Hot Takes and Media Critiques: A Conversation with Amy Westervelt and Mary Annaïse Heglar

Treehugger chats with 'Hot Take' founders Amy Westervelt and Mary Annaïse Heglar about climate crisis journalism.

Hot Take

Amy Westervelt and Mary Annaïse Heglar

I’m not much of a podcast listener, so when I first clicked on an episode of "Hot Take"—a podcast about climate journalism and climate writing—I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Created as a collaboration between veteran climate journalist and podcaster Amy Westervelt and literary writer and essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar, I was curious how they were going to fill up entire seasons essentially talking about how other people talk about the climate crisis.

Yet five minutes in, I was hooked. The pair managed to offer both insightful commentary and analysis of specific stories or publications, and also keep an eye on the bigger picture of how society is (and isn’t) looking at the story of the climate crisis. 

Driven by a strong friendship and personal chemistry between the two hosts, the shows veer from astute and occasionally painful insights on the emotional toll that the climate crisis can take, to dark humor, levity, and the occasional Dad joke. And they manage to do so while maintaining a firmly and unwaveringly intersectional lens that includes race, racism, power, and social justice as a central part of the story.

While the topic is writing, the show—and accompanying newsletter—has gained a large following well outside of journalistic and writing circles. 

Having since interviewed both Westervelt and Heglar for an upcoming book, I suggested we jump on (yet another) Zoom call to talk specifically about the genesis of Hot Take, and why talking about how we talk about the climate crisis is such a critically important component in actually tackling it. 

How Amy Met Mary

I started by asking them how the idea for the show was formed. I already had a fictional version of the story in my head: Heglar binged the entire first season of Westervelt’s podcast "Drilled"—a "true crime" podcast about oil industry climate denial—then binged it again the next day, and then (I thought) immediately reached out to connect.

Heglar told me it wasn’t quite that immediate: 

“I had to get the nerve up. I followed her for a while, kept listening. I think "Drilled" was on Season 2 by that point. I slipped into her DMs to see if maybe she lived nearby and we could invite her to a climate-themed dinner party we were having. It turned out she lives in the woods, and that those woods are in California. [Heglar currently resides on the East Coast.] So that didn't work out. But coming to New York soon and I was expecting her to be like way too big league for me.”

Westervelt then picked up the story: 

“We met for coffee in New York. I was on my way to interview David Wallace-Wells. Mary gave me some good suggestions for that interview. In a way, even without knowing it, we were already working on Hot Take.” 

What Is the Goal of 'Hot Take'?

The two began texting back and forth, discussing various articles or books that were out there, and the content of those text threads actually became the first season of "Hot Take," in which the duo explored how the media narrative around climate evolved during the Trump years.

I asked them what the need was that "Hot Take" was trying to fill. According to Westervelt, it’s all about accountability.

“The media doesn't often include itself in discussions of climate accountability. So, therefore, no one does," says Westervelt. "And it's this very weird big gap in the conversation of like, what role has media played in slowing action? What role should it play? How do we talk about this thing? It's a very complicated subject. There were a lot of shows and stories that we're looking at technology and science and policy and things like that. But there wasn't anything that was a talk show about climate and climate writing.” 

What started out as a year-by-year account of specific stories, however, quickly shifted as the sheer amount of climate coverage mushroomed.

“It can't be overstated how much the climate conversation changed in 2019. We were seeing all of these really exciting trends. Do the show has changed a lot because the conversation has changed a lot," says Heglar. "I think it's less about climate writing and more about the kind of discourse that’s going on around climate. But the guests are still usually journalists or writers, because we didn't feel like that space for climate writers to talk to each other existed. It is a specific kind of call of duty to be the ones who are the medium about this subject.” 

Westervelt jumped in regarding why this accountability piece was so important: “Climate denial doesn't work without the media enabling it. False equivalence doesn't work without the media enabling it. Greenwashing, a lot of times. doesn't work without the need to go along with it.” 

While the topic itself is a heavy one, both Westervelt and Heglar felt from the start that it was super important to inject levity and humor into the proceedings.

“It’s what makes it fully human. We’ll go from something really serious and enraging or depressing to like ripping on fossil fuel execs or laughing at a dad joke or whatever," explains Heglar. "That's kind of representative of how most people live. You can't be sad or mad about climate all the time. Sometimes you need to laugh at a dumb joke, to make it sustainable. Also, we're friends and we like to tease each other.”

Not only does the humor provide respite for folks who are used to talking and thinking about climate change, but Westervelt says it also helps to make the topic accessible for folks who are newer to the subject.

“I remember like when I started doing climate stories, I would worry every time I was meeting up with a climate person. Should I get a to-go cup? Should I do this, or do that? And that kind of barrier to entry is really unhelpful," she says. "I think people are really afraid of judgment and having the humor just makes climate people more relatable. It's like we’re regular people.” 

What Needs to Change in Climate Journalism?

I asked them what they would like to see done differently within the world of climate journalism and climate writing.

Heglar laughed, saying: “Oh, honey. How much time do you have? The big one that we talk about all the time, is that I want to see climate take the place of the economy in the way that the media thinks about things. Right. Like if you did a story about the pandemic and didn't include the economic costs, it would be considered incomplete. I want the planet to be as important as money.”

Westervelt jumped in to note structural changes are also necessary in newsrooms.

“We need way more investigative reporters on climate. But we also need a climate editor that works alongside reporters on other beats to provide that climate lens, so that there is more collaboration in the newsroom," says Westervelt. "Because it's a weird beat. You do actually have to know a fair bit to do a good job, but we don't want that to be a barrier to the health care reporter who also has to have to have the expertise of a health care reporter.”

Of course, while the news media is one place where climate change gets discussed, it is by no means the only arena that shapes the narrative. The pair have recently been highly critical, for example, of the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy.

In fact, conversations around that movie led some people to ask why nobody had yet commissioned Westervelt to make a documentary based around "Drilled." I asked them if that would be something they would be interested in and Westervelt responded enthusiastically: 

We absolutely would be. Critical Frequency has had some discussions with various folks about turning some of the shows into a documentary series, or a scripted series, but nothing has come of it yet. But I would also like to help other people make better climate change shows. It’s not even just in the TV and film space. There's been this explosion of climate podcasts, which in some ways is great. But I wish they had just had like one person who's made a climate show before to help them with a few things.”

The problem is not just with individual shows, says Westervelt, but with how shortcomings in those shows can impact the broader media landscape and how it relates to the biggest threat of our time.

She says: “There all these books and podcasts and TV shows and whatever that are like climate, climate. But they're kind of just doing all the stuff that didn't work before. I'm very concerned that there's a sort of vicious cycle where the media tries to do climate, it doesn't do well because it's not done well. So it doesn't get an audience. And then they say there's no audience.” 

Being a literary writer, Heglar says she would love to get involved with fictional content to incorporate a climate element.

I would absolutely love to be like a consultant on documentaries, but even more than that, dramas and TV shows. I'm way more interested in how climate change feels," says Heglar. "And I think that's what fiction does. That's what one of my favorite quotes is from Guy Vanderhaeghe, where he says ‘History books tell people what happens. Historical fiction tells people how it felt.’“

Having talked for well over an hour about climate and movies and podcasts and fiction, I decided it was time to wrap up our conversation. I asked them if there was anything else I had neglected to ask about them or their work, and that they thought was important. After a brief pause, Heglar piped up: “I’m taller than Amy. Make sure you get that in the story somehow.” 

And so I did.