To one extent or another, governments around the world are trying to decide how to recover from the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, and that includes measures that might also minimize the risks of climate change. In the U.S., those discussions are increasingly reflecting acknowledgement of racial and environmental justice.
In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless is joined by Justin Worland, Time magazine’s reporter covering energy, the environment and climate. Justin spoke with Bill as Time is out with a new double issue largely dedicated to climate change.
Justin wrote the cover story headlined “One Last Chance: The Defining Year for the Planet.” He also filed another piece for this edition called “Why the Larger Climate Movement is Finally Embracing the Fight Against Environmental Racism.”
Bill and Justin talk about what makes 2020 so important for addressing climate change. In fact, Justin writes that this year may be the most pivotal yet in the fight against climate change.
In his second piece, Justin recalls a fire at a Philadelphia refinery in 2019 in explaining why environmental racism is getting more attention amid much broader protests over systemic racism in America.
Bill and Justin also touch on coverage of these issues now and in the past, and the challenges the pandemic presents for Justin and other reporters trying to cover events first hand.
Justin joined Time in 2014. He graduated Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Bill Loveless: Hello and welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Bill Loveless. Our guest is Justin Worland, Time Magazine’s reporter covering energy, the environment, and climate. His visit with us comes as Time is out with a new double issue largely dedicated to climate change. Justin wrote the cover story headlined “One Last Chance: The Defining Year for the Planet”. He also filed another piece for this edition called “Why the Larger Climate Movement is Finally Embracing the Fight Against Environmental Racism”. We talk about what makes 2020 so important for addressing climate change as the U.S. and nations around the world consider steps to recover economically from the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, Justin writes that this year may be the most pivotal yet in the fight against climate change. In his second piece, Justin recalls a fire at a Philadelphia refinery in 2019 in explaining why environmental racism is getting more attention amid much broader protest over systemic racism in America. We also touch on coverage of these issues now and in the past, and the challenges the pandemic presents for Justin and other reporters trying to cover events firsthand. Justin joined Time in 2014, he graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor’s degree in History. Well here’s our conversation, I hope you enjoy it. Justin Worland, welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange.
Justin Worland: Thank you so much for having me on.
Bill Loveless: Justin first tell us a little bit about yourself, including what prompted you to become a journalist? And how your career has evolved so far?
Justin Worland: Well, I always joke I – in college I was a history major, but I always joke that I spent more time doing the college newspaper and of course did several internships in college and I just sort of landed right into it. I didn’t start out covering climate, I’ve been doing -- on the climate beat for about five years, but I jumped through a series of other things before I landed here, but it’s been great.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, it is, well history is important right? What’s past is prologue, they say and it serves as a good basis for any reporter regardless of what they’re covering. I should mention too, that you are on the Steering Committee for the Energy Journalism Initiative at the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, a program that -- where we bring 20 journalists in to New York normally. This year we did it online, just to help deepen their understanding of complex issues associated with energy. So, thank you for your assistance on that, it meant a lot to us.
Justin Worland: Well, I’m happy to contribute however I can, it’s a great program.
Bill Loveless: Well, as we speak, Time has just released a new double edition largely devoted to climate change. You wrote the cover story called “One Last Chance: The Defining Year for the Planet”. Tell us about that.
Justin Worland: Yeah, well it’s a — the story really takes our readers into something which I’m sure a lot of your listeners are familiar with, but just this idea that in 2020 in response to this pandemic, the world is spending trillions of dollars to recover, potentially trillions of dollars more to stimulate the economy and how we spend that money can lock us into a variety of different emissions trajectories. We can either lock ourselves into the way we’ve been going or into a greener future. And so the story, that’s sort of the central premise of the story and of course it also delves into a variety of different disruptions this year, from the disruption in the oil industry to the disruption in our way of life and looking at how our decisions about how to respond to these disruptions really are going to shape our future.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, you’re right there that in the future we may look back at 2020 as the year we decided to keep driving off the cliff or to take the last exit.
