Building our Climate Futures Through Storytelling (Pt. 2), w/Kendra Pierre-Louis and Mary Heglar
In the finale to our season on climate data, we continue our exploration of storytelling as a way to imagine and build climate futures. Jacquelyn and Ramesh first speak with climate reporter and podcaster Kendra Pierre-Louis about science fiction, representation, and her own shift from writing apocalyptic stories to working on the solutions-focused podcast How to Save a Podcast. Next, they speak with Mary Heglar, co-creator and co-host of the Hot Take newsletter and podcast (along with Amy Westervelt), about the authors and works that influenced how she saw her role in a warming world, including Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, and more, as well as the importance of grappling with climate grief and the historical injustices that have given rise to the consequences of climate change, both now and in the future.
Subscribe to How to Save a Planet.
Feel Something, Learn Something, Do Something: A Care Package for Climate Grief
If you haven’t read, Parable of the Sower, you really should.
Eric Holthaus: On Being a Climate Person.
You can subscribe to Sustain 267 here or wherever you get your podcasts.
Please consider becoming a patron on Patreon to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Jo Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.
Find Warm Regards on the web and on social media:
A full transcript of this episode can be found below.
Jacquelyn Gill: My name is Jacquelyn, and this is my climate story.
I was born when CO2 levels were 339 parts per million, eight years before James Hansen gave his famous testimony to Congress. This pivotal event went unnoticed by me, in the first grade. I would not learn about climate change until I was a college student in the late 90s and early 2000s, and even then it wasn’t really on my radar until I was in graduate school — which I attended from 2005 until 2012, with the goal of becoming a scientist. I became a scientist not because of climate change, but because I was worried about extinction. But in the seven years in which I worked towards a masters degree and then a PhD, as I learned about the Earth’s natural climate cycles, I became increasingly aware of the unnatural ways in which we were fundamentally altering Earth’s climate through our own actions. In the world I was researching in the lab, CO2 levels were 280 ppm. On the day I defended — July 5, 2012 — Madison, Wisconsin, was hotter than Death Valley. A year later, during my postdoc, we broke 400 ppm.
My name is Jacquelyn, and this is my climate story. I am forty years old and I have never had children. I grew up watching Captain Planet and worrying that by the time I was old enough to vote, there would be no rainforest left. I was raised on “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle”. My dad and stepdad (both Navy veterans) worked in the fossil fuel industry after they retired; coal and oil not only heated our homes and kept the lights on, they put food on the table. I didn’t realize that this was a problem until well into my 20s. When I was in college, we thought the worst we could do to our planet was to cut down trees, kill animals, and throw our trash on the roadside. We knew Exxon was bad because of the oil spills, not because of emissions. We didn’t yet fully appreciate that we were hijacking the planet, that we were leaving behind the fingerprints of our actions in the very rocks. By the time my friends were settling down and having kids, I was starting graduate school in Wisconsin, and we were learning (in our classrooms, in the lab, and in the news) just what it meant to release hundreds of millions of years of captured sunshine, all at once. By this point, I was all in for planet Earth. Kids could wait; I had work to do. Some people yelled at me that I was making it all up for the grant money, and others yelled at me about how I wasn’t doing enough. And by the time I was finally ready to start a family, it was too late. After years of negative pregnancy tests and failed attempts, I lost my uterus. “Not to worry,” people told me. “Who wants to bring a baby into a doomed world?” At 418 ppm, I found myself saying, against all logic, “I do.”
My name is Jacquelyn, and this is my climate story. I am barely holding it together most days. Some days, I feel stubborn and strong, or full of hope, borne up by the vast community of people out there working hard to be “good ancestors”. Other days, I am an absolute hot mess. I am somehow doing too much, and not nearly enough. I am dropping balls at home and at work. I send off papers or review data sets, and I think about all the people who will never read them. I have a pile of neglected essays and op-eds about climate change; I feel guilty when I work on them, and guilty when I don’t. The housework piles up and I neglect my health. Every time there is an apocalyptic headline or a high-profile “doomer dude” goes viral, my inbox is flooded with anxious messages, asking me if the science is accurate or if it’s even worth having kids one day? I think about the fertility clinic I still haven’t called back, put on my climate mom face, and I reply, “It’s never too late. Don’t give up. We need you. We’re glad you’re here.”
My name is Jacquelyn, and this is my climate story. Walking in a forest, a young girl has lost her way. Surrounded by trees in every direction, the moon is obscured by clouds and she has nothing to light her path. Everywhere she turns, the landscape looks the same. Stumbling in the dark, she trips over a root to find her own footprints in the mossy ground; she has been walking in circles. Her face and hands are scratched by brambles, and her feet are cut by sharp stones. She is alone and afraid. With no path to guide her, she closes her eyes, instead imagining where she wants to be: a village where the people are kind and take care of one another. Everyone has enough to eat and sleeps warm at night, surrounded by the people they love. The forest around the village is full of birdsong, and in the twilight foxes play and deer graze in meadows filled with flowers and fireflies. People only take what they need from the wood and everyone has enough. Opening her eyes, she sees lamplight through the trees. She walks towards it.
Throughout this season, we’ve talked about the power (and the limits) of climate data. We’ve told some of the human stories behind the science, about the people doing the research and the people that research impacts. We’ve talked to people who research what we think about climate and what works when it comes to changing belief. For our very last episode of the season, though, we wanted to focus on storytelling — the stories out in the world that shape the climate conversation, because they shape us. When I sat down to write this last introduction, I struggled with how to start. After everything, I didn’t want to just hide behind a wall of data about the importance of narrative and storytelling in climate communication, so I told a story. It’s not the whole story and it’s not the only story, or even the most important story about climate I could tell. But it’s the one I have, right here, right now.
If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably what Eric Holthaus calls a “climate person.” As climate people, we’re standing in the stream of time, inheritors of the past and ancestors of the future. We’re both the characters and the narrators of the greatest story of all time. And one of the most important things we can do in the climate crisis (as Katharine Hayhoe says) is to talk about it.
So in the months and years to come, I hope you tell your climate story. Write it down or say it out loud, but tell it. And tell it again and again, to anyone who will listen — and especially to those who won’t. And in the telling, let’s write the future of our choosing.
Welcome to Warm Regards. I’m Jacquelyn Gill.
Ramesh Laungani: And I’m Ramesh Laungani. For our final episode in our Data Season, we talked with two Black women writers and podcasters about the power of storytelling, about how we tell stories about climate change — past, present, and future. First, we’ll talk with a climate journalist about how science fiction can help us imagine better futures. Then, we talk with a climate essayist and podcaster about the power of personal stories and why reconciling with our past is the key to imagining more just and equitable climate futures.
Jacquelyn: Our first guest is Kendra Pierre-Louis — a climate reporter, journalist, and podcast producer with How to Save a Planet on Gimlet. She’s previously worked for the New York Times and Popular Science, and was a contributor to All We Can Save — a wonderful anthology of climate women. We talked to Kendra about her love of science fiction like The Expanse, and how over the course of her career, her climate storytelling has shifted from reporting on apocalyptic headlines about wildfires or Antarctica, to working on a more solutions-based podcast.
