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June 29, 2021, 2:11 p.m.
Reporting & Production

All the right words on climate have already been said

What kind of awareness quotient are we looking for? What more about climate change does anyone need to know? What else is there to say?

From the editor: Many cities around the world are experiencing their highest temperatures in recorded history this month. We’re living through a climate emergency and it’s scary and anxiety-provoking and eerie. The writer Sarah Miller published the below piece in her personal newsletter on Monday. It’s a “postscript of sorts” to her widely read 2019 story about sea level change in Miami and I found it to be a depressingly enlightening examination of why climate reporting is so hard, why many climate reporters are sad and frustrated, and why the concept of “news pegs” feels so feeble in this arena. You can subscribe to Miller’s Substack, The Real Sarah Miller, here. — LHO

Sometime last week, an editor who semi-ghosted me on an article I wrote several months ago texted me saying she wanted to talk. I didn’t want to talk to her because my mild annoyance had faded to almost nothing and the idea of hearing an apology felt wearying.

What I cared about was that it had been well over 90 degrees, on and off, for much of the month of June in Nevada City, Calif., where I live. I don’t know what the average June temperature in Nevada City is. It’s not 93 degrees. It’s not unheard of for it to get this hot in June, but it is not supposed to be this hot every single day. I realize I could cite some data to support this but I’m not going to look anything up because I don’t want to know the truth. I’m comfortable with “It’s bad.” Also, there’s a huge drought; also, fire season arrived early.

So I was just driving around thinking, “Ugh it’s hot. Ugh there’s a new fire starting near me at least every other day. Ugh, how is this my life, also this is just the beginning, I feel like I should be waking up from this nightmare at some point and yet I am not,” when the editor finally reached me.

I let her go on apologizing for longer than necessary because I was in too listless and sour and apathetic a mood to interrupt her. Also because I knew she felt guilty enough that my silence would seem extra stony and I am not too proud to admit that this was slightly pleasurable to me.

I finally said, “It’s fine. It’s really fine. I used to get madder at stuff like this and then I realized that everyone’s job sucks more than it used to, not just mine.”

She didn’t seem to know what I meant. I said it again, and I still wasn’t sure she got it. So I just said something like “All I’m saying is everything sucks, it’s fine, it’s very nice of you to call me!”

Despite my lack of graciousness, we got around to the “I’d still love to hear any ideas from you” portion of the conversation. I said some really stupid stuff about masks, and “California,” nearly putting myself to sleep, and I’m sure her too. The only reason I was talking about masks and “California” was because I didn’t want to tell her that the only thing I thought about all day, every day, was how hot it was. I didn’t want to admit it to her or to myself.

“The story of yours I really loved,” she said, and I felt a pit form in my stomach, knowing what was coming, “was the one that you wrote about Miami. About the real estate market and the flooding. I love that story.”

“Thank you,” I said. The pit in my stomach swelled.

“I mean, it would be great to get you to write something about climate change.” She said some more nice things about my writing. “I mean, fire season is coming up.”

I don’t want to be nasty about this phone call. I feel bad writing about it because the editor will be seen as a villain, as shallow, as representing Media while I represent Integrity. That is not how it is.

But hearing her say that fire season was “coming up” — A) when fire season was already here, and had been for weeks, and B) in a tone of voice that was not quite “news peg!” but not exactly not “news peg!” — did not feel good to me.

Also, I wrote that Miami story more than two years ago. It seems almost hilarious to me now, but I actually wrote a story that was like “LOL Miami, they’re selling real estate in a town threatened by sea level rise” without realizing that I lived in and owned a home in a place that was equally climate-challenged. I knew this intellectually, but it hadn’t seeped in.

That Miami story was funny. I couldn’t write a funny story about climate change now to save my life. But the Miami story is everyone’s favorite. Everyone wants something like it, and it makes me feel sad for so many reasons, mostly because when I wrote it I was a much happier person and I miss her, she was a lot of fun, even if she was an idiot.

“Fire season already started,” I snapped. I felt so jealous and so mad at her for not knowing this, or not knowing it enough, and for living somewhere far away from here, somewhere that was not at risk of bursting into flames at any moment.

I also felt this need to be interesting for her, to have something to offer other than Miami, to have a new thing to say. I was also trying to get free therapy, maybe, was there a difference? After snapping, I just began to talk.

