In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Amy Harder, national energy and climate change reporter at Axios. Harder reflects on her career in environmental journalism, explaining why she has long prioritized climate change in her reporting and how she separates fact-based coverage from climate advocacy. Among the "sleeper issues" that she notes as stories to watch out for in the coming year, Harder says that she's closely monitoring states like New York and California as they independently pursue ambitious environmental agendas outside of federal strictures. She's also tracking the growing tension over climate change policy between the European Union and the United States.
Listen to the Podcast
- Industry response to climate change: “One transition that we’ve seen a lot in the last couple of years is oil and natural gas companies feeling the pressure from investors and activists and politicians to be more up front about the impact their products have on climate change and also potentially evolving their business strategies to exist and make profits in the coming century.” (5:04)
- Unbiased climate coverage in politically polarized times: “It’s my job to tell the world how I see things through a dispassionate perspective. And I think as people become more concerned [about climate change], as companies and lawmakers face more pressure—that requires an even more dispassionate and even-handed journalist.” (15:03)
- The possibility of future climate-fueled trade disputes: “One thing that I’m watching is a potential climate-change-fueled trade war with Europe in particular. The European Union has proposed what amounts to a carbon tariff for goods coming in from other countries that don’t have similar climate change policies. Now, this isn’t likely to go into place for another year or two, but nonetheless, some analysts that I’ve talked to have said that this could be the way Congress feels pressured to do something big on climate change.” (19:58)
Top of the Stack
- RFF's Global Energy Outlook tool
- Wall Street Journal reporter Russell Gold's climate coverage
- "See how global warming has changed since your childhood" by Tim Leslie, Joshua Byrd, and Nathan Head
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. My guest today is Amy Harder, national energy and climate change reporter at Axios where her reporting includes exclusive scoops and analysis of national and global trends. Previously, Amy covered similar issues for the Wall Street Journal and the National Journal and she was also the inaugural journalism fellow for the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute in 2018. Amy has been a longtime friend of RFF and has joined us as a moderator for several of our events, and we followed her work on shale gas development, carbon pricing, and so many of the other topics of interest in today's energy and climate policy conversations.
So I'm very pleased to be here with Amy today to discuss how she thinks about environmental journalism and journalism in general in this day and age. Stay with us. Amy, thank you very much for joining us here on Resources Radio. Something that I actually forgot to mention to you as we were chatting just before getting on the recording is that my cohost, Daniel Raimi, says hi, so hello Amy from Daniel Raimi. That rhymed. And that's, yeah as an illustration of how connected you are to the RFF family, you have joined us several times for events and we're just really pleased to have you here on the podcast today.
Amy Harder: Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me on.
Kristin Hayes: Sure. So I know you spend most of your time actually asking the questions and I hope that it's a nice change of pace to sort of be on the other side of the microphone. But I wanted to start by asking a bit about your background, and so can you tell our listeners just a little bit about your path to journalism, and maybe to energy and climate journalism in particular?
Amy Harder: Yeah, definitely. So I would say my path to journalism is very much thought out and planned, and my path to energy and environmental journalism in particular was a little bit of a happy accident. So I had always wanted to be a writer and a journalist, so that's what I got a degree in, in college, just a bachelor's of arts in journalism and I have no other formal education, but I like to think that journalism is itself an education. I just get paid for it, which is amazing. And so yeah, I moved out here right after college. I'm originally from Washington State. And I had initial plans to be a legal journalist—so I would go to law school and then go back to writing. Of course upon further reflection, that was a really poor decision considering law school is very expensive and journalism isn't exactly known to bring in the bucks.
So when I abandoned that plan, my editor at the time where I was at, which is National Journal, a DC-based policy publication, he said that they needed help with their energy and environmental coverage. And really the rest is history. I just fell in love with the topic. I love how it can change so much in a relatively short period of time, and also that it's so big. I mean I can cover the energy mix of Australia, or oil exports leaving the US, or climate change in Alaska. There's just so much going on that I never get bored even though I've been on the same beat more or less for more than a decade now.
