Mass Extinction, Solar Evangelism, and Stock Portfolios: An Interview with Reporter Scott Thill

By Matthew Wheeland - June 12, 2013

Ever wonder what people who have been reporting on climate change think about it? Scott Thill, long-time writer and rabble-rouser for outlets like WIRED, Salon, Grist, and AlterNet, talked to PURE this week, delivering a wake-up call for even those of us paying attention to what’s happening to our environment. Obviously we here at PURE are big on all things solar, but we’re also very aware of the need for a larger scope when looking at what value we’re adding to the world so Scott’s insights are particularly awesome.

For the record, Scott has been reporting on climate change for more than ten years so he’s got some chops when it comes to what’s what. He also runs the online mag Morphizm, where he covers climate change (of course), economy, politics, and, once in a while, produces amazing pieces of smart pop culture (see this and this). Cool bonus factor: he’s a big fan of the Pixies and David Lynch. Read our interview with him below. 

When did you first start reporting on climate change? What was the first story you did on the topic? How did it come about?

I became interested in the topic during grad school in the 90s, but it became a daily obsession after 9/11. Once I became an official freelance journalist in the early 00s, I started writing and reporting foundational articles on the economic recession, climate refugees (“envirogees”), exponential warming (“exponology”), extreme weather, mass extinction, geoengineering and much more for AlterNet, Salon and my own site Morphizm. But this year I shut down most of the pop and culture coverage I’ve written for Wired and others in favor of mostly enviro and economic research and reporting. We’re in a race against time, and losing.

In your view, how has the conversation changed over time? Has it become more sophisticated? White noise? Too splintered?

It’s become a redundancy that should insult any intelligent person paying attention to the world. Progressives like myself and millions more spent much of the 90s popularizing the science and “reality” of climate change. That disappeared into a haze of hyperconsumption, fuel-burning war and lethal apathy during the Bush/Cheney years. Now we’re back to square one, which is getting past the ridiculous discussions of how “real” global warming might be to actually talking about what the hell we’re doing to about it. But we’re way behind: We should have talked about that years ago, and actually be DOING it now. And we’re not. I would say that discussion has become more sophisticated in that it has grown from an echo chamber of anti-science misinformation to admitting what we’ve known for decades. But I wouldn’t call that progress.

As someone who has written about climate change for a while now, is there anything that rankles you about current media coverage of that topic?

See above. I would add that media coverage of climate change, but really anything, is nowhere near as important as viewer understanding of who owns any given media property. That’s crucial. Once you know who owns the media, which are really only a few multinationals, then you realize that their media coverage of anything reflects their own political and economic interests, which are often the opposite of their viewers. The only silver lining to this is that newer generations, and more and more of the older ones, have dispensed with the usual media “authorities” for those they can trust to tell them the truth. This has synchronously occurred with the rise of digital media, which has made disseminating the truth and science of global warming easier than ever.

There are a lot of subsets to climate change – energy, endangered species, urban impact, and more. Getting into the weeds a bit, where should people be most concerned?

Mass extinction. It is an entirely real possibility, whose probability has increased with each year. Stephen Hawking said, years ago, that he was worried climate change would turn Earth into Venus, a human-free hellscape created by global warming. Our species are dying off like crazy while methane, CO2 and worse are evaporating what ice we have left to keep the Earth cool. We are seriously at risk of annihilating the environment in which we can functionally exist. This is not to say that this is a separate issue from all of the important ones you mentioned. The most important thing any Earthling can do is to realize that all of these issues are inextricably connected, mostly because we are all lucky souls spinning on a statistically improbable paradise in the void of space. Why would we destroy that? Because we are, faster than we can fix it.

Do you think that we’re capable of making the changes we need to make? What obstacles do we need to overcome/beat down?

Of course! We can do anything. But first we have to, especially when it’s hard. But an immediate pullback from consumption, waste and pollution is mandatory. This is not an incremental process. This is an existential crisis. We need to rethink everything we do, as individuals, as communities, as nations, as Earthlings.

I have done this for years now, and you would be surprised, especially if you’re a privileged American, how easy it is to immediately and significantly downsize your carbon footprint. Sierra Club and other Big Greens have realized this by shutting down the lethal coal industry, which has no future. Administrations around the world have realized this by funneling billions into solar and other renewable industries and pulling back subsidies for death-bringers like the fossil fuel and nuclear sectors. Individuals have realized this by driving electric cars, buying less plastic crap that has to burn gas just to get here (before it quickly ends up in a landfill), decrying cattle consumption and factory farming, (two heinous climate change culprits), heavily monitoring water consumption, weatherizing their lives, and much more. That’s barely a start, but we can get there if we live every day looking for ways to make our lives, and therefore the lives of those around us, healthier and greener. It has to be done, so we might as well not cry about it.

What is one thing that companies like ours should do to help the climate change cause?

Educating and evangelizing not just your solar business but the entire solar and renewables sector to the public is beyond crucial. Being confident and proud that you are part of an industry that is looking to make the world a better place. Disseminate any and all information widely and often on new and old media about the gains solar is making in efficiency, production, implementation and innovation. I can’t think of a good reason why any company, but much less a solar one, shouldn’t be aspiring to becoming a zero-waste, zero-carbon, beyond green operation. Every corner of the renewables industry should be rapidly approaching these goals with due speed. Walk the walk.

But given our current economic reality, I would add that it is imperative that the solar sector loudly make its economic case to institutions, families and, well, everyone. Just yesterday, I convinced someone to liquidate a $100,000 retirement portfolio invested in dirty or lame companies, and all I had to do was point to the recently stunning financial performances of First Solar, SunPower, Solar City and many other companies, including the Chinese manufacturers that have pretty much owned the market. Now that person has $100,000 invested in renewables, and will actually make money instead of seeing negative returns over the last five or more years.

Many people have pensions and portfolios invested in stuff they hate, and don’t even know it. If the renewables sector gives them the tools and information to take charge of their portfolios and pensions and immediately divest from the fossil fuel and dirty energy sectors, they will be rewarded with billions in funding and repair of this damage will greatly accelerate. And we’ll all be better off, in the end. Fingers crossed!

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