Covering Climate Now

Q&A: Mary Annaïse Heglar talks Hot Take podcast and how climate journalism can shape up in 2023

December 15, 2022
Photo courtesy of subject

EACH MONTH, Covering Climate Now speaks with different journalists about their experiences on the climate beat and their ideas for pushing our craft forward. This week, we spoke with Mary Annaïse Heglar, who cohosts the climate podcast Hot Take with Amy Westervelt. Heglar’s writing has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Wired, the Boston Globe, and more. After a three-year run, Hot Take will air its final episodes at the end of 2022. Heglar shared reflections from her work on the podcast, her critiques of how the media approaches climate change, and what journalists can do better in the coming year. The conversation, between Heglar and CCNow deputy director Andrew McCormick, has been edited for length and clarity. Follow Heglar on Twitter.

There’s been a lot of climate news this year, including the passage of significant climate legislation in Washington. Tell us about where you see the climate story at the end of 2022.

I feel like we’ve gone backwards. It might be true that we’ve come closer to climate action, but in a lot of ways I think we’ve gotten further away from climate justice.

We can say the Inflation Reduction Act is the biggest climate deal ever, and that’s true, but I see that as an indictment of all the climate legislation that’s come before. When I see so many environmental justice and frontline groups in sorrow over this legislation, when I see the Gulf Coast seemingly being sold off for parts, that’s hard for me to celebrate.

In 2019 and 2020, it seemed like we were in these glory days when a Green New Deal felt possible—it’s still the only political framework that comes close to answering the scientific demands of climate change—and when the climate movement wanted not only to hire Black people but to listen to them. Now, though, it seems that a lot of that listening was just performative. It feels like the same old experts have been ushered back to the front of the line and everyone else has been either silenced or sold out. I hate that for us. So, all the tone policing in climate spaces around the IRA, including by some pundits and opinion writers—the idea that we have to call the bill a win and shouldn’t dunk on it—was really disappointing.

Where does journalism fit in here as a corrective?

I mean, it’s going to sound overly simplistic, but tell the truth. Broaden your scope on the issues you consider when you form your assessment of “the truth.” Way too often, I think journalists just go along with conventional wisdom. But the only thing conventional wisdom does is reinforce the status quo.

Tell us about how Hot Take got started. What did you and Amy want to bring to the climate conversation?

Well, Amy and I first met on Twitter. I slid into her DMs, because I was such a big fan of her podcast Drilled. We met in person soon after and pretty quickly started talking about doing a podcast together. We considered different approaches and eventually landed on the subject that she and I already spent all our time talking and texting about: media criticism.

This was in 2019, when journalism was really just starting to take climate change seriously. Before then, if you saw a climate story, well, bully for you, because there weren’t a lot of them. That’s not to say there weren’t intrepid climate journalists out there, but for a long time the industry as a whole, the machinery of it—the editors, the executives—just didn’t seem interested in climate. What stories there were often focused in a very limited way on consumer actions—reduce, reuse, and recycle, stuff like that—or else they were packed full of scientific jargon that was barely translatable into English. Occasionally, you’d see a story that broke from this mold, but those were almost always written by white men.

So, suddenly, toward the end of 2019, there’s this explosion of more nuanced climate coverage. That was great, but it also meant some coverage that was not so great—I’m thinking in particular about articles that took this attitude of “It’s all over, we should give up.” Climate Twitter, meanwhile, was becoming this place where everyone was railing on stories like this; but that wasn’t necessarily helpful either, because Twitter is absolutely where nuance goes to die. So Amy and I thought, “Hey, we should have these media-focused conversations in one of the few places left where you can have messy conversations in public: a podcast.”

As you say, a lot of climate coverage pre-2019 was dense and probably impenetrable for audiences who weren’t already climate-smart. How did you think about making the show accessible to the uninitiated and climate-curious?

From the jump, we wanted the show to be fun. As a writer, I’m so often in this deeply emotional place where I’m thinking about the intersections of climate change and subjects like race and justice. That’s a big part of who I am, but I’m also a goofball. So when we were getting started, I thought: If I’m going to be having these hour-plus-long conversations, I need to be able to crack a joke.

Another thing that we did very deliberately is keep in the episodes the times when Amy or I corrected each other, or when a guest corrected us. We wanted to show people that you don’t need to be a perfect expert on all of these climate-related subjects. No one is a perfect expert on all of those things. Yet this idea that you should be an expert to weigh in on climate change has been a real barrier to people getting interested and involved. In fact, the right wing and the fossil fuel industry have weaponized that idea, calling out climate activists whenever they get something wrong. They act like, “Oh, if you don’t know this or that one thing, then you should shut up forever.” Or, “If you have any personal contradictions—say, you care about the climate but you also eat meat—then you should shut up, too.”

Since starting Hot Take, what have been some of your and Amy’s key criticisms of journalists’ climate coverage?

This might be criticism of the state of journalism overall, but one thing we kept noticing was that big outlets would make these huge announcements about boosting their climate coverage. And then they’d go silent. You wouldn’t hear another word. They’d launch a big new vertical on their website, for example, but then you go to it and it’s just articles by one person. Worse, they’d publish other climate-related stories elsewhere on their site that would undermine stories in the climate vertical. So the reality of these flashy climate commitments, unfortunately, often isn’t much different than what outlets were doing before. They’re out there going on about “Hey, we’re really gonna cover climate change now!” And then it’s like, “Oops, guess not.” I don’t understand this. Do they think nobody’s going to notice?

