Q&A: Inside Climate News’s Marianne Lavelle on the long road to climate action

Twice each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with different journalists about their experiences on the climate beat and their ideas for pushing our craft forward. This week, we spoke with Marianne Lavelle, who covers politics for Inside Climate News. Lavelle has reported on energy, the environment, and climate change from Washington, DC, for more than two decades, for outlets including National Geographic, the Center for Public Integrity, and US News & World Report. We spoke with Lavelle about the many ups and downs of the climate-politics story and the newly announced Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Follow Lavelle on Twitter.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your experience covering climate in Washington.

I grew up in the coal region of Pennsylvania, which is a beautiful part of the country but also very marred by old strip mines that were never reclaimed. Something you get growing up in that area is: there are people there who’ve been waiting for coal to rebound since before the Great Depression, when coal was at its peak in eastern Pennsylvania. Coal meant good jobs, but of course it had a lot of negative impacts, on the landscape, on people’s health, and in terms of the dangers of working underground—and that was before we knew about the climate impacts. I haven’t lived there for years, but that sense of economic devastation from the loss of coal is still deeply ingrained. I’ve always been very captivated by the idea of, you know, “Is this really the way that our economy has to work?”

My first job in Washington was at a newspaper for lawyers called the National Law Journal. Around 1992, my colleagues and I were hearing from a lot of lawyers about this concept of “environmental justice,” about the poor communities and communities of color that were suffering disproportionately from pollution and fossil fuel production. We did a big investigation on the disparities in how environmental laws were being enforced in white communities versus in communities of color. That got a lot of attention, and it really hooked me on the idea of looking at the environment and later climate in a holistic way, in terms of the effects on people.

I later worked at US News & World Report, covering energy at a time when the George W. Bush administration was being very friendly to the fossil fuels industry—the same time that California was having its electricity crisis. Covering those issues, it was always so obvious that climate change was a big backdrop that we just weren’t paying attention to enough.

I came to Inside Climate News in 2016, right before Trump was elected. We forget, but I can’t emphasize enough how much we were preparing to write about what we thought would be Hillary Clinton’s big climate policy drive. Then, in the space of a few hours on that November night, we realized the coming year was going to look quite different. We had to completely switch our thinking, 180 degrees.

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The climate deal announced last week by senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin, if it does ultimately pass, will be the most substantial piece of climate legislation since scientists first warned Congress about climate change in 1988. For all the time you’ve focused on climate, was it frustrating to cover such long-standing inaction?

The thing about covering what in retrospect looks like inaction is that in the moment there was always actually a lot going on.

Around 2008, for example, I was at the Center for Public Integrity, and I remember so vividly all the lobbyists who were lining up even before Obama even took office to shape and ultimately kill the Waxman-Markey bill [the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed the House in 2009 but was never brought to a vote in the Senate]. We did a project looking at the rapid growth of lobbyists in the climate space; at the time, the number of businesses and interest groups lobbying on climate was more than double the number of people in Congress. Congressional staffers back then were working very hard to address climate change—and the challenge of how to be fair to fossil fuel workers in a transition to clean energy—and I think they experienced the frustration of the failure of that legislation much more than journalists did.

My goal was always to try to engage audiences on these difficult issues that policymakers have been trying to deal with. Even when certain plans don’t come to fruition, the climate problem remains very much alive, and people should know more about it. I’ve always felt that maybe if they did there would be more political will to do something about climate. That’s what really propels my work.

How does it feel with substantive legislation perhaps finally at hand? And what stories does this development put on your radar?

There’s definitely a change in my outlook this week compared to two weeks ago, when we still thought that the reconciliation bill was dead. Now I have a completely different set of stories to tell and challenges that I feel I’m rushing to meet.