Justin Worland: Yeah, I mean it’s – when you look at the numbers the planet has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution and if -- we don’t quite know when we’ll hit some of these tipping points that are dangerously close, but somewhere after 1.5 or around 2 maybe. So, we’re very close and if we accept the basic sort of economic and efficient principles that we rely on, we don’t rebuild infrastructure, we don’t rebuild infrastructure that hasn’t seen its useful life yet. So, what we build today is going to be around for decades to come and it will take us over that 1.5, 2 degree perhaps, even higher cliff.
Bill Loveless: And when you talk about what we build today, a lot of the thought is what is – what might be spent on stimulus spending to respond to the pandemic, not only in the United States, but around the world, you write about that, you write about the international energy agency having called for one trillion dollars a year in clean energy spending over three years, that’s a rather small portion of the spending that being done by governments in response to the pandemic and talk quite a bit or you write quite a bit about what’s happening in the European Union.
Justin Worland: That’s right. I mean, first I think it’s important as you say one trillion dollars, I mean to the average person that sounds like a lot of money, but in the scheme of how we’re responding to this global pandemic, I mean, as I said, it’s been a few months and the – we’ve spent 11 trillion dollars right so, one trillion dollars for three years, it’s not that much, but it goes a long, long way. And, yeah to your point, the European Union – excuse me, European Union really is leading the charge.
I mean there is a lot of internal debate, there is a lot of questions about the shape of what their policy will look like, but even before the pandemic, they had a Green Deal which was a trillion Euro spending program, which they’ve now translated into a green recovery program which will provide hundreds of billions of dollars directed towards a lot of clean initiatives, which will transform in many ways, from electric vehicles being placed on roads to transition funds for coal workers, it will change the face of day to day life.
Bill Loveless: And all of this is taking place in a rather compressed time table, right? These are issues that have been on the table for sometime in terms of clean energy spending. 2020, again as you report, had already been a key year with nations due to report under Paris Agreement on their plans for emissions reductions, but suddenly we’re looking at a lot that needs to be done or certainly could be done in a relatively short period of time.
Justin Worland: That’s right, I mean when you think about infrastructure investment, it does take place over time, it’s gradual to some degree and so, the plans that we thought we would see this year from countries were plans to invest in infrastructure over the course of a decade. Now a lot – countries are pulling those forward, they’re pulling forward their investment, their infrastructural investment to happen this year. And so the decision about what kind of investment that’s going to be is happening now rather than over the course of all of these years. And so that’s what makes this period, this year or maybe some of next year or so pivotal.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, and what’s, you write as well, about what’s happening in the United States in terms of consideration over stimulus spending, not as much is happening here as is happening say in the European Union.
Justin Worland: Yeah, that’s, I mean that’s definitely right. There is talk from Republicans about infrastructure stimulus which, to my point earlier, if you have infrastructure stimulus now that doesn’t focus on climate, we’re going to lock in things that are probably not so great for reducing emissions. Of course, Joe Biden, he’s out today with a proposal to spend three hundred billion dollars on clean energy R&D indeed just as – or I should say its future technologies including clean energy. And, as somebody who over saw the 2009 stimulus which was the largest clean energy investment in U.S. history and has helped catapult Tesla to be now the most valuable automaker in the world. One would think that he would understand the stakes of stimulus and that he would have a green lens when looking at it and I think he’s already talking about it in those terms.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, and we had earlier in our podcast, our most recent podcast, we had Congresswoman Kathy Castor, the Chairman of the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, talking about the -- a very detailed plan that her panel has -- Democrats in her panel have released for Congressional action that would work in conjunction with what Biden would do if he’s elected President.
Justin Worland: Yeah, absolutely I – it’s hard to imagine, in a world where we need to stimulate the economy that there wouldn’t be a green focus if Democrats are in charge of Washington.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. Interested in what you see is public understanding of this, I mean you make for a very convincing case in your reporting in the magazine here on the – this pivotal moment and the potential for action by governments around the world, but public understanding of these issues is also important, if you’re going to have public support that drives these policies and these initiatives. Do you think there is that public understanding of this?
