Mary Annaïse Heglar on Why Climate Action Is ‘Limitless’

The Frontline invites climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar to speak about being a Black woman in this space. Among her many words of advice is asking yourself: What can you do next?

WORDS BY Yessenia Funes

 

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Photograph by Maxwell Swift

I’m sure you all love reading The Frontline every morning, but the climate newsletter world is vast. If you aren’t already subscribed to “Hot Take,” you need to. Climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar and investigative journalist Amy Westervelt co-founded and co-host the weekly newsletter and podcast.

 

I invited Heglar to join me as Black History Month continues; she’s among my favorite Black climate writers. She’s all about bringing intersectionality into the climate world—you can follow her on Twitter to keep up. Heglar takes an emotional approach to covering the climate crisis, often centering her experience as a Black woman.

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where we discuss trolling fossil fuel companies and redefining “individual action.” I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. If you don’t already know and love Heglar, brace yourself. You’re sure to fall head over heels after this.

 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

YESSENIA FUNES

Mary! Happy Black History Month! I wanted to hear a little bit about what it means to you. I feel like everyone’s got their hot take on this month. Some love it, some hate it. Where do you stand?

MARY ANNAÏSE HEGLAR

I love Black History Month. I’m always hyper aware of how many people worked really hard to get this month recognized and what an accomplishment that was for folks. I take it as a month to be grateful. It’s not something I celebrate; it’s something I honor. It’s nice to take 28 days and be more intentionally reflective on that history and to have other people doing it with you. I think there’s something really beautiful about that. I don’t think that means that for the other 11 months of the year, you’re not talking or thinking about Black people or Black history ever. It’s just like the month where you get super Black.

YESSENIA

So much of your work centers race and your Blackness. So much of what you all do at “Hot Take,” in particular, is about making climate intersectional. Why did you choose to tackle the crisis from this specific perspective?

MARY

Because it was the only way that I could understand it or see myself in it. The fact that it wasn’t talked about that way, to me, reflected the shallowness of the conversation. I felt very left out of it. When I first got into climate work, it was like, OK, well, these narratives feel very shallow. They feel like they’re coming from people who have never had to fight for their lives before, which I just can’t relate to. I felt like I was with a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were doing.

 

I see the climate movement as coming out of the civil rights movement more than I see it diverging toward the conservation movement. That, to me, is a disconnect. If you think about the climate movement coming out of the civil rights movement, there is a very strong way of building movements out of that. There’s this really strong collective action portion of it, right? When I first started getting into climate, it was all about individual action and every narrative had the end with hope. And these are things that are just not part of the Black aesthetic. They did not make sense to me. This idea that people can’t worry about more than one thing at a time. Like, well, now we have to focus on polar bears, and we can’t talk about all these other things. That doesn’t make sense to me as a Black person because we’re always worried about more than one thing at a time. So if I’m going to talk about it, I’m going to talk about it in ways that make sense to me.

 

When I first started writing about this, my first audience was myself. I didn’t have an audience. I was just publishing on Medium, and I had things that I wanted to work through because this thing was terrifying me and keeping me up at night. The only way I knew to process it was through writing. I centered Black people because my audience was Black people even if it was directed toward white people. “Climate Change Isn’t the First Existential Threat” is written as a letter to white people, but it centers Black people’s experiences. I want Black people to feel seen in my work and to feel included and to see themselves in the climate crisis and in the climate movement. “Hot Take” is kind of an outgrowth of that.

YESSENIA

There’s just so much beauty in the fact that you have a Black woman—yourself—and a Latina, Amy Westervelt, both talking about this issue from two really different places, but that ultimately stem from a place of systemic racism and disinvestment in your communities. Y’all do it in such a refreshing way that is always such a joy to read. It feels like friends shooting the shit about real things that are impacting them.

MARY

Yeah, we have a lot of fun.

YESSENIA

There are not many Black women who write about climate change. I’m curious to hear what it’s been like for you in this industry dominated by white dudes. I experience this myself as a Latina, but we’re now seeing a lot of energy focusing specifically on Black people and the way gatekeeping excludes Black people, in particular, from the media. What has your experience been? Do you feel that energy has spilled over into your writing field?

MARY

Yeah, it’s been interesting because there are Black women who write about it, but they tend to be extraordinarily qualified. Like they actually are scientists, or they have worked in an environmental justice field for a really long time. They’re academics in some sort of way.

 

When I first got started doing this in 2018, I had a lot of people in my life telling me not to do it because I wanted to talk about climate as an emotional issue and as a racist issue. I had a lot of folks telling me that’s lazy and that I was going to get trolled and doxed. But I felt these things needed to be said. I thought that the emotional part of it needed to be brought out because it’s real, and I can’t possibly be the only one feeling it. I do know now that there were other people writing about that, but, again, it was in a very academic way, and it wasn’t very accessible.

