Path to Zero
Path to Zero
4.03 - Environmental Justice and Climate Change with Insider’s Catherine Boudreau
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Path to Zero’s special episodes from New York for Climate Week continue with Catherine Boudreau, the senior sustainability reporter at Insider. She’s in New York covering Climate Week and stopped by to join Path to Zero.

Tucker talked to her about her extensive reporting on Environmental Justice, most recently the drinking water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. The two also touched on Boudreau’s recent story on clean cooking and how 2.4 billion people around the world are cooking on open fire pits.

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Transcript

Tucker Perkins:
Our guest in this special climate week episode of Path To Zero is Catherine Boudreau. She’s the senior sustainability reporter at Insider. You might know her from her previous work at Bloomberg and Politico where she was a sustainability reporter covering food and agriculture. Catherine, we’re so glad to have you in New York climate week. Welcome to Path To Zero.

Catherine Boudreau:
Thank you so much for having me.

Tucker Perkins:
I think sometimes in studying this, that you may have the best job in the world, that you get to write on a variety of stories at Insider. And you’ve done so many cool stories that we could talk about, but maybe environmental justice seems to be an area that is passionate to me and you’ve written about quite a bit. And you’re just coming off a story about the drinking water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. Tell us why you’re wired to write about environmental justice.

Catherine Boudreau:
Yeah. So I started writing about sustainability and climate change in the summer of 2020. So at that time, I was just switching into this beat. I had just been reporting on food and agriculture for a long time. And I was watching what was playing out with George Floyd and the murder of George Floyd and just him screaming, “I can’t breathe,” for instance, that of course resonated across the country. We saw protests.

And then also the COVID-19 pandemic too. We saw how communities of color were just disproportionately seeing deaths because maybe these communities were exposed to pollution, for example, so they had underlying health conditions that made them more vulnerable to the virus. So I think those two things collided. And then at the same time, a lot of corporations and banks were making big pledges to hire a more diverse workforce, for example, and they were going to spend a lot of money maybe on education or workforce training to make sure that they’re just hiring a diverse group of people.

And so all those things collided around that time. And I just realized that I had a blind spot in my own reporting. I didn’t really understand until I started to read some of the research about how due to systemic discrimination over many decades, that communities of color were more likely to live in communities where there are industrial pollution and power plants, for example.

And I guess I was just putting those pieces together in the environmental movement and just how addressing climate change and equity and social equity is super important. You can’t have one without the other really. And I already had a little bit of a window into this as a food and ag reporter because I covered the USDA, the agriculture department. And because of that, I covered some of the decades of discrimination against farmers, like black farmers and native American farmers, also Latino farmers. There’s been multiple settlements between the department and these groups of farmers, because what happened over many decades is that these farmers weren’t getting loans and they weren’t getting the financing in the same amount as their white counterparts. And what happened was that created just this loss over time of generational wealth, particularly for black farmers.

So I had a little bit of a window into federal discrimination, but I think during the summer of 2020, my eyes just really opened to how just this connection between the environment and racism, basically.

Tucker Perkins:
I know sometimes really one of my favorite topics and something that I really wasn’t very familiar with, I’d say, five years ago as well. But one of the things now I find so few people really right about the true impact on those who have the least voice. As you say, they’re often are the ones that live near the power plant, they’re often the ones who aren’t able to afford a car or afford a home that has these tax credits. I mean, I think writing about it and highlighting it, for me, it’s a little bit about, can they afford the solutions we are imposing on them? But it’s just nice that someone’s writing about that. Because I find not only do they not have a voice, I find often they don’t have a perspective that’s being championed. So thanks for what you’re doing there.

Catherine Boudreau:
Yeah, of course. Yeah. I totally agree with you. Like I said, my eyes were just really opened that year. And so it just prompted me to do my own research and my own work. And of course, there’s tons of reporters doing this type of reporting now. I think environmental justice has just skyrocketed to the top of the White House agenda. For example, they have their Justice 40 initiative. So they’ve pledged to direct 40% of their climate spending and clean energy spending in disadvantaged communities, low income communities, because that is where the effects of climate change are going to be felt the most, for sure.