Justin Worland: It’s a good question, I mean I think of course public understanding is not where it needs to be, but my sense of it, and I think this is supported by polls and it’s supported by my reporting out in the fields pre pandemic, is that people are really concerned about climate change in a way that it’s not yet reflected or until recently has not been reflected in Washington. It’s something that a lot of people see in their daily lives, I mean I did a story last year out in Iowa, talking to farmers whose lands, whose farms are flooded, talking to I mean cities on rivers that are constantly flooding in Iowa. I mean you can go anywhere really in this country and it’s hard to find people who find a place that hasn’t in some way that affected by this
So, I don’t think that people necessarily understand, 1.5, 2 degrees et cetera. These are all numbers, but I think they could see in their daily lives, what climate change is doing.
Bill Loveless: Well in the same issue of Time, you have another story and this one is headlined, “Why the Larger Climate Movement is Finally Embracing the Fight Against Environmental Racism,” tell us about that story.
Justin Worland: Yeah, so this is a story, interestingly enough, that I had been thinking about for some time, I noticed pre pandemic, I noticed the changing conversation around race in the climate movement and around environmental justice in the climate movement. And excuse me, and interestingly, this moment with Black Lives Matter protests with the concerns about systemic racism has brought these conversations to the fore, but the story really looks at why main, why the main national climate groups are embracing environmental justice activists and it goes back to tell the story of 2009 cap and trade.
Cap and trade largely fell because there wasn’t a coalition, a grassroots coalition, supporting it, and how the main primary climate groups have gone back and tried to engage environmental justice activist to build this coalition. And so that’s the story, and of course this moment, I mean it was a good bet given that Black Lives Matter systemic racism are now top of the conversation.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, and you key on a fire in 2019 at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions, that’s the largest refinery, it was the largest refinery on the U.S. east coast, it dates back to the 19th century.
Justin Worland: Yeah, absolutely, I mean it’s, that fire, well I should say, that refinery was responsible for more than 50% of the air toxins in the City of Philadelphia. And I went to Philadelphia to attend a focus group of Philadelphia black voters in Philadelphia and it was amazing. Many of them were not interested in climate change on the face, on its face, but when you started asking about pollution, you started asking about that refinery specifically and everybody had experience, they had an opinion. It’s interesting that that is a good way to engage people on the issue, even if they’re not necessarily thinking about as I said earlier 1.5, two degrees CO2 et cetera.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. But I mean these concerns have been apparent for some time well maybe not so apparent, but they’ve been there for some time in minority communities. You write that quote long before the phrase I can’t breathe became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter, activists protesting deaths of black people in hands of police, environmental justice activists warned that pollution was choking and killing people of color in the United States.
Justin Worland: Yeah, I mean these issues stretch back decades. I think that the question which, the challenge which thus far has not really been resolved is to get these two movements to work together, right? So, you have these environmental justice activists who are fighting for clean air, clean water et cetera. And you have climate activists who are fighting to reduce emissions and those two things go hand in hand, really they should, because it’s talking about transitioning away from fossil fuels et cetera. But at the same time, they haven’t until this moment really coalesced, they haven’t coalesced work to the same end.
I wasn’t aware of this before researching this piece, but there’s interesting research about how cap and trade actually doesn’t do much to reduce pollution in some of these sort of frontline communities. So if you have a climate movement that’s pushing for a solution that actually doesn’t address the problem that the environmental justice campaigners are concerned about, they’re – how can they work together, how can they actually, achieve a real legislative solution?
Bill Loveless: Yeah, but what I’m still curious about Justin, is what is it, I mean you mentioned that, you’re reporting at Philadelphia, and your attendance with that focus group, but what is that makes you think that they’re finally embracing, that is the climate movement, the larger climate movement is finally embracing the fight against environmental racism?
