut-back their operations:

  • Editor & Publisher, long the bible of the newspaper industry, is going out of existence at the end of this month.
  • The University of Maryland’s highly regarded Knight Center for Specialized Journalism is also going under at the end of the month.
  • And the university’s American Journalism Review is going from six to four issues per year. (Kirkus Review, the highly respected book reviews journal, also announced it is ceasing operations.)

Frustrations with Journalism … and Fatigue

Revkin said in a recent interview that he has grown increasingly frustrated with the constraints of daily newspaper journalism and that he is exhausted from the virtual 24/7 pace of reporting and blogging (so much so that he has considerably curtailed his passion for playing guitar and his involvement with the “Uncle Wade” blues and country band).

He said that from his full-time position as Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University’s Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, he will focus on Internet-based communications on issues related to sustainability, a growing global population, and energy/climate change, the staples of his Dotearth blog.  He said he has no plans to do public relations or lobbying work for parties supporting or opposing climate change policy positions, but may collaborate with select agencies – the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation – on communications issues.

While highly regarded among his fellow journalists, who long have closely followed his coverage of climate change science, Revkin has been a prime target of those from the “left” and “right” ends of the political and policy spectrum. Right-wing blogs, in particular, have lambasted his reporting, even more so in recent months than previously.

But also vocally in his criticism has been liberal blogger Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress, whose blog has gone viral in its attacks on Revkin. Romm is particularly incensed when Revkin or other journalists rely on climate change “experts” who don’t pass his own (Romm’s) litmus test.

Romm’s barbs notwithstanding, Revkin most often has found himself in the crosshairs of the political right. Those criticisms have increased – in quantity and rhetoric – with the outbreak of the University of East Anglia hacked e-mails turmoil. Revkin and the Times, according to some of these critics, in effect have engaged in a cover-up and a conspiracy of silence with those climate scientists who authored or are “implicated” in the e-mails controversy.

That is decidedly not how pro-climate-control advocate Michael Schlesinger of the University of Illinois sees things. He recently did an e-mail blast distributing his e-mail to Revkin specifically trashing Revkin for “gutter reportage” on Dotearth.

“The vibe I’m getting from here, there and everywhere is that your reportage is very worrisome to most climate scientists,” Schlesinger railed in his e-mail to Revkin. “I sense that you are about to experience the ‘Big Cutoff’ from those of us who believe we can no longer trust you, me included,” he wrote.

Like other reporters, Revkin is known to take such criticisms as an affirmation of his journalistic independence. But perhaps more surprising was a recent complaint from mainstream climate scientist Ken Caldeira, of Stanford University and its Carnegie Institution of Washington. Caldeira sometimes draws the scorn of those most committed to strong action on climate change, but few could seriously consider him a climate “skeptic.”

Addressing Revkin about his coverage of the e-mails hacking in a November 21 Times front-page article, Caldeira complained of “about the worst piece of journalism that you have ever published.” He complained that the paper, and Revkin in particular, had taken “a few lines out of context for maximum inflammatory intent.”

Caldeira also equated Revkin to widely quoted climate contrarian Pat Michaels of the Cato Institute, at one point asking Revkin if he had “let yourself be an operative of Pat Michaels. Truly disgusting.”

Caldeira complained in that e-mail that Revkin in effect had underplayed “the story” of climate contrarians’ “using law suits, breaking computer systems, and in general trying to apply intimidation tactics to silence and discredit hardworking climate scientists …. Instead, you jump right in there with the worst of them … you have done society a grave disservice.”

Caldeira wasn’t alone among responsible and credible scientists in blasting Revkin’s hacked e-mails coverage. But it would be wrong to assume that his strongest critics come from among responsible scientists rather than from “professional skeptics,” as some call them. Acknowledging that such criticisms go with the territory of covering a controversial issue for an influential news outlet, Revkin nonetheless said the pace and rancor of such criticisms has increased in recent months.

Additional details on Revkin’s outstanding journalism career and his next steps are reported by veteran science writer Cristine Russell and announced by Pace University.

An upcoming posting to The Yale Forum will provide additional reporting on Revkin’s resignation from daily journalism and its impact on climate change reporting.