This story originally appeared in YES! Magazine and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
I have always been afraid to talk about climate change. The barrage of doomsday numbers and the overwhelming magnitude of the problem leave me feeling small and powerless. But in the run up to COP26, the most important climate change meeting in history, running away from the world’s toughest problem was no longer an option. So, as an audio journalist and podcast producer, I instead tried to imagine what a different approach to the discussion around climate change could sound like.
It’s hard to know how to act in the face of a global crisis, so I immediately knew the scope had to be narrowed way down. It’s much easier to understand how to advocate for specific, local solutions. That’s the level at which meaningful change originates anyway.
(Related: Homelands in peril)
With the clock counting down to the start of COP26 on Oct. 31, I wanted to give listeners a way to support local climate organizers while also urging world leaders to protect our planet and the people on it.
So I created the podcast As She Rises with Wonder Media Network as a way to reframe the climate conversation around Indigenous women and women of color who are on the front lines of preserving their homes and communities. Along the way, I expected to find organizations to support or ways to take action. What I didn’t expect to find was that my entire understanding of the climate crisis was wrong.
The Art of Expression
When I was pulling together the podcast, I knew I wanted to speak to people different from the average climate scientist or talking head on cable news—characters who are typically very White and very male. Instead, I wanted to personalize the elusive magnitude of climate change by centering the voices of Native women and women of color.
We know that communities of color and women are disproportionately affected by climate change. Not only are women disproportionately displaced by climate change, women hold less decision-making power in global climate negotiating bodies: about 30 percent, according to the United Nations. That’s why activists are pushing for women’s leadership and gender equity at COP26.
Still, since so much of the climate crisis feels insurmountable, I turned to an artform to help express the inexplicable: poetry. I wanted to use poetry as a way to set the scene, to help a listener imagine an area they may have never experienced themselves—the Louisiana Bayou, the silent tundras of Alaska, or the receding coastlines of Puerto Rico.
The women in these communities are the ones doing the work of surviving, recovering, and building resilience. Shouldn’t theirs be the voices we listen to and follow?
Everyone Has a Role to Play
Apparently, that feeling of insignificance I was so afraid of? Well, turns out it’s kind of the point. One of my guests on As She Rises is Kimberly Blaeser, a White Earth Nation poet and scholar. Blaeser encouraged me to embrace the feeling of insignificance. For her, that feeling was crucial for reorienting and reapproaching one’s relationship to the Earth. Acknowledge how small you are, accept it, and now play your small part.
Blaeser also expressed, as did many of the Native poets I spoke to for the show, that humankind’s relationship to Earth has gotten wildly out of whack. In a time of extreme weather, a global pandemic, and racial inequality, that may sound obvious. But it’s more than what’s on the surface. As a society, we’ve forgotten the role that human beings are meant to play in the larger ecosystem.
Just look at the scourge of wildfires that have devoured much of California. On another episode of As She Rises, I had the pleasure of speaking with Margo Robbins, the executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, which seeks to facilitate cultural burns on the Yurok Reservation and surrounding ancestral lands in California. Cultural burning is the Indigenous people’s practice of skillfully using low-intensity fires to manage the landscape. It removes the fine fuels on the forest floor, such as fallen leaves and twigs, kills pathogens, fertilizes soil, and stimulates biodiversity and healthy creeks. The Yurok practiced controlled burns for millennia before U.S. forest management policies forced them to stop. In the wake of these devastating fires—such as the recent Dixie Fire that is poised to be California’s biggest yet—Robbins and her fellow Yurok are teaching California firefighters how to practice controlled burns.
For Robbins, the ability to control and thoughtfully deploy fire is the unique role humans are meant to play in our planet’s larger ecosystem. To her, the concept of “fighting” fires is entirely misguided to begin with.
It brought me back to Greek mythology, where Prometheus, the god of fire, defies Zeus’ orders and gives fire to humans. As a result, Prometheus is credited with creating modern civilization. For centuries, we have seen the ability to manipulate and use fire for our survival as the defining quality of our species. But we’ve gotten away from that in the last several hundred years, and as a result, our forests are tinderboxes. We’ve mistakenly only seen natural processes as something to prevent and not something to cooperate with. Our outsized sense of importance has distorted the world around us, to our own detriment.
Fortunately, ancestral practices like cultural burning are not entirely lost. A courageous group has kept them alive despite repeated attempts to silence these voices. In August, a report by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International found that Indigenous-led resistance efforts curbed the equivalent of 25 percent of U.S. and Canadian annual emissions.
When Native voices are at the forefront, tangible progress is made.
The Strength of Survival
Indigenous women and women of color have the capacity to lead us out of this climate crisis. At this time of unprecedented challenge, these are the survivors we must turn to. These are the leaders who are creating real results and who hold the necessary understanding of what it means to live in sustainable harmony with the land.
So in a climate movement that is still grappling with how to center BIPOC voices, one of the most important things we can do right now is amplify the work and stories of Indigenous women and women of color. In the first episode of As She Rises, released on Sept. 20, we travel to the Louisiana Bayou where I spoke to Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. After Hurricane Katrina, she returned to southern Louisiana to help her community rebuild. As we were concluding our interview she said to me:
“If we want to know how to survive, what is coming, we’re going to have to talk to the survivors. And I’m excited that those survivors are Native American, African American. There’s an acknowledgement that has to come in order for us to survive. And it is that the strongest, most knowledgeable people are the ones that our capitalist society values the least. But if we’re going to survive this climate crisis, we’re going to have to value them the most.”
GRACE LYNCH is an audio journalist, producer, and self-proclaimed theater critic. Before joining the team at Wonder Media Network, she had the pleasure of launching FiveThirtyEight's sports podcast as well as producing their oral history project, When Women Run. Her audio documentary Winning Wisconsin was nominated for "Best Political Podcast" at the 2020 Ambies Awards and called "one of the most essential listens of election season" by Vanity Fair. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.