Amy Westervelt on her latest project, and why climate accountability matters
The journalist’s new podcast series, Damages, will explore climate litigation from around the world.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Good morning. The U.N. reports that we have only “a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to kneecap the president’s ability to regulate the emissions driving the climate crisis.
And the fossil fuel industry that got us into this mess is hellbent on exploiting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to promote increased production of oil and gas.
Thankfully, there’s a lot going on in the world of climate accountability, too. Next week, board members of Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and BP are expected to face questions from the U.S. House Oversight Committee about their companies’ lackluster “climate commitments.”
In the meantime, I bring you wise words from the incomparable investigative journalist and podcast creator Amy Westervelt. You might know her from her renowned podcast series, Drilled, which gets into the history behind the oil industry’s deception and denial campaigns, and the many ways they have permeated through our politics and societal ideals. Or from her columns in the Guardian, or from Hot Take, which she co-hosts with climate writer Mary Heglar, or from the ABCs of Big Oil, about which I interviewed co-host Dharna Noor.
Last month, Amy released her newest series, Damages, which tells the stories behind lawsuits across the globe seeking climate accountability through the courts. Amy describes the series as “Law and Order meets the climate crisis,” and so far, it’s as badass as it sounds.
Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
You’ve been reporting on the climate crisis for years, in particular about the industries behind the spread of climate disinformation meant to stall meaningful climate action. What made you decide to dive into the court cases on climate, and why are they important to the story you’re telling?
This podcast is the podcast that I meant to make when I launched Drilled. I felt like the whole Exxon Knew story and all this stuff underpinning the liability cases still hadn't sunk in. I thought, well, there's actually a ton of different court cases and they'll have really interesting stories behind them. The second season of Drilled was about the crabbers’ case. But then I got really distracted by this question that kept popping into my mind: why was climate denial ever even this effective? So I got obsessed with looking into all the stuff that had come before climate denial that sort of set the stage. And that took Drilled in a direction of really digging into the way that the fossil fuel industry has manipulated society on environmental issues across the board for hundreds of years, and how that all plays out — which I'm still super fascinated by.
But I kept thinking about the court cases. And especially as there were more and more of them — the media is just not set up for getting into the stories behind the cases. Something might run when a case gets filed, and maybe again when there's a ruling, but there's nothing behind it. I also felt like the general public has a bunch of assumptions about the law — there's this real tendency to think about law as this sort of objective, almost scientific thing. And in reality, they're just sort of a handful of people's beliefs and ideas that are baked into law. Laws aren’t immutable, they’re not objective in any way. They can be used in lots of different ways and they can change. And when they change, it's indicative of social change.
I also feel like the court cases are kind of the only place where we're seeing a lot of action. So at a time when I think most people feel pretty disappointed by what's happening in the political realm, the court cases are a place where there's still some wins to be had and there's still new stuff coming out. I like a good story, and in most cases you don't wind up in a courtroom without some major drama happening first.
In Season 1 of Drilled, you told the story of the oil industry’s early knowledge and deception about the catastrophic harms their products would cause to the climate. How will that early knowledge and deception play a role in this new season?
It will play a big role. In most other countries, the legal complaints are against the government. And it's only really in the U.S. that you see the majority of the cases being filed against particular companies, but that's starting to shift. There's a really interesting case — this Peruvian farmer filed a complaint against a German fossil fuel company, very similar to the liability cases in the U.S., for their role in contributing to the demise of his business, and being a persistent obstructionist on climate policy, all of that stuff. And everyone expected the German courts to throw it out. But they didn’t. They affirmed it.
You’re a master at giving people a real sense of the bad guys behind the climate crisis, who do, in fact, have names and addresses. Who are some of the villains we should expect to meet this season?
I think there's the pipeline companies, like Enbridge and the folks running those companies. I would say Gibson Dunn, the law firm, is becoming more and more of a regular. I’m thinking about maybe doing something on the law firms that are sort of the biggest enablers of these guys. Another big enemy that we'll see in the first season is the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce], which is starting to push preemptive bans on rights of nature laws.
Another favorite of mine is the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). I want to do some episodes kind of digging into some of those entities more too, so that people understand the ins and outs of how they work. They have this machine for getting things to the Supreme Court. One thing people don’t realize is that RAGA was created as a reaction to the tobacco suits. I've actually been surprised that they haven't shown up in the liability cases. They just filed a motion to intervene in the Juliana case late last year.
This decade is going to be especially crucial for efforts to prevent warming from reaching a threshold at which damages to the climate become irreversible. How do you hope to see the overall narrative on climate change shift during this time?
Well, I personally would like to see accountability not being painted as some sort of blame game, you know, negative revenge on the oil companies. I really hate that framing and I hear it and see it in a lot of media outlets. To me, accountability is step one to any kind of effective solution. You can't have an industry that has perpetrated this level of fraud on the public get away with it and then hand them the keys to the next energy boom, and expect it to go any differently, you know? So I would like to see more of an understanding of accountability as part of a solution and not, salty activists being mad at Exxon.
I think that it's also important for people to start to get an understanding of what it actually looks like day-to-day just to act on climate. I think the narratives are still very much austerity versus catastrophe, and that isn’t appealing to anyone. So I think that climate action needs to be normalized for people, and some of the nuts and bolts need to be addressed, too. I'd also like to see people looking at what transition means for lots of less obvious segments of society.
For example, I just did this piece on Elsevier, which is an academic publisher of climate research. But they also have various contracts with fossil fuel companies and they're providing geological data that is used to help companies explore and drill for more new oil and gas. I talked to this one geology researcher who was like, you know, I've devoted my entire academic career to this area that is basically no longer helpful to society. He referred to a lot of geology research as effectively a stranded asset, which I thought was so interesting, cause I was like, oh yeah, there's this whole academic field of people who have mostly used their skills to help find and drill for petroleum, but surely those skills and information can be used for other things. We just need to figure it out.
So I think looking at all the places that the fossil fuel industry is entwined with society. And all the places where fossil fuel money is funding things, because that makes it so much harder to transition away from them. There's so much research, there's so much arts and culture, the film industry, lots of development funds that are fully funded by oil money, venture capital firms that are heavily funded by oil. It really goes in so many different directions and I don't think that we even know all of the things that they're involved with.
Last one: I would really like to see the media take some accountability for their role in spreading and amplifying this stuff. Even up to today, we're seeing this frickin pro-fracking op-ed running in Bloomberg and the Washington Post from a guy who has clear ties to oil money. Why are you doing that?
I still hear from people who are like, well, we have to give space to both sides. I don't think that's true. When one side has been proven to be a bad faith actor that consistently lies to the public, why do you feel the need to continue to amplify their lies? Not a single paper has stood up and said, you know, we probably should’ve come at this differently. Not only is there no accountability – they’ve actually gotten themselves further enmeshed with fossil fuel companies. Which is a huge problem, because you can't really have propaganda without a media apparatus willing to spread it.
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