Tucker Perkins:
So follow along that though. One of the things that strikes me sometimes is they’re trying to impose the solutions that may have worked in Beverly Hills into a community that doesn’t have the same needs as Beverly Hills. So do you ever study that? In other words, EV charging, for example. EV charging doesn’t have the same need in a community where people still take the bus to work.

Catherine Boudreau:
Absolutely.

Tucker Perkins:
So to me, one of the things I try to watch is government policy and how they execute that. But I know I’ve said firsthand in many meetings where they’re applying first world problems, yet thinking about it justice, where I keep thinking there’s a different way to deploy those solutions.

Catherine Boudreau:
Yeah. I think historically there has just been maybe just one size fits all approach or maybe just there was the lack of real engagement at the local level, maybe not enough. I think the solution to that potentially is just, I mean, it really has to be such a collaboration between community organizers or environmental justice groups, which really are a loosely knit group of networks who are trying to reduce pollution or reduce equity issues in their own neighborhoods. So I think it just requires a lot of collaboration between local people and groups with state and federal officials. We’ll see if that actually happen as they implement all these new climate laws that are coming.

Tucker Perkins:
Starting the dialogue with a viewpoint of a broad variety of people is certainly the first step to moving on. Let’s talk about some of your other stories. One that I loved that you’d written quite a bit about public health, environmental impact from the billions of people around the world who cook with open fire or solid fuels like wood or often charcoal or dung. The headline of one of your stories, I remember reading it for the first time, “Clean cooking helps protect forest and also combat climate change,” says a lot. Tell us what you’ve learned about clean cooking and what your reporting uncovered.

Catherine Boudreau:
Yeah. So I guess I’ve been on my own personal journey to understand how the way we cook affects our health, but also the environment, because I was really surprised by some research that came out of Stanford University in January just about the impact of your natural gas stove, for example, in your own home. I’ve always had gas for the most part. I live in Washington DC and always had a gas cooktop. I think a lot of people are very attached to that. And the research uncovered that basically the methane leaking from your gas stove could harm your own health. There’s toxins released from that. And also, it contributes to the planet warming emissions that we’re all trying to tackle as part of the climate crisis. So that really opened my eyes, because there has not been a lot of research on the impacts of indoor cooking on your health. So that’s the Western world.

But if you just think about it more globally, I mean there’s 2.4 billion people who are cooking on open fire pits using wood or charcoal, maybe they’re using a kerosene. So this is what they’re working with in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example. And turns out, that this also contributes to climate change and isn’t great for the health of women and children who are predominantly doing the cooking and going out and collecting the wood, for example. So that really surprised me.

And then the next level is that it also isn’t great for forest because when you’re collecting wood from the forest, it contributes to degradation. So this really opened my eyes for sure. And I guess what I learned is that this group that’s backed by the UN, the Clean Cooking Alliance, they’re trying to, I think, change how we think about clean cooking. Maybe here we’re like, “Oh, well let’s just go to electric,” but you can’t do that.

Tucker Perkins:
They don’t have electric.

Catherine Boudreau:
They don’t have electric. So let’s get them a solution that’s better for their health, better for the environment, and doesn’t require them to go into the forest and collect wood. So they’re trying to shift to thinking about maybe we frame this as a nature based solution, because that’s actually getting a lot of talk in climate community right now. How do we protect forests and prevent degradation, restore forests? Because of course, they suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So I think connecting those two issues, this group, the Clean Cooking Alliance and the UN want to connect those two issues so that way it could unlock all this funding that corporations and countries are pouring into nature based solutions. A lot of it is to do carbon offset, for example, verify some of the emission savings from planting a tree or protecting a forest. So by making that link potentially, it could expand access to cleaner cooking options for people in the developing world.

Tucker Perkins:
And so tell me why that story touches you. That story touches you because it improves the lives in the village, saves health effects, prevents deforestation. Anything else?

Catherine Boudreau:
No, I think you’ve got it. And I guess what just surprised me was the interlinking issues there. When I think about cooking, I don’t think about protecting the forest.

Tucker Perkins:
So I wanted you to say one other thing, because it’s the only place I’ve ever… I’ve been involved in that program for a decade, because it’s very largely driven to propane. And Sub-Saharan Africa is a piece, but also quite a few other developing countries, Indonesia is the one that immediately comes to mind, been involved then for over a decade.

