Welcome to The Human Factor, a podcast that puts the social in science.
I’m Cheryl Croucher. As we’ve learned through the global pandemic, science is an important tool in the decision-making tool kit. The Human Factor explores the impact scientific inquiry has on our daily lives and our decision making.
This is Episode 3 of The Human Factor.
My guest is Roger Cohn, editor of Yale Environment 360. Over the last decade and a half, this online publication has grown to become one of the most respected environmental journals in the world. Yale Environment 360 is a welcome breath of fresh air in a western culture that has Increasingly become anti-science and anti-truth.
So, it’s Roger Cohn’s job to help guide his journalists through the minefield of reporting on the environment.
CC: ROGER, HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YALE ENVIRONMENT 360?
RC: We are an online environmental magazine covering global environmental issues. Most of our articles are done by environmental journalists or scientists or policy makers or environmentalist people working in the environmental field. We are focused on trying to provide in-depth coverage and science-based coverage. And that seems increasingly important in the media world in general these days, but especially in the environmental media.
So, we really focus on trying to do science-based stories. All our articles are fact checked quite thoroughly. And we’ve been around now for 11 years and I think exceeded our expectations for what started out and what it still is a university-based publication.
CC: AND I UNDERSTAND THAT WHEN ENVIRONMENT 360 WAS STARTED IN 2008 THAT YOU’VE BEEN THE EDITOR EVER SINCE?
RC: Yes. I was brought here to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2007 to set up a publication like this. The dean at the Forestry School at that time, Gus Speth, who was a noted environmentalist – he wasn’t an academic, but he was a long serving dean at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. And Gus Beth felt that there was the need for the school to get something out there that was aimed at a general audience explaining and describing and exploring and discussing environmental issues. And he thought it should be online. And he came out and recruited me to create it.
So I came to Yale in 2007. We launched the website in 2008 and we now have more than 6 million visitors a year.
And think we’ve become a significant part of the broader discussion on environmental issues. We’re quite proud of what we’ve been able to do so far where each year we hope we’re getting better.
CC: NOW I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU WERE RECRUITED FROM MOTHER JONES?
RC: Actually, I had been editor-in-chief at Mother Jones magazine for six years. But I was at the time that I came here, I was actually teaching at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley. So, I’m a career journalist. That was my only real teaching experience up to that point at Berkeley but I’m a career journalist.
I had been editor-in-chief of Mother Jones magazine. Before that I had been executive editor of Audubon magazine, and before that I had been for a long time a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper in Philadelphia.
CC: SO, HAVE YOU FOUND OVER THE YEARS THAT THE SUPPORT FROM YALE, FOR EXAMPLE, HAS CONTINUED OR HAVE YOU HAD TO FIGHT THINGS GOING BACK AND FORTH?
RC: Oh, no. We have great support from Yale. We are funded independently. We are funded through foundation grants and private donations.
It was understood at the beginning that if we were going to be the kind of publication that the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies wanted, that there would need to be sort of a “church and state” wall, meaning when we have an opinion article on the site, that is not necessarily our opinion or the opinion of the School. We just want good, informed discussion on the site.
It also means we’re not a house organ of Yale. There are such some excellent publications that are. We’re not that. And so we’re not writing about what’s going on at Yale with the environment or anything else.
And that was part of our marching orders from the beginning. And it was understood if we were going to be the kind of publication that would get a broad audience, we were going to need that kind of editorial independence. And Yale has been great about that.
They get it and I think they totally supported everything we’d done here. And we wouldn’t be here without them.
CC: DO YOU THINK THAT ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALISM HAS TOUGH ROW TO HOE AT THIS TIME?
RC: Yes, just as journalism in general does, environmental journalism, in particular. I think there’s been a small comeback in the last five years or so, but I think there was a period when media organizations were pulling back their coverage and the size of their staffs. That environmental coverage was often, you know, one of the first things to go because it was not considered the basic core of a lot of news organizations and a lot of publications.
We were one of the first independent online publications to be covering in-depth environmental issues. I think since we launched in 2008 there have been others that do a good job on covering climate change and other issues. I think that if you’d asked me that question six or eight years ago, I would have given an even grimmer picture of what I think of the state of environmental journalism. I think it fell off badly in the first decade of the 2000’s. But I think it’s coming back now, largely because of the resurgence of web publications, including us.
