** MAY 2022 UPDATE The Society of Professional Journalists’ Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest has recognized our series with two first-place prizes — one for Writing: Environment & Natural Disaster Reporting and another for Collaboration
In June 2020 InvestigateWest cofounder Robert McClure commissioned me to map out a regional reporting project about ‘decarbonizing’ the Pacific Northwest. That turned into Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia, which we launched in January 2021. Throughout last year the series explored how Washington, Oregon and British Columbia (which form the Cascadia bioregion) could get off fossil fuels, and why the region must transition to cleaner energy post-haste.
We delivered 33 stories, videos, and radio and TV spots on the region’s climate inequities, activism and politics, and its policy and technology options. I served as primary writer, edited many pieces, and managed InvestigateWest’s collaborations with regional and national journalism partners that expanded the series’ production and reach.
Thinking regionally made sense because Cascadia’s jurisdictions are united by heavy reliance on hydropower, a transition from resource extraction to knowledge-based economies, impactful and uneasy relations between Indigenous peoples’ and others, and fast-growing populations and economies. And in 2021 the brutal reality of unprecedented climate extremes — deadly fires, heat waves, floods — drove home the shared threat they face.
As we investigated in the January 2021 opener, Washington, Oregon and BC also have the dubious distinction of ever-growing dependence on fossil fuels and thus carbon emissions. This despite of a decade of climate promises and perceived ‘leadership’, and significant reductions overall in the US and Canada. “The overarching problem is a shortage of political will,” wrote the LA Times about that piece, calling it an “excellent deep dive.”
Throughout, our reporting blended pointed looks at such inconvenient truths and stubborn barriers, with profiles of actors edging forward the various means available to replace fossil fuels.
Diverse voices and exploration of equity issues suffused the series, which also provided training to two emerging journalists of color. And the series regular spanned the US-Canada border, which more often serves as a barrier than a bridge (and was physically closed to travel for most of the year).
Collaborators included regional partners Crosscut (Seattle), The Tyee (Vancouver), Jefferson Public Radio (Ashland, OR) and the South Seattle Emerald, as well as U.S. national partners Grist and the Associated Press. Partners produced about a third of the content and pushed the series out to many more readers via online audiences orders of magnitude larger than InvestigateWest’s.
Notably, The Tyee documented that readers spent over 8 minutes on series pages, which Tyee founding editor David Beers characterized as “an eternity online.”
Shortened and purpose-edited stories for the AP wire, meanwhile, expanded the series’ appeal to audiences beyond the U.S. Pacific Northwest and western Canada. The Houston Chronicle, the Raleigh Observer, the San Francisco Chronicle and other major metro papers consistently tapped the series, along with specialty pubs like Indian Country Today and regional outlets such as Oregon Public Broadcasting. AP cuts also generated regional print runs, including front page pickup in such outlets as The Seattle Times, The (Olympia, WA) Olympian and The News Tribune in Tacoma (image at right).
Additional collaborations expanded our reach to different media. Such as a TV news segment by ABC7 Bay Area based on our profile of a nascent effort in rural Washington to make biochar, a form of charcoal, thus generating cash for forest restoration and simultaneously trapping carbon underground. And student-produced nonfiction radio plays based on the series, broadcast live by San Francisco-based StoryWorks.
Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia contributed to the region’s unprecedented climate policy developments last year. For example, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality cited my report on mapping disparities in climate vulnerability in its rulemaking implementing Governor Kate Brown’s signature climate policy, the Climate Protection Program, intended to force down greenhouse gas emissions from industrial facilities.
Feedback from regional activists and politicians suggest that the series’ relentless focus on policy shortcomings and the readiness of climate solutions contributed to similarly momentous developments in Washington — which passed long-stalled bills that put a price on carbon pollution and to reduce the carbon intensity of diesel and gasoline supplies — and a climate policy overhaul in British Columbia projected to nearly double emissions reductions through 2030.
Recognition of the series went well beyond the LA Times’ Boiling Point newsletter. The Fund for Investigative Journalism, a series funder, celebrated it three times in its “Grantee’s Stories” news posts, citing stories covering the power grid, jobs and forests. The Local Media Association cited the series in a report on solutions reporting. LMA noted research showing that stories with a solutions-angle garner larger audiences, and that people engage more deeply if they “think something can be done about a problem.” It presented my August piece on the West’s shared power grid as a poster child, stating that: “InvestigateWest’s in-depth look at the grid and solutions for becoming more resilient in the face of climate change clearly resonated with readers.”
A companion piece on Cascadia’s grid challenges broke ground on equity coverage, reporting on the displacement of Indigenous peoples by the dozens of wind farms proliferating along the Columbia River Gorge that divides Washington and Oregon. Even longtime energy policy veterans were unaware that wind power had, in effect, fenced the region’s Native Americans out of the lands they’ve foraged for traditional foods and medicines for centuries (or longer).
Fossil fuel lobbies also took note. For example, the gas sector’s Affordable Energy Coalition campaign tweeted our report on civic activism to push natural gas out of buildings. And a tweet by the Propane Council sought to use the series’ final piece (and INVW and the series’ credibility) to declare propane a “low-carbon” fuel.
We set the record straight, calling out Big Propane’s misleading citation as a classic example of fossil fuel industry disinformation.
Click here and scroll down to explore InvestigateWest’s runs of the Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia stories contributed by myself, InvestigateWest intern Iris Crawford and fellow Braela Kwan, The Tyee’s Michelle Gamage and Amanda Follett Hosgood, Shannon Osaka and Clayton Aldern at Grist, Crosscut’s Mai Hoang, Ysabelle Kempe (now at the Bellingham Herald), Erik Newmann at JPR, and freelance journalists Andy Engelson, Lizz Giordano, Mandy Godwin, Levi Pulkinnen (now with the Seattle Times) and Jack Russillo.
Here are mine:
- A Lost Decade: How Climate Action Fizzled in Cascadia
- After climate-protection drift and despair, a blueprint for success emerges in Cascadia
- Visualizing Climate-Vulnerable Communities
- Why Renewable Electricity Powers Decarbonization — and Pays Off
- Cleaning Up What Can’t Plug In
- Using hydrogen to back up the grid
- A stronger electricity grid is crucial to cutting carbon. Does that make it green?
- Can the West learn to share renewable power?
- Cascadia’s Climate Champions Learn They Can Win At The Local Level
- How Cascadia Can Prevent Another Lost Decade
- 25 Climate Actions Needed In 2022
- The crucial elements for decarbonizing an economy, and safeguarding a region (coauthored with Robert McClure)