Catherine Boudreau:
So you know way more than me.

Tucker Perkins:
But it’s interesting you didn’t mention the other thing that to me is almost equal to all of that is the empowerment of women into their community. Women who spend almost all day pre-cooking for life, foraging for food, tending fires, heating water, and now we condense that to them. So that really was a full-time job. So now we condense that to maybe an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening so they’re able to contribute six hours to other meaningful things, which one of the things you see evolve is they’re not just out foraging. They now become leaders in the community. And the story there is as much to me about empowerment of strong women as leaders as it is all those other things. I was curious if… You have to see it sometimes, I think maybe to realize it, but it’s the other part of that story that’s to me equally moving. I’ve only ever spoken about it one time here in New York actually.

Catherine Boudreau:
Oh, really? When was that?

Tucker Perkins:
About seven or eight years ago, I was here with Jenna Bush talking to a group of young mothers actually that were all social influencers back when we didn’t even know what they were. And we opened with that story, but it’s the neatest story.

Catherine Boudreau:
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think that was what really also struck me too, was women are spending most of their time doing this and there’s a potential business opportunity here too. I mean, I was talking to the Clean Cooking Alliance, for example. I was talking to them and just about how important it is to create local markets for some of these. In agriculture, for example, you could turn agricultural waste maybe into fuel. You could create a little cycle maybe.

Tucker Perkins:
Absolutely.

Catherine Boudreau:
And so it’s a business opportunity particularly for women. So I think that it’s just a really interesting part of this conversation for sure.

Tucker Perkins:
Fascinating. And I really appreciate the fact. And it also highlights at least the complexity of this energy transition that we’re in. As you think about here, we are talking about moving from dung or charcoal or wood in that situation to these complex microgrids, perhaps. It shows you how again, there is not one size fits all, there’s not one solution. Wide path thinking is great. What are you doing here for climate week this week? What are you here for?

Catherine Boudreau:
Yeah. So I’m here to basically represent Insider. I just started a few months ago. I started at the end of May and we just really want to make our presence known that we’re covering all the action during climate week. So I’m going to attend a number of events. I’m also moderating a panel on Thursday about a potential global treaty on plastic pollution. I’ve covered that issue for quite a few months now, even before at Politico, because this is a huge story in the business community in particular too, because a lot of big brands… You think of Amazon or Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, they’re making all these promises to reduce their plastic pollution and also use more recycled plastic. Well, to do that, you have to get a lot more plastic recycled into the recycling stream. So it’s a complex issue. And I think if there is a treaty, that would be a huge deal, but I don’t expect one for many years. They just only agreed to start negotiating one. So it’s a couple years away.

Tucker Perkins:
In your own purchasing decisions, do you often think about some of those companies and their efforts around sustainability before you make a purchase?

Catherine Boudreau:
I do, yes. And I think the easiest example is I don’t use plastic bags. That’s basically the easiest example I can think of because you can use reusable bags. I also carry around my own sealed water bottle to refill and stuff. I try to refill things. Of course, that’s not always possible. But in terms of making purchases from companies, it does factor in. But I think it’s challenging sometimes too. I think about fashion for example. And say you want to avoid plastic in fashion, that’s impossible, or you want to shop at the most sustainable fashion brand. But these supply chains are extremely complex and I have done some reporting on various brands like maybe Nike and it’s just difficult to make a completely sustainable decision. And everybody’s definition of that is different as well.

Tucker Perkins:
Let me ask you to go back to your previous experiences, covering food and ag, and now you think about your current role really thinking about climate, where does that all intersect? Is there anywhere that brings it together as we think about climate change impact on agriculture, impact on agriculture food? Where does it all intersect?

