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Climate change denial's racist roots

The full episode transcript for Climate Denial is Racist.


Into America

Climate Denial is Racist

Archival Recording: Tonight, Katrina's wrath, a minute-by-minute look at where this storm hit the hardest. The Mississippi coastline takes the brunt of Katrina's initial blast. Tens of thousands --

Trymaine Lee: This month marks 17 years since Hurricane Katrina struck a blow to one of the blackest cities in America.

Archival Recording: You don't have to go far to find scenes that look like they're right out of a disaster movie. This is just off of Canal Street.

Archival Recording: Our Gulf Coast is getting hit and hit hard. In the meantime, America will pray, pray for the health and safety of our citizens.

Archival Recording: Katrina may have moved on, but she's still causing trouble to hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans who are either homeless or without power tonight.

Lee: I remember those days like they were yesterday. I was a young police reporter at a local newspaper, The Times-Picayune, when everything just went Black, when the storm devoured the city. Katrina lives on in our collective consciousness for the double standards and official ineptitude and exposed, and it forever changed the face of New Orleans.

On August 29, 2005, the storm made landfall in Louisiana. Within 24 hours, fatal flaws in the design of New Orleans levee system led to flooding and submerged 80% of the city for weeks. It followed and seared into America's memory.

Archival Recording: The storm surge has been much bigger than anything ever before. The result has been, in some cases, people being trapped. (CROWD VOICES)

Lee: The federal government's response was riddled with mismanagement and lack of planning. People were left stranded on rooftops for days, leading to deaths from exhaustion and dehydration. Others were crowded into the Superdome or the convention center, with inadequate food, water and medical supplies.

Archival Recording: I got to tell you, I thought I've seen it all. And just when you think you've seen it all, you go into another situation and you see something horrific.

Lee: NBC News photojournalist Tony Zumbado was the first journalist to bring a camera inside the convention center. Here, he is on MSNBC a few days after the storm hit.

Tony Zumbado: They are just left behind. There's nothing offered to them. No water.

Archival Recording: They’re not doing nothing.

Zumbado: These people are very desperate. I saw two gentlemen die in front of me because of dehydration. I saw a baby near death.

Archival Recording: Are you telling me that there’s no police in the area? There's no National Guard in the area?

Zumbado: Listen, I don't want to sound negative against anybody or any official, but according to them and what I saw, they left and that they're on their own. There's no police. There's no authority. There’s no food for these folks.

Archival Recording: Tell me about the sanitation.

Zumbado: The sanitation was unbelievable. The stench in there, it was unbelievable. Dead people around the walls of the convention center, laying in the middle of the street, in their dining chairs where they died right there in their lawn chair. They were just covered up, in their wheelchair covered up, laying there for dead. Babies, two babies dehydrated and died. I couldn't take it.

Lee: When the dust finally settled, Hurricane Katrina and the botched federal response that characterized its aftermath had led to the loss of over 1,800 lives. Damages from Katrina totaled $125 billion, the costliest storm in U.S. history.

Less than a month after Katrina hit, Hurricane Rita came from the Gulf Coast, compounding the damage in an already weary region. Since then, the destruction left by increasingly more dangerous hurricane seasons has continued to pile on around the country. And scientists say that climate change has played a role in increasing frequency and intensity of these tropical storms. And beyond hurricanes, the evidence for climate change is all around us. We've seen catastrophic flooding.

Archival Recording: This morning parts of the Midwest still underwater, devastated by historic flooding that has still not receded.

Lee: There's been drought, and the wildfire it fuels.

Archival Recording: Overnight, another wave of destruction, the Oak Fire more than doubling in size to 14,000 acres, now the state's largest wildfire of the year.

Lee: And deadly heat waves across the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Archival Recording: This morning, the U.K. also coping with unprecedented heat and dangerous consequences. Record-setting temperatures topping 104 degrees, fueling raging fires across London. Millions suffering in a nation where most don't have air conditioning.

Lee: Meanwhile, the United States has made little progress on environmental reform, especially after four years of a Trump administration that was hostile to any climate change protections and rolled back more than a hundred environmental regulations. The Supreme Court also recently dealt a blow to the country's efforts, limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.

Archival Recording: Leaders in coal states are celebrating the move. West Virginia's governor says it gives power back to the people. But critics argue it is a major step in the wrong direction, and could have horrendous implications for the environment and well beyond.

