Mary Annaise Heglar is a singular voice. She is uncompromising and unapologetic. Her recent Wired piece, “We Can't Tackle Climate Change Without You,” proved, once again, why she is one of our most vital climate justice writers and thinkers. A writer-in-residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Mary is also fierce and funny and doesn’t just convey the facts about climate change. She conveys the truth. She brought her usual blazing candor to this conversation AND she gifted us a reading list that is perfect for these long, COVID lock-down days.
Our interviewee Mary Heglar is a writer and a reader, so we asked her for the best ways to make ourselves smarter AND stay hot during the COVID lock-down.Here are some articles by her:
“My manifesto from last summer that lays down my beef with the climate conversation and how I want to change it.”
“As angry as I am about the climate crisis, that anger is, believe it or not, fueled by love, as outlined here.”
“The thing about climate grief is that you can never get to the final stage of acceptance, because that’s the kiss of death. So you cycle in and out of all the other phases. Me? I like to stay in anger.”
“Nothing makes me angrier than the willful obtuseness of the crowd who thinks that climate action and climate justice can be divorced.”
And here are some articles by others:
“The seminal essay on climate anger by the one and only Amy Westervelt.”
“My Personal Hero, James Baldwin, wrote this letter to Angela Davis and it includes one of my favorite quotes to apply to the climate crisis (and general crisis) of today: ‘Well. Since we live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal, I have been making as much noise as I can.’”
“When I need a kick in the pants, when I want to give up, I revisit this piece by Ijeoma Oluo.”
“My favorite Arundhati Roy piece is from 1998 and about nuclear war, but at its heart it’s about what happens when a small band of cruel fools have too much power and we all suffer for it.”
EA: In your work, you think a lot about framing the issue of climate justice—presenting it in a way that will make people pay attention, that will grab people. You understand the power of presentation to move people.
I love what you wrote once for Inverse. “I want to coax and cajole the English language with all of its inadequacies—all its flaws, all the blood at its mouth—into the liberating language that we desperately need. I don't want a fact-finding mission. I want a truth telling movement.”
How do we make a truth-telling movement right now about climate change?
MH: I think we were very close before corona hit. But then, corona took over, and there started to be this narrative within climate circles of, “Now's not the right time.”
I see the climate movement running into this same wall quite frequently. It's really shown up with the way the climate movement tries to interact with communities of color. Instead of connecting climate to the issues that communities of color already care about, they will either not say anything about [those issues] at all, or they'll try to trump it and be like, “oh, you're worried about police violence? Well, climate change is much bigger.” They’ll eithergo way too far with it or go way too far back with it.
I'm seeing the exact same thing with corona. People are either not connecting corona to climate change, or they're when they talk about corona and climate, they're like, “oh, well, climate change is much, much worse.”
But instead of going to either one of those extremes, you could just connect them. Because climate and corona are going to play out on one another's backyards. Now is the time to make those connections. It's not the time to shut up. And it's also not a time to hush down the corona conversation either. They both need to happen in tandem with one another because the crises are going to interact. There they are interacting already.
EA: Yeah, we see it everywhere. Even with the just the fact that [coronavirus] is disproportionately already affecting black communities. And with hurricane season starting. These are compounded threats.
MH: Right. We don't have to look to the future. One of my good friends lives in Indiana, and she's not sure if it was a tornado, but they had a pretty powerful storm last night. Now she's quarantined with no power. Normally, during circumstances like that, you would take your neighbor in or your relatives in. But now you've got a socially isolate.
The natural response to extreme weather events is to be compassionate and to be kind to one another. As much as like New York gets a bad rap for not being a very kind city, I've been here through a few disasters and people are actually quite compassionate at those times. But now we're in a position where we literally have to walk away from each other. So now what happens if a Sandy rips through here when we're all in quarantine and all afraid of each other?