Catherine Boudreau:
Totally. Yeah. I mean, first of course, agriculture is a big contributor to climate change, especially livestock production. It emits an enormous amount of methane. But also we waste a ton of food in this country and around the world that also contributes to climate change. But then on the flip side, I think agriculture is where the impacts of global warming are felt pretty quickly, whether you have an intense rainstorm that comes and it’s very unusual and you lose half your crop or all of your crop and then that requires you to get some disaster assistance, for example. That’s happening more frequently, which it is. That’s not great for business. Also, maybe you notice that crops aren’t yielding as much. So I think it’s definitely on the front lines of climate change and then also a big part of the potential solution because there’s a ton of land and soil and soils also can sequester carbon. So if you change up the way that crops are grown or you raise animals that could potentially be a big part of the solution.

Tucker Perkins:
Let me see if I can phrase this for you right. At insider, do you feel like reporting on the issues is about like it was for you at Politico or even previous? Are there trends emerging that you report on things differently or is it just a different company, but the same style reporting?

Catherine Boudreau:
I would say at Politico, there was definitely a huge focus on the federal government and lobbying by businesses and also of course what the White House is doing and campaigns and who’s up, who’s down in the various campaigns across the country. And I think at Insider, my focus is more on business. And part of the reason I really was attracted to moving to Insider is because I did reporting on the business side. After covering policy and politics for nearly 10 years, it was great to focus on the business side. Because also in 2020, when I started reporting on sustainability, the federal government wasn’t doing that much. Trump was president and of course he had an election coming up, but I really saw a lot of action on the business side. And also I wanted to play a role in holding companies accountable too, because I think they are a huge lever for change and they have sprawling supply change, pick your industry, and there’s something they can do about this. So I think it’s a little bit more dynamic in some ways.

Tucker Perkins:
Yeah, certainly. And business is responding, I think, in many ways to ESG, to climate because they have to. They need to have good customer service.

Catherine Boudreau:
Well also if you want to get a good write on your loan, for example… The money that’s pouring into environmental, social governance, like investing, for example, investors are really searching for, okay, where should we be putting our money? And so a company releases a bond or something like that. If it’s labeled sustainability, I mean, investors are just clamoring to be a part of that.

Tucker Perkins:
Right. All right. Let’s have some fun. Let’s have a little magic. We’ll give you a magic wand. You get to use it for one thing in the next year that would have a great impact as you see it on the way we think or act about climate. How would you use that wand?

Catherine Boudreau:
Well, I think we spent a lot of time talking about environmental justice. So I would use my magic wand there probably and the developed world would probably come up with all the financing and the money it promised to the poor countries that have not contributed as much to the climate crisis, but yet are going to be facing the biggest impacts from it. So a more serious answer. But I think definitely the Western world should uphold that promise, because adaptation to climate change is… Regardless, say we stop polluting today. There’s already effects baked in for the foreseeable future and those are predominantly going to hit the global south.

Tucker Perkins:
A great use of your wand because frankly, even though we can identify the problem, I don’t think there’s been any baby steps made towards those solutions.

Catherine Boudreau:
Yeah. I mean, there’s a goal to have a hundred billion dollars in financing from the wealthier countries, like [inaudible 00:21:32] nations, but they have not upheld that by 2020. That was the date. And I think also to be honest as a reporter, it’s hard to know where’s that money going.

Tucker Perkins:
Right. And the stated need might be three times that number.

Catherine Boudreau:
Exactly.

Tucker Perkins:
Yeah. Great use of your wand. All right. One more piece. We love to respect your time and your intellect being with us today and plant a tree in your name in a national forest somewhere in the United States. Anywhere you’d love us to think about? I know you a Vermonter. I know you live in DC.

Catherine Boudreau:
I know. I just have to think about the place that made the biggest impact on me in my life so far in terms of nature and the power of nature. It’s the Glacier National Park so maybe there just because visiting that part of the country just totally blew me away.

Tucker Perkins:
What a great place.

Catherine Boudreau:
Yeah.

Tucker Perkins:
Yeah. Thank you. We’ll look forward to that. Anything else you want to tell our listeners about something you’re working on, something we haven’t talked about?

Catherine Boudreau:
I don’t think so. I think we covered it. I would just say thank you so much for highlighting my reporting. I really appreciate it. And hopefully it’s informing your members and just general public. That’s always my goal and also accountability too. That’s what drives me.

Tucker Perkins:
Catherine Boudreau, Insider. Thank you very much for being with us in New York on Path To Zero.

Catherine Boudreau:
Thank you for having me.