Kristin Hayes: That actually leads me to one of my first questions for you. As someone who's not trained in journalism, but who also loves asking questions, I want to kind of selfishly ask this one, which is of all those possible topics and angles within this broad energy and environment and climate space, how do you go about choosing the areas of focus for your stories? Is it some combination of your own interest and then sort of coordination with your editors or what does that process actually look like?
Amy Harder: That's a constantly evolving art as opposed to a science. I would say it depends largely on where I am and what publication I'm working for. So over my career, I've so far worked at National Journal as I mentioned, and then the Wall Street Journal and then now at Axios, and my time at the Wall Street Journal for example, was pretty much focused on whatever the breaking news of the day was. So I could have been standing in line and going into the Flint, Michigan water crisis hearing, or I could have been in the United Nations Climate Conference. And those are two things that I did while I was at the Journal. Now fast forward to my current gig, I have a lot of freedom to cover what I want to cover, which is really a real luxury. I think a lot of journalists don't have that type of freedom and so I'm very grateful to Axios for letting me do that.
But of course they give me this freedom because they know that I cover the relevant things. And so what I've been focusing on since I've been at Axios, which was since April, 2017, there's been so much change in the energy and climate change space, and so I've been focusing pretty specifically on the levers of potential change when it comes to big climate policy. For example, one transition we've seen a lot in the last couple of years is oil and natural gas companies feeling the pressure from investors and activists and politicians to be more upfront about the impact their products have on climate change and also potentially evolving their business strategies to exist and make profits in the next coming century.
So that's just one example of the types of thing I cover now. Now I think just as importantly, given I focus on all of these things, there's some that I won't be able to focus on. And I would say one thing that I've covered less here at my job at Axios is, for example, the incredible busy regulatory rollback of this administration. And now that's not because it's not an important story, it is a very important story. But I see other publications like the Washington Post and the New York Times and Bloomberg doing a really great job covering that story.
So I like to provide readers with a value add. I want to write something that nobody else is writing about, because otherwise what am I doing? And so that's sort of the messy mix of how I decide what to cover. But I'll tell you, I mean, it changes every day and I'm constantly—not second guessing myself, but constantly checking with myself to make sure that my current plan is the right plan. And sometimes it changes.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I suppose I never really thought about a journalist's obligation to sort of fit themselves in the journalistic ecosystem too. So it's not just about their individual preferences or even that of their own publication, but it really is, as you said, filling the gaps in knowledge across the range of organizations that are providing news. And that number of organizations keeps getting bigger and bigger as well. So yeah, I can imagine that adds layers of complication to how you think about these issues.
Amy Harder: Exactly. And that's something that frankly, I don't know if other journalists think this as well, but just for me as a human, I don't like to be redundant in whatever I'm doing—because if there's 10 journalists writing on Trump's rollback of Obama's climate regulations, well that's great. You can go read those 10 stories. I'm going to do something a little bit different. And that's one of ... I didn't do that at the Journal because I was working at the Wall Street Journal—it's a paper of record, and as the saying goes in journalism that if it happens, the Journal needs to cover it.
And that was great and I loved it and I got some great scoops while I was there. But I'm evolving as a journalist and I like to do these more sort of original reporting that I think benefits readers hopefully just as much as it benefits myself and Axios.
Kristin Hayes: Well, something that occurred to me as I was thinking about questions to ask you is that it's an interesting season in which to be a journalist in the US. I feel like the journalism profession is getting more attention than it has in previous years. Not always in positive ways either. And so you have this combination of sort of a visible profession, and then a series of visible issues that can really inflame passions on all sides. So how do you see your role as a journalist in this pretty polarized information ecosystem that we're living in right now? Do you... At RFF, here we think a lot about how we bring balance and rigor to these hot button issues. And I imagine you kind of have to deal with some of those same positionings around balance and rigor. Can you say anything about that?