 

I want to talk about the racism of it because it’s real. And if I get trolled for that, I get trolled for that. Like, it’s late in the day. I can’t sit here and wait for somebody else to. It’s not like me ignoring the train means the train won’t come. I’m going to be hit in this scenario. It’s like a train coming to hit me. You can’t just pretend it’s not there. You have to do something about it.

 

When I published “Existential Threats,” yes, I got trolled hard. Really hard. I published that in Black History Month 2019, and I made it a point that I was not going to suffer in silence. So when I got those really nasty, racist, hateful comments, I was like, “No, Climate Twitter, you need to look at this. You don’t get to look away. If I have to look at this, you do, too. And you need to clean up your house.” Nowadays, I don’t get that kind of response. It feels like that conversation about climate and race has become normalized. Either that, or I’ve blocked the living shit out of a lot of people, but it feels like a lot of people are emboldened to talk about it and in terms and outlets that are more accessible.

“The reason that the climate crisis feels like the weight of the world is because it literally is, and it will feel that way—and it can crush you—unless you realize you’re not the only one carrying it.”

MARY ANNAÏSE HEGLAR

YESSENIA

Speaking of Climate Twitter, while so much of your essay writing is powerful, some of my favorite writing of yours is your short and snappy tweets. The dragging, the trolling, and the public shaming of fossil fuel companies is so impressive. You do it with such ease, and it seems like these tweets come to you so naturally. How do you think this tactic can ultimately help and support frontline communities who are breathing the pollution these companies create, suffering at the hands of their infrastructure projects, or the climate crisis at large?

MARY

Before I go too far into this, no one action is going to be like the one rock that takes down the bully. You have to throw many rocks. I do think that this is an important one because it chips away at their social license to operate. It chips away at their reputation. It exposes them as the liars that they are in a very public square. And while I understand that, yes, not everybody is on Twitter, what happens on Twitter shapes the discourse. It shapes the way we think about things. It does trickle out, and it does become part of the zeitgeist.

 

So if Chevron and Shell and all of these companies can’t show their faces on Twitter without being basically booed out of the room, that will eventually affect their reputation and their social license to operate. Also, the oil and gas industry is just a big propaganda machine. Honestly, if propaganda was emissions, their carbon footprint would be so much bigger. They invest heavily in it. It’s what’s allowed them to become what they are. Twitter is one of the few places where you can yell back post receipts. When they’re advertising on TV, you can yell at the TV if you want to, but you’re not going to get anywhere. You can yell at them on Instagram, but you can’t post links. Twitter is a really useful way to do it because it can become viral. Other people can see the links that you post proving your case. You can get other people to pile on, and it can go super viral, and you can make them have a terrible day.

 

They feel bad. You feel better. It feels good to clown Chevron. It really does. I mean, it’s the best part of my day. It’s a labor of love. I go check their pages like two, three times a day. They say something stupid. I say something back. We all have a good time. There are times where I wake up angry at them. And it’s, like, you know what? They should hear about this. They should know how mad I am.

 

These are companies that invented the PR industry. They take communication very seriously. They are terrified of the notion of people calling them out on their bullshit. They are terrified of losing their reputation and their social license to operate. So let’s hit them where that hurts, especially right now when we can’t go and do school strikes.

YESSENIA

School strikes were one of those actions that I think brought people a lot of hope. It gave people something actionable beyond what they do inside their home. I’m curious what tips you might have for our readers because our community is pretty big on the individual actions stuff. You and I emphasize in our writing the power of systemic change, but I’m curious what suggestions you might have for those individuals who feel that sense of comfort by having something they can do.

MARY

If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” the best thing you can do is to change that question to, “What can I do next?” Because the thing about climate action is that it’s limitless. It’s about as boundless as the actual problem, which can sound overwhelming until you realize that you’re not doing it by yourself. The reason that the climate crisis feels like the weight of the world is because it literally is, and it will feel that way—and it can crush you—unless you realize you’re not the only one carrying it.

 

It’s the only thing that’s actually made me feel less bad about it. It’s the only thing that’s eased my despair— knowing there are other people in it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with individual action. I actually think individual action, in a lot of ways, is the only way to go, except we have to redefine what we call individual action. If your individual actions stop at what you buy and use, you’re going to run out of the things to do. But if your individual action extends to writing about climate change, organizing a march, going to a march, voting in a certain way, running for office, or working on the campaign of someone who’s going to be a climate champion, then that becomes limitless.

 

Understand that the reason we think of individual action as being all about consumer action is because the people who defined individual action are the fossil fuel industry. That’s, of course, how they think of you: as a consumer and nothing else. Don’t buy into that trap. I often say to people that the best thing that you can do as an individual is to stop thinking of yourself as strictly an individual and start thinking of yourself as part of a collective. And, now, how do you want to operate as a part of that collective?

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