On Thursday, September 19, Guernica co-sponsored an official Brooklyn Book Festival event with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Called “Now or Never: Storytellers Tackling Climate Change,” the event featured an interdisciplinary panel that included New Yorker journalist Carolyn Kormann, novelist Pitchaya Sudbanthad, artist Eve Mosher, and NRDC policy expert Robert Moore. It was moderated by Guernica’s deputy publisher, Amy Brady.
The event carried a potent sense of urgency. For one thing, it fell on the eve of a global climate strike that would draw, by some estimates, almost 4 million people to over 2,500 scheduled marches and rallies on all seven continents. And for another, Tropical Depression Imelda had descended in the hours just before the panelists took the stage. It flooded parts of southeast Texas—the same region devastated by Hurricane Harvey in 2017—and forced immediate evacuations.
Amid a room buzzing with excitement and worry, the panelists discussed how storytelling factors into their climate-focused work; how narratives about humans impacted by climate change can induce empathy in policy makers; and how some narratives are problematic not for the lives they describe, but for those they leave out. What follows is an edited transcript of the evening. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Amy Brady: What drew each of you to the subject of climate change, and why do you pursue it in your work?
Eve Mosher: I started working on climate change about 12 years ago as a collaborative practice. Prior to that, I had been doing studio-based art that was related to the environment. What changed is that I got angry. I had read a magazine that included essays about [Hurricane] Katrina, shrinking glaciers, and other things. It also included documents and photo images from the Bush administration that showed how the administration’s science advisors had rewritten documents on climate change to soften the language and make it sound like climate change would have an economic benefit. That made me really mad. And anger seems to stir me to action.
Robert Moore: I put myself through college by joining the Illinois National Guard. In 1993, there was a 500-year flood on the Mississippi River, and my guard unit got activated. I spent three weeks throwing sandbags at the river. That was my entry point into working on river and water issues. Later in my career, I ran an environmental organization in Albany, New York for many years, and that’s where I first started really working on climate change and climate policy. It was right when New York and all the northeastern states were starting to create what’s known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit, and that opened up my eyes to the need to start focusing on dealing with climate impacts. We no longer had the luxury of talking about climate impacts as something far in the future; they were in the here-and-now. The job I currently have at NRDC opened up two months after Sandy, and that led me to the work I do now.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: As someone born in Bangkok, I saw humans grapple with the natural. I have memories of walking across planks laid out across my grandmother’s lawn because of flooding. To this day, every time it rains there, flooding is a looming threat. So, climate change is something that’s always in the back of my mind. I actually studied environmental sciences and policy in college, but I also realized that I was not someone who was going to write memos on landfills or take soil samples. I wanted, instead, to come to New York and work in art. I didn’t return to the subject of climate change until I was deep in my novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which looks at Bangkok over 200 years, from the nineteenth century to sometime in the latter part of the twenty-first century. I could not help but see Bangkok touched by climate change. That city—and ones like it all over the world—are immensely vulnerable to the effects of our climate crisis.
Carolyn Kormann: My first reporting job was for a newspaper in the Caribbean. I moved down there and started writing for them in 2005, right when there was a coral bleaching event. At that time [bleachings] weren’t necessarily attributed to climate change, but it was devastating to see.
I wrote a story about it, and that set me on the path of writing about climate change, the environment, and the natural world at large. Climate seems especially important, because it is the most urgent story of our time. It touches on everyone and everything.
Amy Brady: Tonight’s panel is specifically about climate change and storytelling, so I’d like to talk to each of you about how storytelling factors into your work. Rob, let’s start with you, because you work in policy, and I think it’s fair to say that when folks think of “policy” they don’t immediately think of storytelling. Yet I know it’s very important to you.
Robert Moore: Narrative is a fairly new tool that we’re experimenting with in the public policy arena. A lot of us have started to understand the power of storytelling in helping shift the opinion of decision-makers. For example, I can show up to a congressional office or at a mayor’s office with all kinds of fancy charts and graphs that show all kinds of really cool stuff, even scary stuff. And they’re going to be like, “Damn, that’s an interesting graph you’ve got there. I’ll have to think about that for a little bit.” But if you show up with somebody who’s actually living through the effects of climate [change], someone who has a story to tell, then they might actually listen. Stories move people.
Amy Brady: Carolyn, one of my favorite recent articles of yours is about the deforestation of the Amazon, and its domino-like effect on climate change. What I loved about that article is how it took many facts and figures and presented them in a narrative form that was easy for me to understand. As a journalist, how do you give narrative shape to the research that you do?
Carolyn Kormann: That piece started with an image of a cow. Cows kept coming up in my talks with various experts, because cattle ranching is one of the big causes of deforestation in the Amazon. Here was this cow hanging out on all this land by itself, which was great for the cow, but not for the Amazon. It all just seemed so nonsensical to me, because a cow doesn’t need that much land, and there shouldn’t be cattle ranching in the Amazon anyway. From there, I followed the logic of the IPCC report that came out that year, about land use. I suppose my method is to find an image to start with that will stick in people’s heads and possibly make them more interested in the story.