Amy Harder: Yeah, this is something that I think about constantly, and I try not to shy away from it because I think it's critically important that even as climate change and especially as climate change becomes a more pressing concern, and the impacts of it become more apparent and deadly around the world that journalists all the more need to provide a sense of balance and impartiality to this debate. And I want to be clear here that, that does not mean giving airtime to so-called experts who deny the basic consensus that human activity is the primary cause of Earth's temperature rise over the last century. And we don't, I've done plenty of stories documenting who these people are, but I don't provide them an outlet to say false information about climate change.
But once we put that aside, there is an incredibly intense debate happening about how to go about addressing climate change and how aggressive their response should be. And so I take it upon myself to both cover the expected immense impacts of a warming world. At the same time, I also want to cover the sometimes negative impacts of actual climate policies such as higher energy prices. And I think that's something that isn't getting as much coverage. And so that's why I hope throughout this year and coming is that I do more of that because I think going back to what I said about me wanting to provide, fill a void that might be in the journalism space. I think there's a void for really critical coverage of policies to address climate change.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, and I wanted to dig just a little bit deeper into that coverage of climate change because you have been writing about the topic for a number of years, and I imagine just as the policy dialogue and the political dialogue around climate change has evolved, that your coverage of it has evolved as well. And so, how would you say that your coverage of climate change has changed in the time that you've been writing about it? Are there parts of the discussion that you focus on more? Are there constituencies that have become an important part of the conversation in a way they weren't five years ago? Any thoughts on that?
Amy Harder: Yeah, it has changed significantly over certainly the last decade, and even more starkly since Trump went into the White House. Of course Trump winning has had a big impact on that. But that's not the only driver. I think a president who rejects this mainstream scientific consensus really sort of stirred up the dirt that had been settled for a while, and it continues to be the media's responsibility to highlight when he's wrong, and to highlight the people he's getting information from—but also highlight the potential lack of feasibility of, for example, the Green New Deal. So, that's one way I would say in the last couple of years, climate has just catapulted itself to not the top issue in America and around the world, but certainly something that... It's become a common comment to make on for example, like the late night shows, when I stay up late enough to see those shows, I see that climate change is just becoming something people talk about.
And we didn't see that a couple of years ago. When I was at National Journal, I did a series of reporting around the country about how the oil and natural gas boom was affecting different states. And Daniel and I, I interviewed him for his new book on fracking. And when we had that conversation, I remember that the times I spent in North Dakota and Colorado and now fast forward six, seven years, I'm wanting to do a similar trip but focused on the climate policies of states like New Mexico and obviously California. And so it's been really fun as a reporter to be able to kind of move in my coverage along with the issue as it develops.
Kristin Hayes: And do you find that the sort of, the pace of change in the conversation around climate change has made it hard to keep up as a journalist? Or is it in general, as you said, just kind of exciting, right? To sort of stay on top of things and really try to follow the conversation as it unfolds?
Amy Harder: I think it's exciting. I remember when I left the Journal, I had a colleague there who told me that I should be focusing on energy, don't focus on climate change so much. And that person recently said that I was right and he was wrong. And so I would like to think that I've been ahead of the curve on this story, and I've also had a lot of, not recently, but a couple of years ago I had people in the oil and gas industry saying, "Gosh, you're covering climate change so much. It seems a little odd." But now it's like everybody is talking about it, whether they want to or not. Now I will say that the oil and gas industry is watching everything very closely, and it's a conversation and a debate that's happening. So whether you want it to or not and so that's why I'm excited about it.
There is one interesting or sort of potentially worrisome trend that I want to make sure that I don't fall into and I don't think I am, although sometimes I get criticism for that. I think it's very important that no matter how much more I cover climate change, that people don't perceive me as an advocate for anything other than advocating for the facts of this consensus around climate change and human activity. For example, people don't expect crime reporters to be vigilantes. So just in the same way, people shouldn't expect me to be a climate advocate.
