A Conversation with Hot Take: Making the Climate Conversation more Constructive, Inclusive and Intersectional

This interview by Laura McDermott will be featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

Amy and Mary, I would like to start by saying thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for The Beam. Firstly, I am curious: what are both of your stories? I mean, what brought you to the point where you decided climate journalism needed to be both addressed and analysed? 

Amy: I’ve been a journalist covering climate for close to 20 years so have seen it change a lot. One thing that hadn’t really changed until recently, though, was how much the space was dominated by self-appointed white male experts. Last year I was working on an essay about why that was problematic, and why some of the restrictions these self-appointed narrators of the climate story put on other storytellers run counter to actually addressing the problem of climate change and Mary was one of the people I called to talk about it. Of course, fairly soon after I met her I also started pestering Mary about doing a podcast of her own, but then over the course of a few conversation it morphed into this idea of a co-hosted podcast where we could dig into the ways climate was and wasn’t being covered and how those stories influenced action on climate.

Mary: There’s a lot of different ways I could go with that question, but I’ll go with what led me to the podcast. First, I’d say that we’re analyzing more than just climate journalism. We’re analyzing the conversation, the discourse. Amy’s the journalist on the show, I’m more of a literary writer. When Amy started asking me about doing a podcast last year, it felt super overwhelming and I felt like I couldn’t handle it at first. But then she asked me to co-host a news show and I was like “Wait a minute, what if we made it about media criticism” and then, us being who we are, we wanted to make it constructive and intersectional. And then it ran from there and eventually we were like “how has no one thought about this before?”

 

And I guess, from this moment of realisation the podcast was born or did this come later? Can you explain to our readers exactly what Hot Take is all about?

Amy: It was Mary who crystallized the idea! I’d been encouraging her to think about a podcast and we’d talked about a few different ideas, but then she came up with this notion of a media criticism podcast focused on climate. Which sounds so niche, but it appealed to me right away and as soon as we started working on it we realized that it’s really an onramp to talking about what’s going on in climate in general that’s a bit different from the usual policy or science conversations. We focus more on the social, cultural side, and we take an intersectional look at the climate conversation so we don’t just look at what’s being covered but also at what’s being ignored.

Mary: Yeah, it’s become more of a biweekly digest for the climate beat. I think there’s a lot of people out there who want to read and learn about climate, but they don’t know where to start. And there’s people who feel so overwhelmed by it, they can’t read and they’d rather listen. And then there’s people who just learn better through listening as opposed to reading. I think we’re able to reach a lot of those folks and guide them through the latest news and best writing.

 

You have described Hot Take’s ultimate goal as making the climate conversation more “inclusive, productive and powerful”. What would you say are the main approaches people, particularly reporters and writers can take if they are striving to achieve inclusivity? 

Amy: Talk to a diversity of sources, of course, but also consume a diversity of media. Journalism can be a very insular world, with the same stories getting read and passed around; it’s incumbent upon journalists to find new stories in new places–look to local papers, newsletters, podcasts, Medium and get beyond the usual journalism suspects.

Mary: I think Amy’s advice for journalists is invaluable. For literary writers and other types of artists, I’d say just be honest. I think there’s a lot of emphasis out there on “being right” and finding the “right” emotion to use to communicate about this. There’s no such thing. Just put your heart, your whole heart on the page, and let it go from there. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there for other people to empathize with. That makes it real and people can see themselves in you before they can see themselves in a molecule of carbon. This is a people issue, not a molecular one.

 

In the Global South, studies have shown that women and girls tend to be most negatively impacted by climate related disasters. In this case how can we be allies? How can we build a platform for women to have their voices heard?

Amy: Women and girls the world over are more negatively impacted by climate change and that goes double in the Global South. One thing we’ve talked about a lot on Hot Take is how little coverage there tends to be of disasters in developing countries, especially compared with coverage of disasters in the developed world. On top of there being fewer reporters and less space devoted to these stories, women trying to survive and rebuild after a climate disaster are generally not in a position to sit down and write a personal essay. Really we need editors and reporters making a concerted effort to find these women and amplify their voices, but I’m not sure how that happens in the current media landscape, which is massively underfunded and struggling more now than ever. Having more women of color and women from the Global South in leadership positions in media would certainly help, though!

Mary: Well, first, pretty much everyone is negatively affected by climate related disasters. Only disaster capitalists are positively affected. But, this is a bit hard for me to answer. Granted, I don’t live in the Global South, but I am a woman of color and we are still incredibly vulnerable to climate change, especially black women like me, and my family back South. So, it’s kind of like asking me how to be an ally to myself.

 

Why do you think intersectionality in climate reporting is so important?

Amy: Partly for the reason mentioned above, that we’re missing a lot of stories because many of the people in power in the media wouldn’t even think to look for them, but also because the only real solutions to climate change are intersectional. For a long time, the white male-dominated approach on climate has been to separate the scientific and technological challenges of energy use from the social, political and economic context that has enabled unchecked climate change.

We had the technological solutions and the scientific knowledge in the 1950s, that hasn’t been the primary issue for a long time! Continuing to focus solely on just the scientific and technical aspects of climate isn’t just willful ignorance of the various forces that have created the climate crisis, it also dooms us to the same sort of inaction we’ve seen for years.

