Feature: Ashley Ahearn ’01, environmental reporter
Down To Earth - Environmental Reporter Ashley Ahearn ’01 takes on the personal stories of sustainability
How individuals approach the issue of climate change can be extremely personal. To recycle or not to recycle; to drive an electric vehicle or one that emits carbon; to have children or decide against adding to the world population; to support climate policies contrary to your own or risk job security. In her more than a decade as an environment reporter, Ashley Ahearn ’01 has been tackling the issue of climate change and its impact on the world around us. Over the last two years, Ahearn has shifted the focus of her journalistic lens to more intentionally reflect the individual nature of issues of global warming. Her stories have addressed many of the questions we hold close to our hearts.
It had gotten to the point where a lot of environmental journalism was about who to blame and what everyone was doing wrong,” says Ahearn. “That can be a big turnoff, even for those who are not climate skeptics. I realized this is the most important journalistic beat for our species and thought about how we could do it better.”
In 2011, Ahearn relocated to Seattle, a hotbed for sustainability and environmental activism, with its green transport options and commitment to carbon neutrality, among other initiatives. Early in her career, Ahearn’s stories were aired on Morning Edition, Marketplace, All Things Considered, and The World. But her move to full-time resident environment journalist at NPR member station KUOW presented her with an opportunity to rethink her story presentation. Ahearn has just wrapped the second season of Terrestrial, a podcast focused on personal issues of environmentalism, climate change, and sustainability. Terrestrial promises in its tagline to “explore the choices we make in a world we’ve changed.”
Recent podcasts have addressed climate change and asthma (attributed to global warming’s impact on air quality and higher pollen counts), and a chronic fear of environmental doom known as “eco anxiety.” Ahearn’s reporting also has posed these questions: Would you compost your body? If you gave up flying, how would your life change? How is pollution connected to race and equality? Would you have kids, given the implications of climate change? “Trying to bring science to bear on these deeply personal questions,” Ahearn says, “is the central premise of the show.”
In her immersive reporting, Ahearn confronts ethical choices related to the environment. She has told the story of 18-year-old Victoria Barett, who joined a lawsuit – Juliana v. United States – against the Trump administration to compel action on climate change. She also met up with Dave Rank, a lifelong diplomat who resigned from his post as head of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing over President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Believing the move was morally wrong, Rank, who told Ahearn he is “not a climate guy,” ended his
27-year career because he just couldn’t support the move.
In a May 30, 2017, podcast, Ahearn interviewed Mary Finley and Travis Sherman, who pinned their choice not to have children squarely on environmental concerns. Finley told Ahearn, “I don’t want to bring another life into the world and add to the problem we’re already having, because people really are the problem, so I’d rather educate the people we have and try to be part of the solution.”
Born in the small fishing town of Gloucester, Mass., Ahearn grew up against the backdrop of the collapsing fishing industry. She listened as scientists warned that fishermen could not continue to deplete the stocks of Atlantic cod without consequences. At St. Paul’s, Ahearn was not a particularly ardent environmentalist, nor was she especially interested in journalism. An internship under Steve Curwood at Living on Earth after she graduated from Georgetown led to work as a producer and reporter on the show, and solidified Ahearn’s budding interest in the environment. She went on to earn a master’s in science journalism at the University of Southern California and lived in Los Angeles before moving to Seattle.
Ahearn’s native Gloucester was once home to hundreds of fishing boats, but there are now no more than a couple dozen in the area. In 2013, federal regulations dramatically reduced the numbers of cod that could be legally caught, all but killing the once-thriving New England
industry. The regulations, though harsh, came in response to overfishing combined with scientific reports on climate change and global warming that found an alarming depletion of fish in areas that were once abundant.
“The scientists were monitoring and analyzing the declining fish stocks and warning policymakers that fishermen could not continue to take these fish and have stocks remain viable,” explains Ahearn. “Politicians didn’t want to hear the science. If there had been good journalism to translate the scientists’ findings for the community, they may have averted that disaster. It helped me realize the importance of journalism that uses science in service of covering the environment.”
Terrestrial has reached hundreds of thousands of listeners all over the world and landed in the top one percent of all podcasts on iTunes. The show was recently selected as one of the best new podcasts of 2017 by Outside magazine. Buoyed by that success, Ahearn has just announced that she will be leaving her job as host of Terrestrial at KUOW to pursue other opportunities, which she can’t yet publicly disclose.
“Making Terrestrial,” Ahearn says, “and connecting with the amazing community of listeners that has coalesced around this content has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.” Among the many things Ahearn has learned in her journey as an environmental journalist is that people tend to understand more about the science of climate change than they think. All it takes for someone to notice changes to the planet, Ahearn says, is to look around at their own surroundings, whether that means wildfires and bad air quality in the west, drought in the breadbasket of America, or extreme flooding in the south.
“I am not in the business of telling people we can fix these problems,” she says. “I am in the business of exploring how we live with the changes we have put into effect.”