Lee: But this week, a glimmer of hope, Congress is close to passing the nation's first massive climate change legislation. After long negotiations with conservative Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema, the Senate approved a sweeping spending package called the Inflation Reduction Act.

Archival Recording: The Senate being equally divided, the Vice President votes in the affirmative, and the bill as amended is passed.

Lee: It includes $370 billion in incentives for clean energy production and other climate-saving measures.

Archival Recording: I got to compose myself a little here.

Lee: The bill is expected to pass the House. It's a big step forward. But, so far, President Biden has stopped short of declaring a national climate emergency, as many advocates had hoped. Doing so could give him another tool to curb carbon emissions.

And while this is a crisis that involves the entire planet, its effects are not built equally. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the people who were left to die, were overwhelmingly Black.

Archival Recording: (CROWD VOICES) We got children. We have plenty of women on here.

Archival Recording: We need help, sir. We really need help.

Lee: Black people across the country are the ones most likely to live in flood-prone regions, and areas with poor air quality. And as the temperature rises, we're less likely to have access to air conditioning and life-saving health care. So when elected leaders talk about climate change as some far off future problem, or refuse to call it a problem at all, Black and brown people are the ones who suffer and will continue to suffer the most.

I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. The effects of climate change are growing worse, disproportionately impacting Black people. The government is finally taking steps to act. But the problem is bigger than one piece of legislation will be able to fix. Today, how climate change is rooted in racism, and what can be done to stop it.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: My name is Mary Annaïse Heglar. I'm a climate justice writer and podcast based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Lee: Mary has been writing about the connections between climate change and racism for years. She says she became fully immersed in the movement in 2014. But her turning point was back in 2005, as she watched Hurricane Katrina unfold from her home state of Mississippi.

Heglar: Katrina was a big moment for me. I wasn't in New Orleans. I was in Port Gibson, Mississippi, which is about 200 miles north of New Orleans. But still, Katrina came through there as a full force hurricane. And at the same time, I think it was a big moment for almost any Black American who watched that happen to a city that's so beloved, to people who look like you. So it was kind of like a preview of this is how Black people will be treated in a climate catastrophe. And those images never left me. They still kind of guide how I engage in the climate movement.

And folks used to love to say that climate change was the great equalizer, right? It's the threat that should unite us all because it threatens everybody. But it doesn't threaten everybody the same way. There are sacrificial lambs that will go up first. And climate change is this big destabilizer, and what do people do when they're destabilize? Often, they become unkind. Often, they go back to old prejudices.

Those are the things that kind of haunt me, like what happens to prisoners and who’s most likely to wind up in prison, who's most likely to wind up in jails, who's most likely to be targeted, and those tend to be Black people, now they even tend to be.

Lee: Walk us through how the climate and the environment are actually racial justice issues, and how Black people in particular, are impacted right now by climate change.

Heglar: So I like to explore that by going through the past, present and the future. So in the past, these things are related because you don't get climate change without slavery and colonialism, right? In order to build this global fossil fuel industry, it had to be global. That meant that it had to kick people off of their land. They had to colonize them. It had to be financed some way. The Industrial Revolution was largely financed through sugar and cotton plantations in the United States, right?

Like, if Europeans had been busy doing their own work, they want to have time to dig up old dinosaurs, set them on fire and figure out you could use them for energy, right? Like, that wouldn't have been a thing.

Then in the present, they're related because in order to have fossil fuel industry, you have to site that infrastructure near people. And you have to decide what communities are valuable and which ones are not. And so it's no accident that fossil fuel infrastructure is sited near Black and brown communities and indigenous communities. Those communities know that fossil fuel industry is deadly today. It doesn't have to wait until the carbon gets into the atmosphere, and it creates climate change. Like, it's giving people cancer today in Cancer Alley.

But also in the context of the global south, where climate change has been a reality for decades now. You know, it's kind of frustrating to hear, like, you know, well-meaning white folks in the global north now saying like, "We have to take climate change seriously because of this heatwave in Europe and this drought in France." And it's like, "Well, you didn't care about the heat waves in Africa. You know, you didn't care when South Africa was running down to its very last drop of drinking water."

In the future, as climate change gets worse and worse, I think we'll start to see things like climate apartheid, more racialized violence. Like, if there's going to be fewer resources than they are going to be for white people, right? And so that has a lot to do with immigration policy. So choosing to close our borders is a climate policy, and choosing to close our borders to specific people is a racist climate policy.