I shudder to think about how we're going to treat each other, because I firmly believe that empathy is the biggest muscle that we need to face the climate crisis. If we can't have empathy, I don't know what our odds of survival as a species are.
EA: I relate to that, because I balance between wanting to have empathy for people, and being really pissed off at everybody all time. You've written on both the need to be really angry, and the need to have empathy. In a piece you wrote last year, you said, “Given the sheer enormity of the crisis, it's it's okay to be depressed. But please don't stay there for too long. We need you.”
But at the same time, if it was hard to get people to act on climate change before, it’s way harder now. People are not only retreating into their homes, they're retreating into themselves.
MH: Both my empathy and my anger are both part of what I consider my core emotion at my response to climate change, which, believe it or not, is love. And I know that sounds fuddy-duddy or whatever, but it's real.
The reason I am able to like write about regular people with so much empathy is because I love them. I love them deeply. And then the people I hate, I really, really fucking hate them. And I hate them because they've jeopardized the things that I love.
I also think that it just helps people to understand that's the way they feel is OK. Once you can say, “I understand why you're in pain, and I'm in pain, too,” it disarms them. Because usually when people are disengaged, that is because of some sort of defensiveness or some sort of feeling that they're not good enough. But if you can say to them, “I understand why you feel the way you feel, and I feel the same way,” then that can sort of break that barrier down. And now they're sort of ready to at least start thinking about acting.
That's why when I started writing, I decided to do it from a personal perspective and do it always in first person. The other reason I decided to this is because I'm not a real journalist, and I don't want to like have to argue with somebody about the facts of my piece. You can't tell me that I don't feel the way I feel.
EA: Going back to that quote that you wrote for Inverse: “I don't want a fact finding mission. I want a truth telling movement” for climate change. What was on your mind when you wrote that?
MH: Because I think for just way too long, the climate movement has just tried to communicate in very black and white terms. And I just don't think that's useful when you're trying to save something as blue and green and colorful as this beautiful planet.
I think truth about climate change includes the facts. But it also includes feelings. It includes passion and it’s visceral. This is powerful. On our side, we only have facts. On the other side, they only have feelings and lies. So I think we would be much more powerful if we had feelings and facts up against feelings and lies.
EA: I say this a lot in journalism talks when I'm talking about how I think journalists should cover climate change. I always say that the principles of the Society for Professional Journalists stay to “seek truth and report it.” They don't say seek facts and report them. The fact about climate change is that millions of people are going to die if we don't act. But the truth is so much more than that. It means so much trauma to our economy, to our ecosystems, to our society, the way we live our lives. That can only be described through the language of feelings. It’s the same way with coronavirus.
MH: Right. You have to humanize the facts. You have to contextualize the facts. My thing about corona and climate is that it seems like corona is worse than climate in the sense that it’s on such an accelerated timescale. It got so drastic, so fast. And climate is worse in the sense that it's for all intents and purposes, in our lifetimes, permanent.
But also with corona, we've never seen anything like this. We didn't know how to prepare for it. We had no warning. We don't really have the solutions. But we have a plan with climate. We have the solutions that don't include massive amounts of everybody going on house arrest.
EA: Yeah, that's the crazy part. We could actually live our regular lives while we’re solving climate change.
MH: We totally could. We could improve them!
EA: I always say that we have to embrace the nature of sacrifice in order to solve the climate crisis. But the sacrifices that we would have to make as individuals are so much less uncomfortable than this is. Like, meat would become probably more expensive to procure. It might be harder to own a car in an urban area. I think your taxes would probably go up. There's unavoidable temporary sacrifice in solving climate change. But what's the alternative? The alternative is that climate change forces you to make a sacrifice that you can't control, and no idea what it's gonna look like for you. And right now we're living through what it feels like to not be able to control the sacrifice you have to give.
MH: Right. And it should be a lesson to everyone that you kinda want to get ahead of shit like this. You don't want to let a existential threat just roll up on you. Nip that shit in the bud.