Another criticism that’s remained constant for us is that more accountability work needs to be done about the fossil fuel industry. There’s this assumption still that climate change is difficult to cover because it’s a slow-moving story—how do you cover melting permafrost?—but that doesn’t hold up anymore. Climate disasters are coming fast, and if journalists would do more to connect cause with effect, they’d find there’s always a story to tell about fossil fuels. Every time the industry builds a new oil rig, that’s a climate story. Every time a new pipeline opens up, that’s a climate story. Profit margins, hiring decisions, every time a fossil fuel worker dies on the job—those are all climate stories. But they’re not treated like it.

Could you recommend a couple of Hot Take episodes that might surprise listeners or help them think differently about the climate emergency?

Some of my favorite episodes were about prison abolition. We did two episodes—one with Drew Costley, an environmental reporter for the Associated Press, and one with Alleen Brown, an investigative reporter—exploring how intricately woven together the mass-incarceration crisis is with climate change. I didn’t realize that many prisons are built very shoddily, making them more susceptible to flooding and other natural disasters. A lot of prisons don’t have air-conditioning, too, so as heat waves get worse and more common, more and more prisoners are dealing with heat illness. Many prisoners are also on antidepressants or other mental health medications, which in extreme heat can have terrible side effects. Prisons also contribute to climate change, because they’re built from concrete, which is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. And a lot of prisoners work in factories, meaning that somehow, through no fault of their own, a prisoner can have a higher carbon footprint than someone on the outside who drives an SUV and hangs out on the internet all day buying Bitcoin.

More recently, we did an episode with Abrahm Lustgarten, from ProPublica, to talk about the intersection of climate change and debt in countries that were formerly colonized. Debt has severely limited how some of these countries are able to prepare for climate change, but in the lead-up to cop27, Barbados was pushing forward this interesting idea of debt relief as a form of climate reparations.

In a recent piece for NBCU Academy, you wrote about journalism’s culpability in the climate crisis, arguing that although much has changed for the better in recent years, journalism still has a long way to go on climate. Where would you like to see news organizations do better in 2023?

I’d like to see more coverage of climate change as an intersectional issue. You wouldn’t cover covid-19 without reporting on its economic impacts. But a lot of outlets still treat climate change as this special thing that sits over there by itself. It’s treated as another problem among many, and I think that’s part of why people feel so immobilized around climate.

Personally, I got interested in climate action when I learned how climate change connected to other issues I already cared about—when I realized that I didn’t have to abandon caring about racial justice or police violence or right-wing extremism to care deeply about climate. After all, these other issues are no less emergencies because of climate change. It’s exhausting. But at the end of the day, this is all about creating a livable future—and, in fact, scientists say that the fastest path to a livable future, when it comes to climate change, is the path that prioritizes justice and equity. So if journalists help connect these dots, I think it will make climate change less overwhelming, not more.

Another thing the media can do is help educate people on how disaster patterns have changed. People in different regions have known for years what to do during different types of storms—but the old rules often don’t apply anymore. I live on the Gulf Coast, for instance, in New Orleans, and it used to be that if you heard “Category 1 hurricane,” you would probably say, “All right, I’m gonna stay put. I’ve got my supplies, and I’ll be fine.” But now, because of climate change, we live in a world of rapid intensification, where you can hear “Category 1” in the evening and wake up facing a Category 4 or 5 storm.

I grew up in Mississippi and Alabama, and the deal was always: “New Orleans gets the hurricanes, and we in Mississippi and Alabama get the tornadoes.” But earlier this year, I was sitting in New Orleans and got an alert on my phone about a tornado watch. I thought, “Yeah right, ain’t gonna be no tornado in New Orleans,” and went on about my business. Then, suddenly, I get the alert that there’s now a tornado warning. I go on Twitter and, sure enough, there’s pictures of a tornado downtown. Lucky me, I grew up having tornado drills all the time. I knew what to do—get to the lower floors of buildings and all that—but a lot of people in New Orleans had no idea.

Another point you made in the NBCU Academy piece was about solutions reporting. You took issue with journalists who say we should give audiences hope—and you said that “hyperfocus” on solutions might inadvertently serve the fossil fuel industry, in that it could distract from enduring, fundamental problems, like fossil fuel use, that underlie climate change. Can you unpack that a bit?

I worry that an overemphasis on solutions framing will create the appearance that there’s not much work left to do. Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t cover climate solutions. But I think a lot of climate journalism these days actually does a pretty good job on solutions. And solutions are only half the story; we’re not done needing to cover the problem. I think the media continues to drop the ball in coverage of the causes of climate change—which gets back to the need for accountability reporting about the fossil fuel industry. 

I also think it’s not journalists’ job to control how audiences feel at the end of a story. I’m not sure it’s on us, either, to give people a blueprint of what to do about climate change. Ultimately, it will be up to each individual to figure out how they’re going to incorporate an understanding of the climate problem into their lives, based on their skills and their strengths. As a journalist, you can’t know all of your readers or listeners; you can’t know the creativity that lives in them. So I really disagree with this idea that we need to give audiences hope. That’s not how hope works.

What’s next for you with Hot Take coming to an end?

The end of the show is both a sad thing and not. It’s sad because I’ve been really proud of Hot Take. At the same time, I’m excited and a bit relieved to have a little less to do.

I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like over the past couple years. I felt burnt out. But I feel like I’ve got my legs back underneath me, and now I’m working on some new stuff—including a piece about climate change and burnout. I’m excited to have more time to think. And I’m excited to find out if one of these days I’ll be able to support myself full-time as a writer. That would be beautiful.

About Covering Climate Now

CCNow, a partner of CJR, collaborates with journalists and newsrooms to produce more informed and urgent climate stories, to make climate a part of every beat in the newsroom — from politics and weather to business and culture — and to drive a public conversation that creates an engaged public.

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