Amy Brady: Pitchaya, your novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, speaks to Thailand’s vulnerability to sea-level rise. I know that climate themes come up in some of your other work, too, because you also contributed a beautiful short story to Guernica’s special issue on climate fiction. How do you see fiction writing as complementary to nonfiction storytelling on climate? Or, if I may be so bold, do you see fiction storytelling as having the power to show or teach us something that perhaps nonfiction can’t?
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: We live in an era where some people are debating what’s true and what’s not, especially when it comes to climate change. Good fiction can help people to see and feel climate change as more real. Now, some people say that climate denialists are suffering from a crisis of imagination—that they can’t see what’s actually going on. But I think they actually have great imaginations, because the scientific consensus [surrounding climate change] is close to 99%. Their denialism is a kind of fiction—it’s just bad fiction.
Amy Brady: One of the things that I loved about your novel—and about all great novels, actually—is that it let me spend time in the minds of other people for an extended period, people living through a climate crisis. I came to care about those characters and the conditions they’re living under. So, it occurs to me that there’s a link between reading good climate fiction and what Rob said earlier about how to get people in power to care about others: we need stories about people.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: Yes, both seem to generate a kind of empathetic response.
Amy Brady: Eve, in your artist statements, you’ve said that you want your art to help communities to “embrace truths, emotions, and imagination.” It seems to me that, when we’re talking about storytelling, those are three key components that a good story must have. How does storytelling factor into your work?
Eve Mosher: I have used storytelling as a key component of my work for some time. When we share our personal stories, we create connection. When we were working on the HighWaterLine project in various communities, we would start with a process of discovering people’s personal stories. We spent months doing community building to create trust with people, to build empathy. Today I’m asking myself how the work I’m doing can create a sort of narrative path where people are confronted with the reality of their local situation. The media is not always talking about [climate change] in a way that drives home what a dire situation we’re in. I seek in my work to create a space to have complex emotions that go along with that realization.
Robert Moore: I’d like to add to what Pitchaya and Eve are saying, because I think writers and artists fill in a lot of cognitive gaps for people. I read a study a couple of years ago about how people perceive their future selves as almost complete strangers. But when they read fictional stories set in the future, they have a stronger empathetic connection to the characters than they do to their own future selves. So, in essence, I think art and fiction writing can help draw people into a future that they otherwise have a hard time picturing.
Amy Brady: Backstage, we started a conversation about how it’s not just storytelling that helps us to imagine new futures—it’s also the very language we use. Where do you all see language about climate change shifting in your various fields?
Carolyn Kormann: I’ve seen a very clear shift in the media, even in the last year. I think maybe the Guardian was one of the first big international papers to set new language rules about how they would talk about climate change. They call it a climate crisis, and they use [words like] “wildlife” instead of “biodiversity.” These words better convey the urgency of climate change.
Eve Mosher: Yes, we need to use language that’s clearer. We need to come out and say that our fish stocks are dying, that our food system is in peril. We need to move away from the science-y data side of things and use the language of good storytelling. We need to say that people are dying right now. The media isn’t doing a great job of this, but they’re getting there. CNN does a pretty good job of using the language of what’s happening now. Whereas the New York Times doesn’t want to scare people or use words that they deem hyperbolic. But that’s not the reality. This is an emergency. We are living in crisis and we need to use the language of crisis.
Robert Moore: I think that’s became especially true here in the US, where we’ve had so many natural disasters that the urgency of the situation is finally dawning on everybody. Until recently, the language we have used within the environmental advocacy community hasn’t always been about communicating an impending crisis. But that’s where we are now. Tone is another thing we’re having to reconsider. I read a recent article about documentary filmmakers who are struggling with how to tell stories about the natural world. How do you document nature without bumming everyone out? Like, you want to do a documentary about penguins, but they’re not doing so well in Antarctica. How to explain this without bumming out the viewer to the point where they stop watching? There’s Blue Planet, of course, of which I’m a big fan. I thought they did a good job of showing the beauty and wonder of nature. But some things we should be terrified of. It’s a hard balance to find.
Amy Brady: What about the use of humor?
Robert Moore: There’s definitely a role for humor. I was reading the other day about a theme park in Kentucky that features a model of Noah’s Ark. It was supposedly built according to the exact size and measurements of the Ark described in the Bible. The park recently had a bunch of flooding, and well, the Ark was damaged because it didn’t work. They couldn’t get the insurance claim fulfilled.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: [Laughing] That’s funny. But it’s important to add that language frames the way that climate change is talked about, and in the past, climate issues have been presented at a privileged distance. That distance is collapsing, and there’s more acknowledgment that climate change results from a voracious over-feeding of empire.
Amy Brady: Thank you for bringing that up, Pitchaya. Often when people talk about narratives—myself included—we talk more about what narratives contain and less about what they leave out. But it’s important to discuss the latter. Where, in your fields, do you see people being left out of the climate story?
Eve Mosher: My work is site-specific, so it’s hard for it not to be local. But yeah, that distance is real. If you’re not feeling [changes] in your own backyard, it’s really hard to comprehend. I think that finding ways to share stories globally can help shorten that distance.
