Above Photo: Courtesy of the author
Of course we did it to ourselves; we had always been intellectually lazy, and the less asked of us, the less we had to say. We all lived for money, and that is what we died for.
William Vollmann, Carbon Ideologies
You wouldn’t have to do much in rewrites to Independence Day to reboot it as cli-fi. But, in the place of aliens, who would its heroes be fighting against? Ourselves?”
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth
[I]n the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.”
Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth
I expressed concern recently, on a listserv for climate nerds, over Senator Elizabeth Warren’s military-focused climate plan. It seemed weird to me that one of the first climate policies she’d announce would focus on greening the military; it seemed like a ploy to win over “never Trump” Republicans, centrists and “progressives” who are somehow still pro-military action. I couldn’t understand why someone so famous for holding corporate execs to account wouldn’t burst out the gate with guns blazing at the fossil fuel companies. “I think we need to avoid emotional responses to these policies,” one man sniffed.
My response had been based on knowledge, not emotion, but also: an emotional response to catastrophic climate change and our system’s evident inability to address it seems perfectly valid to me.
There have always been a lot of women covering environmental stories, but the breakout stars, the loudest voices, have tended to be those of white men. More recently they are specifically literary white men, for whom climate change is the ultimate epic saga, in which all of humanity is both villain and hero. “We” had a chance to act on climate decades ago and blew it, the story goes, and now “we” must rise to the challenge and save humanity. If we don’t—and we’re unlikely to—”we” will have only ourselves to blame.
These dominant voices are agreed that climate change stories can be serious, sad, occasionally funny or hopeful, always “smart” and “knowledgeable,” more recently a bit alarmist, but never too emotional. And especially not angry.
For about two decades now, white male environmentalists and journalists have been telling me, and other environmentalists and reporters who look like me, and especially those who are browner than me, that “We” doesn’t quite include us, or our anger.
Earlier this year I had trouble making ad buys for a show about climate change because social media sites kept flagging the topic as “political.” When I shared this experience on Twitter, another former editor, also a white man, emailed me to say that he had “fact-checked” my claim with another man he works with, who had not had the same experience as mine, so …
White men have begun rewriting environmental history, too. According to David Wallace-Wells in multiple interviews (and in a New York Times op-ed) Rachel Carson, a woman scientist and a lesbian at a time when it was pretty radical to be either, was motivated to write Silent Spring—the book that galvanized the modern environmental movement—not by injustice, not by the utter gall of corporate executives knowingly and deliberately poisoning the commons for profit, but by fear, and the desire to stoke fear.
It wasn’t Carson who panicked in those years, it was the corporate titans. E. Bruce Harrison, the godfather of greenwashing, was working at American Cyanamid at the time, and tells the story of his boss running into his office and describing Silent Spring as “Pearl Harbor for industry.”
Carson wrote of her moment as an “era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” That sounds familiar. And it doesn’t sound like fear to me at all, but maybe that’s because I’m reading it with my vagina.
In 1977, the year before I was born, a distinguished geophysicist named Frank Press sent a letter to the White House warning of catastrophic climate change. “Catastrophic climate change,” that’s how he phrased it, that’s not me using the language of today to describe something in the past, it’s what Frank Press wrote to President Carter in 1977.
When my first son was born, a little over seven years ago, I hadn’t yet seen this letter, nor any of the other documents showing what government and corporate scientists already knew about climate change in the 70s and 80s. I was working as a climate reporter, and I didn’t know.
So, when Archie first started talking about his future self, I let my mind wander into the typical mom fantasies: my handsome son as president, or a world-famous scientist, or an athlete, maybe an actor, with me on his arm at the Oscars while he’s giving one of those “I’m not dating anyone so I brought my mom” speeches. I wish I could say I daydreamed about him as an exceptionally kind person, but no it was all superficial and incredibly basic.
A couple of years later I started covering climate liability cases. I had interviewed the lawyer who came up with the idea of climate change as a nuisance a decade or so earlier, and here he was, bringing the same sorts of cases again, so I was intrigued. This time he had a new approach, new evidence, new science, and a new villain: oil companies.