I did a column recently with the headline, “Climate change is getting too big and divisive to solve,” and it was a relatively [pessimistic] column about this state of affairs and the potential for big change. And somebody on Twitter said, "Climate reporter throws in the towel." To which I responded only in my head, it's not my job to throw the towel, let alone hold it. It's my job to tell the world how I see things through a dispassionate perspective. And I think as people become more concerned, as companies and lawmakers face more pressure, that requires an even more dispassionate and even-handed journalist. And I know there's lots of people out there, including in journalism, that won't agree with that. But nonetheless, that's where I come down.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, that's really interesting. And I think that speaks to all of our desire to maintain some level of optimism on a subject that can seem as overwhelming and as intractable as climate change. I mean, it really has ... It grows more intractable by the moment in terms of sort of the pace of change that we need to undertake. But I'm totally with you. I think we at RFF don't ... We're in a similar boat of not wanting to sugarcoat things that can't be sugarcoated, and wanting to sort of stick to the mission of just providing honest commentary on the challenges that face us, even though that's not as uplifting, it's an important part of the information that needs to be contributed towards solutions too, is an honest baseline of where we are and the challenges we're facing. So it's interesting to hear you say that, and I think that really resonates with the research community as well.
Amy Harder: Yeah, that's great. And I think especially as Republicans kind of—as I said in another recent column—come back in from the cold, no pun intended, they're beginning to engage on this issue again after more than a decade of either ignoring it or dismissing it. I think as Republicans and conservative groups begin to suggest and devise policies and write research papers on the topic, I think I’ll have to be even more careful about how I analyze things and make sure that a certain proposal isn't just another talking point, and that's great. That's why I love what I do. It's certainly never ever, ever boring.
Kristin Hayes: Well that is fantastic. and I'm just thinking back to earlier when you were saying too that there were points where people were kind of asking you why so much focus on climate, and you felt like you were in the end very much justified and sort of ahead of the curve. And I think we definitely consider journalists among the people who we look to for those sort of cutting-edge, ahead of the curve ideas. Because you're doing so much listening and so much information gathering, and we often involve journalists as moderators or even panelists for our events because you, again, you're sort of on that leading edge of ideas.
And so I wanted to ask if you could share some of that wisdom that hopefully I can ask you to share. So what do you think are the environmental stories to watch in 2020? Do you envision that there'll be deeper dives on things that have been bubbling for a long time, like US climate policy? Or are there maybe any quote unquote “sleeper issues” that you think can or should get more attention?
Amy Harder: Well, I would say the top issue that I think all of us are watching whether we want to or not is the election, and we're already seeing climate change penetrate that debate in a way that we frankly have never seen before. So that's something that I'm keeping an eye on. Again, it's not something that's my top tier focus at this point in time because so many other publications are doing a great job of that, and I will get to it when we get a little closer to November, but politics is actually not my favorite topic despite the fact that I've had my career in Washington, DC for the past 12 years. So that's obviously something I'm watching. The implications for this election, the implications for climate change of this election cannot be overstated.
However, I would say that follows for every policy, right? I mean, Trump has upended everything that Obama did, so it follows that no matter what Democrat gets into the White House, if a Democrat wins, it'll be the same. The pendulum of Washington policy will swing back to the left no matter who it is. So that's the main thing I'm watching. But some of the things that I have to say interest me more than that, something I mentioned earlier about the states who are pursuing aggressive climate policies in the last few years, we've seen a big trend there. New York, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, so all of those states, and I'm sure I'm missing some, I think.
I think it'll be interesting to see how they achieve what they achieve and what challenges that they'll face, because inevitably they will face challenges, and so I want to be able to document all sides of that. Another thing that I think is a potential sleeper issue is, we hear a lot about the war with China, trade war with China I should clarify, not an actual war.
