Published: March 1, 2023 By

The Ted Scripps Fellowships have been bringing award-winning environmental journalists to CU Boulder for 26 years. Fellows embark on a year of courses, projects, field trips, seminars and more— taking advantage of everything university life has to offer. This series is a chance to get to know this year’s cohort of talented journalists beyond what a typical bio page will tell you.

Khan_AfghanistanGulnaz Khan is the climate editor at TED and a former editor at National Geographic. Her work appears in Popular Science, The Economist, National Geographic, POLITICO Europe, AFAR, and more. During her fellowship year, Khan is examining the relationship between religion and climate change, including the role of religious institutions in social movements, and faith-based responses to ecological crises.


Khan sat down with CEJ graduate assistant Devin Farmiloe to talk about her work and experience as a fellow. 


You're currently working on a project that explores the relationship between religion and the environment. What was your initial inspiration for the project?


While I was researching another story, I came across an old magazine article from the 1950s or ’60s, and was immediately captivated by a series of black and white photographs of a religious pilgrimage in the Himalayas. Every summer, thousands of devout Hindu pilgrims go on an arduous trek through the high mountain passes of Kashmir to Amarnath Cave, where an ice stalagmite forms. The ice is considered lingam, or a physical manifestation of Shiva – one of the most powerful deities in the Hindu pantheon. When I looked deeper, I learned that because of climatic changes in recent years, pilgrims have made the journey to Amarnath only to find that the ice melted or hadn’t formed at all – and this is devastating. Many of them believe that Shiva is withholding blessings because humans are not caring for the earth as they should. 


And the melting ice isn’t just significant for religious communities – Himalayan glaciers feed several of Asia’s largest rivers, which nourish more than a billion people. So climate change has profound consequences for the entire region, both spiritually and physically.


Could you tell me a little bit about the research that you have found through this line of inquiry?


Like the rituals at Amarnath, nature has played a central role in religious traditions throughout the ages. Ancient civilizations made sacrifices to gods that controlled the seasons, Jesus was baptized in a river, the Buddha meditated under a Bodhi tree. Today, the same extremes that threaten billions of lives — drought, famine, sea level rise, extreme weather — also endanger humanity’s most sacred sites and traditions. And my central question is whether appealing to people through the lens of faith can catalyze meaningful change where scientific and economic explanations have failed to mobilize action. 


For better or worse, religion is one of the most powerful social forces in human history. These are institutions that wield significant political and economic power. Many of them also emphasize the sanctity of the natural world, both as a symbol of the divine and facilitator of life – how that’s actually put into practice looks very different around the world. But one thing is clear – that as we grapple with an unprecedented era of environmental degradation, we’re seeing religious communities everywhere organizing around climate change in some really exciting and innovative ways that we can all learn from. 


The fellowship is a little bit of a different pace from what I imagine your life is like as a TED editor, or being an editor at National Geographic. How have you been finding your time in the fellowship?


It's been wonderful. Having the time to explore a story more deeply without the daily demands of a newsroom is really gratifying. It makes for richer, more nuanced stories, and you discover so many new connections. There's this go go go mentality in journalism, often out of necessity, but it doesn't always allow time for more in-depth reporting. And then being able to connect with a group of super thoughtful, talented journalists to share and process what we’re learning has been incredible. Khan_South Africa


What has your favorite class been so far?


During the fall semester I really enjoyed my screenwriting class, taught by Shaylynn Lesinski in Media Studies. I come from a writing and editing background, but I found that thinking through writing for screens is a completely different process than what I normally do. Writing something that's going to be watched versus read exercised new creative muscles. It’s also a concrete skill that I can take with me beyond this, which feels really valuable when I think about possible career trajectories. 


This semester I’m also taking a fantastic course on Islamic Mysticism, or Sufism, taught by Aun Ali in the Religious Studies department. It’s been so refreshing and thought-provoking – I feel my mind expanding in the most unexpected ways.


What do you like to do outside of journalism?


I love cultural and nature-based travel, getting outside, exploring new places – I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the endless mountain vistas here in Boulder. I also love books and film. I'm a big fantasy and science fiction fan, and think cli-fi’s growing popularity is fascinating for obvious reasons. There are so many beautiful and creative ways to tell stories, explore big questions, and express our humanity – I’m here for all of it.