Denis Hayes is chair of Earth Day Network. He was the national coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970 and now earns his keep as president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, Wash. He is also author of the new book The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair.

Saturday, 15 Apr 2000

NEW YORK, N.Y.

I leave my house at 6:00 a.m. Saturday to catch a flight to New York. Earth Day New York is being held on April 16 to avoid Easter.

Pick up the New York Times at the airport. An op-ed by Gregg Easterbrook delivers the nastiest attack yet on Leonardo DiCaprio’s ABC interview with President Clinton on global warming. Easterbrook tosses off a long, incoherent paragraph referencing ocean-current fluid dynamics, anthropogenic gases, and carbon sequestration — implying that Leo wouldn’t have a clue what these terms mean. Trying to sort through Easterbrook’s weird verbal construction, I come to suspect that Leonardo understands them better than Gregg does.

In any event, does anyone really believe that America is holding its breath for a presidential assessment of “ocean-current fluid dynamics”? Does anyone think Sam Donaldson is prepared for a test on carbon sequestration?

What Easterbrook shares with all the dozens of other critics who rushed their comments into print is that none of them has heard the interview.

Yesterday’s episode was even juicier — a smarmy attack on DiCaprio’s environmental credentials by Republican House Whip Tom DeLay. Can you conceive of a more amusing example of a frog calling a prince ugly? Having your environmental integrity questioned by Tom DeLay is like having your table manners criticized by Jabba the Hutt.

DeLay, you may recall, is the nut who regularly attacks the EPA as “jack-booted thugs.” DeLay thinks environmental saint Rachel Carson was a wild-eyed extremist. A professional pesticide sprayer before entering politics, DeLay views Silent Spring as a market niche. If ignorance is bliss, DeLay inhabits a state of perpetual ecstasy.

In any event, these folks are all missing the point. Leonardo is a terrific choice to chair this year’s Earth Day. Let me explain why.

In 1970, the first Earth Day was principally organized by millions of young people. A key function of Earth Day has always been to enlist new generations of Americans into an effort to protect the world they will be inheriting.

But the average age of environmental group members has been getting older. Although young people tell pollsters that they care passionately about environmental issues, most of them don’t join or support environmental groups.

A year ago, the organizers of Earth Day 2000 decided that we wanted the event’s “chair” to be someone with a broad appeal to youth — someone who could help us enlist a new generation. In terms that Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods would understand, we were looking for a spokesperson to help position Earth Day for the youth market.

Celebrities have long lent their reputations to causes they believe in. Woody Guthrie performed hundreds of benefits for the labor movement. Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Marian Anderson, and scores of others helped inspire the civil rights movement. The antiwar movement enlisted half of Hollywood.

The environmental movement has benefited from the public support of Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, Sting, Ted Danson, Ed Begley, Jr., and myriad others. Tom Cruise chaired Earth Day 1990.

After I had my first long conversation with Leonardo, I knew he was right for Earth Day 2000. I have seldom found a star as thoughtful, knowledgeable, and deeply concerned about any issue as Leo is about climate change. Our talks reminded me of conversations I had a quarter century ago with the young Robert Redford when he chaired a similar national clean energy campaign that I organized.

That is what’s so ironic about this feeding frenzy of criticism over ABC’s choice of Leonardo to discuss climate and energy issues with President Clinton. Leo actually knows more about these subjects than most of the reporters I’ve encountered.

I haven’t heard the raw ABC interview, and I certainly have no idea what will be left on the floor of the editing room. But Leo and Bill both have interesting, unconventional intellects. Some years ago, I spent most of a day with Clinton and a few actors — Billy Crystal, Tom Skerritt, Christopher Reeve, Lindsay Wagner, and others. The president let his guard down and joked around in a way that he never would have with Sam Donaldson. I wouldn’t be shocked if Leo elicited some candid comments that no reporter could ever obtain.

For example, I want to know whether Clinton thinks that Congress, at the behest of the coal and oil industries, will force America to abdicate leadership in the coming energy transition, and what this will mean for our long-term national security. I’d like to get Clinton’s candid political assessment of the coal industry’s duplicitous lobbying effort to scuttle the global warming treaty, and his opinion about why this twilight industry still has so much clout. Cutting closer to the bone, I want to know why the Clinton administration allowed American carbon dioxide emissions to increase by nearly a fifth during the last eight years. I can see Leo asking those questions, and others like them.

I hope ABC sticks to its guns and runs the interview.

About 4:30, I land in New York. It looks like the Seattle I left — gray skies and cold drizzle. I grieve for the New York Earth Day organizers, and hope for sun tomorrow.

On the taxi ride into town, I get Kelly Evans, Earth Day Network’s executive director, on the phone to find out what’s happening in Washington, D.C.

Good news: 500 people came to our volunteer meeting this morning.

Horrible news: The Washington, D.C., police have cordoned off the Earth Day office as part of the World Bank-IMF exclusion zone. Unless we can crack the police line, we will have no access to our files, lists, computers, phones, etc. until Tuesday.

Maybe the Global Climate Coalition hasn’t lost all its clout after all.