Kendra, it’s really good to have you on the show and I just want to thank you for joining us — especially to take a break from your own podcast, to spend some time on ours. To kick us off, can you tell us a bit about what you do and how you got interested in science fiction?
Kendra Pierre-Louis: So my name is Kendra Pierre-Louis and I’m a climate reporter on the Gimlet Spotify podcast, How to Save a Planet. I’ve been a climate reporter full-time for about five years, and before that kind of part-time. I dunno, I started getting interested in environmental issues in college. In the 2000s, they were sort of rising to the surface. Climate change was becoming a bigger and bigger issue, and I started taking classes. I was an econ major, which I picked in part because it only had seven required classes, so I was able to take a lot of electives. So I took classes on rural sociology and environment, and it was just sort of a lingering interest for a really long time. But the difficulty was actually in figuring out that I could make a living as a journalist and sort of marrying the two interests. That’s what took a long time, but there was always an interest in writing and there was always an interest in climate and the environment; it just took me awhile to figure out that I should put the two together. [Laughs]
And as for science fiction, I don’t know. I feel like it, I came out of the womb watching Star Trek. It’s always been something that I liked watching. I didn’t have cable as a kid because my parents were . . . I don’t want to call them cheap. My parents were “cost sensitive” [laughing], I guess. But I grew up in New York City, and New York City has a lot; like you could get actual TV with an antenna, which I think matters. I grew up watching a lot of TERRIBLE reruns, in hindsight — some of which was like whatever the weird channels used to exist before the big rise, cable became a big deal. They used to just rerun a lot of science fiction so I grew up watching a lot of Night Rider and the original Lost in Space and some of the original Battlestar Galactica, and then a lot of reruns of movies so like Solarbabies — which was my favorite movie [laughing] for a long time. And also it was the dominance of the independent video store. There was a video store like three blocks from my house. It was within the radius that I was allowed to walk to, and I kind of had sort of an illegal job from the age of eight onward, so I had my own money. So what I would do every weekend is I would go to the video store and I would rent two movies, and it would cost like four dollars. I would buy popcorn and I would make popcorn, and that was my weekend activity. I remember bringing home Stargate, which I don’t even think I was old enough. The video store was like the guy was chain smoking in the back and was like, “As long as you don’t go past the beaded curtain,” it was fine. He didn’t ask questions.
Jacquelyn: So I grew up in rural Vermont, but I too would get off the bus every Friday after school. I’d walk down to our little independent movie store and get two movies and have just enough money left over for a bag of potato chips. That was my Friday night, all throughout most of the nineties.
Ramesh: So Kendra, I also grew up in New York and my parents . . . I also did not grow up with cable. And so I, I know exactly what you’re talking about — all the antenna stuff.
Kendra: Wait, where did you grow up?
Ramesh: I grew up just in Long Island, but I went to school in New York City just outside of Queens.
Kendra: Wait, where?
Ramesh: Right near John F Kennedy Airport, literally ten minutes from Kennedy.
Kendra: I’m on the other side. I grew up in Queens, but I grew up in Bayside. So like North of -
Ramesh: [Excitedly] Yeah yeah yeah! My parents worked in Brooklyn. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.
So I’m curious to know, how did your childhood experience with sci fi impact your own interest in (and relationship with) sci fi as you grew up?
Kendra: One of the things that I think is interesting is I grew up not quite on the internet. I definitely had it in college and it was like becoming a thing in high school. But I remember distinctly I went to grad school in 2007, kind of during the height of Heroes had come out that year and Battlestar Galactica was blowing everybody’s minds. After graduating, like three years later I mentioned something about BSG on Facebook and a grad school classmate was like, “How did I not know that you liked Battlestar Galactica?” So for me, sci fi was always as independent thing. My sister didn’t like it and I knew enough that you just didn’t talk about it at school if you want to have a social life [laughs]. So I didn’t connect it to anything. For me, it’s a very recent thing, the idea that I can talk about science fiction with other people. It was always a very privately consumed thing.
Ramesh: Do you think the fact that you couldn’t talk about your interest in sci fi with your peers was influenced by a general lack of diversity that you see in a lot of sci fi today?
Kendra: It’s really interesting cuz sci fi has gotten a bad rap for being so white and I think that’s true, but I also think I grew up with DS9.
Kendra: One of the things now . . . Jacquelyn knows this, but I’m obsessed with The Expanse to a degree that is almost problematic. One of the things that I think is really interesting when you watch The Expanse and then you switch over to normal television, is normal television is really white. In a lot of ways, I can’t speak to the media other people were consuming, but sci fi and in some ways was this stuff that bridged those worlds. I kind of grew up kind of at the heyday of Black television. We grew up watching Living Single and we grew up watching New York Undercover, and we grew up watching Moesha and we grew up watching Hanging With Mr. Cooper. There were all of these shows that we watch and they were Black shows, and then we also watched Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. I guess it sort of loosely, occasionally had a person of color in it, but in was probably really problematic. I have not watched it as an adult, so I don’t want to speak to the quality of it.
But there were these shows that we want to firmly existed in these white spaces. In some ways, science fiction was one of the only places that actually had people of color and white people in that same space.
Jacquelyn: I’m so glad that you mentioned The Expanse because as we were prepping for this conversation, I was really hoping to be able to ask you about this show. Not just to nerd out about it with you, but also in terms of how The Expanse envisions these diverse futures. As someone who’s watched and loved the shows (but for full disclosure, I haven’t read the books yet), to me it seems the primary divides are really based on where you’re born — whether you’re born in the asteroid belt or you’re from Mars or Earth. But it seems race doesn’t seem to come up in the show. it seems the real social justice issues are really more class-based.
Kendra: I would push back a little and actually say that The Expanse does talk about race. It’s interesting that you talk about it is class, but it’s not and this shows how big of a nerd I am. In the book, Holden explicitly says to Naomi at one point after they get together (I think it’s book two or three) about how his parents are racist and he’s talking about against Belters.
Jacquelyn: Oh, wow.
Kendra: For obvious reasons in the show, they kind of had to temper it because there just are not that many super tall and skinny people in the world. They had to make some concessions around casting, but in the books they are really a lot more explicit about how physically different belters are from Earthers and Martians, and that Martians and sort of bridge the gap — that people who live in the belt are very tall and very thin and that they call Earthers “squats”.
Jacquelyn: Oh, wow.
Kendra: They just reframe it in terms of nationalism because racism is a construct anyway; race isn’t real. And so it’s no longer about what your skin type is in that same way; it’s about sort of where you were born and what gravity you can handle. The first season, there’s that whole conversation that Miller has with his partner where they’re talking about the fusing of the spine and who got the cheekbone juice, and that sort of the different tells about classes within belters even and how long you’ve been in the belt. There’s a comment somebody makes like, “Are we all going to look that guy after enough generations in space?”
Jacquelyn: That’s a really good point and, from that perspective, racism is still very much with us in the future of The Expanse; It’s just kind of playing out differently than what we might see here on Earth.
So then shifting gears (as much as I would love to stay on this topic), let’s talk about another vision of the future. I’d to ask you about Wakanda, which is this idea of a future city that’s a bit closer to our own present; of course, it’s in the Marvel universe. But you wrote this amazing essay about how Wakanda is a city that’s not apart from nature, in part because it has no suburbs. Can you tell us a bit about that and why is that so important?
