News & Politics

The Washington Post Put Serious Resources Into Its Pulitzer-Winning Series on Extreme Climate Change

Fifty-three journalists were involved in the "2°C: Beyond the Limit" series.

Photograph by Evy Mages

The Washington Post won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting Monday for a series of articles on extreme climate change.

“Today in this country we are single-mindedly focused on a public-health crisis. But another worldwide public-health crisis is upon us,” Martin Baron, the Post’s executive editor, said in a statement. “As with the coronavirus, we are well served if we pay attention to the science. In producing this series, our staff not only paid attention to the science, but also built on it with deeper and more granular analysis. And then, with the full resources of our news organization, we put a human face to the numbers, showing the severe impact that extreme warming is already having on communities around the world.”

The climate change series began after Post environmental reporter Chris Mooney noticed “striking impacts” of climate change in scientific data that established a common theme: The climate was warming in many spots at double the average rate many thought previously. “I started pulling that together and realized that it was something bigger,” he says. He brought the idea to Trish Wilson, who joined the Post as its environment editor in 2018 after a Pulitzer-winning stint at the Associated Press, who, he says, “decided it should be a very big project.” The series eventually roped in 53 journalists and sent them in pairs to locations as diverse as Siberia, Tazmania, and New Jersey–“every continent but Antarctica,” Mooney, who reported part of the series from Uruguay, notes. “It was a project that showed a pretty serious investment in terms of human resources.”

The Post was a finalist for journalism’s highest prizes in three other categories: Breaking News, for its coverage of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton (Americas editor Josh White and deputy Simone Sebastian led that work); Commentary, for Sally Jenkins‘ columns about inequity in sports; and Public Service, for its “Opioid Files” reporting. There was one big surprise for Post-watchers: Its excellent Afghanistan Papers project wasn’t even a finalist in the Investigative Reporting category. To report that article, the Post and reporter Craig Whitlock spent three years fighting to obtain documents via the Freedom of Information Act that showed US officials believed for years that the war in Afghanistan was not winnable.

This year’s Pulitzers, which cover reporting from 2019, were delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic that has disrupted so much of American life. They were originally planned for April 20 and were presented by Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy, who live-streamed the winners from her living room.

For the Post, which traditionally observes Pulitzer day with journalists shoulder to shoulder in the newsroom, Monday was a very different experience. One big change, Mooney says, was that when he addressed the newsroom virtually after his win, “you couldn’t hear whether your jokes landed or not because everyone was muted but you.” He viewed the ceremony from his home in Northwest DC with his daughter, who is not quite a year old. He hopes to one day take her to a climate change hotspot, perhaps Key Largo: “I think I should show her a reef before she’s too old,” he says.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.

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