You might know Irish stand-up Maeve Higgins from her work on Inside Amy Schumer, her appearances on StarTalk, or her critically acclaimed podcast about immigration, Maeve in America, and book of the same name. Now, Higgins is combining her interests in science and social justice for a new podcast about climate change, co-hosted by former president of Ireland and onetime UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. Each week on Mothers of Invention, Higgins and Robinson interview pioneering women working to stave off a global catastrophe. Higgins recently spoke with Nexus Media about climate change, comedy and what it’s like working with your childhood hero. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve taken up these very serious topics like climate change. How do you make them funny?
We interviewed this woman. Her name is Anne Poelina. She started off as a nurse in Australia, and she’s now a protector of the Fitzroy river and a real big human rights and climate justice advocate. She was so funny. She was so warm and witty. We were screeching laughing on the phone with her. When you’re looking at it from the top down, it’s so serious and severe. But, I think, because she’s working every day at it — and she’s just getting on with it, that it’s kind of an indulgence to be melancholy.
I think a really cool form of resistance is retaining humor and being joyful when you can. And the people who I meet and talk to who are actually at the forefront of it are very human, and part of being human is having a laugh and, you know, not being serious all the time and not being sad all the time, because that’s devastating.
For people who care about climate justice and who are working on it, I think it’s important to have upbeat times, to keep your humanity that way.
What’s the funniest thing about climate change?
I mean, [laughing] this is obviously the theme of our show, but it is kind of amazing that it does seem to be a manmade problem and there are all these feminist solutions to it.
Obviously men can be feminists too, blah, blah, blah [laughing]. With things like cookstoves and reproductive rights, so many solutions are in women’s hands, and they’re doing it. That does tickle me, I have to say. You know, there’s humor everywhere, and I’m sure that so many people — lawyers, even [laughing] — can have fun with it. Even lawyers!
Women who are in this area — especially who have been in it for years — have a very funny, dark sense of humor. That’s what I’m learning, because I’m only new to it. I think that’s really good for survival, you know?
Is Mary Robinson funny?
Yes, she’s very wry, and she catches you out. This is a very Irish thing. If I stumble, she finds that hilarious. She basically bullies me [laughing]. Not really, but in the Irish way where you show affection by saying, “You did that wrong.”
Had you met before working on this podcast?
I had never met her, but I had huge respect for her work. And also, she used to be the president. When I was eight years old, she was president, and that was huge in Ireland, because she was the first woman, and she was a lawyer, and she was very impressive back then, to a child, and still now, to a grown-up.
Also, she works so hard, right? As a comedian, I think I am naturally lazy, but she is a global powerhouse. I’m like, “Oh, do you see the glass as half full or half empty?” Mary’s like, “There’s a tiny drop of water left in that glass. Let’s see what we can do with that.”
Did you always have an interest in climate change?
Yes, not a huge one. It was definitely something that I would rather not think about in that very strange head-in-the-sand way that a lot of us have. I was always very interested in the cognitive dissonance around this. Whenever I read about it or learned about it, I felt a sort of paralysis that is deeply unhelpful.
What do you talk about in the podcast?
Something that I’m really happy about is that this podcast is not prescriptive. It’s not like, “You need to do this!” Because I feel that if you need that information, you can find it. If you’re wondering what you can do, you can absolutely find that. This has kind of reached me in different ways, because it’s not somebody preaching at me.
So, the first episode we did was on divestment. We talked to Tara Houska. She’s an indigenous rights lawyer and campaigner and did a lot work at Standing Rock. We talked about how to divest and where the weak links are in these huge corporations.
The kind of vigor that Tara Houska had made me think, “Oh, it’s completely possible to work on this and to actually make change.” If you’re a university or you have money of your own, you can actually help, because you can move your money.
I think that was a good first episode for me to do as a beginner, because Tara Houska could talk about the connection that humans have to the Earth. And that’s been a recurring theme throughout the whole series. We went on to do episodes about food and plastics and litigation and all different types of things.
I grew up in rural Ireland and I saw myself the connection that people have with the land, but I never thought that you would be allowed to talk about it as a serious thing.
You echoed Mary Robinson when you said that climate change is a manmade problem with a feminist solution. Tell me more about that.
It’s been eye-opening for me to hear how including women in the conversation — because they’ve been excluded — helps so much. We looked at Drawdown [a project that ranks solutions to climate change according to effectiveness], and so many of their recommendations just involve basic human rights for women. If that were taken care of, we would have a much better shot at thriving.
That’s why it’s called Mothers of Invention, because so often women, and especially women of color and children, are affected worse by climate change. And so it makes sense that they would be the ones who would have to fight to fix it.
I think that’s where the feminist angle comes in. As somebody who does some science and comedy work — which is very male-dominated — it’s been very bolstering for me and very encouraging and very fun to have these female-led conversations.
Listening to people and what they’re doing and the kind of optimism and beauty of it has really affected me. And I hope people listen, first of all, and I hope that it will help people understand that they have agency over this. I have already noticed changes that I’m making myself, here, in New York.
What kind of changes?
I bloody stopped eating meat. Something happened where I just can’t eat it now. I just can’t. I miss it, but when I look at meat, I’m like, “No.” I’m also moving my money. I’m moving my $6,000 [laughing] out of Chase bank.
What’s driving me crazy about living in New York at the moment is the amount of plastic. I always noticed it, but now I’m like, “This is a joke.” The cups that we use, the plastic bags that we use, just how shut down we are when it comes to that. And I think, and I hope, that once I learn something that I can’t unlearn it, so that even for somebody who is kind of inclined to disengage, I won’t.
I’m definitely feeling more of a connection to the world and to nature and understanding that it’s not something that I just get to use up. It’s a relationship. It’s not just there to serve me.
It’s annoying, isn’t it, when you realize all this stuff? It’s like, oh, I’ve got responsibility [laughing]. I think deep down that we all know that.
Mothers of Invention is available on iTunes. This interview was conducted by Jeremy Deaton, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.