EA: Do you think that coronavirus has gotten us closer or further away from being able to tell the truth about climate change to one another right now?
MH: It kind of feels like a stumbling block, but one that we still have the room to get over. It's just sort of going to require the climate movement to stop falling for the okie doke.
There's just been this constant chorus of, “now's not the time to talk about climate change.” Until very, very recently, it was considered poor form to talk about climate. But climate change doesn't give a shit about your feelings. Climate change is happening whether you talk about it or not. So you'd shut up at your own peril.
This idea that environmentalists are somehow being opportunistic by including climate change in the corona conversation—I want us to understand that as a very, very, very old trick. It's been used against black people forever, in the civil rights movement and before that, when they would try to pass anti-lynching measures or try to get rid of slavery.
But there is nothing self-interested about wanting to survive. That's not selfish. But the climate community kind of falls for that shit a lot. And there's just nothing self-interested about it. There's nothing insensitive about it. They're bullying you, and you should be able to see that.
For a community of people made up of so many nerds, we don't seem to see when somebody is grabbing our hands and making us punch ourselves in the face.
EA: That brought me back to high school. At the same time, though, you're talking about the need to survive. How do you tell people to fight for their survival in the long term—especially black and brown people who are fighting for their lives at every second, being disproportionately ravaged by coronavirus—when the short term is so precarious?
MH: Well, I think first for black and brown people, it's not even the long term. It’s the immediate term. All the reasons we're more vulnerable to corona are all the same reasons we're more vulnerable to climate change. So I think the best way is to connect it is to talk about the things they're already concerned about. That's what worked for me, once I started to see climate change as part of this tapestry, and as the outgrowth of all the things that my ancestors and forebears had already been fighting against.
I think the biggest place where the climate community has fucked up with the narrative has been in not naming the bad guy. We've done a very bad job up until maybe the last two years of saying “We know who did this. We have their names, we have their addresses. Let's go get them.” We've sort of let the oil and gas industry punk us into thinking we dug our own graves. We've been put in this impossible position of being complicit in the crime because I'm probably burning fossil fuels right now.
I don't know how much of the energy mix in New York is wind or solar, but whatever it is, that's against my will. I was born in a hospital that ran on fossil fuels. I had nothing to do with it. But I will not be complicit in the cover up for this crime. I'm not going to cover up the tracks of my own fucking murderer.
EA: And then have your murderer blame you for getting hurt because you were born in their arms.
MH: Exactly. They're committing genocide and convincing everybody else that it’s suicide. We can't let them get away with that narrative. We can't let them get away with that lie.
EA: I'm really interested to ask you about framing on really difficult issues for both coronavirus and climate change, because that is what you think about. We're at this point where we just had Bernie Sanders drop out of the presidential. So our choices for November that are gonna be Trump or Biden. I've see people who are interested in climate change say, “I'm going to opt out, because there's no difference between the two.” But the presidential election is where we need climate leadership to be a top qualifying criteria. How do you convey something like that?
MH: I think was very brave of you to talk about that publicly yesterday. I would give people a minute. I think a lot of people are really deeply in their feelings right now, and I think understandably so. Because if you're anything like me, you kind of cycle through the progressive candidates, getting excited after one candidate after another.
My journey in the primary was going from being really excited about Julian Castro to being really excited about Elizabeth Warren to being really excited about Bernie Sanders and now being deflated. So it's been an emotional roller coaster. So I'd give people a beat. And I do think most people will sort of come around.
Biden is remarkably uninspiring. And I think it is on Biden to fix that. I'm going to vote for the man. OK, I'm gonna vote for him. There is a big difference between Joe Biden and a literal eco fascists and a cabinet of Nazis. But Joe Biden, I believe, has got to do a lot of work to earn the climate community's trust. It wouldn't kill the man to work with the Inslee team to strengthen his climate plan. There is room for him to do better here. But then at the exact same time, I'm hearing people say that now is not the time to criticize Biden's climate record. That we gotta wait till after the election to do that. And to that I say, “No, the fuck it ain't.” If I'm going to support a candidate, I'm not going to do it blindly. I didn't support Bernie blindly. I didn't support any of those candidates blindly. I called them on their shit. And I will do the same to Joe Biden.