Kendra: So because Wakanda was never . . . I mean, Wakanda [has] two kind of big things going for it. The first is it was never colonized, and the second is it was given vibranium. It was given this tremendous magical metal that can do all sorts of amazing things with, but that freed them to develop in ways . . . they never had the nature split, right? There’s this belief, I think in the last very much where, we were taught an earlier to view nature as something outside of ourselves. They never had that split, so they were able to make decisions about what their society should look in ways that are in keeping with what humans actually need. This is something that I’ve been . . . I’ve been researching social movements for a story that I’m working on, and something else that really struck me now that didn’t strike me when I wrote the piece is how much joy is in Wakanda, and how much if you watch Black Panther, they’re joking around with each other (even while they’re doing sort of these very serious and very important things), how much still light and levity is in there. That’s sort of woven throughout, I think, that you can have this seriousness, you can have these constructions, you can decide that you don’t need roads. Some of it is just they did a technological leap where they want from horse and buggy to flying vehicle, so you don’t need to build roads. But they did make a decision to put in a high-speed rail, right? They did make a decision to keep things at a human scale. One of the things that I think . . . I don’t want to speak about all cultures just generally, but I can speak very comfortably about the United States. We’ve made opposite decisions over and over and over again where we prioritize the systems that we’ve created that in theory are designed to serve us, but we’re constantly serving the systems. Our phones are supposed to make our lives easier, but now we are addicted to our phones. The economy’s supposed to be a way of distributing scarce resources, but now we’re kind of like focused on gaming the metrics. We’re constantly taking the things and they’re doing the wrong things, they’re harming us; they’re not helping us in the ways that we think that they should be.
Ramesh: Going back to Wakanda, how do you think representation of the future (like Wakanda) impact the broader narratives of climate change and climate action?
Kendra: I think one of the problems with climate change as a story is that it tells us all the things that we can’t have and it tells us all the ways in which our existence in this world is hurting the world, but it doesn’t give us much to work towards. One of the things that seeing Wakanda does is that it’s so beautiful and it gives you this idea of other ways of being that don’t necessarily mean a reversion to ways of living that I think most of us don’t necessarily want to return to. You often hear people somewhat dismissively saying, “Well, why do you want us all to live in caves?” I’m kind of, “Maybe if they look a Hobbit hole. [Laughter] There’s some good options out there, you know? I think what Wakanda does is it gives us a vision for the future that doesn’t look so different from the reality that we’re currently living in but feels progress, but also holds onto things that we’ve lost and that we see value in.
Ramesh: How do you think the vision of a place like Wakanda impacts people’s conception of what a sci fi future can look and who has a role to play in that future?
Kendra: I think that’s an interesting question, but mostly because I think that there’s something . . . whiteness in this country has become shorthand for universal, and I think Wakanda holds something for everyone who’s willing to see it. I think that one of the things that COVID has really made clear in the United States, is how much the United States is unwilling to look outside of itself for lessons because there were plenty of countries that contained to COVID and did a decent job, but many of those countries were nonwhite countries. I’m better about it now but for quite a while, every day there was not a day that did not go past where I was like, “We could have been South Korea. We could have been Vietnam. We could have been Thailand.” There are countries we could have learned from and we chose not to. And so I think to answer that question, it’s really a question of how much people want to escape whiteness — right — as a concept. If you’re willing to escape it then, yeah, it holds something for you. People of color, I think Black people have been forced constantly to see themselves in images of whiteness in this country, to take lessons from images of whiteness in the country, and I don’t see why it can’t go the other way.
Ramesh: How conscious was your own transition to not solely tell dystopian climate change stories? What was that journey like for you?
Kendra: My first job was at Pop Sci and it was interesting cause beyond basic journalism rules, they didn’t give me any rules, in terms of what is a norm that I kind of want to lead with and so I had to kind of construct the norms around my own reporting. One of the norms that I kind of created was, “If nobody dies in this story, then I can be funny.” I don’t think I’m a particularly funny person but, if I can find a way for there to be humor in this thing, I’m allowed to use humor; you can use humor in climate change. That was one of the hardest things to transfer at the job I held before. There was this real feeling, I think, that we’re serious journalists and so it has to be serious and I just come from this space of climate change is kind of a bummer anyway, and nobody wants to read about it cause it’s kind of a bummer. Or some people do, but oftentimes people are approaching the story and bracing themselves sort of for the horrors to come. So if I can inject any levity in this to get you to keep reading and for you to take away something from this, then I’m going to find a way to do it. That was a really central tension between me and editors before.
One of the first stories that I did that got attention was a story on kelp forests in California disappearing. I’m normally pretty anti-anthropomorphizing animals, but there’s a speaker who said, “We’re here about the urchin, the evil purple urchin,” and for that story, it was just so perfect. So for the entire story in my head, I had cast the urchin as the evil Disney villain, and that was the lens that I was going to tell this story through because it’s a story that you can kind of hold on to and it resonates with you. There is sadness in it (it’s not a happy story), but I wanted you to be able to feel it and I wanted you to be able to at least have moments of joy in there. That’s kind of true in science fiction and even in sci fi, or in horror but in sci fi as well where the scariest movies are the ones that are kind of funny. Right? Like the ones that make you laugh because you’re laughing and you’re like, “Oh no, something bad is going to come.”
Jacquelyn: I think about this a lot in terms of what It is about these kinds of stories that seem to sustain us when things are tough. I really love literary fiction and indie movies, but at some point in graduate school I just found myself only really wanting dragons and spaceships. But at the same time, science fiction does actually grapple with important themes like social justice and loss and identity and how we find meaning amidst uncertainty, and yet there’s something deeply comforting about it. There’s a reason we often think of these genres as escapist. So to bring it back to climate change, this work is hard — as you know. You’re reporting on stories that will often just break your heart as a reader over and over again. I imagine it’s gotta be hard for you as a writer and a reporter. So just from the standpoint of your own personal sustainability doing this kind of work, how are you able to do that day in and day out and does being a sci fi nerd help you in any way?
Kendra: I think because a lot of science fiction (even if it’s not great) is sort of wrestling with humans’ place in the world. It lets you ask questions about morality (about all of these other things) without asking this questions directly. You know what I mean? And if you’re consuming it repetitiously the way I tend to it just sort of sits with you and needles in the back of your head. I should be clear; I do think there’s an element of that in fiction broadly. Even that piece, “Wakanda doesn’t have suburbs”, I did not watch Black Panther with the idea of one day being approached to contribute an essay to an anthology and walking out saying, “Yes, this is the thing that I want to talk about.” I think one of the things that science fiction does is it plays with those edges and it helps us needle those ideas, and it helps us just see the world a little bit differently and us reframe the world a little bit differently — such that when we have experiences down the line and the two intersect, we’re able to kind of just look at it a little bit differently than I think we would have otherwise.
Jacquelyn: I’ve been reading a bit about the impacts of reading climate fiction and it tends to just cause negative associations with climate change, especially among young readers; it just sort of makes them feel worse about our current situation. While that raising awareness is powerful (it’s really necessary on a lot of levels), on another level we’re kind of past that. We don’t need to convince more people that climate change is a problem. What we need to do is inspire action and we need to know which actions are going to get us to a better future.
