As the threat of climate change continues to dominate national and political discourse, Wallace House hosted environmental journalist McKenzie Funk to discuss the political and economic ramifications of the issue. Funk shared his findings from his book “Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming,” addressing how businesses often take advantage of environmental issues to generate a profit.
The Knight-Wallace Fellowship, based in Wallace House, gives practicing journalists the opportunity to take a step back from their careers and take classes at the University to refine their craft. Funk, a 2012 Knight-Wallace Fellow, is this year’s featured journalist for the 34th annual Graham Hovey Lecture entitled “Seeing Green: The Business and Inequity of Climate Change.” The lecture, named after former journalist Graham Hovey who directed the fellowship from 1980 to 1986, is an annual event in which the fellowship welcomes its incoming class and highlights a former member whose work relates to issues prevalent in the national conversation.
Director of Wallace House Lynette Clemetson opened the event, introducing University President Mark Schlissel and emphasizing the need for more public support for journalists.
“We know that in (University) President (Mark) Schlissel we have someone who not only supports our programs, but who supports the vital role of journalism in our society,” Clemetson said. “Having that support publicly is evermore important today at a time when the press has often been maligned, often been called ‘enemies of the people,’ and to know that we have a space here at the University where we uphold the role of journalism and we support the careers of journalists means so much to me personally and to everyone who passes through this program.”
During his introduction of Funk, Schlissel said many of the highlights in his six years at the University have been at Wallace House events. He expressed appreciation for the program and the opportunities it offers.
“My secret jealousy is I don’t qualify to be a Knight-Wallace fellow, but think about how cool it would be to be able to sit in at any class you want at the University and not have to take any testing or grades and not have to take any prerequisites,” Schlissel said. “It really sounds like college heaven.”
After introducing this year’s Knight-Wallace fellows, Clemetson turned the podium over to Funk. According to Clemetson, journalists often report on the topic of climate change with a scientific or political lens and analyze the tension between the two, but Funk’s work is unique. He approaches climate change with a business lens, investigating how hedge funds and organizations twist the issue to their benefit.
Funk explained how he became involved with environmental journalism. He was working on narrative stories for magazines in 2006 when he received an email from the Environmental News Network about the Canadian military heading north to claim the melting territory. He described joining their expedition and learning what motivated it.
“The reason that Canada was up there was one, the Northwest Passage was melting, and two, there was a ton of oil there, maybe a quarter of the world’s undeveloped oil,” Funk said. “And so the moment the ice started pulling back in the Arctic, you can see this opportunity and you can see people begin to scramble for it.”
Funk then shared his discoveries from years of investigative work. According to Funk, businesses use their influence with the wealthy people to profit from the effects of climate change. He gave numerous examples, including how insurers fortified valuable homes on the East Coast and in California from natural disasters while ignoring those of poorer residents. He focused in particular on border walls and companies that take in revenue building structures between countries.
Funk pointed to a $10-12 billion plan made by Dutch architects to protect New York City from storms like Hurricane Sandy as a useful framework for understanding his area of focus.
“The clear favorite was a seawall that would go across the Verrazano-Narrows (a strait separating Staten Island and Brooklyn) and it would block any storm surge coming toward Manhattan,” Funk said. “It would also send even more water to the poor areas on the side. So what we had was a seawall that would protect the wealthiest part of the wealthiest city perhaps in the world while drenching the poor.”
Clemetson opened up the event to questions from the audience. Funk responded to an audience member who asked about positive efforts to combat the climate crisis.
“I don’t think we’re doomed,” Funk said. “I think it’s a question of how many of us are saved.”