Lee: So Congress right now is expected to pass the first major climate law this week as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. You know, this is a big deal for many people. It has taken a long time just to get to this point. And I wonder if you think the passing of law will do enough to protect Black Americans, in particular, from these very dangerous climate issues.

Heglar: Yeah. So I want to be clear that I'm not a policy wonk. I have a lot of friends who are.

Lee: You're adjacent?

Heglar: Yeah, adjacent. A lot of them have some serious critiques of the bill that give me concerns about the bill. And I want to be clear that even people who wrote this bill, who championed it, even they will tell you that it's not enough, because it's not. A lot of the concerns about the bill are about how communities in the Gulf South and Appalachia, and the sort of what we call sacrifice zones are not protected well enough by this bill.

And so do I think the bill goes far enough to protect Black and brown communities? No. I'm deeply concerned about that. I think the bill needs to be the beginning and not the end for climate action. I'm hoping that it builds momentum to further protect people. But again, I am not a policy wonk. So maybe things are better than I'm saying, and maybe things are more dire than I'm saying. But the critiques of people I respect in the movement give me deep concerns.

Lee: As if climate change were dangerous enough, Mary has also written about something called eco-fascism. It's a racist ideology that embraces climate change as a way of killing off the planet's Black and brown people, leaving a relative utopia for the white people that remain. The alleged killer in the racist mass shooting in Buffalo, and the killers in the Christchurch, and El Paso attacks before him, all believed in eco-fascism. That's according to online accounts attached to these men.

Heglar: Eco-fascism is old, first of all. It's probably older than the Nazis, but the Nazis are the first instance that I know much about. They were really into like organic farming. They were really into, you know, taking care of the planet, but taking care of the planet for white people, for the Aryan Nation.

Eco-fascism is also what happened to Black and brown people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in particular with the sort of ragtag militias that were running around, patrolling the streets. And eco-fascism is the Buffalo shooter. Eco-fascism is the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand. Eco-fascism is the El Paso shooter, and the Walmart who targeted Latinos because they were coming here to replace white people. And because they were deeply concerned about climate change and resource scarcity, and they wanted those resources again to be for people who look like them.

Eco-fascism is ugly, and it is a growing ideology. A lot of these folks will say that they are not Republicans, that they are not on the right-wing, but they take climate change seriously. They take it deadly seriously. There used to be this school of thought that once the right-wing came out of its climate denial fog, it would have to get on board with climate action and we’ll have no choice.

There are other options. We can go back to the Klan days, and that is where a lot of people's heads are at. You know, like when the Coronavirus lockdowns came and there was a run on guns, I remember a lot of people thinking that, "Oh, that's so funny. They think they're going to shoot the virus. No, no, no. They're going to shoot you or me specifically."

Lee: Do you think the government is taking eco-fascism seriously enough?

Heglar: No, because it's coming from white people, and they never take white terrorism seriously enough. Honestly, it's really like lumped into all of the racist white supremacist, terrorism and violence. And that's never taken seriously enough.

Lee: Black people are the most likely to be hurt by the threats of climate change. And yet, the climate movement is very white. When we come back, Mary and I talk about why that is, and what she's doing to change that.


Lee: When Mary was in her 20s, living in New York City, she kept brushing up against the climate movement.

Heglar: There are many moments where I kind of came up close to it, and then decided, well, this isn't for me.

Lee: One of those times was about 15 years ago, when she was working at a free newspaper, and the team decided to devote an issue to climate change.

Heglar: And for this editorial meeting, we had a lot of people come out, who were deep in climate work. And I remember a conversation with these guys who are like, "Yeah, there's no hope for you. Like, your future is just completely gone."

Lee: Wow.

Heglar: And you know, there's no point, and they were just such doomers. And they were like, "Oh, the Earth is going to be fine. It's just humans who are going to go away." And I was like, "Okay, well, I can't get crunk about my own destruction." Like, they were almost rhapsodic about it. And also, at this point, I was like 22, 23, something like that, and I was like, "Well, then I guess there's no point in me getting involved."

And then on the other hand, I would go to other protests, and it seemed like a party. I was like, "Am I at a protest, or am I at Burning Man? Like, what is going on here?" And in these scenarios, people were like, "There's hope. There's hope. There's hope." And I was like, "Okay, well, then it sounds like you've got it under control."