So we really need to give people a utopian vision — not just in terms of where we need to go, but also it’s important to roadmap how exactly we’re supposed to get there. It’s these in-between steps (between the dystopia and the utopia) that are the most valuable. So I’m wondering, do you have any thoughts about that? Or is there anything that you’ve read or watched that you think really grapples with that messy in-between space between the present and that utopian climate future where we’ve solved the problem or at least we’re addressing it in a meaningful way?
Kendra: I’m actually working on a piece a little bit about that, about climate change in film and TV. I actually got to talk to . . . I talked to two people. I talked to Roland Emmerich (who did The Day After Tomorrow) and I talked to [Narendra] Shankar (who’s one of the co-showrunners for The Expanse).
Kendra: [Laughing] Sorry. I kind of want to take two different stabs at this. The Day After Tomorrow did an amazing job around awareness-raising and I remember in talking to him (this doesn’t quite make the piece) . . . I don’t know if you’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow recently, but I hadn’t seen it in a very long time. Obviously I rewatched it for the interview and most of what I remembered is I watched it kind of around the time it came out. I’m not sure if I saw it in theaters or in video; I’m pretty sure I saw it on video, but I probably hadn’t seen it in a decade. I remember thinking when it came out, how much it was criticized for being getting the science wrong and being derivative or whatever. But when I rewatched it, the thing that really struck me . . . well, two things. One was he did [unclear] kind of heavily from Independence Day, which he had also co-written and produced or directed, and he was like, “Yeah, I did that on purpose because he needed to get greenlit, and I felt if I copied Independence Day but made it a climate change movie it would get greenlit.” And he was right, so kudos.
The other thing that I thought was really interesting was the things that he got right, and the things that he got right was sort of the impacts of climate change. There’s this kind of big scene where everyone is kind of crossing the river, but from the US into Mexico. He was already talking about climate migration in 2003–2004, before I think it was kind of on the national radar. Then there’s a scene where one of the characters is a teen character and she talks about everything she had planned for her future is no longer true. It almost completely . . . it so echoed what I heard Jamie Margolin say, who’s a youth climate activist who testified in Congress I guess two years ago now that I literally emailed her and said, “Have you seen the day after tomorrow?” It wasn’t plagiarism, but it echoed so strongly in sentiment, you know? And they were like, “No.”
Jacquelyn: What! On my gosh!
Kendra: That movie actually did a tremendous amount of getting people engaged in climate change and moving people to do something about climate change. I think if you read the literature, you give it credit but I don’t think (broadly speaking) it gets as much credit as it deserves. And on the other side of the spectrum, one of the things that I really appreciate about The Expanse generally and about this aspect of The Expanse, specifically, is that the experience is not a utopia and it’s not a dystopia. It’s just sort of what happens if humanity manages to limp along another couple hundred years. You see it kind of constantly . . . it is very clear that we have adapted to climate change, but that we didn’t “solve it”, but we managed to make it work. And I appreciate that even if the way we manage to make it work sort of replicates all of the structures that are still incredibly problematic in our society. But the fact that the whole globe isn’t underwater and they’re not sort of eking out this horrible sort of Mad Max dystopian future is actually something to be appreciative of.
Jacquelyn: Well, it’s realistic in that it shows the impacts of climate change, but it also shows some of the ways that we’ve had to adapt, and that’s one of the things that I’ve just really appreciated about it, too.
To get back to the day after tomorrow for a second, I actually love that movie because it came out just as I was finishing college and I was getting ready to start grad school and paleoecology, and it’s all about ice cores. To me, that movie just does a great job of showing the relationships between science and government and the challenges of climate denial, which was a much bigger challenge at the time that that movie came out; so I can get a bit salty when some of my fellow scientists talk down that movie; I mean, it’s obviously meant to be science fiction. But as one of our previous guests Jenn Marlon has talked about, The Day After Tomorrow did more to raise public awareness about climate change than An Inconvenient Truth did. To me that’s huge. So yeah, I don’t think we should dismiss the power of storytelling when it comes to driving public awareness or even public action.
Ramesh: So Kendra to wrap up, how do you think sci fi narratives change self-perceptions of who belongs in stories about the future and it’s stories of climate change action for the future?
Kendra: Whoopi Goldberg has definitely said this and I think . . . is it Mae Jemison who’s a first Black woman astronaut in space? Both referenced Star Trek as a way of saying that they showed that “I exist”, basically. I think there’s just that element of it, and the piece I talk about how the creator of the cell phone cites star Trek as his example. One of the things that he thinks I tend to fiction can do is it can shift the conversation and the conversation shifts a culture, right? Going back to the question that you were asking, which is one of the things I don’t think we talk enough about is our culture and what parts of it are sort of reinforcing the most problematic aspects of what contributes to climate change, and what ways that we can meaningfully shift that culture. That goes back to the stories that we tell about ourselves.
A friend of mine, he’s from Michigan but his wife is from Tanzania and one of the things he talks a lot about is how much harder (he has three kids); and how much he talks a lot about how much harder it is when he’s in the US with his kid than when he’s in Tanzania, because in Tanzania they still have more of a sense of an extended family structure, so there are a lot more hands to just sort of help out. But in the US we’ve become so individualized and so nuclear family focused that it all becomes that there are fewer hands to carry the load, and we don’t question that culture at all. You know what I mean? And there are all of these ways in which we just don’t question that this is how we do things. We’ve always done these ways.
One of the things that I think science fiction allows us to do is it allows us to question the culture because it allows us to play with other cultures that are not actually . . . where you’re less worried about stereotyping or misrepresenting something, because you’re essentially creating something new; so you don’t have to worry about accuracy and representation in the same way. I think it opens it up to more people. I think there are always going to be people who are like, “Make way for me. I don’t care what story you’re telling about yourself. I know my story and this is what my story is going to be.” But I think for a lot of people, I think it opens up that story to more people, for sure.
Justin Schell: Hey everyone, producer Justin Schell here with another climate podcast that we think you should check out. Sustain 267 is all about how climate change is affecting those living on the African continent. Here’s host Pato Kelesitse to tell you more.
Pato Kelesitse: I am Pato Kelesitse and I host the Sustain 267 podcast, where I have conversations with Africans on climate change and sustainability on our continent. We discuss the impact of the changing climate on our lives, traditions, culture, food, ways of living, and African solutions to the unique ways in which we are affected by climate change. With this podcast, we look to increase African voices (especially those of women) within the environmental movement. Join us to hear African voices on climate change and sustainability, and look for Sustain 267 podcast wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Ramesh: As you heard from Kendra Pierre-Lewis and from our last episode with Eric Holthaus and Kim Stanley Robinson, telling climate stories that help build a shared climate future must come from a diverse set of viewpoints if we’re going to tackle climate change in a fair and equitable manner. That vision can not simply be based on the views of a single group of people who (despite the best of intentions) may hold unrecognized biases and blind spots that perpetuate the climate inequities that exist today. However, in order to tell fair and equitable climate stories of the future, we must understand the stories of the past that got us to where we are today. Those stories of the past must include marginalized voices. Understanding how our past has led to our climate present and how it will lead to our shared climate future is why we were so excited to talk with our second guest, Mary Annaïse Heglar.