When I was pregnant with Archie, I was reporting for a fledgling climate news site. I was listed as a “staff reporter,” and wrote maybe a story a week, at $200 apiece, on contract, with no job security or health benefits. I was new to the whole motherhood thing and didn’t realize that as a freelancer, trying to take even unpaid “maternity leave” would mean death for my employment prospects. I thought I’d just take a month off and I’d let my editors—including the climate guy — know well in advance, so it wouldn’t be a big deal.
Climate guy thought it was a big deal. It was extremely annoying to him that he had just “wasted” three months of training on me. He made his displeasure known, I told him to go fuck himself, and that was that.
When a white male activist asked me recently whether I ever write for that publication, I told him the story and said I wished them well, but couldn’t imagine myself ever working with that editor again. “Well I practice forgiveness, it’s always the way to go, especially since we’re on the same side,” he said.
Actually (“actually”!) experts are agreed that forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to continue to interact with someone. It hinges instead on letting go of the active, festering anger that really only harms onseself. Justice, indignation, self-preservation, avoiding further harm at the hands of a provably untrustworthy person, none of these things is incompatible with forgiveness.
The history of climate change, according to those most responsible for it—politicians, corporate executives and, to a lesser degree, scientists—is also the story of how the precise phrase, “catastrophic climage change,” written to President Jimmy Carter in 1977, has only surfaced in the American lexicon in recent years.
Human nature has brought us to this place. Perhaps human nature will one day bring us through.
Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth
People in power have never willingly dismantled the systems that benefit them. Thus David Wallace-Wells earned an eye-popping advance for The Uninhabitable Earth, a book in which he makes some solid and necessary points, and then concludes, in the absence of credible evidence, that “we,” who are responsible for climate change, will solve it with geoengineering; Nathaniel Rich was given a whole issue of the New York Times Magazine in which to wax poetic about “our” failure to stop climate change, a story optioned almost instantly for a book and a film; Jonathan Safran Foer will soon join them with his own version of the “we are all to blame” narrative, We Are the Weather, in which he argues first, incorrectly, that human diets are the primary cause of climate change, and then that “we” need to tackle it by making the necessary lifestyle changes. There are more, believe. The system explicitly rewards these men for visualizing the future as a parallel system that leaves the patriarchal, capitalist pyramid intact. It’s all they know how to imagine, and all the rest of us are permitted to imagine: a future in which the right politicians, coupled with the right scientists and corporate executives, will turn climate change into an opportunity, not a crisis, with jobs and profits for all!
It’s an epic saga in which they are the heroes, an apocalyptic sci-fi video game or movie in which a few good men will just get rid of the bad guys in the third act. No need to dismantle patriarchy and white supremacy, envision a different and better way of living, re-think economic and societal structures, or remove power over the fate of humanity from the hands of a self-interested few.
“When I started learning more about climate change and what’s coming, I started running. You know, so I’ll be ready when the apocalypse comes.”
“I barely know your kids and I feel like I would jump in front of a bus to stop this shit.”
“I want to see those fossil fuckers burn.”
“I didn’t create this problem, and I didn’t benefit from it—that’s you with your AC and your green lawn and your freeway that cuts through my neighborhood. I’m trying to make sure my husband gets home safe every night and that my children are whole. BUT that doesn’t make the problem go away.”
These are the sorts of things I hear from women, and especially from women of color, women who are deeply knowledgeable, not only about the science and history of climate change, but also about how these things intersect with systemic racial and gender inequality. Women who are having emotional responses to what they’re seeing today.
Repeat statements like theirs to most climate dudes, and they recoil. It is unseemly, and certainly unintellectual, to react this way. So is imagining a vastly different future that goes beyond technological solutions or new energy sources. And finger-pointing, “playing the blame game”? That is certainly not on. The appropriate response is bemused detachment and plenty of charts, followed by a book tour.
But when women like my colleagues point the finger, it is not at one company or even one industry. The oil, coal, and automotive industries all play a role, the utilities, too, the PR flacks and lobbyists who carry out their vision, the politicians who cave. It’s a lot of people, but it’s not all people, it’s not “humanity.”
