“You’re So Accustomed to the Erasure and the Normalization of Catastrophism”

A climate researcher explains what the past week has felt like, why we need to move beyond the science, and what parts of humanity we can still count on in the years ahead.

New York City students chant during Friday's climate march.
New York City students chant during Friday’s climate march. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This piece has been published as part of Slate’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Over the past week, the world has seen some of the largest and most urgent climate protests in history. On Friday, millions took part in a global youth-led strike. On Monday, at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit, teen activist Greta Thunberg delivered an unsparing address—an appearance she took a much-publicized cross-Atlantic sailboat trip to make.

For climate scientist Sarah Myhre, it’s been heartening to see climate change getting all this public attention. But it’s also given rise to some complicated emotions about certain failures in the scientific community, the way kids can be taken more seriously than adult women, and the consequences of humanity’s long history of mass rejection of climate knowledge.

Myhre and I spoke on the phone about the human and emotional stakes of this moment, and whether the movement could be a “massive turning point” in the climate narrative. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Christina Cauterucci: Can you tell me a bit about your work?

Sarah Myhre: I’m a senior fellow with Project Drawdown, where I’m doing research on carbon sequestration in ocean systems, specifically around sequestration from algae and from coastal plants. And I’m the executive director of Rowan Institute, which is a think tank for leadership on climate change focused on using the lenses of anti-racism, equity, and anti-colonialism to inform leadership practices and community-building.

Have you been participating in any of the recent climate actions?

I striked on Friday with my 5-year-old. He would tell you he’s 5 and 11/12s. I staffed the Ask a Scientist booth at the Seattle strike, and I met my lovely lady friends, and we all marched together. I was just being in community and doing the work to teach my kid how this all feels and what it means.

Did you have any memorable interactions at the booth?

I met one teenager who came up to me and was like, almost in a dissociative state of grief. He was really, really profoundly upset, and he was asking me these questions about life on this planet ending. And the grief on his shoulders was really tough to see. So I tried to counsel him as best I could in the moment, around this window of time being a gift and an opportunity, and that he was born onto a changing planet—he did not betray the world. And that although many things will change in the future, not everything will change as well. Getting really clear about the things that are not on the table to change can help us feel safer in this moment.

In the future, regardless of the scale and the nature of the chaos and the climate breakdown, there are certain things that we will not lose. The world will always be beautiful. We will always make art, we will always sing songs, we’ll always be family, and we’ll always love one another. There are really important pieces about what it means to be a human being that are not on the table to change in the future. That can help folks feel secure and sort of nourished, in order to be able to look more squarely at what is on the table in the future.

How was it for you, as a scientist who’s been doing work on climate for a while, to see and participate in this gigantic action with people from all different entry points on the issue?

I’m trying to figure out where I am landing and processing everything. I haven’t totally come to terms with the scale of my own hurt and horror, and also the dog-eat-dog careerism of the field that I’m in, which can be so morally bereft and socially unaware. I love scientists, but the academic science itself has a real problem. That problem is white supremacy, and the normalization of just horrific things, and the behavior of scientists as if they are some sort of godlike, objective, watchful party looking for Truth, capital T.

I have come to fundamentally reject that frame, because I don’t think that there’s any way to live objectively on a living planet. We’re living on a living planet—you can’t be objective about that. There’s no objectivity when it comes to advocating for the health and future of the entirety of the planet that we share. It’s just an impossible lift to expect people to do that.

What do you mean when you say there’s no way to live objectively on a living planet?

We aren’t advocating around issues that don’t have anything to do with us and to do with our community, the lands that we love, the foods that we eat, the people who we are. It’s incredibly personal. It’s so personal that it seeps into all aspects of my family life: every decision that I make to travel, everything that I purchase. It’s the fabric around us.

I think there’s an older guard of scientists that—well, here’s the thing: The rhetorical environment is awful. The funding of the fossil fuel industries to pollute and distort the narrative around the solidity and the consensus of the science means that scientists are hyper-risk-averse to public communication around this. Scientists are always sort of hedging and staying inside boundaries that they have drawn around themselves. And how would they have the skills to function in this rhetorical environment? You need to be a rhetorician or a lawyer to have the kind of sophistication to navigate safely there.

How has it felt to see the recent rise in intensity and urgency of public discussion on this issue?

It feels fucking awesome to watch it all happen. It’s just beautiful. You’re so accustomed to the erasure and the normalization of catastrophism that when this kind of public momentum grows, you sort of don’t even know what to do.

I’ve had a little bit of self-indictment. I have some feelings around my own complicity—that I have not done enough myself, when I look at the bravery and the language of the youth leadership in the space. It calls me in to do even better and braver and harder work and to not normalize the violation. As you grow older—I’m 37—you start to numb to some of the violation. And I don’t want to be numb. I want to stay, I think, in that harder and braver space, that brokenhearted place. And I’m really feeling inspired and informed by the lens that’s being used by youth leadership.

I have some real anger, too. Anger is a very healthy response to everything that’s going on. But how you wield that anger is really important. Because anger is a tool—it informs us. And it’s a signal that there is something deeper there. So I have some anger toward myself, and I have some anger toward my scientific community, and vast anger toward the political right and the political center that has turned away from this time and time again because of their profiteering and power-mongering with corporate interests.

I assume that, like most climate scientists, you’re coming from a baseline of watching your work be besmirched, ignored, or countered with disingenuous opposition for political purposes. Meanwhile, the crisis continues. How do you process that?