Justin Worland: Well, I would say from my reporting, it’s talking to environmental justice activist who are very frank, many of them about how they’ve been ignored, how they – in the worlds of Beverly Right and my story how they were throwing bricks at the window of cap and trade, who today say well actually we do feel incorporated. And you could look at, you mentioned earlier the climate crisis report from the Democrats, the Democrats climate crisis report, which incorporates many of the suggestions of environmental justice activists, pretty much exactly as they asked for them. So, you can see those concrete pieces of evidence and you can also hear the changing tone from environmental justice activists who finally feel incorporated.
And finally, some of the national environmental groups who are saying straight up, we didn’t do a good job, we’re sorry about that and we’re going to do better. So, I think the evidence is there, I think the question of course would be, when push comes to shove and decisions are being made in the legislative process, do these concerns, are these concerns reflected in the final whatever final legislation we might have.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, I found, one of the – many things I found interesting in these stories and especially in that latter story was when you wrote about cap and trade back in the bill that passed the House of Representatives in 2009, deals were struck naturally between energy companies and environmentalist and others, and in the process, people were left behind, I mean I think this is what you were getting at before that many of the people in the communities where these refineries and other industrial energy facilities were located, really didn’t see their concerns addressed, those plants would continue to operate and benefit from a cap and trade program, with little or no attention being given to it.
Perhaps that’s sort of the thing that needs to be given more thought now as they look for a mechanism for carbon pricing, that’s something the House Democrats in that committee said it’s necessary, but even Chair Castor acknowledged to us that they don’t, haven’t figured out exactly the right way of doing that yet.
Justin Worland: Well, that’s absolutely right, you said that much better than I did and but at the same time, it’s interesting like what, I think that one of the big challenges for environmental justice activists still is carbon pricing and, you look at a place like California with AB32, they did, they do have a mechanism where they send funds back to environmental justice communities and I went out to California last year and saw the Tesla’s that are transporting people in some of these frontline communities to their jobs et cetera. But as the research has shown that pollution is still a problem, so, I think that is going to be one of the big challenges, how can they find a carbon pricing mechanism that meets these environmental justice concerns.
Bill Loveless: As you go about this work, your – as we learn, our perceptions of things change or the way we do our work certainly changes, this is an important issue for us to be covering and I would think too, you as an African American and the journalist, are particularly interested in the sort of reporting this is getting these days, have these recent events concerning racial issues in the U.S. influenced your reporting on energy and the environment?
Justin Worland: Yeah, definitely I would say, for years really, whenever a question would come up to me, in a panel or in a discussion like this, what issue is undercovered? I would say environmental justice and, that, as far as the reason, I’ll take some of the blame for that, I didn’t do a good enough job covering it, I think what this has really done though is open the door for those kinds of stories. It’s given reporters an opportunity to get them off the ground in a way that I think frankly it was just much more difficult to do a year ago. I also think it’s important to challenge ourselves, to challenge myself to tell the environmental justice angle to any given story, because as we all know, as a reporter lot of things end of on the cutting room floor, you can’t tell every element of it.
And I know in many stories that I have written, I felt bad, but moved on when I’ve had to cut the environmental justice angle out of a really complicated story. And so I think this moment also is a reminder to challenge myself and for other reporters to challenge ourselves, to make sure we incorporate that.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, I know the press is often accused to be in reactive rather than proactive. In a recent column in the Philadelphia Inquirer Mark Hertsgaard who is the Executive Director of the Covering Climate Now campaign and Kyle Pope the Editor and Publisher of Columbia Journalism Review wrote, quote “There’s a pattern here, the press waits for news to happen when in fact we shouldn’t need another black person to be shot to start reporting on racism and the police force, nor should we need yet another category Five Hurricane to flatten yet another community, before we sound the alarm that the planet is on the brink of climate collapse”.