Mary is a climate essayist, and the co-host and co-creator of the Hot Take podcast and newsletter, along with Amy Westervelt. One of the first times I had the pleasure of reading Mary’s work was a piece called “Climate change isn’t the first existential threat”. I was immediately struck by the power of Mary’s words to draw striking parallels between the fight against the horrific and oppressive systems impacting the Black community in the US and the fight against climate change. As she writes in her essay, “You don’t fight something like that because you think you will win. You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you.” There’s so much truth in that statement and it encapsulates so much of the complexity and — frankly — action that is required to both imagine and build a just climate future. She goes on to write even more poignantly, “Nothing scares me more than climate change, but I made it my mind to face it head-on because of my debt to future generations and previous generations.” The interplay in her writing between visceral descriptions of the past and calls to a future based in love and her soul-bearing reckoning with her own climate grief and climate perseverance makes Mary’s work so powerful for anyone who reads it.
Mary, thanks so much for being here today. We’re really excited to have you on this episode, and so we just want to jump right into it and talk about you and your work. You’ve described yourself as a climate justice essayist, and you also co-host the awesome podcast Hot Take. What was your journey getting there?
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oo! Uh, I went through a lot of different little routes, but basically I got concerned about climate change probably, maybe 2010 for real. And in 2014, I was leaving my job at a social science research foundation; which they do great work but it takes a really long time for it to make a difference and I felt I was watching the world fall apart in real time, so I decided to go into climate full time. So I went to one of the big green groups and was editing policy reports and that was 2014 and things steadily got worse, specifically after 2016. And I, at that point, was like, “This is terrifying,” right? You’ve read these reports and you’ve got to wade through the real details of how bad it is. A lot of the time I would call up the author and be like, “So, what’s the counter argument?” If you know that digging up tar sands (you can’t get it out of water) is the most flammable substance on Earth, why do we have to talk people out of doing this? Why do they want to do it? There was never a good answer and so that freaked me out.
I needed a way to process that, and so I started writing cuz that’s the way I know how to process things. I started writing on Medium and then that turned into . . . I thought nobody would ever read it, and it turns out I was wrong. [Laughs] So I kept writing. Then I started publishing other places and then I met Amy Westerville, who does the Drilled podcast and many other things as well. We hit it off and we started talking about doing a podcast of our own and our whole thing always about how climate change is talked about in the media and the narratives around it. That was what we were texting about anyway, so we decided to just make a podcast out of it and be as serious and as goofy as we want it to be. I chose essayist because writer just sounded so expansive and I felt overwhelmed by it so I was like, “I’ll just write essays,” and I think at some point in my life I probably will shed that.
Jacquelyn: So we’re focusing the end of our data season on the power of storytelling and envisioning climate futures. In your work, Mary, you draw really explicit connections to literature and the power of personal stories. Can you sort of trace back the genealogy of some of the most formative books that you’ve read and maybe how they came to inform the climate work that you’re doing now?
Mary: So the first non-children’s book that I read was a collection of poetry called I am the darker brother. It’s a collection of Harlem Renaissance poetry, so like a lot of Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker are in there. I was seven [laughs] when I heard that, so I’ve been a literature geek for most of my life — starting with poetry, very quickly getting into novels. Like I read Jubilee when I think I was in the fourth grade or something that. Yeah, it was a really quick love affair and rabbit hole that I went down. I wrote fiction and poetry all through high school and college, so anybody who knows me from that time in my life would not at all be surprised to see those sorts of influences. I think it comes together with the essays, the best inspirations for that type of writing would be James Baldwin and Arundhati Roy, because they both write really beautiful fiction but also really beautiful nonfiction, too. I would describe myself as a literary writer, but that’s just so long. So I say, essayist.
Ramesh: In your work, you referenced Octavia E Butler a lot. I’m curious to know how have her stories informed your own approach to storytelling and writing, and even more broadly living in a warming world.
Mary: Yeah! So Octavia Butler is definitely one of my favorite writers and I keep my favorite writers books on a bookshelf right over my desk, so I’ll just name a couple more. There’s I’m going to have Amitav Ghosh and Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Arundhati Roy and James Baldwin. Octavia Butler, one of the things I love about her the most is that her work has so much empathy involved in it; and as a deeply empathetic person, she’s able to almost see the world before it goes where it’s going to go. So she predicted podcasts, for one thing, which I find like really crazy. And like reading her work, especially the Parable series (the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Sower), those were written in the nineties but they really read watching the news today because it’s she saw our mistakes before we made them. It kind of makes you wonder, “Where would the world be if we listened to Black women?” I dunno. [Laughs] She’s kind of this oracle and in particular in that Parable series. So spoiler alert to anyone who’s not read them (but also still go read them), she interplays this whole world where climate change has happened in this really real way. Her main character has what they call hyper empathy, which means that she feels other people’s pain as her own pain and she feels other people’s pleasure like it’s their own pleasure; but there’s still a little pleasure in the world that it’s not often that she gets to flex that muscle, which really sucks. But also it speaks to me about the world we need today and the type of attributes we need today. I will often say that to fight climate change or adapt to climate change, what we really need is empathy. More than we need solar power, wind power, anything else, we need empathy.
Jacquelyn: For Folks who haven’t read her yet (and I will say “yet” because if you haven’t, you absolutely should), what do you think that Octavia Butler got right? And why do you think we keep coming back to her writing, especially in the last few years?
Mary: Well, honestly, I’ll say I don’t think we go back to her often enough as a society, right? I still see people today saying, “We’re living in 1984,” or, “We’re living in The Handmaid’s Tale.” This is none of those things. This is Parable of the Sower. When I hear people say that, all I hear them say is, “I haven’t read Octavia Butler.” It is criminal to me that her novels were never made into movies or that Parable of the Sower didn’t become a bestseller until the pandemic. It’s like, “Oh, NOW you want to listen.” I think we keep going back to her because we never really went there in the first place and I think there’s still a lot there for us to learn, but as a society . . . I don’t want to make it to the end of her book and real life.
Jacquelyn: As you mentioned, you were working in communications when you started writing these essays and I’m wondering,were there any particular writers that helped you sort of make this transition to a more personal, vulnerable sort of storytelling?
Mary: Honestly, no. At that point, I was kind of I call myself now a “recovering workaholic”, but I was definitely a workaholic at that point of my life, and so I wasn’t really reading for pleasure. I was sort of scouring the internet, looking for other people writing about climate change in an emotional and vulnerable and personal kind of way. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t finding it. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist, but I didn’t see it anywhere. So when I started writing about it, I honestly was not writing for anybody else to read it; I was writing just to process it. So then I’m not afraid to be vulnerable, right? I’m writing . . . my first audience was then and still is now always myself because I’m always sort of searching for a catharsis or searching to better understand something that’s the bedeviling me. So when I sit down to write, I don’t think about anyone else reading it. I only think about myself.