Robert Moore: The language of policy-speak doesn’t leave much room for the human condition. When a hurricane like Harvey or Dorian hits, Congress and federal agencies respond to things like dollars of damage, rather than the impacts of people. And when it comes to doling out assistance, it goes out first to the people who manage to get to the front of the line, not necessarily to those who are most in need. For example, I’m a relatively affluent white guy. If I’m caught in a disaster, I could check into a hotel with my credit card. I can access my bank records online with my Internet connection. I would file my disaster assistance paperwork within days, and I would immediately be able to tap into FEMA assistance. A lower-income person, however—they’re struggling just to find a place to move their family. It’s a very different process [for them]. The way we’re tackling climate-related problems widens existing inequities, and most public narratives don’t capture that.
Amy Brady: When most of us think of the word “narrative,” we think of a structure that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it’s that end part that seems to generate the most controversy. Are we going to end up in a hopeful place? Or are we going to end up in a despairing, end-of-times kind of place? I’ve seen and heard talented storytellers like all of you make persuasive arguments for each. How are hope and despair used in your own narratives?
Carolyn Kormann: I think both are important. Journalism in the last year or two has really started to show us just how bad [climate change] can be. Some people will be terrified, almost paralyzed by the news, and refuse to read about it. But I think a lot of people will also respond by wanting to learn more about what’s happening. Fear drives a conversation and creates a lot of buzz. But at the same time, I think it’s also important to provide hope and solutions.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: I think, for a novelist, the use of scary projections is very tempting, because you can milk so much drama out of that. I understand why a lot of people write futuristic climate dystopias, and there is use for that as well. But from my own experiences with flooding and Hurricane Sandy, I can say that in the aftermath of disaster, humans want to establish some normalcy. Even in the worst situations, people want to be able to walk their pets and read stories to their kids. We want basic things that offer a semblance of love, of life as we know it. And I think that we will continue to strive for those things no matter what happens. I don’t if that is exactly hope, but it’s related.
Robert Moore: I think when it comes to climate change, we have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Twenty years ago, we could talk about climate change as something in the future that we could still avert; it was still possible to put the genie back in the bottle. We’re past that point now. So, we don’t have the luxury of saying, “I think we’re going to hold at 1.5 degrees. Let’s place all of our bets on that.” Or, let’s use the analogy of building a bridge. An engineer might say, “On average, this is the load that the bridge will hold.” But if you build to exactly that average, your bridge is going to fall down the first time it exceeds that number. So we build to the worst-case scenario. That’s how we need to think about climate change. We can’t look at something like the IPCC report and think, “Well, scientists say we’ll have X feet of sea-level rise at this temperature.” Because that’s only the most likely scenario. The global feedbacks that scientists warned us would happen are all happening faster than predicted. So, in some ways, I think fear can be really powerful.
Eve Mosher: I think fear can be a great motivator if you have a path forward. But when talking about solutions, we need to look forward as well as backwards. We need to talk about changes that have already happened in [other areas of society], or among indigenous communities, or in communities like those in Bangkok that have been dealing with flooding for a really long time. But I also want to say that I don’t love the word “hope.” It is a word that allows you to feel disembodied, as in, “Oh, I’m going to hope that someone else fixes this.” We are the ones we’ve been waiting for! We have to get out and do the work. I prefer the word “courage” instead, because it suggests we take our fear and do something about it. I don’t want everybody to leave this room tonight and be like, “That was great,” and then go back to normal. I want everyone to leave this room and be like, “Oh shit, they’re right. I need to go figure out how to get involved. We need to get out into the streets. Let’s make this happen.”
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica and the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books, where she writes a monthly column about how contemporary fiction addresses issues of climate change. Her writing has also appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; Slate; the Los Angeles Times; the Dallas Morning News; The New Republic; McSweeney’s; and other places. She received her PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has won awards from the National Science Foundation, the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference, the Center for Research Libraries, and various academic organizations.
Carolyn Kormann has contributed to the The New Yorker since 2012. She became a staff writer in 2018, covering energy, the environment, and climate change. Her writing has also appeared in Harper’s, Porter, NPR Music, and VQR, and has been noted by the Best American Series in its Science and Nature Writing and Travel Writing collections. She has received an Abe Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a fellowship from New York University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Robert Moore is the Director of the Water & Climate Team at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which focuses on water-related impacts of climate change. His team focuses on federal policy and decisions related to climate resilience and adaptation, sea level rise, flood risk, and disaster preparedness and response.
Eve Mosher is an artist and interventionist in New York City. Her recent work examines complex urban waterways and the impacts of climate change. She is a co-founder and co-director of Works on Water, a cultural institution dedicated to supporting artists working on, in, and with the water. She is also co-founder and board chair for play:groundNYC, an organization dedicated to children’s rights in urban environments. She has received several grants, and her work has been profiled in the The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, and other places.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad is the author of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK). He has received fellowships in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony, and currently splits time between Bangkok and Brooklyn.