CC: YOU’VE HAD A NUMBER OF PEOPLE FROM ALBERTA WHO HAVE ACTUALLY WRITTEN ARTICLES THAT YOU’VE PUBLISHED. ED STRUZIK FROM EDMONTON. AND RECENTLY, THERE WAS ONE WRITTEN BY A WOMAN IN EDMONTON ON COAL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA. SO, HOW DO YOU RECRUIT YOUR WRITERS?
RC: Well, for starters, I’d been doing this for a while before I came here and worked at both Mother Jones and Audubon magazine with writers and journalists that I respected.
And so initially I, of course, reached out to them to try to get them interested in writing for our site, which many of them were. I had two editors working here with me. They had writers that they had relationships with. But we are constantly looking for new writers. If we, you know, read something by somebody that we think was doing the kind of work that we’d like to have on the site, we reach out to them. Writers approach us with queries, and then some of these people become regular writers for our site, including Ed Struzik.
I don’t really remember how we initially made contact with Ed Struzik. I did not know him before I came here. He probably pitched us something. But in any case, we saw how knowledgeable he was and really expert on issues in the far north and Ed has been one of our most regular contributors. I’m pretty sure he wrote for us our first year in 2008 and he’s been writing regularly for us ever since. And there are other writers like that, and we add them on and some of them become regular contributors as Ed is.
CC: YOU HAVE A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT TOPICS THAT YOU FOCUS ON. I’M JUST LOOKING THROUGH YOUR SITE. YOU HAVE CLIMATE, SEA RISE, BIODIVERSITY. WHY DON’T WE LOOK AT CLIMATE FIRST? WHAT DO YOU SEE AS BEING, I GUESS, THE MAIN THING THAT PEOPLE SHOULD BE CONCERNED ABOUT IN TERMS OF CLIMATE AND THE TYPES OF STORIES THAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR?
RC: Well, maybe two different questions. What the public should be concerned about?
I think there’s been, to a large degree because of misinformation that was in some cases promoted by the fossil fuel industry, there’s particularly in this country – I’m not that familiar with Canada – but in this country, there’s to a lesser degree than there was a few years ago, there’s still a significant sense in the general public, like you know, there’s a split decision on this. Some scientists think it’s a big problem, others don’t, and we don’t really know what to make of it.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Overwhelming, overwhelming scientific consensus is that the world is warming at a dangerous rate. We’re on a trajectory towards future catastrophic consequences from it.
What isn’t certain is exactly the pace of those things. What will the world look like in twenty years? What impacts will we see twenty years from now? Fifty years from now? A hundred years from now? What will the world look like two hundred years from now if we continue on a similar trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions?
Those questions, there is some debate or a difference of opinion in the scientific community, but that’s more about the timing and pace of these problems. It’s not about whether these impacts will be felt. And they’re, you know, it’s constant work on trying to improve climate models to try to be pinpoint that with more certainty. But the fact that we’re headed that way and we’re headed in that direction is not any dispute. What we are focused on here at E360 is to provide accurate science-based information on this.
We’re not interested in promoting hysterical overreaction, and we’re not interested in promoting denialism. We’re interested in the science and the facts as they are known. And as new things become understood and known better, or the impacts that are already being felt around the globe because of climate change, we think it’s important that readers know that. And we hope we have established ourselves now as a reliable source for getting information that, on all topics, but on climate change, in particular, that is reliable and scientifically sound.
CC: WHEN YOU THINK OR SAY, FOR EXAMPLE, YOU’RE LOOKING AT A SEA LEVEL RISE, CONNECTICUT IS RIGHT ON THE WATER. HAVE YOU SEEN ANY OF THE EFFECTS, ANY OF THOSE IMPACTS ACTUALLY IN YOUR STATE?
RC: Oh, absolutely. Most of Connecticut lies along the Long Island Sound. There’s quite a lot of action by the State to try and deal with rising sea level impacts already and plan for the future.
Many communities that I’m aware of the shore communities have their own plans for mitigating some of the impacts of the rising sea levels. In some cases changing their zoning to restrict development in areas that are clearly going to be impacted by rising seas.
So Connecticut, certainly not the most dramatic impacts have not been felt in Connecticut maybe as much as some other States along the East Coast, but there have been real serious impacts, including Superstorm Sandy and some bad coastal storms that were unprecedented in terms of the extent and the damage. And that’s even more true in some places further down the Atlantic coast where some communities are already pulling back from the ocean.