I wasn’t drawing off of anything. I remember when I first started writing about climate change and emotions, and people who I think probably thought they had my best interests at heart were like they told me that the idea was lazy. They told me . . . yeah, because they wanted me to write about it in a scientific kind of way. I’m like, “I’m not a scientist,” and I also feel people are already writing about it that way. They want me to write these stories that were like, “This is what Miami is going to look like,” at this year or that year or whatever. I feel that’s actually out there and no part of me wants to write that. I edit that. I want to write about how climate change feels because, one, I don’t see that reflected; and two, that’s the whole point of me writing. I’m not writing for attention; I’m writing the process. Yeah, I did not see a lot of climate change personal essays out there, and so I just was like, “You know what? I’ll do it,”
Ramesh: One of the things that struck me about your work was that you were one of the first people to really talk about the experience of climate grief publicly. When I saw your work about climate grief, I was like, “Yes, those are the words.” Since I’m not a writer, sometimes finding the right words can be difficult. So I’m curious, could you describe the cathartic nature of your work?
Mary: Oftentimes the essays start with just like utter confusion or frustration. A lot of them start because someone asked me a question that I didn’t know how to answer. If you’ve ever seen that episode of Seinfeld where, someone insulted George at a meeting and he stews over it for weeks until he comes up with the perfect comeback and then he drives across -
Ramesh: The jerk store.
Mary: Exactly! And then he drives across the country to deliver it two weeks later? That’s kind of where my essays come from. Like someone asks me something and I didn’t know the answer in the moment, and then I thought of the answer in the shower or over time. Then I sit down to write it, and in the process of writing it things will become clearer. Sometimes it happens all at once. For example, the essay I wrote about my driving emotion around climate change is love, that essay I wrote in one sitting. But then the first essay I got in Vox (the big climate grief essay, I think they called it “The big lie you’re told about climate change is that is your own fault” because Vox loves clunky headlines) . . . but yeah, that essay came out in a matter of a couple of hours. Then there are other essays that take a while for me to get out, like the Wired essay about how you can get involved with climate change, because that’s actually a deceptively simple question. Then there’s others that have just taken longer periods of time, like the one about, “The whole world is on the ballot”, about the 2020 election. That took days and days to get; that took me almost a month to write.
Sometimes it’s delayed, and sometimes it’s just all at once and rushes out of you. My general rule is I know I’ve gotten somewhere when I feel there’s a lightening on my shoulders, or sometimes when I like break down and cry.
Jacquelyn: A few times this season, we’ve talked about writers who are envisioning these more apocalyptic or dystopic futures, but we’d really to highlight other kinds of writing, like Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurisms. Who do you find is sort of engaging creatively in this space and breaking new ground beyond dystopias?
Mary: Well, I think Amitav Ghosh does a good job of that in his fiction. I was talking about this . . . I’m teaching a class at Columbia this semester and I always have them read “The fire next time” and “A letter from a Birmingham jail”, and what I’ve realized this time in teaching that is that that’s actually where my hope comes from. I’m not a big hope proponent. I’ve actually been one of those people who’s like, “We don’t need hope; we need courage,” or, “We need determination,” or, “We need spite,” or whatever or, “We need love.” But honestly there are times where I feel hope and when I feel hope it’s when I look back at those sorts of texts or when I look back at the abolitionist movement or even Holocaust survivors because when people were surviving that, it was the end of the world and they did not know they were surviving it. They didn’t know what was on the other side of it and it felt just as hopeless to them is this can feel to us or just as overwhelming to them. They still went through it anyway; the horizon was not always visible. I think that’s kind of how I feel about climate change, so I look back at the work that they did and how they sort of got through that — just not knowing what they were moving toward, but knowing that they had to move anyway. That’s where I see most hope.
Ramesh: They’re looking backward for sources of hope, allow you to see the future as an opportunity?
Mary: For me, I kind of see more of the future as a possibility, because up against climate change it just feels sometimes, “Is it possible or is it not?” Less so, “Is it opportunity or is it not?” And given what we’re up against, possibility is everything. So I guess in that way, yeah, I guess it is an opportunity.
Jacquelyn: I think of climate work as inherently for the future, but it’s also necessary work in the present — in terms of the care work that we do for others and for ourselves to engage sustainably in this space. But you’ve talked a lot as well about the importance of the past, in terms of determining how we got here; and you grapple with history and a lot of your pieces. Can you talk a little bit about the value of having these really honest conversations about the past in order to help us think about the future?
Mary: Yeah. I think I support it to fully understand a problem before you can solve it. It’s kind of at the horror movie where they just shoot at the . . . they’re getting chased by the bad guy and they just shoot him in a kneecap. And then they’re like, “Oh my god, he’s back.” It’s like, “Well, you didn’t do it. You can’t just scrape and nick at him. You gotta, like, go for it.” Tthat’s kind of how I feel about climate change. One, I think it’s important to do it so that we can be sure that we’re coming up with an actual solution and not a bandaid. I also think it’s important because once you look at climate change in the context of history, it becomes this giant injustice, as opposed to a scientific problem.
I know I’m talking to a scientist here and I love scientists; gonna get my vaccine, thanks science, all of that. But the reason I think it’s important to see it as that injustice, everyone understands injustice. Everyone does not understand science. Also, it sort of allows the fossil fuel industry to confuse the conversation because climate science is a complicated thing, and it takes a while to wrap your head around it. I think that’s part of why the biggest galvanization to the climate movement lately has been high school students and school age kids, because they don’t have science degrees; they don’t have PhDs, all of that. So it just goes to show that anybody can understand it when you break it down that way, and you need that historical context to paint it as that type of syndrome.
Ramesh: I really liked that phrasing. It seems to me that people can understand injustice in their heart, even if they don’t fully understand the science in their heads. Do you think that’s true?
Mary: Absolutely, yeah. I think it’s that. And I think the other limitation with thinking of it on strictly scientific terms, is people think with science, you solve the problem and you move on and that’s the end of it. So that’s why I think a lot of people are always asking that really bedeviling question of, “What’s the one thing I can do about climate change?” Because they want to one-and-done get it over with, because they’re thinking of it is solving a math problem. You solve the math problem, you’re done. You walk away. Whereas climate action needs to be more thorough than that because nobody ever says, “What’s the one thing I can do for reproductive justice?” Nobody says, “What’s the one thing I can do about institutional racism?” And so once you start understanding climate change as interconnected with all of those things and as this giant syndrome of injustice, you start to see that, “Oh, it’s not going to be a one-and-done thing.”
Ramesh: Just to pick up on that thread, how do you see those understanding climate change through a justice lens helping us create a new future?
Mary: I think it makes it clear that all climate action is not climate justice, and the importance of climate justice. If we’re creating a world after this, framing it as a justice issue forces us to build a world that’s more just; and that goes beyond just replacing the power source — replacing fossil fuels with solar and wind. It makes it much bigger than that. We’ve got to change the way that we live our lives and the way that we treat one another and what we mean when we say justice and what we mean when we say community. As Amy Westervelt (my co-host) says all the time, “It’s not just the power source; it’s the power structure.” And we need to be about the business of remaking all of that, which can sound really overwhelming if you think you’re doing it by yourself; but you’re not doing it by yourself. It’s a whole community of people working on this. We need that community to get bigger, but no one’s doing it on their own. And so one of the biggest things we need to get rid of is this concept of individualism, which I think keeps a lot of people out of the movement and keeps the lot of people within the movement from moving.