So there were these two extremes of like all hope is lost. There's no point in doing anything. And then there was, no, it's going to be fine. And in that case, it's like, well, I don't know where I fit in between here. And then it took a while for me to realize we're squarely in the middle.

Lee: Mary says the climate change movement is still really white. But over the years, she's noticed a change. She really picked up on this shift back in 2018, when the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report. The report spelled out the dire consequences for the planet if nothing was done about climate change, and they put forth potential solutions.

Heglar: You may remember it because it was one of the first big climate reports that got huge news attention, basically saying that we had, I think at the time, it was seven years to fix it. And that scared so many people. And it was a big moment of reckoning within the climate movement of realizing, okay, what we've been doing hasn't been working. And so that created space for more people to step in and be a part of it.

At the exact same time, because that report made big news, it scared a whole lot of other people into the climate movement. And a lot of those were Black and brown people who kind of beat down the door and we're like, "We're going to be heard." And that's when AOC won election. That's when the Green New Deal started being, you know, an idea that was being floated around. That's when you got the Sunrise Movement. And the school strikes and young people like really sort of threw themselves into the climate movement.

And yeah, I think, though, all of those changes have been for the better. It's become much closer to mainstream. I do still think there's kind of like a gatekeeping aura around the climate movement. A lot of people feel like they don't know enough to speak up. And if people listening to this don't take anything else from this conversation, trust me, you know enough. All you need to know is that it’s bad and it's getting worse, and how much worse it gets depends on what we do today as a species.

So, yeah, I want people to get disabused of the idea that you need to be a policy wonk or a scientist to get involved in climate change. I am neither of those things. I was an English major. I can barely calculate time zones, you know. Like, I'm not a scientist, and you don't need to be to get involved with this. All you have to do is want a livable future.

And I want Black and brown people to see themselves in this movement because we have so much to offer. We have been fighting for, you know, a better world ever since any of us can remember. It is ancestral to us. And so I really want more Black and brown people in this climate movement because I think we can really change things. I think we can really force things along, and also because I'm a little lonely so I want more people who look like me in here.

Lee: He’s a friend of the media?

Heglar: Yes.

Lee: It just don't hit the same way?

Heglar: Yeah.

Lee: With that, though, I mean, obviously, the face of the movement has been overwhelmingly white. But they're also some kind of concerning white supremacist ties, especially early on to John Muir, right, on West Coast.

Heglar: Yes.

Lee: Somebody that's concerning. Talk to us about how those kind of white supremacist, and white supremacist influences kind of helped shape the climate movement generally.

Heglar: Yeah. Real quick, can I curse on this?

Lee: Do what you want. Go ahead, do what you want.

Heglar: Okay. So most people trace the climate movement back through the conservation movement of the early 1900s. And that movement was (BLEEP) racist, like, blatantly. These are some of the same people who wrote the Chinese Exclusion Act.

These are people who wanted land for white people, specifically. So a lot of the national parks that they get so much credit for, that land was being conserved from indigenous people who were taking care of it for centuries, were probably millennia and doing a very good job at it. We'd be in a much better place if they had remained the stewards of the land.

The conservation movement was incredibly, incredibly racist. But this racist says like the suffrage movement, right? You know, they wanted women to have the right to vote, but we'll be damned if any of those women were Black. And then the conservation movement around the ‘60s and ‘70s kind of gave way to the modern environmental movement. And there are a lot of reasons as to why that movement came about. But part of it was, you know, white folks who had been part of the civil rights movement, wanting to go somewhere that wasn't problematic.

And so the environmental movement was seen as like, you know, kind of just "We believe in science, and we want to protect the planet. We want to clean up water." That is inherently a good thing to do. And in a way, you can kind of see that line of logic. But that can create a kind of myopia, where you don't think about the impacts of your actions on other communities because those communities aren't represented within your ranks. And so you got a lot of what we would call now unintended consequences.

The environmental movement was like what people would kind of call color blind, which if you're a Black person, that kind of like gives you concern. You know, if you're color blind, it means you're not thinking about the ways.

Lee: That’s a problem. That’s a real problem.

Heglar: Yeah, it's a real problem. You're not thinking about the ways that white supremacy is baked into all of these structures. And also, because of that sort of unintended consequences of the environmental movement, that splintered the environmental movement into the environmental justice movement and versus the environmental movement. And you can kind of see the absurdity of that, right? Like, what's the point of an environment without justice? And how do you have justice without an environment? Like, the fact that that needed to be created is kind of crazy to me.

