From Grief to Action: Lessons From a Climate Hero

A Q&A with Mary Anne Hitt about the link between personal loss and societal-level action.

Silhouette sad woman with rain clouds in head
Malte Mueller / Getty Images

Let me say this upfront: Mary Anne Hitt is a hero of mine. As former executive director of Beyond Coal, she played a key role in defeating hundreds of new coal plant proposals, shutting hundreds of legacy plants down early, and calling out utilities that continue to drag out the inevitable demise of this most polluting of fuels. That’s why I interviewed her for my new book on climate hypocrisy.

It’s also why I was intrigued to see an intensely personal essay from her. Titled "Lessons from Loss: Congress, Climate and this Moment of Truth," the essay connects the recent death of her scientist father, the losses we have all experienced during the pandemic, and the pressing need for climate action—and specifically arguing for the need to pass the Biden administration’s Build Back Better infrastructure package.  

Here’s an excerpt that describes how loss—while different for everyone—has been a common thread in our society over the past couple of years: 

“And as the shock of his passing has begun to fade away, I’ve also realized that this loss is one we’ve all experienced this year, one way or another, even for those who haven’t lost loved ones. Systems that we counted on or never understood have fallen apart in waves, one after another, opening countless trapdoors beneath us all. Schools closed, and without a place to send kids every day to learn, women left the workforce in droves. Our hospitals buckled under surges of COVID patients, and we couldn’t produce enough life-saving supplies, from ventilators to swabs to masks.”

Yet just as Hitt’s own recent losses uncovered deep and powerful support networks—of friends, family, and co-workers—she argues that our recent losses, too, can become both a motivator and an opportunity to "fill in the gaps" and fix things that have been broken, in some cases long before the affluent and the privileged among us even realized: 

We so desperately want things to go back to normal, but they can’t. We can’t. Instead, we need to build a new reality that heals the wounds, acknowledges what we’ve lost, and addresses the flaws in the systems that have failed us. Just as the rise of Delta and other COVID variants remind us we can’t go back to our old ways, the massive wildfires and worsening droughts spreading across the Western U.S. hammer home the urgency to accelerate climate action.

Struck by this observation, I reached out to Hitt via email to both offer my condolences, and to ask her some questions about the link between personal loss and societal-level action.

Treehugger: Why is this idea of leaning into loss such a critical component of coalescing around climate action?  

Mary Anne Hitt: There are a lot of very meaningful stories in our history and spiritual traditions about the new things that are born out of very dark times, and I feel were in a moment like that now. Because of what we have all been through together and individually, as hard as it’s been, I also think new possibilities are opening up. The climate legislation currently hanging in the balance in Congress right now is a perfect opportunity to act to prevent an incredible loss, and it’s very urgent that we act now to get that over the finish line.

Your essay argues that issues of economic and racial justice are inseparable from that of climate. Why is that? 

It’s important that our climate solutions make people’s daily lives better – cleaning up pollution hotspots, creating new economic opportunity in communities that have been left out, and restoring landscapes hammered by the fossil fuel industry. The recent energy legislation that passed in Illinois is a great example of climate legislation that makes sure everyone shares in the benefits, and it had broad support from environmental organizations, labor, and environmental justice leaders. Whether it’s cleaning up abandoned mine sides in Appalachia or making sure communities of color benefit from clean energy jobs, putting people at the heart of our climate solutions means that our progress will be more long lasting, and makes it real for folks that addressing the climate crisis really does make a better world for everyone.

Your writing is reminiscent of something that’s happening in a lot of climate coverage right now, namely a trend of looking at a macro-level, societal issue like climate and telling the story through intensely personal means. Why is that happening now? 

For too long climate change was confined to the realms of science and policy, but it is increasingly clear that it’s touching everyone’s day-to-day lives. I believe connecting with people’s hearts, as well as their heads, is essential to winning victories at the speed and scale that’s required. If climate change is just a problem for polar bears and future generations, it’s going to follow her on the list of people’s priorities. If people feel climate is a visceral threat to the people and places they love today, and you can help make that connection for them through a personal story of your own, I think they’ll be much more motivated to demand solutions. I think we’re seeing that already.

What specific things would you recommend folks do to help pass the climate legislation you are supporting? 

Our climate is at a critical crossroads this week and next week. Congress is weighing a budget reconciliation package that includes major climate solutions we need to power in our nation with renewable energy, clean up her transportation system, and make sure communities of color and low income communities share in the benefits. If we pass this budget package, we will be able to look our kids in the eye and let them know we did something historic for their safety and their future. You can help now by reaching out to your Members of Congress—all the information you need is here