I want to write about this legislation in a way that helps readers really understand that this is not just profligate government spending, that it’s an investment with the potential to really pay off. I also want to write about how this legislation is poised to get renewable energy development into coal country, so that people there can realize the benefits of the energy transition and not see it just as a zero-sum game that they’re going to lose. The new legislation is almost tailor made to do that, but there’s a lot of state and local policy designed to prop up fossil fuels that is going to act against that goal. So how is that clash going to play out? Finally, this legislation gives a whole lot to carbon capture technology, which is controversial. With all these technologies, the devil is in the details, so we’re going to be looking at the complexities and nuances there.

 

It was always so obvious that climate change was a big backdrop that we just weren’t paying attention to enough.

There was a lot of dogged journalism over the past year along the way toward this deal, but at times there was also some very fatalistic coverage that suggested or stated categorically that there was no hope for climate action. Are there any lessons for journalists that you’d draw from all the back-and-forth?

My editor Sonya Ross, who joined us last year from the Associated Press, urges us to beware of fatalism. She puts that lesson in the context of the civil rights struggle: when we’re talking about something as fundamental and important as the dignity of human beings—or, in the case of climate change, the future of the planet—we can’t allow ourselves to indulge hopelessness.

Those stories that framed the legislative situation as “all is lost” or “it’s all over, and there’s nothing we can do”—I think that’s not our role as journalists. For one thing, it’s not accurate. If you have your eyes open, you’ll see the stories of people continuing to work on climate solutions and strive for climate action despite all the obstacles. The civil rights movement, which still has not achieved everything that it aims to, wasn’t over with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the climate fight isn’t going to be over, no matter what happens with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. As journalists, we should cover this as a long struggle.

What role do you believe accountability journalism has had in shaping the climate conversation in Washington, including in the lead-up to this deal?

I want to answer that question through one story by the New York Times which really spelled out all of Joe Manchin’s coal interests and the ways in which Manchin relied on government policy to prop up his coal business. What often stops too many good stories in their tracks is this idea that “Oh, we know all about that already” or “That’s an old story.” Everyone knew about Manchin’s coal interests, but still these reporters said it’s worth it to dig up the documents, to parse through the history, and to really tell this story of how Manchin became this big coal guy and how that overlapped with his official duties. And sure enough, everything I read in that story was entirely new. I think that was a tremendous effort and a strong example for journalists.

If you read now about all the senators who’ve been lobbying Manchin in recent months, one thing that struck me was how Chris Coons, of Delaware, was saying to him, “You know, everyone is going to say you’re compromised.” Coons prodded Manchin and he said, “You could show them all wrong by being the person who makes this deal come together.” I don’t think that Coons could have said that with such confidence if the Times had not told that story.

You’re in a unique position in that you specifically cover the politics of climate. Are there tics or bad habits in political coverage around climate that you’d like to see change?

Oh, it’s worse than tics. Too often, the reporters who cover politics are seemingly not able to pose the follow-up questions that are necessary. It can be hard when you’re not totally steeped in the issue at hand. But we have to be challenging the crazy things politicians say about climate and the environment. Trump, for example, said so often, “I’m for crystal-clear water! I’m for clean air!” And no one asked him, “Well, then why are you supporting the industries that destroy our water and pollute the air?” It’s just way too easy for politicians to say their talking point to political reporters and get away with it.

Heading into the midterms this year, the Republicans—specifically House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his colleagues—have come up with this quote-unquote Republican climate plan. Which is really just a “more drilling” plan. And the reason McCarthy did this, I think, is because he knows his members are going to be out campaigning in the coming weeks and months, and quite likely they’ll get a question or two about why they’re not doing anything about climate change. Now they’ll be ready to say, “Well, as a matter of fact, we have this comprehensive plan that we just rolled out, and it looks at every aspect of the energy picture,” and so on and so on. Are political reporters ready to ask how the Republicans’ plan will do anything to address climate change? Are they ready to follow up and hold feet to the fire?

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Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration co-founded by CJR and The Nation, in partnership with The Guardian, strengthening coverage of the climate story. Follow CCNow on Twitter and visit coveringclimatenow.org.