Talking Climate Change is an interview series focused on the variety of people addressing the issue of our changing climate. Participants run the gamut of professions, from scientists to artists, and together we discuss the subject from a multitude of perspectives. For this installment, I spoke with Harriet Shugarman, the Founder and Executive Director of Climate Mama.
Melissa Fleming: Tell us about yourself. How did you get involved with climate change? What motivated you?
Harriet Shugarman: Most days it seems that working on climate has been a part of my life forever. I worked in and around climate change policy at the international level way back in the early 1990’s for the International Monetary Fund at the United Nations. Part of our job was to participate in drafting the first Earth Summit documents for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Then, for the next 10 years or so, I attended meetings at the UN headquarters in New York and around the world that looked at how the international community could expand and define its role on climate change impacts and policy.
But, I wasn’t emotionally attached to the issue yet and these meetings seemed so far away from how they would actually impact people and their communities around the world. My motivation and my passion for personally getting involved were first ignited in the spring of 2007 when I trained with former Vice President Al Gore and the Climate Reality Project, to become a Climate Reality Leader. For me, this was the transformational moment when I knew that working on climate change would become the primary focus of my life moving forward. I had two young children and my eyes were opened to the fact that their future really was in our collective hands and that this issue must be my focus. It has become my life’s work.
MF: You started an organization called Climate Mama. Tell us about it.
HS: A few years after my Climate Reality training I decided I would jump in with both feet and I founded ClimateMama in late 2009. As a mom, I realized that many of the parents I was meeting and speaking with in the playground, in my community, my house of worship, and at my children’s school had no idea how urgent the climate crisis actually was. Having left the big stage at the UN, and being engaged in my community, I could see ways that those international agreements could and should be enacted at a local level.
Even when the parents I was meeting did have an inkling to the climate crisis we faced, they seemed frozen, not able to speak to their children about it, or really grasp how they could be involved in climate solutions. ClimateMama began as an online place for parents to learn more about the climate crisis and what we all can do about it. We showcased climate parents so that others could learn from them and see how each of us could be empowered to take action.
As time has evolved, and my personal interests and actions have taken a more activist tone, we have become more active on the ground, resisting fossil fuel infrastructure and connecting the dots between fossil fuels and our children’s health.
MF: Why did you choose to focus on “Mamas and Papas”?
HS: Becoming a parent changed me forever. The realization that our children’s future will be increasingly difficult and in fact is directly threatened because of our lack of action today, is something that parents should and must become emotionally connected to. I felt and still feel that empowering parents to take action is a critical part of our success. Regardless of where you live or your political or religious persuasion, as a parent, our hopes for our children remain similar. We want them to live healthy, happy, and productive lives. If we can fully understand that climate change threatens every part of those dreams for our children, then there is hope that parents can and will be spurred on to solve the climate crisis.
MF: What have you found to be the biggest challenges in communicating climate change?
HS: To me, the biggest challenges seem to be around helping people understand the urgency and seriousness of the crisis before us, without creating a sense of paralyzing fear and helplessness. I think that all of us in the climate communication world deal with this issue on a regular basis. We need to help empower and promote the opportunities because climate change does pose endless opportunities to take action, create change, and build hope.
Climate change is the most complicated issue that the human race has or will face, and as such, there is an endless myriad of fixes. I wish there was a “silver bullet” or even a “top three”, but there isn’t. So, we need to turn the discussion around and help each of us understand that we must be part of the solution in any way that we can. This isn’t to say that we don’t need big solutions. We do. We need them now and we need to support, elect, and promote those people working on and creating them. In “UN speak”, we say that we each have “common but differentiated abilities and responsibilities.” Those of us that can “go big” must.
MF: Climate change is a politically charged topic these days. Do you ever have to deal with climate skeptics? If so, how do you handle it and what advice would you give to others who do?
HS: When faced with climate skeptics or outright deniers, I would say that – it depends. Some people have dug in so deep, there is no changing their minds. You can either politely “agree to disagree” or just choose to ignore them, but this can be hard if they are a good friend or in your immediate family.
That said, this group of deniers is small but very vocal. We need to marginalize their voices and get the truth out. In this age of “alternative facts”, we need to make sure that at every opportunity we share facts and reality. If you have time, send people peer- reviewed studies and factually based information. Especially with friends and family, I would recommend starting from a position of love and mutual respect – not from a combative place. Find common ground (for me this is our children ) and work from there. Make it personal and emotional. We each intuitively live, see and feel climate change all around us. Help people make those connections, and then follow up with the plethora of facts.
The reality is that the material that skeptics use to back up their so-called “facts” all come from the same 5-10 sources and the same small number of so-called “experts.” There aren’t a plethora of “alternative facts” on climate change, the reality of its causes and effects are clear and there are thousands and thousands of fact based, scientific data to back this up, as well as real world examples that mother nature is showing us every day.
MF: As someone who has been involved in a number of different climate related marches and demonstrations, have you seen a change in these types of public events over the years?
HS: Good question. Yes and no. Marches and demonstrations in their own right have always been important. They connect people to one another directly and help us all feel part of something big and powerful. But organizers are now realizing that we also need to provide people with tools, ideas, and opportunities to become more engaged once they return to their own communities. This, I see as a change.
MF: Thank you, Harriet! For more information about Harriet and her work, visit www.climatemamma.com