Ramesh: Right, right
Jacquelyn: So I’m curious, do you think that we as a community are doing the necessary emotional work that gets us to the climate futures of our choosing? And if not, how do we do that work effectively?
Mary: I mean, I think we’re trying, One thing to get across is that it’s a practice, not a perfect. I think a lot of the reason climate action feels unsustainable or unfulfilling is because people kind of want to nail it every time, and I just don’t think that’s realistic. I think we should start looking at our approach to climate action or climate justice or the climate movement the same way you would any other injustice. I don’t think anybody beats themselves up every time that they don’t perform perfectly when it comes to dismantling institutional racism; that wouldn’t even make sense. You do your best and you keep trying to get better. You can change out your light bulbs now; maybe one day you can put on solar panels. Maybe you go to a march one day and then the next day you’re tired, and you just have to trust that other people are tapping in. Then you go again when you can.
And the other thing about climate action or just even engaging with it, you are going to wear out. It is the weight of the world and is depressing and is terrifying, and sometimes there are days where you just aren’t going to feel you can do anything. And that’s okay because I think you just have to trust that on the day that you’re not able to contribute, someone else is fired up and pissed off. Yeah! And then when they’re depressed, you’re gonna fill in where they were. It’s an ecosystem.
Ramesh: So Mary, how do you engage with ideas of the future in your own work? And how does engaging with those ideas help you move forward to create a picture of the future for yourself?
Mary: You know what, I honestly don’t do a lot of that, to tell you the truth. I spend less time thinking about what’s going to happen and spend more time thinking about who I want to be right now. I do get this question a lot of like, “Do you think we’re going to win?” It’s asked in a lot of different ways, but it always kind of boils down to that and my response to that is it’s not about whether or not we’re going to win it so that whether or not it’s worth it. When I think about the future, sometimes it’s really terrifying, and sometimes . . . honestly this is rare, but if I think about the future, sometimes it looks really beautiful and people are really kind to one another and we have open borders or no borders at all and prisons are abolished and all of those things, and that world feels really out of reach right now, but it’s the world I want. So instead of thinking about it and whether or not we’re going to have it, I think more about: if we were to have that, what would I need to do now? And who would I need to be? And how do I start being a person who would function in that world now?
Jacquelyn: So you talked about this a bit earlier when you mentioned that you grew up reading and writing fiction but I’m wondering, have you ever thought about writing fiction now?
Mary: Oh, absolutely. One thousand percent. And I still write fiction, I just haven’t published any of it.
Jacquelyn: So from a selfish perspective, I’m really glad to hear this and I can’t wait to read anything that you write. You don’t need to go into specifics here, but I’m wondering what sorts of themes do you grapple with in your fiction?
Mary: Kind of the same themes that I’ve written about in my essays. A lot of family aspects of it and interactions between . . . relationships between people and how they see each other — versus how other people see them and how that’s never really the case. One of the things I’ve always been fascinated about in life (but also especially in the climate world), a lot of times I hear scientists feel they’re inadequate next to lawyers, and lawyers feel they’re inadequate next to activists, and activists feel they’re inadequate next to writers. Everybody’s jealous of one another’s talents — that sort of inadequacy. And also just the weirdness of going on with our daily lives while there’s these record wildfires all across the world and just the strangeness and mundaneness of it all.
Jacquelyn: Do you think you could ever see yourself writing fiction where climate is this sort of central problem, or even what some people might call climate fiction?
Mary: Possibly? I think the way that I would tackle it would be that climate is the setting, as opposed to a character. A lot of climate fiction is all very much set in the future. If I were to do it, I would want to talk about it in the present or in the past. Cuz you can very much write about climate change; you could write about the Paradise fires, which is in the past. You don’t need to create a whole new world to show climate change now. And so, yeah, I think I would want to attack it from that way and I would want it to be literary fiction. Like the Amitav Ghosh essay collection The Great Derangement, he talks about how it is strange that if you write about climate change it has to be in the science fiction kind of way, and that’s not how climate change operates in our lives.
One of my favorite quotes I think is from E. L. Doctorow, where he says that history books tell you what happened and fiction tells you what it felt like, it’s really important to know what things feel like.
Jacquelyn: Throughout the last year we have been working on a podcast about data, or at least we thought that’s what we were working on. It turns out we were really working on a podcast about stories. We started off with stories about Milankovitch cycles and models, but now here at the end of our season about data we’re talking about fiction, about storytelling, about futures, and about the power of imagination. Our first episode was called “Telling human stories”, but even then I don’t think we fully appreciated just what kinds of stories we would tell throughout the course of the season. Some of those stories were personal, our own stories. Some of the stories were your stories that you shared with us, and they were so powerful and inspiring. And some of the stories, they were stories about what these episodes meant to you as you came on this journey with us. All of that just makes me really happy to be a part of this incredible climate conversation and this community, as we’re all writing these stories about our climate futures constantly, every day together.
Ramesh: As a scientist, we spend all our time sort of swimming around in data and Excel spreadsheets, and I’m pretty sure we said something that on episode one of the season. Through this season, through all these episodes, exploring all these angles on climate change, I always knew that data had its limits, but I also always believed in the power of data. As a scientist, I always felt like “Well, if we just get more data we’ll be able to see more of the world. We’ll be able to quantify more of the world.” And through all of this, I really came to more deeply understand that data is fundamentally human. I’ve spent hours in the lab, late night trying to collect data and so I know how human . . . I know the humanity that’s packed into every data point that people collect. But the amazing part about seeing data and exploring data around climate change from this variety of perspectives, is it had those data points blossom into the humans that were behind them, that were obscured by them originally.
Jacquelyn: And the people that they tell stories about or don’t, and the ways in which that data that’s collected is used or isn’t . . .and then the profound lessons, is it “DEY-tuh” or “DAT-uh”? Is data plural or singular? [Laughter] I’m sure there’s somebody out there who’s like, “Ugh, they did it again!” And everyone’s gonna have their own preferences.
But Ramesh, what most surprised you about this season? What did you learn? I mean cuz we’re learning too, right? We’re not experts in all this stuff.
Ramesh: Right, right. For me, an episode that was really, really surprising for me and really impactful for me was the episode where we interviewed Jenn Marlon and Bob Inglis. I really felt that was a really amazing juxtapositioning of data and humanity. We got to see data about attitudes on climate change and how those attitudes have been changing, for a variety of reasons. But we also saw in Bob’s story that making a human connection actually helped him see the data and see the message and the science in the data more clearly. So it reinforced this idea that we can’t just think of a graph as this sort of static structure that simply communicates an observation about the world.
Jacquelyn: It’s not just neutral.
Ramesh: Right, it’s not just neutral. It doesn’t just sit there. It impacts people’s thinking, but it also sometimes might not impact people thinking. That episode specifically really reinforced this idea for me that we have to be able to . . . if we’re going to tackle climate change, we have to be able to sort of speak to both the head and the heart. In Bob’s case, in order for him to think about the data with his head, he had to have that sort of unlocked by someone speaking to his heart — speaking to a set of morals and values that he shared with that person.
