Writing About Climate Change: How You Can Advocate About Big Issues in Your Writing
Coming up as writers we're taught to write what we know, first and foremost.
So for a long time, I felt like my writing had to express certain parts of my personality and interests—those hobbies, passions, and things I knew a lot about.
That meant that when I felt great despair about things, whether it's the refugee crisis or climate change, those topics didn't always make it into my work because I wasn't a subject matter expert. They sat on the sidelines.
Sure, I might choose to donate to causes that helped refugees or saved sea animals, or watch a documentary about coral bleaching (spoiler alert, coral reefs are going to die off as ocean temperatures rise). But I wasn't being an advocate for these issues in the best way I knew how, by writing about them.
That's changed over the last year. I started to realize that I could either keep my opinion to myself, and remain a place of discouragement and powerlessness, or share my perspective and maybe change something.
With the new report about climate change, it's clear how screwed we are. It's clear that we need strong and committed action on all kinds of fronts -- reducing energy consumption, embracing alternative energy, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere -- to stop the devastating threats to entire ecosystems.
In other words, it's time to step it all up.
So if you've been feeling distressed, frightened, pissed off, anxious, or any other strong emotion, about climate change or any big issue, how can you make it a part of your art to raise awareness, share your point of view, and make an impact?
Here are a few ways I've found to be a climate advocate in my writing.
1. Social media
A low-stakes way to get started advocating is to use your social media platform to share content about major issues with your friends, fan base, etc. Your role here is content curator. Find a voice that offers an interesting take on something, then share it with a comment about why you liked it. That personal connection is more effective than just sharing something someone else wrote.
To level up from here, you can add your own take on a climate-related issue to a social media post. This summer I was really struck by a friend's Instagram post that was a perfect example of how you can advocate against climate change in your daily life without being preachy about it.
Here in New York, it rained super hard every day for a hot minute in August. Literally every afternoon, flood-worthy buckets of rain. The dogs were pretty sad about it, and I didn't like it either, if only because it was unusual summer weather and that seemed worrisome.
So my friend shared a shot of giant clouds hanging over the river, and in the accompanying Instagram caption she wrote about watching the clouds blow in, and how they were blowing in from the wrong direction, west to east instead of the other way around. And what that meant from a weather perspective, and how it was worrisome, and how it was a little off indicator that suggested big changes in weather patterns.
Her post wasn't anything grand or pontificating, quite the opposite in fact. It stuck within the realm of the everyday and it was simple and relatable. Who hasn't looked at the clouds at one time or another?
By calling attention to something that anyone could see, not a scientific data point, her post made me think about what I was experiencing—and what it might mean.
So, the next time you are hung up on something that seems strange, ask yourself what's strange about it, or what it might signify.
Then use your words to caption an image that puts climate change top of mind for anyone in your feed without being in your face about it.
2. Personal essays
To get a break from writing novels, I'm usually working on a few personal essays.
I've got this one on a place I love, Provincetown, which is like the gallery scene and gay capital of Cape Cod, all the way out on the tip of land where there's nothing left but ocean.
The essay explores how Provincetown has been a sanctuary for me, and how the community's lifeline of fishing (I'm talking Moby Dick territory, practically) is threatened by changing fish populations, how the community itself is threatened by floods (a few years ago the changing cabins at the beach washed away) and how I don't have a beach house because my great-great-grandfather's seaside cottage fell into the ocean in a storm some time before I was even born.
Our climate is the thread connecting all of these braids. It's a linking device for the essay, thematically, but it's also a practical way to tie together a personal story (about my family, or vanishing gay spaces) with an international story, that of climate change.
Travel writing is a craft that lends itself naturally to working in climate change as an issue, whether's that's in highlighting places that are "doing it right" or in talking about an experience that's unique to a place you've visited, and how that is impacted (or could change) with continued global warming.
3. Descriptive passages
Whatever you are writing has an element of description: poem, flash piece, novel, nonfiction book, blog post.
A storm can be a dramatic device, especially if it forces two quarreling lovers to stay inside until it passes out of range, for instance.
As you're using the weather to build tension and raise stakes, challenge yourself to use your descriptive powers to raise awareness for the reader that things are not as they should be.
Weather is also a fun way to put an obstacle in your character's way, because they can't get whatever they want until they find a way to make it down the washed out road, turn the lights back on after the storm wiped out power in the neighborhood, help their neighbor shelter from the impending flood waters even if it diverts them from their quest because they're essentially a good hearted person, and so on.
If you suggest through the main character's thoughts or through dialogue that the weather is somehow more ominous or threatening because it's "unusual" or "things didn't used to be like this," then you're planting a seed for the reader to reflect upon when their own local weather starts to change in ways that frighten them.
One book that I loved loved loved that dealt with the destructive powers of nature in a very overt way is Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. She talks about living through Hurricane Katrina and what that was like, how surreal and terrifying it was. And while she's not suggesting these storms will get more frequent or violent as temperatures rise, we know that's true and so her work brings to life what more and more people might experience, going forward.
So if you're not convinced that the weather can be a gripping character in your work in progress, or you need a high-level model of what that would look like on the plot level, hunt it down.
4. Letters to the Editor
If you're plain fired up, you could do worse then write a letter to the editor to your local paper (or, hey, the New York Times).
You'll have the best chance of getting your letter published by looking up the guidelines for style and length, then following them. My local paper has a policy of not taking letters from the same writer in a 30-day period so I've found it best to really pick my battles, if there are lots of worrisome things going down.
When you're writing for a local audience it helps to keep your scope narrow. So rather than write about how climate change will destroy everything we all love, which is way too big a topic to resonate with an audience, you might write about wildfires (hotter, drier summers equal more, deadlier fires), or coastal flooding, or why you support local solar and wind initiatives.
These are just a few of the ways that I've found to use what I'm best at to advocate for what I care about. I'd love to hear any suggestions you might have -- or if you'd like to learn more about how I approach writing a letter to the editor, let me know and I'm happy to share.