A Translator for the Climate Crisis, Grief Included
All is lost in the climate fight, say the nihilists. People must have hope in the climate fight, say the optimists.
Climate justice essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar says neither. “We, quite literally, have no time for nihilism,” she wrote in a blog post last September. And to the other point: “In our context now, rosy hopefulness feels downright sociopathic.”
Heglar, who is NRDC’s publications director as well as the inaugural writer in residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, notes that for a long time, the focus on hope was the main message about climate change. She finds it naive. “I don’t think we have to be full of hope to feel agency,” Heglar says. “I’m not, but I also don’t feel helpless.” She holds up the civil rights movement as an example of activism fueled mostly by dogged determination and survivalism and the feeling that there was no other choice but to take action.
Heglar is upending the climate conversation—and who has historically been included in it—with a goal to make people feel less alone in the fight. On a sabbatical from her work at NRDC, she is now teaching a new seminar at Columbia while continuing to cohost a climate media podcast and publish urgent personal essays that confront our planet’s existential crisis head-on.
Heglar found her calling in part by trying to process her own feelings. Her clear-cut essays in The Boston Globe, Wired, The New Republic, Vox, and other publications talk plainly about the roots of our climate crisis in conquests, genocides, slavery, and colonialism. “Climate change itself is not racist, but it is the product of racism,” she writes. “The fossil fuel industry was literally built on the backs and over the graves of Indigenous people around the globe, as they were forced off their land and either slaughtered or subjugated—from the Arab world to Africa, from Asia to the Americas.” And yet, she continues, among many who consider themselves environmentalists, “my insistence on connecting race and racism to the conversation is seen as ‘divisive’ and a ‘distraction’ or ‘identity politics.’ ”
Many of Heglar’s essays directly address the feelings of isolation and alienation that the climate crisis can rouse, including for her, “a Black person in green spaces.” These feelings can consequently be a barrier to deeper involvement in the movement, she says, recalling her first encounters with “enviro-bros” at Oberlin College.
Heglar arrived at the Ohio college in 2002, after a childhood spent in Birmingham, Alabama, and throughout the Mississippi River region, surrounded by nature. As a student with little disposable income (she worked in kitchens washing pots and pans throughout college to help pay her tuition), she was affronted as a freshman by both Greenpeace campaigners’ aggressive appeals for money and the enviro-blame they rained down on her when she had to refuse them. It was a turnoff. “I can go back and look at a couple of places where I almost stepped into it and didn’t,” she recalls, “both because it scared me, and because the people who were trying to bring me through the door, I decidedly did not want to hang out with.” Even volunteering at an independent newspaper, after she moved to New York City in 2007, brought her up against climate fatalists whom she nicknamed “doomer dudes.” So for years, she didn’t get involved in the environmental world. Then she eventually landed in policy communications.
Heglar, who worked at a social science research foundation before joining NRDC, can “speak fluent wonkese,” as she puts it, and leans on her English-major background to edit reports written by her colleagues with science and policy backgrounds, on topics ranging from Hurricane Sandy’s lessons for coastal cities to preparing for extreme heat waves in India. “I was drawn to things like editing policy publications because someone has to translate that really important scientific work into language that is digestible. I’ve always been drawn to playing that role of translation,” she says. Simultaneously, her personal writing delves into the mental toll of the climate crisis, exploring the emotional trauma behind the hard data.
Heglar started writing those essays in part because they placed talk of climate-stirred emotion beyond dispute. “You can argue with me about data, but you can’t tell me that this didn’t happen to me,” she says. “There’s no room in a policy report for a personal or emotional argument. There shouldn’t be. Those should be focused on solutions and be more detached. But there’s room elsewhere for personal stories and emotional storytelling. It felt like that was where the gap was and where my writing went.”
In “Climate and the Personal Essay,” the graduate seminar she’s now teaching at Columbia (albeit through a vastly rejiggered, Zoom-oriented semester), climate science and literature collide. Heglar surprised herself by how much she has taken to teaching, even though she was raised by a college professor and is from a family of teachers.
And for her students, “it’s liberating,” she says of the ungraded departure from the rigid parameters that previously defined their climate education. “I encourage them to feel and to talk about what they feel, and they’ve never really had that license before.” Cynthia Thomson, the associate director of Columbia’s one-year master’s program in Climate and Society, echoes this sentiment and notes that Heglar’s class allows for a rare, raw vulnerability that can be crucial to people who spend their time otherwise immersed in the study of climate science’s brutal effects and the barrage of related bad news.
Katharine Poole is among those seminar students to be moved by Heglar’s approach. She notes that reading about people’s experiences has made the data she’s studied in other classes more real and personal. “She’s a trailblazer,” Poole says of Heglar, whose work she had gotten to know before signing up for the class, through following the writer on Twitter. “Her essays were some of the first I’ve read that validated my own concerns. Her bearing witness and documenting these emotions is very important work because it shows people that they aren’t alone.” In turn, this helps build the movement, Poole adds, “by creating a community that will endure. If we can’t articulate and process these things, the ideas will never be implemented.”
Heglar’s class syllabus doesn’t only include essays on climate change but seminal civil rights pieces too. Classics like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time help her students trace the climate crisis back to racism, and explore issues of environmental injustice. “You don’t get to say that climate change is man-made and not look at the systems that man made,” she says. “You don’t get to wonder why people of color are not involved in the climate fight and then also not allow them to create their own reflections and make their own connections.”
In the class, the students discuss the importance of ensuring that more lower-income Black and brown communities are central to climate conversations and that their stories are told—a theme that goes hand in hand with the lessons from the students’ climate justice courses, which unpack the reasons why the effects of the crisis are disproportionately felt by people of color.
That theme of “checking your privilege” is one Heglar also tackles on Hot Take, the podcast she’s cohosted with climate journalist Amy Westervelt since November 2019. Her relationship with Westervelt originated over Twitter. Months later, they began to discuss doing a news podcast but eventually decided they’d prefer to focus on how climate issues were being covered in the media. “We felt that conversation about what is good and bad climate coverage was happening but in the worst possible place: on Twitter. Other than that, it wasn’t happening,” she says. “Twitter is a place where there’s not a lot of room for nuance, but there’s so much room for everybody to just get really, really mad and never understand each other.” Arguments ensue, people block each other, and the dialogue comes to a full stop. This was a gap the two felt they could fill.
Media coverage, too, has increased dramatically in recent years, which benefits the podcast. Once Heglar and Westervelt created an episode that covered all of 2016 and 2017. Now there’s as much to talk about in a two-week time span as there was in those two years combined. “The taping that we did for 2019 in review was initially nearly four hours long,” Heglar says—so long that it left them with sore throats. As they neared 2020, they were drowning in coverage. But despite the weighty content of the podcast, laughter is one of the defining sounds of Hot Take. To Heglar, that laughter is a sanity-preserving, life-giving defense mechanism for grappling with the enormous scale of the crisis we face.
Heglar and Westervelt agree on the primacy of emotion, including anger and despair, to any honest conversation about climate change. Others in the movement have criticized this tack. In one November episode, Westervelt noted a common response to their openness about emotion was the idea that “it is unseemly and certainly unintellectual to react this way.” But Heglar dismisses talk of rebutting critics; she’s got enough to do already. “I don’t have time to walk on those eggshells. We’re at zero hour,” she says.
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