In the days before Hurricane Katrina thundered through the Gulf, Mary Heglar, one of the climate movement’s leading writers, was thinking about Emmett Till. It was 2005, the 50th anniversary of when the 14-year-old Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi, for speaking to a white woman, a crime of such breathtaking violence it shocked, even the weary eyes of Jim Crow America. Mary was visiting family further south, in Port Gibson, on summer break before her final year of college, and the anniversary was the biggest news story on TV before the storm.
In Mary's three-generation home of black civil rights activists, in the South, in America, Till’s story still resonated. Then Katrina hit. Mary, along with the rest of the country, witnessed the sudden, unpredictable violence of the American inequality they already understood, on a scale they’d never known.
Memories, like methane, accumulate and linger for years before the full impact is felt. Katrina became a moment of climate clarity for Mary, who wrote about the experience in 2019, in one of her breakout essays, “After the Storm.”
“I remembered the meteorologists explaining how hurricanes start off the coast of Africa and gather strength as they cross the Atlantic, following almost exactly the route of slave ships,” she writes. “I wondered if Katrina was really a 14-year old boy named Emmett.”
This is the gauntlet Mary throws to anyone reading, writing, or thinking about climate change. Climate change is about you. It’s about your emotions and intimate connections. It’s about history, about racism, about how we’ve progressed and how we slide back. It’s about who has power, and who’s on the receiving end of it. It’s about what you’re going to do once you stop reading.
In the span of three years, she’s built a 31,000-person Twitter following saying just what the old, extra-white environmental movement would prefer to sweep under the rug. She uses tweets, essays, a podcast, any platform she kind find, to speak straight from the heart. And she’s just getting started. Her first essay on Medium came out in 2018. Now she’s a writer-in-residence at Columbia.
But it didn’t take a hurricane for her to connect deeply with the land, and it didn’t take the Till’s anniversary to make her think about the black struggle for civil rights in America.
“I’ve kinda always had this thing in me, even though I was not raised this way at all, I’m kinda country,” she says. “I’ve always liked the way that dirt feels on my feet.”
She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the crucibles of the Civil Rights movement, and was outside from a young age. As the little one, it was her job to get low and collect pecans from the ground for her older relatives. Her grandfather showed her how to plant a watermelon in a pot, and thump the dirt to tell when it was ripe.
That same grandfather shared stories about the worst days of Jim Crow. He’d grown up in Alabama in the ‘20s, served in the military in the ‘40s. Her aunt was part of the first class of integrated schools in Nashville, and got bomb threats to the house.
“It forms the entire prism of how I see the climate crisis,” she says of this history.
Climate change is making some communities in America think existentially for the first time about the way they’re vulnerable, and how to band together to change that. This is not so for Mary's community.
“For 400 years and counting, the United States itself has been an existential threat for Black people,” she writes in the essay “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat.”
A rigged system and the constant threat of death hasn’t stopped black people from fighting for a better future since before this country was a country, Mary argues, so it shouldn’t stop people from fighting climate change either.
“You don’t fight something like that because you think you will win,” she writes. “You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you. Acquiescence, in this case, is what James Baldwin called ‘the sickness unto death.’”
Even just a decade ago, in the days of Katrina, the days of an Inconvenient Truth, the national conversation around climate change didn’t often sound like this. In the world of writing, it could feel like it was hardly happening at all.
After graduating from Oberlin with a degree in English and Third World Studies, she worked with a professor studying the current landscape of climate journalism. Some of the most impactful stuff she found was Stephen Colbert pretending to be a right-wing pundit at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Something needed to change.
Worried she’d never make a living as a writer, she went into nonprofit communications, first at a smaller organization, then to her current role at a national environmental organization, editing publications. Eventually though, the deeper and deeper she got into the environmental movement, she couldn’t wait any longer for the conversation to change; she’d have to change it herself.
“It started just because I was freaked out about this, I was terrified, and I wanted to process it, and the best way I know how to process it is through writing,” she says. “I’ve been writing since I was a really little kid. Honestly, I didn’t think anybody ever read it. But I just wanted to get it out.”
To understand climate change, one must wrestle with three very different ideas at the same time: that the wrath of climate change is so vast it will affect every single one of us and every person and thing we love; that in particular, the most vulnerable communities among us will be harmed the most; and that those most responsible for this global issue are a tiny group of presidents, CEOs, and lobbyists. It’s the most personal, political, local, global issue there is. Mary tries to give people the words to name those connections themselves.
She has a special skill at wrestling the current language, and thus ideas, of the climate movement into something more open and honest, a conversation, and thus a movement, with room for ideas like racial climate justice and a real reckoning with our emotions. She’s covered topics like climate guilt, how individuals get “victim-blamed” for climate change instead of holding big emitters responsible, the ways that climate change is racist and sexist because the people who run this world are racist and sexist. In the process, she’s built a massive following on her often funny, always insightful Twitter, and Columbia University recently invited her to be a writer-in-residence, where she will keep on writing and help them develop a climate writing curriculum.
She’s part of a tradition of writings pushing back against oppression and teh words that empower it. As novelist Toni Morrison explained in her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
To write so boldly, to say the quiet part of America’s racist, environmental history out loud over and over again, has helped expose what we’ve long known about the environmental movement: that those with the loudest voices tend to be privileged and white, even though those with the most to lose are just the opposite. But for those paying attention, this fault line has always been there. Mary isn’t trying to win over people who deny her humanity. She’s trying to make a new space for people who've never been allowed to have a voice in the movement.
“Plenty of people don’t agree with my fusing of racial justice with climate justice, and I’ve definitely heard from those people,” she says, often from those within the climate movement as much as from without. “What I feel like I’m able to do is create a place where people of color feel seen and welcomed in the climate community. The most touching messages that I’ve gotten have been from other women of color who say, ‘Oh, I feel like I can be a part of this now that I see you taking up space,’ and that means a lot to me.”
And that space starts with having the words to describe what you’re up against.As she wrote in her climate writing manifesto, “The Fight For Climate Justice Requires A New Narrative,” “To have the words to name your crisis, to indict your oppressor, is power. It’s exactly what we need if we are to have any hope of winning.”
But even someone like Mary, who has the gift of unpacking the complications of climate change in her writing, can get frozen by the horror of it all. But that’s ok, she says. Grief is often exactly what we need.
“Feel your feelings. It’s ok to feel knocked out,” she says. “It’s ok to feel frozen and overwhelmed. It’s ok to feel that way. You don’t necessarily have to have a plan to get through it. We have this rush in our society to get out of things that feel uncomfortable, but you don’t have to do that. Try not to stay there forever, but it is an important part of it to feel those things.
If we don’t feel an emotional connection to the potential extinction of millions and billions of people, what does that say about us?
“I don’t ever want to get to that place where I look at that and just go on with my life,” she says. “You shouldn’t want to be that person because if so, empathy is dead.”
And if we’re going to survive, empathy can’t die. We find ourselves in the last decade to make meaningful changes to our emissions to avert the worst of climate change. We’re in perhaps the final moments, at least on geologic time of the Anthropocene era, where humans defined life on the planet. Mary’s genius is showing that to save ourselves from a crisis of human ambition, we need a reckoning, then revival of human emotion.
In one of her finest essays, “But the Greatest of These is Love,” Mary drives this point home. Loving each other enough to protect ourselves and the planet is our only hope.
“But this love is strong enough to break through the terror. She is hot enough to burn through anger and turn into fury. She can shake you out of your despair and propel you to the front of the battle field,” she writes. “It’s a love that can also —even in the teeth of these most insurmountable odds — give me hope. If I’m brave enough to accept it.”