Justin Worland: Well that’s a great line, and I think it’s interesting because I found parallels between reporting on climate and reporting on some of these racial justice issues, namely that there’s sort of a truth to be told, that is not necessarily universally understood or universally recognized and doesn’t really fit the pattern or the model of “balanced journalism” where you quote one person who believes one thing and one person who believes another. So, we need to be talking about these issues in the long term, we need to be telling the truth regardless of whether, that’s upsetting to some people.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. No, I think you make a good point there and it’s, one that a lot of your colleagues in the press, in the energy press, including the energy press will be considering going forward. I find interesting too these parallels we can draw between our experience with the pandemic today and our experience of a climate change. A pandemic obliviously it’s here, it’s very apparent, we’re wearing masks, we’re watching with alarm the news on the increasing rates of infection and, reports about deaths, folks with this disease. Climate change is a little different, we don’t necessarily feel the effect so far, but from your reporting do you feel as though we can draw some sort of connection between, sort of the human response to what we’re suffering through now and the one that we’re very gradually suffering through?
Justin Worland: Yeah, well I write about this a bit in my story, climate change is in some ways very much like the coronavirus pandemic just drawn out over a much longer period of time, and I think the parallel I draw in the story is, you think about where we were in the U.S. in January when we watched Wuhan being locked down, you think about hearing the stories about hospitals overflowing in Milan in February, and then all of a sudden it’s here, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that if it would jump from China to India to Iran, that eventually it would end up on our choice, and similarly, we can look now to Siberia, where they’re experiencing a hundred degree Fahrenheit weather or go down, last year, I went out to the Pacific Islands, I went out to Fiji and looked it out –
Bill Loveless: That was an amazing, I have to tell you, that was an amazing story.
Justin Worland: Thank you, it was certainly an interesting experience, and it was interesting in large part because climate change is already defining everything about what they do. It defines if your school is flooded you can’t learn, if your crops are flooded you can’t sell that product, et cetera. And it’s not hard just like it’s not hard to think about Wuhan in January, it’s not hard to look at Fiji and say that’s the U.S. and, 10, 20 years if we don’t tackle the issue, it’s just that the coronavirus pandemic unfolded over matter of months, and climate change is for unfolding over decades.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. Do you think this will shape up, we’re in an election year, you mentioned Biden, does it shape up as much of an issue that is climate change as well as these other environmental justice issues? Does it shape up as much of an issue for voters in the United States election this year?
Justin Worland: I think it would be hard to imagine a world in which the pandemic and the economic fallout are not primary on people’s minds, not to mention, quite frankly the – just the President’s, it’s a referendum on the President. Having said that, I think there are few important ways in which climate will factor into the election one is as a bridge issue to progressives. I mean Biden is tacking to the center, right now, but I think climate is an area where he’s trying to build a bridge with progressives and say hey, I see what you – what your concerns are and I’m trying to meet them. And then I think of course how does climate play into economic recovery as we talked about earlier, but of course is a focal point of the campaign and of the election.
Bill Loveless: Among the politicians, Chair Castor told us the other day that she thinks there’s a consensus forming among Democrats, including the far left wing of the party as well as the moderates over this issue, that has put another way those perhaps who are the most outspoken advocates of the Green New Deal, and those who typically have taken a more moderate course, I mean from your reporting, do you see that as well?
Justin Worland: Yeah, I think that’s right, I mean you can just see, but I also think it’s important to note that where – where we are yesterday, the Biden-Sanders Unity Taskforce came out with recommendations for a 100% clean power by 2035, like we, if that’s the position, the moderate position that everybody is coalescing around, it’s hard to really, like the progressives have won, in some ways, right. So, yeah, I think that’s right, and I think it’s worth saying that the position that they’re coalescing around is quite aggressive.
Bill Loveless: You know, we mentioned the Energy Journalism Initiative before and I'm always interested having spent many, many years covering energy myself in what is that we – that journalist generally, energy journalist, environmental journalist really need to know more about to deepen our understanding of these issues right now, because I think before I mentioned the comment that the press is often reactive rather than proactive and I certainly was as guilty of this as any other energy or any other journalist. But if I was on the beat today I would be asking myself what do I – where am I lacking, what do I need to learn more about, as much as I may know, as much as you may know, what is it that energy journalists need to know more about, have a better understanding of, to cover these issues effectively.