Mary: Because climate is an intersectional issue and if you ignore that you’re not telling the whole truth. At best, you’re telling a half truth, but that only goes so far until you’re just telling a lie. And that’s a very deliberate decision.

 

 

You have spoken at length during the podcast about ‘Climate Grief’. What advice would you give to people who are feeling overwhelmed and helpless about the climate crisis?

Amy: I think it’s important to allow yourself to feel those things–it’s impossible not to! So, feel the feelings, talk to your friends and family about it, and then keep going. Actually Mary’s advice on this stuff has been super helpful to me, so I’m gonna leave it at that and wait for her answer!

Mary: I think definitely what Amy said about letting yourself feel those things. Know that it’s okay not to feel okay about this. It’s actually a good thing that you feel bad, as hard as that might be to take in, because it means that you’re a good person.

You shouldn’t be able to look at all that loss, all that suffering and feel fine. Your despair and grief means that your moral compass and your empathy is still intact. Know that climate grief is a cycle, and it’s okay to go back and forth from despair to shock to anger, if then you are able to harness your emotions, do it. Two of the best coping mechanisms I’ve found for my climate grief are climate action and climate community. So, definitely seek out other people who are feeling it too, and get involved when and how you can and that’s going to look different for different people, depending on their skills and their passions.

It’s kind of like a career path once you start looking at how to get involved.

 

I am sure that you have already learnt so much through producing Hot Take. What would you say are the key lessons that you have learnt?

Amy: That there’s actually so much more and different climate coverage happening now than I thought; that you CAN talk seriously about climate, crack jokes and curse all at the same time; and that Mary’s the fucking best.

Mary: I learned that it’s safe to laugh about this! Seriously, at first we thought people would get annoyed with how much we laughed, but turns out people like it! I learned that white guys have a very hard time learning how to be better allies. Seriously, once we opened the inbox for listener questions, we were overwhelmed by how often we received slight variations of the same question: how do I check my white male privilege. So much so we wound up inviting  Eric Holthaus, a white man who has publicly done a lot of grappling with that in public, onto the show to help us answer it. Also, in doing our year-in-review episodes, we learned that the climate conversation has just grown by so many leaps and bounds in the past two years, that it’s almost dizzying. And, of course, I learned that I have one of the best co-hosts in the whole world and it’s an honor to work with Amy so closely. I’m really proud of what we’re building together.

 

The future can at times seem bleak and this is something that we must acknowledge – as you have said, ‘hope doesn’t cut it for everyone’. Nonetheless, there is an active community around the Globe, coming together to fight this crisis in whatever ways they can. For example, the Beam in Berlin and Hot Take in the US is just one example of such international relationships. Does this interconnectedness bring you any sense of optimism for the future? What is it that makes you continue to be a part of this fight everyday? 

Amy: Absolutely — I’ve been at this for two decades and I’ve seen waves of activism in the past but never quite so organized, coordinated or sustained so it really makes me optimistic. I also really think that both millennials and Gen Z have the sort of emotional intelligence required to keep it up at the necessary intensity and for the duration. What makes me personally continue is just that I know it’s the right thing, really, it’s what’s necessary to be a good ancestor.

Mary: Not to be obnoxious, but optimism really doesn’t mean anything to me. Optimism is developing an opinion on what I think will happen in the future, making predictions. I don’t have time for that. I’m more concerned with who I want to be in the world that’s coming than trying to predict what type of world is coming. That’s how I try to make positive change.

 

Do your feelings towards optimism differ when it comes to the evolution of Climate Reporting over time? Right now, what one thing is it that journalists and writers can do to improve?

Amy: I feel really optimistic about it partly because of how much I’ve already seen it evolve. It’s an entirely different world now than it was ten years ago, and just in taping Hot Take we’ve seen a massive evolution from 2016 to now. Our first few episodes were year-in-review episodes of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and we actually sort of struggled to find a good number of stories for the 2016 episode. The 2019 episode we struggled to squeeze into two hours because there was such an explosion of good writing about climate. One thing climate journalists could do to improve right now is to expand their rolodexes beyond scientific and political experts to include sociologists, environmental justice experts and activists, and gender experts.

Mary: Again, I don’t care for optimism. I think it might work for some people, but to me it’s a waste of time. There’s way more than one thing journalists can work on, but I’ll leave that for Amy as the journalist.

For the other types of writers and artists out there, I go back to this: tell the truth. All of it. If you’re working on a TV show set in Los Angeles, and your characters are not at all talking about the wildfires, ask yourself if you’re telling the truth? If you are writing about travel and you’re not mentioning how destinations have been impacted by climate, is that the whole truth? If you’re writing about immigration and refugees or war and climate does not come up, is that the truth? Climate is not a solitary issue. It intersects and interacts with everything. It contains everything.

 

Finally, the word ‘Hot Take’ has been defined as ‘an opinion likely to cause controversy[…] Designed to create a reaction’. How much of a reaction would you say that your Hot Take has sparked?

Mary: When we came up with the name of the show, it was more about my desire to have a pun as the name of the show, and we thought Hot Take worked because media criticism in the climate community was happening, but on the worst possible platform: Twitter, where hot takes abound and nuance goes to die. So we wanted to take the hot air out of the hot takes and create a space to really talk it through. It’s hard to say how much of a reaction we’ve caused, though, at least from where we sit now. We’re still very much getting started.