President Trump before leaving the White House on Monday to survey damage from Hurricane Michael. Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
By: Olivia Letts, Reporter
On October 18, 2018, Lisa Friedman, a writer for The New York Times’ climate desk, discussed her passion for reporting on climate change policy in the most recent speaker event hosted by the Energy and Climate Policy Research Seminar series. The series is sponsored by Georgetown’s Mortara Center for International Studies and McCourt School of Public Policy; it features seminars that are held monthly at the Mortara Center. Students, academics, and individuals working in the fields of sustainability and climate change attended in large numbers to hear about Friedman’s experiences in “Covering Climate Change in the Age of Donald Trump”.
Joanna Lewis, who is an associate professor of Science, Technology, and International Affairs at the Walsh School of Foreign Service as well as a co-chair of the seminar series, started the event with a brief introduction and presented the spotlight to Friedman. Friedman began the discussion by highlighting her background in reporting and the journey that led her to report on climate change, something she never could have predicted at the start of her career. She began writing as an intern at the age of 16 for a local New Jersey paper, starting with the obituary section. After graduating from Columbia University, she went on work for various publications including the Las Vegas Review Journal, The Bakersfield Californian, The Oakland Tribune, and The Los Angeles Daily News. For her journalism fellowship with the University of Maryland, where she received her master’s degree, Friedman covered children’s issues in DC. It was a long time before she was exposed to climate change coverage, and she cites the lack of availability of jobs in the field of journalism as the factor that propelled her to start writing for Climatewire, a daily news service within E&E News (Environment & Energy Publishing).
Friedman saw her foray into Climatewire as a temporary path, but it turned into the “richest professional experience” of her career. It was the most fascinating beat she had covered thus far, noting that climate change reporting took place at the intersection of many diverse areas, including energy, environment, migration, and flood security. Through her time at Climatewire, she has reported on climate change-related issues around the world, including its effects on some of the poorest societies. For example, she reported on Haiti’s future in sustainability and its denizens’ difficulties in getting access to energy after being pounded by natural disasters.
In 2017, The New York Times, looking to expand its climate desk, brought Friedman onto the team. She stated that, as part of a “desk” subject, the writers can remain highly focused on certain news topics and cover ongoing narratives, marking an interesting shift for The New York Times by enabling it to cover subjects such as climate change in greater depth. The climate desk produces a newsletter called Climate Fwd: that sends out a roundup of the most recent stories and tips relating to climate change.
Despite having traveled all over the world for her stories, Friedman does the bulk of reporting right here in Washington, DC, where the big policymaking happens. She is a writer for the DC federal policy team at the climate desk, and so gravitates toward tackling climate change’s place in politics – writing the “obituaries on climate policy”, she joked. She focuses especially on the Environmental Protection Agency and wants to address important issues such as why climate change is never a sufficiently-debated topic in elections.
Before the Q&A session, Friedman showed the audience some interactive and visual tools on The New York Times website that her team has put together. On the page, “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?” you can enter your hometown and birth year to get a customized presentation on some of the change that has taken place as the system reveals that there have likely been more days where the temperature hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Entering my hometown, Sarasota, and my birth year, 1995, the piece takes me through an upward-climbing temperature chart, going on to predict the number of 90-degree days by the time I am 80, where there is an estimated number of 110 “very hot” days, a vast difference from the 57 scorchers in the year of my birth. The piece then guides you to a spinnable globe that you can explore to see the projected increase in 90-degree days all around the world.
One of the themes of the questions posed to Friedman was the target readership of her writing on climate change. Given that the readership of The New York Times is typically highly educated and 40% more likely to be politically engaged[i], Friedman wants to keep her writing accessible to everyone, and underscored the importance of The New York Times releasing fun and unconventionally-formatted pieces just like “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?” She also believes that such visual aids make the repercussions of climate change more immediate and real to people, and that individuals from small towns all over the country can add important voices to the dialogue on climate change. Friedman cited an insightful question once asked by her mother, who wondered why people must go all the way to big cities to be a part of political discussions with key players, while that same dialogue is non-existent in smaller cities.
Friedman described climate reporting as having picked up considerable speed once Scott Pruitt became chief of the EPA in February 2017. Pruitt was a principal backer of the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord and was known for rolling back Obama-era reforms and regulations relating to energy and the environment. Friedman believes it was unfortunate that journalists did not bother as much in the past to pick the brains of climate change deniers, because now the skeptics have essentially become “the establishment” and lead key agencies. There have been serious changes in the EPA, where, recently, science advisory boards that helped regulate air pollution standards were scrapped. Such EPA changes, and the failure of the Green Climate Fund, have created a fraught political climate with respect to climate change.
Current American politics are a heated battleground in which it is hard to avoid the “all-consuming” influence of Trump, and articles that bear his name get a higher view count. Yet Friedman emphasized throughout the talk and in her answers to questions that she is first and foremost focused on gathering facts and telling a story. She stated that polls are showing that “minds are changing,” to give hope to those that want to see more change, but perceives her role as relaying information rather than playing the activist.
[i] Bailis, “Publishers with Audience Insights Form Better Content.”