Justin Worland: Well, I think it’s an interesting – differs for everyone. I think one of the really interesting challenges that also one of my favorite parts of my job is that I get to hop around so I don’t report on the power sector or oil and gas or climate science. I have to dip my toes in all of these different things. And I think like many things, energy journalism can be very siloed. Somebody who reports on the power sector may not know that much about oil and gas or, and may not know that much about climate science. And so I think we have to challenge ourselves to breakdown those silos and I would go a step further. I write a newsletter that connects the news whatever is in the news to climate change, right. So, it’s trying to be a little thought-provoking, it tries to push the envelope a little bit, but I think we have to get out of our silos because if you just read what's going on, if you just follow what's going on in one sector within this bigger world you might miss some of those connections.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. We are seeing, and getting back to what's been happening so far this year, we do see indications about how people, cities, governments are responding to what's happened with the pandemic. You write that for example in cities, there are cities now where there are pedestrian walls where once there was a lot of traffic and they’re doing this so people could gather in public space relatively safely or you are saying we have seen a – they are reckoning for many oil companies going forward. Talk to us a little bit about that. I mean some, what those little glimpses that may be illustrative of the potential for change.
Justin Worland: Yeah, I mean, there is a whole range of things and you bring up two key examples, I would say our lifestyle changes working from home, doing the Zoom panels when we might once have flown yeah you know for a one-hour conversation. And the question now is just of course do we try to get back to quote-unquote normal as quickly as possible or do we take the time to embed some of these changes? I mean I think talking about cities is a perfect example, it brings together the infrastructure a bit, we have to rebuild roads.
Are we going to rebuild roads that have a pedestrian walkway and a bike lane or are we going to rebuild roads that are for four cars across? We have one shot; we are not going to rebuild the road every year for the next decade. There are similar sort of big picture questions, office space, like do you return to the office, do you sign another ten year lease? These are all decisions that we’re making now that could make a big difference.
Bill Loveless: Well, are these changes making any more difficult your work as a reporter on this beat for example maybe you don’t or can’t jump on a plane for an hour to get some place, to see something and talk to somebody.
Justin Worland: Totally. I mean, I think it’s really difficult, I mean, one of the things I love about my job is being able to see things up close, being able to tell stories of people on the ground and, I mean, when I'm trying to write colors say in this cover story, I have to rely on a readout of a White House meeting or color from video speeches, it’s very challenging. And I am glad not to be flying as much, but at the same time I do look forward to being able to see people in person and see what's happening on the ground.
Bill Loveless: Well, Justin thanks for these articles you’ve written and I would certainly urge folks to take a look at this latest issue of Time magazine with this story by you and not only by you but by others, a number of your colleagues there as well as a rather fabulous -- could you tell us a bit about the cover, the cover is absolutely beautiful, I have to say.
Justin Worland: Well, yeah, the cover image is really incredible, it is an illustration of trend lines, emissions trend – the emissions trend line, the renewable energy capacity trend line, Arctic Sea Ice trend lines and all composed into one just really incredible image that you just kind of have to see to understand. It’s intended to look like nature I should say.
Bill Loveless: Yeah.
Justin Worland: It’s really incredible.
Bill Loveless: Yeah beautiful piece of art by a young woman who is, as I recall is not only an artist but a scientist –
Justin Worland: Right, that’s right.
Bill Loveless: Well, Justin, thanks again for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.
Justin Worland: Well, thanks so much for having me.
Bill Loveless: For more on the Center on Global Energy Policy and Columbia Energy Exchange go to our web page at energypolicy.columbia.edu or find us on social media @ColumbiaUEnergy. And if you have a minute give us a rating on your favorite podcast platform. It helps us grow. For Columbia Energy Exchange I'm Bill Loveless, we’ll be back again next week with another conversation.