Who is to blame for the climate crisis?
For some, the answer to this question is a lament over the inherent greed of human nature. For award-winning investigative journalist and podcaster Amy Westervelt, the answer is perhaps the biggest true-crime story of all time. The creator of the podcasts Drilled and Damages has made a career out of dismantling the idea that there’s an amorphous “we” responsible for the destabilization of the Earth’s climate and instead pointing out who knew what, when, and paid who to cover it up. Now, she’s launching a global network of reporters all focused on holding the individuals and organizations that delay climate action to account.
“You cannot solve a problem if you don’t understand the actual root causes of that problem,” Westervet told EcoWatch. “And the root causes of this problem are not an innate human desire to over consume.”
20 Years of Climate Accountability
The August 29 launch of Drilled Global, as well as the 10th season of Drilled, were only the latest milestones in Westervelt’s extensive reporting record. Her written journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among other outlets. She is also the executive producer of Critical Frequency, a podcast network headed by female journalists launched in 2017. The next year, she began the podcast Drilled — a true-crime style podcast about the climate crisis. In 2019, she started media-criticism focused Hot Take with fellow female climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar (which was canceled in 2022). 2021 was a busy year that saw her launching Rigged, a podcast about the history of disinformation, co-hosting and helping to report a climate-themed season of Scene on Radio called The Repair, and heading up the production and reporting team of This Land S2, which focused on tribal sovereignty and was nominated for a Peabody Award the next year. In 2022, she started her most recent podcast Damages, which focuses on climate lawsuits and serves as the legal drama to Drilled’s crime thriller. Her work has won her various awards including the 2015 Rachel Carson award for women greening journalism, the 2019 Online News Association award for excellence in audio journalism, and the 2021 and 2023 Covering Climate Now best radio podcast series awards for Drilled and Damages respectively.
Yet Westervelt anticipated none of this when she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1999 with bills to pay.
“I needed a job that started the day after I graduated, and the one I found was working for a magazine,” she recalled.
Westervelt found that she liked the work and wanted to pursue a career in media. While still at her first job, she also found an unpaid internship with an arts and culture magazine, then ended up as managing editor when the rest of the staff quit. Putting together a politics issue and interviewing the likes of Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader made her realize she wanted to shift to corporate accountability reporting. She quit the arts job and started to freelance, but found herself once again strapped for cash.
Then a friend reached out with a job offer that would lead her to her first big environmental scoop. The job was copywriting for an engineering firm, and her first assignment was to profile work they had done for oil major Shell in the 1990s. During that decade, Shell and other fossil fuel companies insisted it was too soon to act on the scientific warnings about rising temperatures, but they had commissioned the firm to prepare their offshore oil platforms for sea level rise. Westervelt pitched the revelation to a local green publication and knew she had found her mission.
“From then on out, I pretty much was just hooked on doing climate accountability reporting,” she told EcoWatch. “So I have now done that for about 20 years.”
Westervelt said that her career trajectory — from graduation to the present — had been largely “happenstance,” yet there are two clear throughlines visible from the start. The first is a commitment to uncovering injustice. No matter the beat of her stories, they almost always have the same angle.
“There’s this really unfair thing happening, and it’s happening because some people have more power than other people, and they are kind of getting away with something,” she summarized.
Where her “long-developed sense of righteous indignation” originated, Westervelt wasn’t entirely sure. But it might have been sparked at least in part by something that happened to her twin brother when they were both 18. While Westervelt went to college, he joined the U.S. Marines, where someone tried to murder him. Yet instead of properly investigating the incident, the Marines tried to cover it up — perhaps to escape any financial liability. They claimed her brother had attempted suicide, even though that was incompatible with his injuries. Their response was brutally educational.
“This is what people do when they have power with total impunity,” Westervelt learned.
The other constant is a certain kind of fearlessness — the ability, when presented with a “sink or swim” situation like inheriting a managing editor role at 23 — to stroke out into the waves. It was this willingness to try that launched her into print journalism and buoyed her through the transition to podcasting.
Telling the Story
Listening to NPR in her car around eight or nine years ago, Westervelt found herself wishing she could do the job of the voice coming through her speakers.
“And then I thought, well, I could probably,” she recalled. “It’s been a while since I learned a new skill.”
So Westervelt contacted Reno Public Radio in Nevada — her local member station — and asked for an internship. Given that Westervelt already had reporting experience, the station was very receptive.
“I did an internship there for about a month and then got hired as a staff reporter,” Westervelt said.
While working for NPR, however, Westervelt “really quickly realized that most of the sort of storytelling and characters end up getting cut from news features on the radio.”
Trying to figure out how she could bring those cutting room characters into climate reporting, Westervelt turned to podcasts, and couldn’t quite hear what she was listening for.
“I was struck by the fact that there really weren’t any narrative climate podcasts,” she said. While long-form storytelling had begun to take off for other topics, the climate space was still dominated by talk shows.
As Westervelt began to cast about for what kind of story might drive a successful climate podcast, she was assigned to cover a trial taking place in California. San Francisco and Oakland had sued ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell, seeking damages for adapting to the climate chaos the companies had knowingly unleashed by continuing to sell their product despite knowing of its impacts since the 1970s. The judge presiding over the case — William Alsup — ordered both sides to prepare a climate science tutorial in a bit of courtroom theater that many people at the time called the “Scopes Monkey Trial of Climate,” though Westervelt said that was a bit of an exaggeration.