Kristin Hayes: Fortunately just the trade war for now.
Amy Harder: For now, yes. You just never know in this world. So that's obviously getting a lot of the oxygen in the room today, but one thing that I'm watching is a potential climate change fueled trade war with Europe in particular. So Europe, the European Union has proposed what amounts to a carbon tariff for goods coming in from other countries that don't have similar climate change policies. Now, this isn't likely to go into place for another year or two, but nonetheless, some analysts that I've talked to have said that this could be the way Congress feels pressured to do something big on climate change. If Europe hits back with some sort of tariff there.
I think in the current political environment, and if Trump wins again, I think it's more likely that the Trump administration will respond with unrelated tariffs, for example, on wine, which he's already doing. He may just do more of that. I don't anticipate the Trump administration to respond with, "Europe, you want us to do climate policy. Okay, here you go."
Kristin Hayes: Right, it doesn't seem like a lever that would particularly move the current administration very much.
Amy Harder: It would be a messier and less even type of trade war. So that's something that I think is really interesting, and our conversation so far has focused rightly and understandably so, a lot on climate change, and it's obviously humongous and inevitable crossover with energy. I think some of the more straight just energy things I'm looking at, one is of course what happens to oil and natural gas prices, which of course has a huge impact on climate change, but they remain very, very low. And I think that's making it hard for a lot of oil and gas companies to be profitable. And so I think some people are saying that's just due to the low prices. Others are saying, well it's because investors are saying it’s the end of the line for these companies, even if it's not for a century, this is the beginning of the end. That's what some people say, and I'm no analyst on these areas but that's one area that I'm looking to see if these companies rebound and if prices go back up in a reliable manner.
Kristin Hayes: Very interesting. Well, I would welcome ongoing conversation with you too about the issues that you're sort of looking at, I think the states as a learning laboratory, I think we've had a little bit of that experience watching Canada go through this combination of sort of trying to backstop at the federal level, but then also having provinces implement their own climate policies. And so yeah, I do think it'll be really interesting to see, to the extent that that's playing out in the US, what do we learn from those initial experiences where things have actually passed, at least goals have actually been set as opposed to a place like Washington State where ... We've learned a lot of lessons about how to not pass a carbon tax. But this will be interesting to see what happens when you actually set a goal and then let that play out in the legislative process. So I'm with you on that one. I think it's going to be really interesting.
Amy Harder: Definitely. And I hope to make it up to Canada for a reporting trip sometime this year.
Kristin Hayes: Excellent. So I want to change topics just a second, and ask you about your fellowship at the University of Chicago. So just for our listeners, you were the inaugural journalism fellow at the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago, and I have a sneaky suspicion it was pretty fun. So I wondered if you could just say a little bit more about what your responsibilities were there and maybe ask—I imagine that in your interactions with students, they were sort of looking for nuggets of wisdom that you might impart. And I'm wondering if you would be willing to share one of those nuggets of wisdom with our listeners as well.
Amy Harder: Yeah, definitely. So it was an incredible opportunity to be a fellow there, and their inaugural fellow in journalism even more. And so one thing that I really appreciated was getting outside the Beltway and talking to people who aren't just living and breathing on Twitter all day because that's what we do inside DC, we as in journalists. And so I think it's just really important that people see the bigger picture. So not only was I getting out and talking to real people as we call them, but also talking to people who are so incredibly smart in their profession, of course Michael Greenstone, Executive Director of the group of EPIC as we call it, he did economic policy for Obama in his White House, and so it was really great, and I helped moderate and put together events and participated in those, and then also had some sit-downs with students to hear why they're pursuing a certain area of either journalism or energy.