The way that I see it in my head is that Donald Trump is an eco-fascist and he has to get out of the White House. Because he does have a climate plan. Make no mistake about it. And it is not pretty. It is very similar to what his plan for corona was like. “OK, let’s just let a million people die.” Fuck him.
EA: A lot of people are looking for some kind of outlet right now. I know that you see writing as an outlet for you. I've read pieces where you've said it makes you feel better to put your emotions to paper. Is that still the case for you during coronavirus, in isolation? And do you have any advice for people who are looking to use this time to dig in on some kind of creative project?
MH: Yeah, it's definitely, absolutely still the case. I wrote a piece on corona grief being basically the new climate grief. And before I wrote it, I was not feeling great. I was like, really just not in the greatest place with this whole thing. And it didn't even occur to me to write something until the editor reached out to me. I was just sort of like wallowing and, you know, not doing well.
And then like, I sat with the idea of writing something for a day or two, because initially I was like, “Are you crazy? I can barely get out of bed.” And then it occurred to me that writing is what helped me deal with climate. So maybe it help with corona. And after I wrote it, I felt a million times better.
So I think creative outlets can be extremely helpful to me. But also, don't be too hard on yourself. Maybe your creative outlet isn't something that's necessarily “productive.” Maybe if you're used to being a musician, you don't have the inspiration to make music right now. But maybe you fuck with a coloring book or a puzzle or something else. I think a lot of people are beating themselves up for not being productive. But now is not the time to see your outlet as productivity. I think it's more the time to see it as healing.
There's also nothing wrong with just like watching Netflix forever. There's nothing wrong with like not being able to focus and staring into space and struggling to read a book. We're all kind of in survival mode. If you're not able to channel yourself well enough to be creative, that's OK too. I haven't been doing as much writing as I would like to be doing. I've been doing way too much scrolling of the Twitter machine.
EA: What's really pissing you off right now? It could be anything. Corona-related, climate-related, whatever.
MH: Honestly, thinking back to the build up to impeachment and hearing folks from the Democratic Party being like, “he's not worth it to impeach, we'll impeach him at the ballot box.” First of all, I felt like that was pretty craven at the time because there were children in cages, and they can't wait for years.
But now we're in the middle of a fucking pandemic with the person with the least amount of ability to deal with it and anything that looks like compassion. So I keep thinking about leadership in the Democratic Party being like, “he's not worth it to impeach right now, and we'll just wait it out.” So I'm retroactively pissed.
EA: I think what's pissing me off the most right now is that this is happening because politicians ignored scientists. I'm just so pissed off that we devalue science so much as a society right now. Coronavirus didn't have to be this bad. We know it's because of how it's played out in New Zealand—as soon as the government was made aware of the implications by scientists, they put the country in full lockdown. And it's working. And we ignored scientists at every turn. Just as we've ignored scientists about climate change at every turn.
MH: We didn't. They did.
EA: Ugh you’re right! Fuck them. But it feels good to be angry. And when “anger is good” is the end of the podcast, then it's been a successful podcast. So thank you for coming on.
EA: Thanks for checking out the HEATED podcast. We’re producing this in collaboration with DRILLED and thank you to Amy Westervelt for her partnership.
One quick thing though, before we go: The need for climate coverage was massive
But the fossil fuel industry and the polluters aren’t stopping. As we’ve shown on HEATED, the polluters think it’s free beer, no cops time when it comes to regulations! And the environmental racism that was in playing out before COVID has now been proven to make the pandemic worse for communities of color!
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