CC: IF WE LOOK AT BIODIVERSITY AND THE WAY CHANGING CLIMATE ALONG WITH INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT, THAT SORT OF THING, BUT CHANGING CLIMATE DEFINITELY, WILL HAVE AN IMPACT ON BIODIVERSITY IN THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA, ALL AROUND THE WORLD. WE’VE SEEN THAT. WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE STORIES THAT YOUR WRITERS HAVE DONE, IS THERE SOMETHING THAT STANDS OUT FOR YOU ABOUT HOW BIODIVERSITY IS CHANGING?
RC: Well, I think the key issue that stands out is the mounting pressures on species around the planet from a host of sources, climate change being one of them. Species that are having their habitats change because of climate change and they’re no longer able to thrive in the places that they’ve historically thrived in. But there’s also the mounting sprawl and human encroachment as population continues to rise around the globe.
Fifty years ago there weren’t that many places left for wild species then, and population has only grown and sprawl has only kept happening since then.
So I think it’s the multiple effects, not just climate change, population sprawl, that the pressures, are requiring, wildlife scientists and managers to intervene more in ways to save species and preserve them, whether that’s protecting certain areas. In the case of climate change, it’s even meaning in some cases they’re taking species from one area where it’s becoming difficult for them to thrive anymore them. In the case of plants, planting them, or in the case of animals, sometimes actually moving them or reintroducing them in new areas.
So, it would be nice if we could just let the wild places that remain, we can keep them unaffected by these factors, but we know that’s not true. And it’s requiring more and more thought and creative thinking by wildlife authorities.
CC: IF YOU HAD SOMETHING TO SAY TO JOURNALISTS WHO ARE WORKING IN THE FIELD OF ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALISM, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM? HOW ARE WE GOING TO MOVE THINGS ALONG?
RC: I think we need to stick to the facts but also, we need to look towards solutions.
It’s not enough and sometimes it’s not even constructive to just keep hammering home the dire straits of many environmental issues and many things around the planet. That’s important. We need to do it. But we also need to look to and focus and inform the public about solutions and what needs to be done, what can be done, because otherwise, we’re just sort of whistling in the graveyard.
CC: WHAT’S SOMETHING THAT YOU SEE AS BEING ONE SOLUTION THAT WE CAN LOOK TO FOR THE FUTURE?
RC: Well, I don’t know that there’s one particular solution I would point to, but one thing that I think needs to be considered that’s part of our solution on climate change, is to consider – we recently did an article on this – consider some of the technologies that are being explored now to – what is it being called? – geo-engineer the climate or the planet, with technologies that will try and offset human-caused carbon emissions that continue to be admitted into the atmosphere.
Now, a lot of people have concerns about these geo-engineering technologies even as an idea or thinking about them. I share those those basic concerns. But I think, given that we know that even if we stopped putting up greenhouse gases into the atmosphere tomorrow, the impact of what we’ve already set in motion is already going to be happening, regardless of what we do.
We need to consider these technologies, some of which include spraying clouds so that they will reflect sunlight away from the planet. Others involve technology that would actually remove some of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These things need to be considered even if we’re a little afraid of them, which I am, because they’re going to need to be part of a solution, if they can be proven to be done effectively and without creating a whole host of new problems.
But whether they’re used or not, they certainly should not be used as an excuse to not do the important things that need to be done to actually halt the future emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a given that we should be doing that first and foremost. And then if we can get some help from some technologies to get rid of the CO2 that we’ve already put in the atmosphere, that will be very helpful.
CC: IF YOU HAD TO SUM UP BEING WITH YALE ENVIRONMENT 360, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT LOOKING BACK AND WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED?
RC: Quite truthfully, I think I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve exceeded all our expectations for the site.
And I think that’s true of, it’s certainly true of me and the editors, our initial expectations. Our expectations keep growing each year. But I think that it’s been the first publication that I ever started from scratch, which has been tremendously rewarding. We’ve evolved and increased our coverage and focused on more in-depth projects more and more as the time has gone on.
And I think we’ve become a real voice in the discussion of environmental issues, which is what we set out to do and it’s very gratifying that I think we’re in that position now.
And we want to keep moving forward.
CC: THANK YOU VERY MUCH, ROGER.
RC: Thank you.
Roger Cohn is editor of Yale Environment 360. The online magazine is published by Yale School of the Environment at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.