It’s such a violation of my child-like curiosity and trust in the world. If we weren’t in the middle of a climate crisis, we’d be unpacking and revealing how science in the last 60 years has been able to tell this incredible story about the history of our planet: how life on this planet has been tied to some of the celestial geometry of our solar system, and the wobbles of the Earth, and the wiggles of the Earth’s rotation and orbit around the sun. Like, our axis is tilted because of the impact event that created the moon, and that tilt of the axis drives the structure of life on this planet and the oscillations of life on this planet. There are stories of how human history is connected to these glacial and interglacial changes in the last 100,000 years. It’s just so gorgeous and fascinating, and you just fall in love with it. It’s such a phenomenal gift of knowledge.

And to have that knowledge dismissed and degraded and eroded in the public’s eye, for it to not be lifted up, it’s like—what kind of species are we that we take this knowledge of this beautiful home that we have and we throw it away? It hurts a lot. And these feelings have really informed a lot of my feminist lens. Because the same structures of harm, these systems of erasure and violence—they happen across scales. They happen to individual women’s bodies. They happen to individual places in the planet, like creeks and rivers and ecosystems. And it’s happening on a planetary level as well.

I feel, often, like a Russian nesting doll of pain. There’s just layers and layers of this. And yet for me to be effective in public and for me to be a loving family member and community member, I can’t lead with pain and anger. I have to transform that stuff into something different in order to stay inside my integrity in this work. To lead in public on this stuff it takes real work internally.

Does it feel vindicating or validating at all to see the momentum these conversations are having right now?

No, it does not feel that way. That’s in part because I’ve done enough work with my own ego in this space that I don’t need other people to lose in order for—I don’t feel vindication. I just feel like time is so short and we must do what feels impossible, and now is the time.

There’s so much combative behavior in this space that is essentially just a form of coded male power-brokering. And I don’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s all about the careers and power and currency of certain individuals. It’s not about growing social movements.

What sort of alternative to that would you envision?

I think the alternative is a movement that’s not gate-kept by white men. I think the alternative is a movement that is for big, open, broad cultural transformation with every kind of creative and public field. We need artists, and we need physicians, and we need engineers, and we need architects. We need everyone onboarded. We do not need to have climate leadership gatekept by only scientific expertise. This is not an issue of science anymore. This is about what kind of species are we as human beings on this planet, and what really matters to each of us, and how we treat each other, and what kind of ancestors we are going to be.

When you say it’s not an issue of science, do you mean the science is settled and we’re wasting time trying to convince people who aren’t convincible? Or do you mean that advocacy has been too limited by focusing just on science?

The latter. I think that the advocacy has been focused on “communicating the science,” and that has set up this false conflict between scientists and other purported experts in this field. Like the people that the House Committee on Science and Technology, when it was chaired by Republicans, would have come in to talk about the “other side” of the debate. This continued engagement in the false dichotomy, the both-siderism with scientists on one side—we’ve got to find a way to transcend that and get away from that. It’s bankrupt. And it continues to elevate individual scientists as if individuals are the ones defending this field.

The public narrative about science is that there’s some brilliant jerk alone in a lab making discoveries, and he’s the one who knows the Truth, capital T, and we have to listen to him. Where, actually, science is thousands of institutions around the world, billions of dollars, technology, instrumentation at the top of the atmosphere and the bottom of the ocean, a workforce that’s been trained through decades, educational systems. Science is so much more than this lone-wolf broker of knowledge that we use to prop up the solidity of these ideas. So we’ve got to find a way to get away from that narrative because it’s toxic.

How do you feel about the future prospects of this movement shift, or narrative shift?

I think there’s a lot of work to be done. And we are just beginning to grapple and understand. Because it’s not just about changing the weather: It’s about changing who we are as people. I think our stories have to change. Our values, our morals are gonna change. It’s a transformational time. The narrative of this being a crisis—I wish it was a crisis, because if it was a crisis there would be an end. We would go through it and we would be on the other side. But this is not a crisis. This is a mutation.

To me, this youth-led movement and moment seems like a new phase of climate justice activism. Would you agree? And why has it been so galvanizing?

I would agree that this is a historic moment in the scale and nature of climate activism. And it’s not just a youth movement—it’s a movement of girls. There’s definitely a gendered lens that’s happening right now. Why is it getting the attention and the permission that it’s getting? There are a few things going on. For one, these young women have exceptional moral clarity. They are unencumbered by what we deem to be political realities, and they are only negotiating around what is actual reality reality. So their lens on this problem is unencumbered by the bullshit that adults bring to it.

But I think that there’s another lens on this, which is: Because we live in this patriarchal misogynistic police state, you might ask the question, why does the culture afford so much moral and social attention on girls, whereas women who want to lead in public in positions of power are dismissed and degraded and eroded? And I think that is the more important question here, possibly. Why does it take girls to do this when there have been women standing on the sidelines for decades saying, “Listen to us, this is what we need, this is what we want out of leadership.”

So I think that child-led activism can sort of move around that misogynistic police state. Because we view the actions and the voices of children as sort of morally neutral. Like, “Oh isn’t that nice, look how cute they are.” And it is demeaning and disrespectful, but it’s sort of treated as, “Oh, what a quaint novelty, these children are angry.” So I think there’s a lot to be said there about how our culture operates—and how our culture functions to effectively erase lots of voices from the table that should have been centered on for quite a long time.

Do you feel like this is the start of anything different? A turning point?

I think this is a massive turning point. It is deeply nourishing and exciting for me. And I think those of us that have been in this movement for a while—we need to make space and onboard people, and be really welcoming and graceful and open and ready to support other forms of leadership in this space, and not act like the toxic gatekeepers that kept us out of positions of attention and power for the last decade.