Talking Climate Change with Climate Mama ED Harriet Shugarman

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?

“Climate Mama”, Harriet Shugarman. Source: ClimateMama.

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

Climate Mama, Harriet Shugarman, and supporters at The Clean Energy March in Philadelphia, 2016. Source: ClimateMama

Talking Climate Change with Artist Carolyn Monastra

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 Carolyn Monastra, a New York City-based artist.

Melissa Fleming: As an artist, how did you get involved with climate change? What motivated you?

Carolyn Monastra: I’ve been a practicing artist as well as an activist and environmentalist for a couple decades, but I never married the three until recently. In 2009, I was on a residency in Iceland and was both mesmerized and haunted by the beauty of the melting glaciers and calving icebergs that I was photographing. I was already aware of the basic concerns about climate change but in 2010, when I heard activist Bill McKibben interviewed on the radio, a light bulb switched on and I realized I needed to use my photography to document this critical issue.

MF: You have a project called The Witness Tree. Tell us about that.

CM: Without knowing it, those photos in Iceland were really the beginning of The Witness Tree. I knew it would be ambitious, but I felt compelled to tell the global story of climate change. In the United States, many do not experience the effects firsthand nor recognize the way that others, especially those in more developing nations, are being impacted. I wanted to use this project to connect the climate dots around the world.

At first, I had planned to document just the impacts on the land but then realized that the lives of people (and wildlife too) are inextricably linked to the land. I used a 2011-12 sabbatical from teaching (at Nassau Community College) to travel continuously for nine months around the world targeting people and places affected by climate change. Most of the work was made during that year, but I have continued to photograph in the Northeast and whenever I travel to someplace new. On the project website, I have over 200 pictures broken up into nine portfolios or “chapters” with each one focusing on a different issue or aspect of climate change.

MF: As you said, images from this project were taken all over the world. How did you choose your locations and the stories you tell? What role did science play?

CM: I spent a full year doing research by reading books by McKibben, James Hansen, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others in the field. I also created a “Google alert” for climate change articles and attended presentations and meetings. Based on my findings, I kept a running list of climate issues and the places I hoped to visit. At some point, I put up a world map in my kitchen and started marking it with color-coded post-its. I knew I wanted to photograph on every continent and that traveling to Antarctica would be the most difficult and expensive to visit. But since it is warming faster at the poles than anywhere else, I felt committed to including it in the project. When I bought my around-the-world ticket, I had to create an itinerary; so some of the locations came down to where the airlines I was flying could take me. For example, I had wanted to photograph the effects of sea level rise in Bangladesh, but it was going to take some extra flights to get me there. Instead, I ended up photographing in a small village in Thailand that is also being inundated by rising seas.

The Viedma Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields of Argentina has retreated more than 1 km since the 1930’s. At its current rate of retreat, scientists predict it could disappear within sixty years. ©Carolyn Monastra

It is important to me to understand the science of climate change as best as I can as a layperson. I hate when people (especially politicians) say, “Well, I’m not a scientist,” as an excuse for not acknowledging that climate change is real or in admitting our role in it. I am not a scientist either, but I know how to read and ask questions and make informed decisions about topics that concern me. I like Senator Al Franken’s retort to this cop-out: “I’m not a doctor, but I have to make health care decisions.” When extreme storms and floods start decimating people’s homes, it won’t matter whether or not we are scientists.

MF: What did you learn from this project? Did anything surprise you?

CM: I have learned a lot about the measurable impacts and the not-so-visible impacts of climate change, but what surprised me most, or rather what I was pleased to discover, is that one really can rely on the kindness of strangers. I mostly traveled alone, and nearly everywhere I went, when people learned what I was doing, they had a personal anecdote to tell, or a suggestion of a place to visit, or someone to meet. I could not have done this project without the help of so many “strangers” – many of whom I now consider friends. That said, one thing I suspected that sadly has been confirmed, is that we do indeed have more climate denial in the U.S. than anywhere else, especially now with the current administration. I had a recent experience where a NASA scientist canceled our intended interview after being told by his “current employer” that he was not allowed to discuss his work. I fear that without an active public discourse and climate-change curbing policies, the U.S. carbon footprint will balloon and lead to disastrous results down the road.

MF: How is talking about climate change via art different than talking about it via data and statistics?

CM: In 2012, I was selected by the Climate Reality Project to become one of their “Climate Leaders” and was trained to give slideshows based on Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth model. I used their “deck” of slides (a blend of news photos and charts and graphs) for my first few presentations. As time went on, I transitioned to using my Witness Tree photos and kept a few of the more eye-opening statistical slides. I found my audiences, especially students, responded more to the personal nature of my artistic images and stories.

Stairs and burial vault displaced by Hurricane Isaac floodwaters, Braithwaite, Louisiana, USA, 2012. ©Carolyn Monastra

A musician friend once told me that he thought my pictures were too beautiful to tell the story of something so horrible. I asked him if he would purposely create a piece of atonal music that might appeal to a small audience but push away the general public. I don’t want to gloss over the negative impacts of climate change, but I believe it is possible to use beauty to address the fact that we might lose so much of what is beautiful and necessary in our world.

MF: Tell us more about how you turn your audience from passive viewers into active participants.

CM: After a year or so of giving Witness Tree slideshow presentations where the audience sat in chairs and I stood behind a podium, I wanted to create an audience-engagement activity. I came up with the idea of making a live “Witness Tree” for the Human Impacts Institute’s Creative Climate Awards in 2014. From a tree in a city park, I hung several dozen small Witness Tree prints. On the back of each was a map showing the location where the image was taken, a detailed caption, and some tips on how to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Attendees made postcards for politicians addressing environmental concerns and then were invited to take home one of my photos in exchange for hanging their postcard on the tree. At the end of the event, I mailed the postcards off to the politicians. I believe events like this give people a sense of agency and encourage them to use their own creative skills to address issues that matter to them.

MF: Thank you, Carolyn!  For more images and information about Carolyn’s work, go to To see a video of her interactive Witness Tree event, go to

Portrait of Carolyn Monastra in a region of eastern Inner Mongolia that used to be pastureland but has turned into a desert due to the effects of deforestation, overgrazing and climate change. Photo Credit: Jiehao Su.