Perspectives: Environmental

Andrew Revkin is a journalist and author who has been writing about the environment for more than 25 years. In addition to being the senior fellow at the Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, he continues to write his “Dot Earth” blog for The New York Times opinion pages.

What are some of the environmental challenges the Japanese will be facing as they begin to rebuild?

Fears of radioactivity (even if levels end up far below background levels) are likely to have a profound effect for a very long time on everything from agriculture to property values in the northeast of Japan. That’s probably the biggest impact.

Will this disaster have global environmental implications?

The damage to the Fukushima nuclear complex has already greatly blunted prospects for expanded nuclear power generation using established reactor designs in developed countries and perhaps even in China, according to recent news reports. That is the main implication, given that nuclear power was increasingly seen by many experts, and more than a few environmental groups, as a necessity if greenhouse gas emissions are to be limited even as energy appetites rise.

How will this impact what you teach Pace students in the future?

It’s affected what I’m teaching them now. Just this week in the communication course I co-teach with Cara Cea for graduate environmental-science students, we spent a half hour exploring the challenges in communicating scientifically based views of health and environmental issues like radiation risk when fear and dramatic circumstances tend to distort how the press and public handle them. The students watched video of a CNN encounter over radiation risk in the United States between Bernie Rayno, a meteorologist, and Nancy Grace, a lawyer in the anchor chair. Then I had Rayno speak with the class via Skype. It was an eye-opening session!

What do you think is the greatest impact on the United States and the world?

The biggest impact should surely be a prompt examination of preparedness for earthquakes and tsunamis in regions facing similar, if not worse, risk—including the Pacific Northwest, as I’ve repeatedly written. I don’t anticipate a lot of concrete action, though. It seems countries need direct experience with such catastrophes to shift practices. I wish that weren’t so, and this is one reason I’m at Pace to work on boosting students’ “environmental understanding.”

What methods of support, aside from financial, can we lend to Japan?

Japan really doesn’t need our help nearly as much as other countries in poor regions afflicted by disasters—or facing impending ones. Padang, a city of half a million in Indonesia, could easily see nearly half its population die in the inevitable tsunami that is coming there, almost certainly in the next few decades. This post on the “seismic divide” around the world includes sobering details on Padang from Brian Tucker. I encourage readers to have a look.

How far reaching are the effects of this disaster and how might this change Japan’s environmental strategies going forward?

As I said before, the two big issues revealed here are: the deep potential vulnerability of some of the aging fleet of nuclear plants around the world (a different issue than the overall issue of supplying energy with nuclear power in years to come) and the reinforced picture of a world that needs to seriously act to limit losses—both human and economic—from inevitable disasters.

The Indian Point Energy Center is located just 38 miles north of New York City. In addition to being close to the Pace campuses, the Ramapo Fault line is a mere mile from the facilities. If a situation similar to Japan’s were to occur here, how might our experience differ from Japan’s?

I’m in the process of finding out, although there’s no geological evidence at all here of the potential for an earthquake anywhere near the size of the 9.0 shock off the coast of Japan. I’ll be visiting Indian Point within a week. The big issue, to my mind, is not one of engineering, but attitudes. Whether in the BP disaster, the loss of two space shuttles, or the failures at the Fukushima complex, it seems we still have a big challenge in sustaining a culture of vigilance and proactive risk reduction. In a recent post, I included a link to my long 1995 article on efforts to shift the culture at Indian Point. I’ll let you know what I find out.

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