But at the same time, I don't trace my roots as an environmentalist through the environmental movement or the conservation movement. I trace it through the civil rights movement, which has this deep, deep history of struggling for justice.

Like, I was reading Stokely Carmichael's memoir, and he talked about, you know, their concerns about what they were finding on the feet of the children who worked on sharecropping plantations. And to me, that is environmental justice. Like, the integration of the beaches, those were environmentalists. So Black people have been environmentalists since forever, even if they weren't parts of these, quote, "official movements."

Lee: What's it been like for you occupying those spaces in between, right? And you have that cleave in between, like the justice-oriented kind of environmental movement, and then the other one. What's it like in real life and practice? What's your experience been like occupying those spaces?

Heglar: It's changed a lot. So in 2019, I wrote an essay that was basically saying that climate change is not the first existential threat because, you know, Jim Crow was just as much a threat to Black people's lives. Slavery was just as much a threat to Black people's lives. Lynching was just as much a threat. Because you’re just as dead, you know, like, be it through a hurricane or news, you’re just as dead. And I got a lot, a lot, a lot of racist pushback and trolling on the Internet.

Lee: Of course.

Heglar: And then a year later, I wrote something that I would say is even more audacious that argued that if you did not accept that climate change was a result of slavery and colonialism, then you were a climate denier. And I got little to no pushback. And I think that demonstrates a lot of growth within the climate movement. It used to be taboo to say that climate change was related to slavery and colonialism. It used to be really taboo to say those things in public, and they're not anymore. So there's been a lot of change there.

But having to weather that storm, I'm not going to lie, it kind of sucks. You know, watching people's mouths just like kind of fall open, and then clutching their pearls when I was saying things I thought were just very, very basic. It was kind of difficult. But there was comfort in knowing I wasn't the only one saying them, and finding other Black and brown people in this movement who, you know, felt the same way, saw the same things. We're going through the same things. That was really sustaining. And I've met a lot of really lovely, wonderful people through doing this work.

Heglar: So you came into this, you know, this advocacy. On one hand, some folks are partying, right? On the other hand, it's doomsday. What's your outlook as you stand today? What's your outlook on the future of our climate? I mean, are we in a literal doomsday scenario and we're just not seeing it, or are things not as bad? How do you see things from where you stand right now?

Heglar: We're in trouble, for sure. And I don't know if we're going to win, I don't know if we're going to lose, but I know I'm going to go down fighting because that's how I was raised. You know, looking around the climate movement, I've always been kind of like, okay, so this seems like a bunch of nerds who never had to deal with a bully, which I don't know how that happens, right? If you've ever been bullied, you kind of know you got to fight the bully. There's no like reasoning with them that's going to work. You have to fight.

If you're going to push me into an early grave, you're not going to walk away without a scratch. That's just not how this is going to go down. So I'm focused more on whether or not we're going to try than I am on whether or not we're going to win. One of the things I think about, if you've ever visited the Whitney Plantation here in Louisiana --

Lee: I have not, but I heard it's really well done. Actually, I heard it's actually really good.

Heglar: It's really beautiful. And they now have a small exhibit on climate change because they got really affected during Hurricane Ida. But one of the things there is a memorial to the German Coast uprising, which is the biggest slave revolt in the United States and almost extremely successful. They almost took New Orleans.

And the thing about it, though, is that they knew that if they lost, they would die. But it was a cause worth dying for. And so I think about what I owe to them. I think about what I owe to the people who came before me, the people who fought so hard in the teeth of what James Weldon called the most unquenchable odds.

You know, a lot of people say they're in climate work because of what they owe to the generations that come after them, their children and grandchildren. I think about my grandparents and my great grandparents, they didn't survive slavery, for me to sit on the sidelines in the climate fight.

And also, climate change puts us in a position where we have no choice but to create another world. The old world is gone. We have to create a new one. And I don't trust white people who were doing that without Black people involved. So that's why I'm here. And whether or not we're going to win, I don't know. We're going to win something. A new world is coming no matter what. And I want to be part of shaping what that's going to look like, and making sure that Black and brown people are safe in that world. Because we weren't safe in the old one anyway, so we might as well create a better one

Lee: Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod, or you can tweet me @trymainelee. Our email is That was intoamerica@nbc and the letters

Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Mike Brown, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Olivia Richard, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you next Thursday.