Telling Stories to Battle Climate Change, With a Little Humor Thrown In
In 1991, when a cyclone and flooding hit Bangladesh, 90 percent of the victims were women. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina displaced over 83 percent of poor, single mothers. In Senegal, a 35 percent decline in rainfall means that women, often responsible for fetching water for their families, have to walk farther to collect enough.
Around the world, women — predominantly poor black, brown and indigenous women — are disproportionately affected by climate change. They live intimately with climate chaos that can seem distant or abstract in space and time from the lives of many in the global North.
For some, statistics like the ones above are enough. For most people, the catalyst for caring, let alone taking action, is stories — the lived experience of others who can translate their own narrative into something more essential about what it is to live with climate change.
The women who make the podcast “Mothers of Invention” already know all of this, which makes them stand apart in the field of climate communication.
Mary Robinson, the first woman to be president of Ireland and a former United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights and climate justice advocate, co-hosts the show with Maeve Higgins, an Irish comic and writer who hosts her own immigration podcast and is a contributing opinion writer to The New York Times. Thimali Kodikara, a British producer, artist and activist, is the series producer.
Ms. Robinson lives in Dublin, but for almost all of the episodes she comes to New York City to record the show with Ms. Higgins and Ms. Kodikara.
The show focuses on stories of women of color and indigenous women from around the world in the climate crisis who are implementing solutions in their own communities. These are the women, the show argues, who need to be involved in higher-level discussions about policy and about who is really affected by climate change.
They have featured women like Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of the nomadic Peul Mbororo community in Chad, who seeks justice for women and girls, and Wahleah Johns, a member of the Navajo (Dine) tribe, helping to bring solar energy and green jobs to her community through the organization Native Renewables, one of her many efforts to achieve climate and environmental justice. These women and others appear on the show as guest hosts to tell their own stories, making manifest the show’s tagline: “Climate change is a man-made problem with a feminist solution.”
In defiance of outdated stereotypes depicting feminists as humorless and self-serious, Ms. Robinson and Ms. Higgins, working off Ms. Kodikara’s scripts, deliver levity and brightness to a discussion that so often emphasizes fear, hoping to leave people feeling informed and empowered, rather than scared and depressed. Though not a comedy show, their approach makes room for everyone, from the novice to the expert. All this in spite of that until two years ago, Ms. Robinson “didn’t know what a podcast was,” she said.
Ms. Robinson has said that one of her regrets during her tenure at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002 is that she did not make any speeches about climate change. Even though she found climate change worrying, to her, the issue had so often been framed as a story about polar bears and melting glaciers, and not always one about people. But during her travels around the world advocating human rights, she began to hear more stories from people living on the front lines of climate change, and they kept saying things were getting worse.
While visiting South Africa not long before the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change, she heard an affecting story. A Ugandan farmer and grandmother, Constance Okollet, said that the changes — farming made more difficult by flooding and drought — in her village were unprecedented. “‘They are outside of our experience,’ Constance told me. It was an unusual sentence, and I will never forget that sentence,” Ms. Robinson said.
That story and others made international justice and human rights concerns inextricable from climate change for Ms. Robinson. Now, those most vulnerable — the poor, the marginalized and the disempowered — are at the forefront of her agenda and her efforts to bring their stories to a global audience.
But justice, and gender equality in particular, has always been a motivating force for Ms. Robinson — she gave a speech in the late 1960s in deeply Catholic Ireland calling for repeals of the constitutional bans of divorce and contraception, and the legalization of homosexuality. “I did always have a sense of justice,” she said, “and I wanted to study law because I wanted it to be a kind of way to effect social justice and to take cases to correct discrimination.”
She wanted to bring that sense of justice, and her understanding of the intersection of climate change and human rights, to a broader audience, which is what got her to the podcast.
And despite her status as a global moral leader and knowledge of climate policy, she maintains a profound sense of humility. “I have learned as much for the podcast as I have contributed to it,” she said. “I am so impressed by the women that we have been interviewing and listening to, with that humor and banter but a seriousness about the urgency of the problem on the ground.”
And while feminism is the solution to the problem, she stresses the inclusivity of her approach: “We don’t exclude men; we just keep them in their place,” she said with a laugh.
Ms. Higgins is a comedian, but “Mothers of Invention” is not a comedy show, she said. However, she sees a vital role for humor in any discussion of climate change, and politics in general.
“Where I’m at right now with humor is that it’s actually maybe dishonest or unprofessional to not use humor in writing or talking about very serious things, because it’s very human to make a joke at dark times,” she said.
Ultimately, she has found, focusing only on the unrelenting bad news about climate change is a disservice to the people who live with it every day and to the people who are taking action. “It’s the same information,” she said, “but how you present it and how you leave somebody feeling is important as well.”
“We need to make space for these women because they are affected, and they are the ones coming up with solutions,” Ms. Higgins said.
She also emphasizes the need to help listeners feel that they can take action too. Like many others, Ms. Higgins was a customer of JPMorgan Chase, which has reportedly committed nearly $200 billion to fossil fuel exploration over the last three years. For a bonus episode, she recorded her call to Chase asking them for comment on their investment in fossil fuels. “It felt like a prank call to call them and get hung up on, but that’s the action that I took,” she said.
Ms. Higgins joined “Mothers of Invention” after an extensive audition process.
Before working with Ms. Robinson on the podcast, she was not a climate expert, though through her interest in immigration, she was beginning to see the effects of climate change on displacement and migration.
She also was not about to turn down an opportunity to work with Ms. Robinson, who Ms. Higgins said was the first president she really remembered from growing up in Ireland. “She is impressive and clear-minded and clever, and she stands up for others,” she said. “All of the things I thought about her as a child proved true, and that was pretty special.”
Ms. Robinson agreed: “I’m very happy to find myself in this wicked company at this stage in my life.”
Ms. Kodikara has been thinking about climate justice for her entire life, she just did not know it.
An artist by training and a producer by profession, Ms. Kodikara, who was born in England to Sri Lankan parents, had been involved with organizations championing immigration reform and helping asylum seekers, but, she said, “I hadn’t really thought about the connections between migration, immigration and climate because the common narratives hadn’t made climate appear relevant to black and brown people at all.”
That changed after a conversation with her friend, Thanu Yakupitiyage, associate director of United States communications for 350.org, who had previously worked in immigration reform. As Ms. Kodikara started learning more about the issue, she said, “I realized with all that has separated us from each other, climate justice is the great unifier.”
Producing the show became an opportunity to change the behaviors and attitudes of the climate-curious-but-maybe-complacent (and mainly white) in the global North, by putting faces and voices to the science.
She and the co-hosts “understand the value of supporting these women and listening to the knowledge that they’ve hoarded for generations,” Ms. Kodikara said. “I don’t see anyone else doing that.” To her, it’s inherently logical: “What kind of solution are you really going to end up with if you don’t listen to all of the intelligent and experienced and informed voices?” she said.
For her, the show’s emphasis on levity complements that mission. “It is a phenomenal source of power for marginalized communities to be able to laugh and take control back into their hands. You can’t make a joke in a vacuum, you have to be in a room, in a community with other people to feel that way.”
The humor also captures the interest of those who might otherwise turn away.
“I know how huge and beautiful and expansive things can be when we know how to exist around each other,” she said. “We can do anything, but we have to understand more of where we came from in order to be able to do that, and also how to just exist and be around each other.
“I know how to do that, so let me show people how.”