Event Recap

On April 10, University of Chicago students joined TIME climate reporter and EPIC Journalism Fellow Justin Worland for a conversation on the most important stories in climate and energy policy, and what it takes to cover some of the country’s most complicated and controversial topics.

Worland kicked off the discussion by explaining his professional background and how he got started in his career reporting on climate. He explained how his approach to the climate beat has evolved over time, from writing more science and policy-oriented stories in the lead up to the Paris Agreement, energy and environmental policy once he moved to Washington DC during the shale boom, and environmental justice issues as they became more popular in public discourse. Now, he tries to find connections that some reporters tend to miss. For example, in TIME’s newsletter ‘Climate Is Everything,’ Worland and colleagues focus on topics that aren’t apart of the typical climate narrative, such as how climate shapes the finance and business world.

Worland went on to talk about the state of climate journalism and how rapidly the field has changed. “When I first started my career in journalism, if you were a climate reporter, you were pretty siloed to write about climate science or activism. Policy reporters wrote about anything coming out of the EPA. But more recently, this has broken down, which is really encouraging. There is a constant debate to what degree climate should be a separate desk or integrated in the newsroom with other sectors and industries.”

“Another thing that has changed since I started is the change in how journalists find balance when reporting on climate change — namely moving away from quoting voices that deny the science. There is no legitimate debate as to whether climate change is happening – so moving away from that false balance has been a big trend,” said Worland.

Worland then opened up the floor to questions from University of Chicago students.

Q: How have you seen businesses change due to climate issues over the past few decades?

A: I think you have to look at this sector by sector, and in some cases company by company. Ten years ago, in the energy sector, for example, a lot of the rhetoric was anti-climate, or supportive of climate issues generally but not committing to working on them. There is a lot of nuance to this, though. If you are looking at a macro picture – there is more awareness across industries today, and that’s one thing that has changed. There was a wave of enthusiasm in 2020 to make commitments such as net zero – and then after COVID, companies have been trying to look at how to actually do it, realizing this commitment is much harder than they thought it would be. Broadly speaking, businesses realize that they have to put on a good face to satisfy employees and for their public image. To what degree do they need to do climate-related activities to attract capital? There is a good debate here about how serious ESG is.

Q: Do climate journalists work ever to influence a specific industry? Is your work meant for people working in the industry?

A: We have a separate newsletter meant for people in the private sector broadly. If you ask the average person in finance what blended finance means, they have no idea – the idea is that this newsletter can help introduce them to conversations happening in climate in an accessible way. Sometimes news pieces talk about topics such as blended finance as if the reader already knows. I wouldn’t say as a non-opinion journalist that I am trying to influence a particular outcome, but I am trying to provide information that would help inform a decision.

Q: Do you think the diversity of climate journalism is showing better public understanding of climate issues? Is there an audience beyond the extreme viewpoints?

A: It’s interesting to look at data on how people view these questions. If you asked a focus group on climate, a lot of people do not know much about climate. News outlets that reach audiences, particularly conservative ones, that aren’t already following climate issues might be able to help change the dynamic. The solutions to climate change require policies and actions that can be particularly challenging, with views being so fragmented/polarized because solutions typically requiring some degree of government intervention. It would be great if a more diverse set of outlets were covering this.

Q: For the upcoming presidential election, a lot of people aren’t aware of what the IRA has done. What could the government have done better in terms of their messaging and what role do journalists have in disseminating this information?

A: Write about it, explain what it does, and why it matters. What could they have done better? Naming it something different. The administration has made a choice to not lean into the name of the IRA even as it tries to sell the law’s accomplishments.

Some of the messaging challenge is out of their hands – these aren’t the stories that are most interesting to journalists or the ones that take fire on social media. Every few months the cabinet secretaries talk about what is happening, but it doesn’t really register in the national dialogue. But I don’t really know if that’s their fault.

Q: Have you ever discussed rebranding climate journalism so there is not a stigma to talk about climate change?

A: There is a move in some messaging to not talk about climate change, but to instead talk about the issue that actually impacts people, like drought for example. In my writing, I think about when it does make sense to call something climate change, or when to use different language.

Q: How do you decide what’s most important to write about?

A: To some degree, I write about what I’m interested in. I try to be ahead of the curve with what is most relevant. One of the reasons I’m focused on the private sector is that the knee jerk reaction for people is to think that it is all greenwashing. Some of it is – but there are other really good stories there that people aren’t telling.

Worland rounded out the discussion by posing a question to students: “How do you all get climate news?”

The students replied: podcasts, energy and environment related talks held by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) and the Energy and Climate Club, and articles online.