In Brianna Craft’s new book, Everything That Rises: A Climate Change Memoir (288 pages; Lawrence Hill Books), a young environmentalist working for the United Nations gives a raw and grounded account of what it’s like to intern for an international organization. In 2012, Craft worked for the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCC) Adaptation Program. She would later go on to witness the establishment of the 2015 Paris Agreement. She currently supports the Least Developed Countries at the UNFCCC’s negotiations. Craft’s memoir shows that the negotiations that decide our future are in the hands of real people, and their relationships can either build the bridges we need or break them. This interview was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity.
ZYZZYVA: You write about the acute sense of overwhelm you felt learning about climate change at the University of Washington and that launches you into a memory of your father and domestic violence that elicits the same emotion in you. How central was your history of domestic violence to the story of environmental advocacy in your memoir?
BRIANNA CRAFT: Learning about the climate crisis gave nineteen-year-old me a panic attack. Not just because the climate crisis is terrifying and panic is a logical response. But because being unsafe and having to live in an unsafe environment reminded me of the house I grew up in. These emotions are central to the memoir. The stress and the fear—the constant risk of death. The anxiety that kept me up at night. Violence is inevitable and will be inflicted on those least responsible. It is only a matter of time.
The more I’ve experienced the climate crisis and the power dynamics around it, the more I’m reminded of living with my dad. In the U.N. climate negotiations, I support the forty-six Least Developed Countries, which are classified as the world’s poorest. They’ve done the least to cause the climate crisis—emitting less than 1 percent of global greenhouse emissions—yet they are five times more likely to die in natural disasters worsened by climate change than Americans. Watching them push for adequate international decisions reminds me of childhood. How every day I watched those with power undervalue things that were precious, irreplaceable. And the silence around it. The pretending, when it is not safe.
Z: You describe how, at a very young age, you used the “freedom of imagining” as a coping mechanism in a fraught household. Some environmental thinkers correlate a modern, societally inflicted lack of imaginative space with hopelessness about the future of our planet. What role do you think imagination will play in the coming decades as more of the world’s population faces the direct effects of climate change?
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BC: Imagination is paramount. The seemingly boundless power to imagine different futures has shaped my modern, American life: Votes for women. “I have a dream.” “Yes, we can.” When applied to the climate crisis, we’ve lost decades being told that change is not necessary and then, not achievable. Americans must now use imagination to apply the leadership of other societies, those already facing the most dire impacts of climate change, here. Entire countries are already carbon-neutral: Bhutan, Comoros, Gabon, Guyana, Madagascar, Niue, Panama, Suriname. Whole societies live in a sustainable way now. America can, too.
I came of age in the U.N. climate negotiations. My time there started as a twenty-four-year-old graduate student. I went from looking to others for solutions to advocating for those I love myself. The climate crisis is the single greatest threat we have ever faced. I hope readers will use their imaginations, voices, and power to shape our collective response. That they vote to elect officials who will cut our greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. That they will protest climate inaction. And that they will divest their time and their money from fossil fuels.
Z: For many, hope is rooted in faith. You write, “I had always believed in God. And He was everywhere.” You talk to God, or “Abba,” in moments of reflection throughout the book. What role does faith play in environmental advocacy/activism? Are we lacking the moral foundation to make effective change in the world?
BC: I love talking to God about climate change. Christianity is a profound source of joy, love, and hope to me. When I reflect on my African American heritage, faith and communities of faith have had a long history of justice-focused advocacy and activism, which extends to combating environmental racism and injustice. I wish more communities of faith would extend the principles of doing unto others and loving thy neighbor to the climate crisis. That they would preach against, rally together, and organize to stop the injustice of climate change. American pollution should not cost our friends in the Gambia, Nepal, and the Solomon Islands their lives and livelihoods. Extending the consciousness of American morality and then using our power as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases to change where we get our energy from is the task before us. Morality has led us to make this change before. America was built on the energy of enslaved people. We changed that. It was the right thing to do. No economy should cost people their lives. That remains true.
Z: During your first few days at the United Nations, you draw a parallel between the way you stood out as a young woman in the room and the way you stood out in your hometown as a biracial child. You write, “When I was a child, it seemed like everyone knew me but few wanted to know my name.” This struck me as a metaphorical connection to the Least Developed Countries group that you work with—countries that people get to know through the lens of devastation but would rather not engage with. To what extent did the alienation you experienced growing up motivate you to enter your field of work?
BC: What an interesting metaphorical connection. First, my experience and the experience of people from the Least Developed Countries are very different. I could never put myself in their shoes. Nor would I consciously say that alienation motivated me to enter my field of work—though my therapist might! But I will say that the pull to hear voices that go unheard and help amplify people who go unseen is certainly a strong one. Representatives of the Least Developed Countries get very little airtime in America, especially when they’re talking about climate change. I love that part of my job is to help get them heard by as many people as possible.
Z: Your epilogue includes beautifully succinct writing, such as this last sentence, “Love is climate action.” In a world where politics is polarizing, and where the political often becomes personal, how can we maintain openness toward one another? How important are human connection and friendship in this next chapter for our species?
BC: Everything That Rises is called a climate change memoir but, at its heart, it’s a love story. I have been so blessed with rich relationships. My memoir is about my childhood best friend. It’s about my mom. University friends who still call me by the nicknames we gave each other. Work colleagues who’ve become my chosen family as I immigrated to the United Kingdom. Roommates and besties and the laughter and connection and hope that makes life worth living. Worth protecting even when that means making big changes. Maintaining openness toward one another hinges on that very thing. Love. Centering people and the act of empathizing with their experiences is key. I truly believe that love is the only thing powerful enough to solve this crisis. Everything That Rises is a story about the people I love. And what we all need to do to protect each other and our shared home.
Z: In an interview with your alma mater, the University of Washington, you say that your day-to-day includes lots of writing and that you’ve even helped authors from Nepal, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Sierra Leone with their climate change stories. How did it feel to push your writing with this memoir? Can we expect another book from you in the future?
BC: Pushing my usually research-focused writing with this memoir felt challenging. Alright, it was downright hard. I’ve always kept a journal. Pouring out my heart at the end of the day is such a release. The memoir was a consensus of these two writing worlds. Finding—and being open to sharing and editing—the middle ground between climate research and personal storytelling was very difficult. I remain so grateful to everyone who helped me get there, and for the doors the memoir has opened. And yes, you can expect another book! I’m thrilled that Disney-Hyperion Books has acquired my first novel. A story for young adults, We Don’t Have Time for This, is coming during the summer of 2024! Readers can expect a romance wherein a tied election throws two rival teen activists together to lead their school’s environmental justice club, and their surprise when clashes lead them to discover what they’re up against and why they’ve never cared more—for their communities and each other. I’m so excited!