A changing climate for environmental journalists
Why media who speak truth to power are so important as we work to protect the planet
On Friday, as President Donald Trump announced a deal to end the record-long government shutdown, environmental journalists and advocacy group sponsors — including Environment America — gathered at the Wilson Center, just blocks away from the White House, for the 2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment. This annual event from the Wilson Center and the Society of Environmental Journalists featured an interview with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum, followed by a panel of six of the country’s top journalists who cover various environmental issues regularly.
The event strongly reinforced the importance of having journalists, and an informed public, who speak truth to power and hold our government representatives accountable. Nowhere was this more obvious than when Emily Holden, environment reporter for The Guardian, questioned Wehrum, who runs the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.
Having followed this administration’s environmental policies for more than two years, I was hardly surprised to hear Wehrum say that “everyone is still exploring the science of climate change,” and that while climate change is “a priority,” he wasn’t sure if it was a “crisis.” (EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler — Wehrum’s boss — had made similar comments during his recent confirmation hearing.)
Statements calling into question the severity or reality of climate change from this administration’s top officials aren’t surprising. But that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed, taken lightly, or go unchallenged. And they weren’t, thanks to Holden. She pressed Wehrum, noting that he’s already held this office for two years (and I’m paraphrasing): How much longer will you need to explore the climate science before coming to a conclusion? With all this evidence, what more are we waiting for?
Late last year, 13 US government agencies, including the EPA, published a report outlining the myriad climate threats we’re likely to face over the coming decades across the country. That was a month or so after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a similar report, predicting a dire result if the world didn’t get its act together to slash emissions quickly.
It was also impossible to miss the devastation caused by last year’s climate-fueled disasters, such as Hurricanes Florence and Michael, and the Camp Fire in California (as well many other wildfires across the West). And this past Tuesday, the Washington Post published a feature report exploring, in great detail, some of the direct impacts people across the country are currently experiencing related to climate change. The evidence is everywhere.
The interview moved on to other topics, but a similar dynamic played out.
On the Trump administration’s rollbacks of Obama-era climate policies, most notably the Clean Power Plan and Clean Car Standards, Holden asked (again paraphrasing): Why do you and your agency tout carbon emissions reductions, while working to roll back regulations that aim to do just that? Why is reducing emissions important in the first place, if you’re not settled on the science behind climate change?
Long story short, the disconnect between the facts presented by Holden and the evasive answers by one of the most important people tasked with protecting our environment was jarring. I could sense many in the room grow more uncomfortable and restless with each “answer.”
While I don’t have many positive things to say about the policies Wehrum supports, and I strongly disagree with his statement that they are doing “many good things” at EPA, I commend him for showing up to the event. That may seem like a low bar to clear, but he did.
More importantly, I commend Holden, the journalists on the panel and at the reception afterward, and the thousands of other journalists across the country. It is both inspiring and reassuring to know that they’re on the beat, hard at work every day in pursuit of the truth on these topics.
Without them, we’d be far less likely to know the latest attempts to reduce the size of iconic national monuments in Utah; the real-life effects of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks; an effort in California to allow cities and counties to hold oil companies accountable for the impacts of climate change; that the EPA is preparing not to regulate two toxic chemicals; or that the new president of Brazil plans to remove protections for the Amazon rainforest.
It’s also why it’s important that we, as an environmental non-profit organization, show up to events like this to support the work journalists do, and partake in the pursuit of the truth ourselves. That inconvenient truth is the key to winning hearts and minds as we try to protect the planet.