Still, the event was full of characters, from the lawyers on both sides to supporting climate activists to the scientists who were “doing kind of a bad job of explaining things.” And it drew attention to some Pulitzer-prize finalist print journalism that had yet to reach a wide audience: the 2015 revelation from Inside Climate News that ExxonMobil’s internal scientists had informed the company of the relationship between burning fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect in the late 1970s, and the company had gone on to bury that information and fund climate denial instead.
Westervelt thought if people could actually hear those scientists speaking as part of a true-crime style podcast, it might have a bigger impact. And she was right. Since the first season of Drilled launched, there have been around four documentary series made that focus on the “Exxon Knew” story. This gave Westervelt a model for climate accountability podcasting.
“I’ve tried to sort of look for stories where I feel like doing them in audio actually adds a layer of either comprehension for listeners or can help with moving the narrative along,” Westervelt said.
The Real Free Speech Threat
Westervelt’s most recent podcast work tackles free speech from two different angles of elite malfeasance. First, over the summer, she ran a ninth mini-season of Drilled focusing on Herb Schmertz, vice president of public affairs at Mobil Oil in the 1970s who helped steer the industry into arguing for legal protections for corporate free speech. This is especially timely, Westervelt said, because the Supreme Court in April rejected the major oil companies’ attempts to move municipal climate liability lawsuits like the one that inspired Drilled to federal court, where they thought they would have more success. This means the companies will need to rely on the argument Herb pioneered for them.
“They are arguing that anything oil companies have said about climate change — even if it is misleading — is protected speech because it was said in the interest of shaping policy,” she said. “That’s an argument that Mobil, and then ExxonMobil, have laid the groundwork for since the 1970s, but that history is not well-known so now felt like a key time to draw attention to it.”
The 10th season of Drilled, which will run for 24 episodes and also include supporting written reporting, focuses on what it calls “The Real Free Speech Threat” — attempts to criminalize climate protest, such as the “critical infrastructure” laws that assign special penalties to actions that damage or disrupt fossil fuel pipelines. In one piece of reporting around this theme she was particularly proud of, Westervelt co-helmed an investigation with Geof Dembicki on the Atlas Network, a group of more than 500 think tanks around the world that share strategies and rhetoric for demonizing climate activists, paving the way for criminalization.
“I wanted to follow the series about corporate free speech immediately with a look at the role extractive industries are playing in criminalizing and otherwise suppressing individual free speech because the two go hand in hand,” Westervelt said. “Unfortunately, it’s now also a very timely topic as governments all over the world are moving fairly swiftly to criminalize protest, many of them citing recent climate protests as the catalyst.”
Luckily, Westervelt and her team have just as broad a scope.
“The thing I’m most excited about is the cross-border nature of the whole package,” she said. “We have more than 12 journalists working together across multiple countries and sharing reporting with each other, which has led to a really comprehensive view of what’s going on.”
Recent episodes have focused on an Indian climate activist charged with sedition, anti-protest laws spreading across Australian states and campaigners targeted with flimsy tax evasion charges in Vietnam. The broader Drilled Global reporting team includes Ugochi Anyaka of Nigeria, the Canadian Dembicki, Anna Pujol Mazzini in France, Fredrick Mugira in Uganda, Rishika Pardikar in India, Lyndal Rowlands in Australia, First Nations reporter Martha Troian and Guyanese journalist Kiana Wilburg.
Dismantling the Power Structure
The makeup of the Drilled global team reflects another one of Westervelt’s priorities: making sure the climate story is told from a broader range of voices than have historically been headlined by Western journalism.
When Westervelt was first starting out as a climate reporter, “there was a period of time where I feel like the climate beat was mostly dominated by women, and that’s kind of how you knew that papers weren’t taking it seriously,” she said.
As it became a more prominent beat, more of the institutional male bylines entered the conversation. But Westervelt noted they tended to focus on technological solutions such as swapping fossil for renewable energy rather than elucidating the power structures that determined energy policy in the first place. This discrepancy is why Westervelt thinks it’s important to hear the climate story told by people on the outside of institutional power.
“I don’t really think that you can separate the climate crisis from the power structure that we’re dealing with. And I don’t know how people who benefit the most from that power structure can possibly be the ones with the best ideas to dismantle it,” she said.
So what ideas might those be? Westervelt pointed to two promising movements, which she covered in an Orion article this winter. The first is “rights of nature” — the push to give rivers, mountains or entire ecosystems legal rights. In Ecuador, for example, which became the first country to acknowledge the rights of nature in its constitution in 2008, citizens were able to use this language to successfully block mining in the Los Cedros cloud forest.
“It’s kind of like a different decision making framework than what we have in Western capitalism,” Westervelt said, and she thought it could be a guidepost for legislating an energy transition that doesn’t turn ecosystems and communities into sacrifice zones in the same way fossil fuel companies do now.
The second is related, but surprisingly springs from rural America. Some towns have something called “home rule” on the books, enabling them to boot the state from decisions like permit granting. In one instance, Grant Township, Pennsylvania used home rule to add rights of nature to its town charter and block the state from dumping fracking waste there. What’s hopeful about this movement, Westervelt said, is that it unites rural Republicans and libertarians with environmentalists and Indigenous groups around a “solution that sort of sidesteps a lot of the identity politics involved in how conservatives think about climate change.”
While these developments have given Westervelt a degree of optimism, she also criticized the expectation that journalists and others who work in climate provide hope to people who ask.
“It’s something people must create for themselves,” she said, “by acting.”