Jacquelyn: I think for me, there were a lot of moments throughout the show where I felt that there’s sort of two big takeaways for me. The first one is just how many people are in this conversation in this fight, are working on climate change, right? Whether we’re talking about artists or activists or scientists of many different types, citizens collecting data. There’s just so many facets that we aren’t alone. We are part of a community and we are in this together. And also, too, we got so much feedback from our audience this season. This was the first time (at least to our knowledge) that moments from the episodes inspired people to go out and create art. There was a body artist who submitted a contribution to a body painting contest that then turned into stickers, and then there was a guy who’s who made banners over a bridge in Brooklyn that came out of things that our guests said. A lot of those cases, what people really seem to really respond to was this idea of hope. I kept hearing from people over and over again. For example, one of our most impactful episodes was the one about fighting apocalyptic narratives. I’ve just heard from so many people, “Thank you for this episode. I was really ready to give up,” or, “I was feeling really depressed,” and just realizing that hope means a lot of things to lots of people (we’ve talked about that), but just thinking about the hunger in the broader climate community for information that is empowering, information that gives people a sense of agency. You know, thinking about the Rebecca Solnit definition of hope, where hope is the belief that our actions matter.
And that is something I feel . . . I want to hold on to that as we keep going forward into the future. I want to tell more stories that help people realize that they have these roadmaps. We ended our season thinking about the power of storytelling and the power of roadmapping to better futures. We’ve clearly moved past largely the point where we need to convince people that climate change is happening. We know that; we have data about that. But what we really need to do is give people a sense of direction. We know the question is, “What can I do? What can we do?” And that just gives me a lot to think about as we think about the next season, and the next season after that.
Ramesh: I know at one point a thought ran through my head about if we talk about data on this season, what that’s going to do is that’s going to help our audience engage with data, right? We’ll talk about C-12 and C-13 and how that shows that human fingerprints are really driving climate change, and maybe they’ll go look that up. Maybe we’ll find a video about it. And I would have never predicted that our discussions of data would have led, as you said, to signs over bridges in Brooklyn and to body art. To me, what that shows is that the data becomes a springboard for really deep engagement and for people to bring themselves and their whole self to the climate conversation, if we give them the opportunity. If we say, “Hey, here’s data, but here’s the story behind that data. Here’s the person behind that data.” And because we personalize that data, now I think a listener can say, “Yeah, I’m a person in this process too. I’m a person on this journey too, so I’m going to do this thing. I’m going to create that sticker. I’m going to create that artwork.”
Jacquelyn: I would say, too, that that’s true for you and I. That’s true for our whole podcast team. We’ve had our own realizations about ourselves, about our role in the climate conversation, and just about what’s possible. I know for me, there were moments or there have been many moments in my career where I have just wondered, “What is the point? Does any of this matter? This problem feels so large. What can I do? Does anybody even care about stupid pollen grains? Am I putting my efforts where they’re needed or where they’re most impactful?”, and just realizing that this sense of community that came out of this season for me — this the sense especially from the listener contributed stories but also just the ways in which every person that we talked to who’s out there on the ground working on climate change (whether they’re artists or working with citizen scientists, whatever, or even people working on climate justice or migration), they’re working with people, too, and for people.
And so it’s like this whole network, or this sort of vast interconnected ecosystem, really, of people that are all tackling this from where we’re at and where are our skills and strengths and hopes and dreams are. It’s been a really long, hard isolating year after many long, hard isolating years. I dunno, maybe it’s because it’s spring, but I feel we’ve got this; we can do this. And I feel the work that we do (and when I say “we” I don’t mean you and I, or the show. I mean like “we” as the human communities of planet Earth), I feel we can do this. No one is alone. We need everyone, whether you’re just here for the first time coming to this conversation, not really sure where you fit; or whether you’ve been here doing this work as a climate modeler or scientist or policymaker for decades. We need you, and we’re glad that you’re here.
Ramesh: I think that’s a really important idea because we all fit in somewhere to tackle this challenge, and it’s amazing to see how many different ways and places there are to fit in. So thinking about the future and thinking about how do we tell the story of the future, it’s really critical for us to understand that we all have a role to play and that we’re all rowing in the same direction and that we’re not (as you said) that we’re not alone because those moments can feel really isolating. And more importantly, that we can move each other forward, right? Hopefully someone who listened to the episode about climate modeling and if they also listened to the episode about Jill Pelto’s artwork can see how those two things can empower their own voice to bring their own empathy and their own humanity to the climate fight, so that we’re all pushing in one direction to fight this challenge and tackle this challenge in a fair and equitable way.
Jacquelyn: Yeah. And also just remembering that the solutions when we think about solutions, that was a message that came up a lot (specially in the second half of the season) is that we have information. We have data about who’s impacted the first and the most and the hardest (marginalized communities) and how it’s so critical as we are imagining futures — as we are imagining solutions — we have to make sure that we’re not repeating the same mistakes that got us here in the first place; that that progress on climate can’t come at at the expense of the people who have been hurt the hardest and the first. It just makes me think a lot about where we go in the future as a show. Obviously we would love to hear from our listeners. We would love to hear from you about what you want to learn, what you think we can bring to the table to this conversation. But also I know for me, I’m thinking a lot about how do we help to build some of those roadmaps? How do we fill in the rivers and the tributaries and on the little towns and cities on the climate future that we want, and also how do we get there? What are the steps along the way? Whether we’re talking about solutions or we’re talking about better refining the differences between the possible and the probable (kind of refining our understanding of those climate futures), but fundamentally realizing as we’ve come back to this over and over again in the season, the importance of storytelling, the importance of empathy, and really it goes back to that logo, right? For our podcast. It’s you’ve got the heart there, right? The little wiggles, the data are in there, but they’re inside of that heart.
Climate change is not . . . it’s not really a scientific problem. It’s a people problem, and science has a huge role to play here but, you know, fundamentally at the end of the day, climate action is going to come from the heart. And that means taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other so that we can do this work in the long haul, and so that the work helps everyone and benefits everyone and benefits the people who need it the most. I mean, obviously I’m not going to stop being a scientist. I think the work that I do as a scientist is really important. But at least for me, it makes me think a lot more deeply about the ways in which I communicate and translate my science to the community, and the ways in which science cannot be a stand in for that heart work. That has to happen.
Ramesh: Yeah. And the role that science plays in moving our shared humanity forward.
Jacquelyn: So this might be the last episode of our season, but it is not the last you’ll hear from Warm Regards. We will be back. We’re still planning out where we go next. We would love to hear from you. You can find us on Twitter at @OurWarmRegards. You can send us an email at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com. We would love to hear about what worked for you this season (you know, what inspired you, what excited you) and where you’d us to go next? What do you think is missing from this climate conversation?
Ramesh: Just Jacquelyn said, thank you, thank you, thank you. But this show wouldn’t be possible without our amazing team. So thank you to them (Jo, Katherine, Justin) for all their amazing hard work. Thank you to all our Patreon supporters who made this work and this season very much possible. We really appreciate it, and we hope you stay with us moving into the future.
Jacquelyn: And most of all, we’re just really grateful that you’re here with us, that you went on this journey through this season of data with us. So thank you, thank you for being here. Thank you for listening. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Thank you for sharing our show with others. Thank you for the conversations that you’ve told us you’ve had. Thank you for your vulnerability and your generosity and your willingness to open your hearts and your minds.
Ramesh: Thanks for letting us into your head.