I probably talked for 11 minutes straight. I told her I didn’t have anything to say about climate change anymore, other than that I was not doing well, that I was miserable. “I am so unhappy right now.” I said those words. So unhappy. Fire season was not only already here, I said, but it was going to go on for at least four more months, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I didn’t know how I would stand the anxiety. I told her I felt like all I did every day was try to act normal while watching the world end, watching the lake recede from the shore, and the river film over, under the sun, an enormous and steady weight.

There’s only one thing I have to say about climate change, I said, and that’s that I want it to rain, a lot, but it’s not going to rain a lot, and since that’s the only thing I have to say and it’s not going to happen, I don’t have anything to say.

I said I had one more thing to say, which was that I didn’t want to talk to my friends about how afraid and sad I was because none of them were doing well either and maybe if I told them what I was thinking then I would make them feel worse. That basically meant that I was never actually telling anyone what I was thinking; I just felt full of feelings that would be better not expressed. I felt as if my relationships were becoming yet another casualty of [points at relentlessly blue sky] “this.”

The editor said, “That’s really interesting.” It was the moment in the conversation with an editor where you have, in your rambling, hit upon the thing that they maybe haven’t heard yet, that they might want you to write about.

When she said “That’s really interesting,” I forgot for a second that I had been talking about my life, and felt instead that I had done what I set out to do. Had I Been Myself but also Made the Sale? It was what I always waited for.

But as she stepped toward the story and began to warm to it, I felt that stomach-sinking feeling intensify. I do not want to write down what I just said, I thought, not for any amount of money. Not that it would be a lot anyway. I don’t ever want to think that thought ever again. More importantly, I don’t want to build an argument around it.

Also, for what? Let’s give the article (the one she was starting to maybe think about asking me to write that I was wondering if I could write) the absolute biggest benefit of the doubt and imagine that people read it and said, “Wow, this is exactly how I feel, thanks for putting it into words.”

What then? What would happen then? Would people be “more aware” about climate change? It’s 109 degrees in Portland right now. It’s been over 130 degrees in Baghdad several times. What kind of awareness quotient are we looking for? What more about climate change does anyone need to know? What else is there to say?

I told her I wasn’t going to write anything about climate change for her, but that I’d stay in touch. I told her she was paying me a large enough kill fee for the article she’d semi-ghosted me on about that any feelings of guilt remaining on her part were not necessary. She laughed when I said this and I was happy to have made her laugh, because she is nice.

A building fell down in Miami last week and my Miami story was in circulation again this weekend. I saw some women I know a little bit at the lake where I swim with my friend regularly, the lake that’s getting lower and lower every single day. Someone had posted my Miami story on Facebook, the women said. They told me my story was hilarious. I said thank you and my friend and I started to swim.

“I hate that story,” I said to her as soon as we were out of earshot. “I wrote it so long ago and everyone loves it, but what was the fucking point of it anyway? The only thing that happened in Miami since it came out is that people kept buying real estate, and a bunch of tech bros moved there, and all those people in that building are dead.”

We kept swimming. I told her how several people had said to me over the past few years, “You’re really good at writing that apocalyptic shit without making it too heavy,” and that this had actually made me feel good about myself. “It made me feel cool and smart. It made me feel optimistic about my chances of continuing to have a career in this shitty business where everyone is just pecking for crumbs,” I told her. “I said to myself every time I heard it, ‘This is how I will get my crumbs!’ and I felt kind of hopeful, like, ‘Here is my thing!’”

I could end this story by saying “We kept swimming and it was beautiful even if it will all be gone someday,” or some shit, but I already ended another climate story that way. I have, several times, really nailed that ending — sad, wistful, something like pining for lost love but worse because larger in scope but not worse because not totally immediate. Writing is stupid. I just want to be alive. I want all of us to just be alive. It is hard to accept the way things are, to know that the fight is outside the realm of argument and persuasion and appeals to how much it all hurts. It is terrifying to know that the prize for many who care may be prison or worse. But all the right words about climate have already been deployed. It’s time for different weapons.

Sarah Miller lives in California and has written for publications including The New York Times, The Cut, and Popula. Subscribe to her Substack here.

Photo of the Shell Fire in southern California on June 27, 2021, when temperatures topped 107 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, by Russ Allison Lohr used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 29, 2021, 2:11 p.m.
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