Last month I spent a few days in a library reading oil company shareholder magazines to get a sense of how they talked about this stuff over the years. Throughout the 80s and 90s these firms were very worried that because Americans had gotten so good at conservation in the 1970s, there was now a real danger of supply outpacing demand.
“Consumers cut back their demand—they will probably do so again in 1982,” a 1981 Chevron shareholder magazine piece warned. The solution? Investing heavily in exploration to produce more oil, to drive down prices to the point where “consumers will resume their previous consumption pattern.”
This story of “us” consuming our way to oblivion, with the oil companies innocently fulfilling “our” insatiable greed for fuel, is just a lie.
There was also a lot of talk back then about natural gas stores and how to make them profitable, and eventually US companies developed the technology to do just that (via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”), and exported it around the world. When other countries said no thanks to contaminating their water sources for the sake of natural gas, U.S. companies said no worries, we’ll frack here and export it. That’s one reason the U.S. became the world’s number-one energy supplier and why, at a time when scientists are saying we need to have started on a path toward zero emissions yesterday, global emissions are climbing.
How exactly was the general public supposed to stop that? When the name of Frank Press, which should have been in headlines worldwide, would remain unknown for decades; during all the years when even the farthest left-leaning politicians and the Sierra Club were telling us that “clean-burning” natural gas could be a bridge fuel toward green energy? (For what it’s worth, natural gas does emit less CO2 when burned; unfortunately the drilling and transportation of it emits methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more damaging than CO2.)
“What does it matter who’s at fault, we all need to come together to solve it!” shout men who look just like the men who are most to blame. Men who will suffer last and least.
But it does matter, because we’re already repeating a doomed history. Rather than imagining an industrial or corporate-friendly response to the crisis, what would it look like to shut down fossil fuel production tomorrow? What if conversations about “adaptation” focused on acclimating to that new reality?
It matters because the same patriarchal elites have remained comfortably in power for so long that their imaginations are unequal to the task we face. Arguments for civility, for “forgiveness,” for “we’re all in this together”, for a preservation of the status quo with just a few tweaks, won’t keep us all from going over the cliff.
In climate change, many of these elite white men might be experiencing their very first brush with imposed change, with a force beyond their control upending their lives; that might make them particularly ill-equipped to envision what’s next, let alone lead us there.
The story of climate change, both its history and its future, needs to be told by people who have already experienced injustice and disempowerment, people who are justifiably angry at the way the system works. And some of those stories are beginning to be told.
- Psychologist Renee Lertzman first wrote about climate grief, and how to process it into action, more than a decade ago
- Mary Annaise Heglar writes beautifully about the intersection between racism and climate change
- Katharine Wilkinson is a vocal advocate for amplifying the voices of women of color on climate
- Marine biologist Ayana E. Johnson writes on ocean conservation, a critical and weirdly overlooked component of tackling climate change
- Bina Venkataraman’s forthcoming book The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age focuses on long-range thinking for a better future
- NASA scientist Kate Marvel writes regularly about the interface between science and human values
- Tammara Toles O’Laughlin is transforming the climate activist group 350.org into a diverse and equitable force for justice
- Rhiana Gunn-Wright is writing the real policy that will help create a Green New Deal
- Oceanographer Sarah Myhre fought for, and won, the freedom to bring feeling and conviction into communicating the science of climate change
There are more than I can list, but none of these women is getting anywhere near the close and considered attention they deserve; instead, the story continues to be told by the same old omnipotent narrators.
Lately Archie has been asking me a lot of questions about college. It seems exciting to him—the familiarity and structure of school and classes, but with 50% more freedom. Mostly I think the idea of roommates—being able to live with his pals, not just see them occasionally for play dates—is thrilling.
Knowing what I know now, I don’t imagine handsome Archie scoring on and off the field anymore; I think about how he’ll get food, whether he’ll have access to water, if he’ll have to be inside all the time to avoid constant smoke from the fires. And I answer questions about how college works matter-of-factly, trying to make sure I don’t cry or puke or let on what I’m thinking.
His little brother is three and a half, so not really talking about his future yet. But he will. And that makes me a little emotional.