One thing that I really love, that I've sort of accidentally fallen into over the last decade is that I'm being asked to speak both on journalism and on energy. And so it was really great to talk with students who both want to be journalists, but maybe also just somebody in the energy space. And so the one thing that I really tried to emphasize to students or to really anybody who will listen to me is this idea of humility. I think people, especially in DC, but pretty much anybody who thinks they're smart and most of us think we're all smart, is to really be humble in what you know and how you interact with other people. So for me as a journalist, I really try to bite my tongue and really listen to people even if I think I don't agree with them.
And I think that's really important as a student, just as a human, because we're in such a polarizing world now that we all just go into our corners and we don't talk to people who disagree with us. And I think if we were more humble and we just appreciated that people can have different views, then we start a conversation and a learning process from a stronger place. And I know humility, people don't often interpret that as strength, but I actually think it requires a lot of strength to be humble. And so that's something that I emphasized to these students. I also spoke to my mom's church group in Spokane, Washington, and I said the same thing. So that's something that I tried to do and I hope others do it as well.
Kristin Hayes: Well yeah, that's fantastic advice I think and it definitely speaks to maybe your inclination towards journalism, to actually ask as many questions as you're giving answers. So I think that's very telling about you as a journalist and then also just great advice for all of us as human beings. Well Amy, I think we're coming pretty close to our time here. So I think I might close with our regular feature, our Top of the Stack Feature. I was thinking about this last night and trying to imagine the height of the stack that must be on your desk as someone whose job it is to comb through information, consolidate that and then send it back out.
So I personally am imagining that the top of your stack is quite far off the floor, but if you can find it, what would you recommend to our listeners? What good content is at the top of your stack? Maybe it's a book and article, another podcast. What are you consuming these days?
Amy Harder: Yeah, it is a really difficult task to decide what to focus on and what to immediately delete. One of my mantras for my life, but also in particular my job, is a quote by Warren Buffet, which goes, "The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything." Which is just to say I cannot read everything and I cannot stay on top of everything. So I choose the relatively small slice of the world that I focus on. So that being said, I think I'll start with the RFF item that I was really impressed with. You guys did, it was a data-driven tool where it compares different forecasts of energy and emissions and all that from various entities around the world. And I found that, and I still find that incredibly helpful because it's so hard to have to pick through, go to one email and one website and just have them all in one place is incredibly useful.
Kristin Hayes: That is great to know.
Amy Harder: It might not be like my ... It's not my bedside reading material, but it's nonetheless incredibly useful and important for reporters. And then one former colleague of mine, I'll give a shout out, Russell Gold at the Wall Street Journal, he has been there for many years. He's one of their best energy reporters. He's new to the climate beat and recently announced this on Twitter. So I'm definitely not scooping him. And so I've always respected him and he does really great work in this area and across the energy spectrum. So I would recommend folks follow his coverage.
And then lastly, just one article that I came across recently, again, data-driven, which I think is really important for an intangible story like climate change. A recent article in the ABC, the Australia Broadcast [Corporation]. So an article in Australia was showing that the grave impacts that that country is likely to face and is already of course with the bushfires, facing because of climate change. And it showed through just really simple charts, how much harder and greater and more difficult it'll get as inaction continues. And then how much less bad it will be if action is taken. And you can put in the year that you were born and compare yourself to say what a six-year-old would be today.
Anyways, I thought it was a great example of journalism helping to make a difficult issue that can seem far away and intangible more relatable. And so those are three examples of things that I've found really helpful lately.
Kristin Hayes: Well that's fantastic, and thank you for including an RFF piece on your list. I think that was our Global Energy Outlook. And actually another shout out to Daniel Raimi who was one of the contributors to that tool. So it's good to know that the work that goes into the data visualization and things like that really does sort of pay off in terms of making the content that much more accessible and useful for people out there.
Amy Harder: Yeah. Well thank you.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well Amy, this has been great. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us on Resources Radio and I'm sure we will be in touch with you many times over the next years, but again, thanks for joining us and it's a pleasure talking to you.
Amy Harder: Yeah, thank you so much.
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Thanks for tuning in. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants, they do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.